Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Saturday, June 25, 2011


June 25 is Croatia's national holiday, known as “Statehood Day”. A good day to look at a word for a type of necktie. In the 17th century, Croatian mercenaries in the armies of other European countries wore neckcloths of lace or linen, tied in a bow with long flowing ends. This became all the rage in French fashion, for both men and women. It was named after its originators, called in their native language “Hrvati”. Since French-speakers could not pronounce “hrv”, the word became cravate, and subsequently “cravat” in English.

Should you hate the word "responsibilize"?

For some reason, the suffix -ize, which has been hugely productive in English for the last 600 years (the OED lists almosts 3000 words with this ending, with "canonize", "evangelize", "solemnize" and "authorize" dating from the 1300s), tends to raise some people's hackles.

"Jeopardize" was roundly attacked in the 19th century, but no one objects to it now, nor to "economize", "terrorize", "formalize", or any number of other -ize words which, at one point, were new coinages. Yet, when people encounter a new (to them) word with this suffix, some of them have hissy fits.

A friend of mine recently came across "responsibilize" in something she was editing and felt she should, in her words, "share this atrocity" with me. Why is "responsibilize" an "atrocity" whereas no one bats an eyelid at the similarly formed "mobilize"  or "stabilize" (both borrowed from French in the 1800s)?  French seems to have fewer qualms about words like this, living happily with "culpabiliser" (make someone feel guilty) and "sensibiliser" (make someone aware of or sensitive to)  -- and expressing those ideas a lot more efficiently than English does, I must say! "Responsabiliser" has been used in French since the 1970s, as indeed "responsibilize" and its derivatives have been in English.

It seems that Spanish doesn't mind being creative with -ize endings either. I recently stumbled across this: "HERMAN CORNEJO PROTAGONIZARÁ EL CORSARIO". That is, Herman Cornejo will perform the lead role in Le Corsaire. But "protagonize" is so much more efficient!

"-ize" is an extraordinarily useful suffix. It dates back to the ancient Greeks, who used it to create words like "barbarize" (literally, "speak like a foreigner") and (it goes without saying the much more commendable) "Hellenize" (to be or speak like a Greek). As a (somewhat testy?) lexicographer at oxforddictionaries.com puts it: "Some traditionalists object to recent formations of this type: during the 20th century, objections were raised against prioritize, finalize, and hospitalize, among others. There doesn't seem to be any coherent reason for this, except that verbs formed from nouns tend, inexplicably, to be criticized as vulgar formations"

-ize doesn't deserve the opprobrium it gets. Just try living without it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The eyes have it

A very frequently misspelled word is ophthalmology, the branch of medicine dealing with the eyes (and its derivative ophthalmologist). Most commonly, people forget the first h, likely under the influence of "optic", but the first l also often falls by the wayside. If you have problems with this word (and who can blame you?), you have two options:
1) This word is about eyes, and we have two of those, so think about that to help you remember that there are two h's and two l's.
2) Use the word "eye doctor"! (if only life were so easy...)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Word of the week: confetti

Wedding season is in full swing, so let us look at the word “confetti”, derived from the Latin confectus (prepared, pickled), which also gave us the old-fashioned English word “comfit” (a candy). In fact, in Italian, confetti means “candies”, specifically those sugar-coated almonds that are given away at christenings and weddings. Italians threw these – or plaster imitations of them – during carnival, at parades. The custom spread to southern France, where people started using paper as a cheaper (not to mention less painful) projectile. The English adopted the custom and the word, which became a singular noun for us only in the 20th century.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When REALLY not to use "u" after "q"

The capital of one of Canada's northern Territories, Nunavut, goes by the euphonious name Iqaluit (it used to be called Frobisher Bay, much less musical). In Inuktitut, Iqaluit means "many fish". Unfortunately English spelling has a habit of putting a "u" after the letter "q", so English speakers commonly misspell Iqaluit as Iqualuit (in fact I just saw that spelling in yesterday's Ottawa Citizen). Indeed, in September 2009 the Prime Minister's Office used this misspelling repeatedly in a press release, causing a great brouhaha when the Nunavut Language Commissioner pointed out that "iqualuit" means "people with large unwiped bums" (that's bums in the "buttocks" sense, for any American readers who are confused). DEFINITELY a mistake you don't want to make.
Another Inuktitut borrowing into English with a "q" not followed by "u" is qiviut, or the fine underbelly hair of a muskox. There's a bit of trivia to impress your friends with.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why isn't life a bowlful of cherrieses?

What a treat it is to see Ontario cherries come into season. “Cherry” comes from a Latin word, ceresea, which became the French word cerise (in Northern French dialect cherise). Why is there an s on the end in French but not in English? In fact, there used to be an s in English as well. You would have one cherise and many cherises (because who can stop at just one?). But this was too much for English-speakers, for whom an s ending suggested a plural, so they dropped the s in the singular and made it “cherry”.
For the story of another word that underwent a similar evolution, click here to read about "skate".

Friday, June 3, 2011


With the return of the nice weather, many of you will be hitting the links. Golf links have no connection with the word “link” meaning “connect”. “Links” comes from an Old English word, hlinc (rising ground or a ridge). The word died out in southern England but survived in Scotland to designate gently rolling sandy ground covered with grass near the seashore. These were probably the original golf courses.


I've been on a bit of a scone-athon lately, baking and eating alike.

For me, "scone-athon" rhymes, but perhaps for you it would need to be a "scone-athone".

Both pronunciations, one rhyming with "con" and the other with "cone" coexist on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the US "cone" is more common.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary lists "con" first, which suggests that our pronunciation survey revealed that that pronunciation was more common in Canada. It could have been a 55%-45% split, I don't actually remember, and my general feeling is that "cone" may in fact be more common in Canada, so please let me know which one you use.

The Oxford Dictionary of English has this intriguing comment about British English usage:
In British English the two pronunciations traditionally have different regional and class associations, with the first pronunciation (CON)  associated with the north of England and the northern working class, while the second (CONE) is associated with the south and the middle class. 

Here's a map based on a survey the Daily Telegraph did in 2016:

 The Oxford Dictionary of English continues:

In modern British English, however, it has become fashionable among certain middle-class people to adopt the first pronunciation.

I find this interesting because I first encountered scones as a child in southern England in a middle class -- and resolutely unfashionable -- family (a Canadian one, though). I have always rhymed scone with con.

The word was originally Scottish, and definitely pronounced "scon", judging from the spellings from the 15th to 18th century. If the "con" pronunciation is indeed more common in Canada, we probably owe it to the heavy Scottish influence on Canadian English. The word is perhaps a shortened adoption of Middle Dutch schoonbrot, Middle Low German schonbrot ‘fine bread’.

In Australia and New Zealand, they apparently love their scones (rhyming only with cons) so much (and indeed I had a mighty fine tea at the Queen Victoria Tea Rooms in Sydney) that they use "scone" as a slang synonym for "head" and have developed some delightful idiomatic expressions:

do one's scone (Aust. & NZ colloq.) become angry.

scone-hot  (NZ colloq.) excellent

go a person scone-hot (Aust. colloq. dated) attack a person with vigour, especially verbally; become angry with him or her (she went him scone-hot for not paying the light bill in time).

off one's scone (Aust. colloq.) crazy; insane.

"scone n." The Australian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd edition. Ed. Bruce Moore. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.

 If all this is making you salivate, here's the Word Lady's famous scone recipe, much lauded by her friends (because in addition to being a word lover and ballet lover, Word Lady is quite the baker). You can literally "do your scone" (but not in the Antipodean sense). Yum! Enjoy your tea!

Mix together:
2 c. white flour
1 c. whole wheat flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 c. sugar
grated rind of one orange

Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in
3/4 c. butter
until the butter is in small pieces.

3/4 c. raisins
1 c. buttermilk or plain yogourt
Combine with a wooden spoon until all wet ingredients are just incorporated into dry. Turn out onto a lightly floured board. Knead lightly a few times then pat to 3/4" thick. Cut out 2-inch rounds (I use a wine glass), place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 15-17 minutes or until lightly browned.

If you like a good scone, why not check out my "Tea and Wordlady" talk. Click here for more info. 

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.