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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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Friday, July 29, 2011

If you go down to the woods today...

Despite what you may have heard about “picnic” being a racist term having something to do with lynching, it is in fact a perfectly innocuous word derived from the French verb piquer (to peck at) and nique(something of little value). It came into English in the mid 1700s, referring to a European custom that is essentially what we would call a potluck dinner. The outdoor element came to be the defining factor only about a century later (and seems to have been an English invention).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot weather's a bitch

As you mop your brow and consume cooling libations, you may curse what are known as the dog days. 

The dog days of summer have their origins in astronomy. The brightest star in the night sky has the Greek name Sirius (“sparkling” or “scorching”). It is also known as the Dog Star, being the chief star in the constellation which the Greeks fancifully thought of as one of the hunter Orion's dogs. Sirius passes through a period when it is not visible because it rises and sets during daylight. But at a certain point during the summer, usually sometime in July, it is seen again just before dawn. This coincides with the hottest part of the year, so the Romans blamed the star for the weather, calling the forty days following its appearance the “dog days”.

The Dog Star suffered from a bad rap: the Egyptians believed that its rising caused the Nile to flood, and the Romans blamed it for all sorts of pernicious things as well as the unbearable heat. It was generally believed also that it drove dogs mad, and as late as the 16th century people were even advised not to have sex during the dog days! In English, this benighted time of year was first known, about 1400, as the "canicular days", from the Latin canicula (little dog). Even today in French the word for "heat wave" is la canicule. The simpler "dog days" doesn't show up until 1538.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Damn Yankees

It infuriates me. My pulse rises. I can't stand it. It makes me cringe no end. Thoroughly disgusted. It makes me shudder. My teeth are on edge. I don't know how anything could be as annoying and lazy. It really irritates me. Makes me shiver with annoyance.  My worst horror. I can feel the rage rising. Hideous.

These are comments that recently appeared on the BBC's website. What is it that has so many British knickers in a twist, arousing such outrage and indignation? The phone hacking scandal? Some really significant injustice? No, it's the fact that people use the verb "turn", as in "He's turning 90", in reference to the celebration of a birthday. Or, even worse, shock horror, that people use the word ... I can hardly bring myself to type it.... "alphabetize". "Alphabetize"!! I mean really! What are they thinking??? "Put in alphabetical order" is so much more elegant and efficient. And as for... gasp... "train station"? Who could possibly prefer that to the superior and oh-so-snappier "railway station"? It's not as if we have "bus stations" and "car parks"... oh, wait a minute...

I am not kidding. These were three of the BBC's top 50 list of Americanisms (out of thousands) submitted by their audience, along with the seething comments of disparagement I listed. Whether they were in fact Americanisms or not didn't seem to matter. There is one law in linguistic fascism across this fair Commonwealth, and that is: if you dislike a word or phrase, it MUST be American. The corollary of this, equally strong, is:  if it's American, you MUST dislike it, and indeed your prejudice is something to wear proudly.  Unless of course it's a word like, oh I don't know, "computer", which maybe we'll put up with in spite of its undeniable nefarious US origin, for lack of something British (and better, it goes without saying).

What, you say that the first recorded evidence of someone using "turn" in reference to a birthday is Samuel Johnson's pal Hester Thrale in 1789? Never mind, I'm too busy grinding my teeth to hear your mild-mannered objection to my intemperate dislike.

Do not confuse me with facts, or even worse, history. I don't want to know that "oftentimes" dates, like "often", from the 14th century (not too many English-speaking Americans around then!), and that both supplanted "oft", which, oddly, no one is trying to assert is the "proper" word.  That "transportation", first used in a law passed under Henry VIII (that famous Yank), is older than "transport", and "expiration" -- used by Shakespeare --predates "expiry" by a good two centuries. "Period" and "full stop" both originated in the 16th century. These are just more examples of the well-documented phenomenon of words surviving in American English while British English has lost them.

"What kind of word is "gotten"?" asks Shuddering in Warrington. Well, actually, it's an older past participle of "get" (sort of like "forgotten", notice?) and you have no more right to be indignant about it than someone in Poughkeepsie has to upbraid the British about being so lazy as to shorten the past participle to "got".

"The one that always gets me is the American need to use the word bi-weekly when fortnightly would suffice just fine" is one condescending statement. Well, perhaps fortnightly would suffice.... if North Americans actually used the word "fortnight" and knew what it meant!!

It's really amazing, in view of this airy assumption of superiority and stream of vituperation, that the British have a reputation for, how can I put this delicately, arrogance. All the nice British people I know and love are clearly not writing to the BBC. Those who are should just accept the fact that the 61 million residents of their sceptred isle do not have a monopoly on English, and that 300 million Americans have just as much right to use the language as they do. And, news flash, there will be differences. How would the British react if an American broadcaster published comments like "I grind my teeth in fury when I hear someone say they were taken to hospital instead of to the hospital"? Some American usages will inevitably make their way across the pond. Saying "train station" instead of "railway station" is not the end of the world or of British civilization as we know it. Vive la différence!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A cure for Anal Ysis

Well, I know all you Word Lady fans have just been dying for another punctuation blog post ever since I wrote about commas, so here it is: my big punctuation pet peeve: badly used hyphens when breaking words at the end of a line. Many of you are thinking, "But my computer does that for me!" Ha! If you trust your computer, you will end up with some very user-unfriendly word breaks. I have a little collection of them; please feel free to let me know about others you have come across.
Sometimes even a technically correct word break, which follows the syllabication of the word, ends up leading the poor reader astray.

This sounds like a nasty affliction:  anal-

There's the to-and-fro-ing anti-pro-

the mythical leg-

But there are others where the computer obviously has no clue where the syllables are in English:


(sounds like some kind of Chinese dish served in a cafeteria)


(possibly something like Sino-ctrination?)


(God forbid that Loose Ned should contract Anal Ysis!)

In fact, some newspapers break off the past tense -ed even on one-syllable words, like hop-

(It gives a very High Anglican feel to reading the newspaper!)

There is the very frequent re-

and its cousin, which I just saw this week: rear-

Save Loose Ned from Anal Ysis and from being rear rested! Don't let your computer do your word breaks for you.

For more on hyphenation, visit this post and this one.

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
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Allons, enfants de la patrie

July 14th is Bastille Day, marking the start of the French Revolution, and time to look at some words that we owe to the Revolutionaries. First up, perhaps surprisingly, is “aristocrat”. Although English had had the word “aristocracy”, derived from the Greek aristos (best) and kratos (strength), since the 1500s to designate government by the privileged, it wasn't until the French started lopping their heads off that we started calling nobles “aristocrats”. On the other end of the social scale, we have the noun “commune” (ultimately from the Latin communis meaning “in common”) designating the smallest administrative jurisdiction established under the Revolutionary government. This word took on a life of its own in English, to designate groups of people living communally, a sense which it does not have in French.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Discouver Vancouver

With Canada Day and the Fourth of July just past, it's a good time to look at some of the differences between Canadian and American English. Canadians are a little uncertain about our national identity, but one thing we can all agree on: we're NOT AMERICANS (no offence intended to any Americans reading this; you probably feel as strongly that you're NOT CANADIANS).

A handy and inexpensive way of proving our un-Americanness is to spell words like "labour" and "colour" with the British -our spellings instead of the American -or.  I am sure 300 million Americans are not even aware of the affront caused by us rejecting their spelling practices!

The differences between British and American spelling stem from two 18th-century publications by two great lexicographers: Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary was published in England in 1755, and Noah Webster, whose American Spelling Book was published in the US in 1783, later followed by a dictionary.

Take the famous “colour”. In Latin, the word was color. In medieval French, the pronunciation of the second syllable – sort of halfway between “lower” and “lure” – was reflected by spelling the word colur or colour (the latter spelling covering all eventualities). We could have just stuck with the Anglo-Saxon word, “hue”, but, true to the English mania for synonyms, and little knowing that several centuries later Canadians would be arguing bitterly about its spelling as a reflection of our national identity, English-speakers borrowed “colour” from the French. Then the Renaissance came along, and that meant we had to reflect the Latin spelling, so "color" came back. Both spellings coexisted until Johnson and Webster put their lexicographical feet down, each opting for a different spelling.

Webster may have been inspired by political motives to do the contrary of what the British were doing, but he was also interested in consistency: why spell “colour” but “director”, “honour” but “honorary” (yes, even the British spell “honorary” that way)?

The roots of Canadian English (other than Newfoundland English, which derives from the dialects of southwest England and Ireland) are in the speech of the United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States during and after the Revolution, about the time of Webster's spelling book. At its origins, then, Canadian English was American English. This common origin, as well as our ongoing frequent exposure to American English, explains why the American spelling persists in Canada. In the 19th century, vast numbers of people from the British Isles were encouraged to settle in British North America to ward off any lurking nefarious American influence. As British English was the prestige version of the language, British spellings started to be imposed. But they have never completely supplanted the American ones.

Some Canadians feel very strongly about words ending in -our as a token of our identity, adding extraneous u's where there is no need to. They don't go as far you might be led to believe by the Simpsons episode in which Marge and Homer, competing in mixed curling in the Vancouver Olympics, are passed by a  tour bus with "Discouver Vancouver" emblazoned  on it, but they have been known to use -our instead of -or in words like "elabourate" (recently noticed in the Toronto Star) and "humourous", and there is a very strong tendency to spell the aforementioned "honorary" as "honourary". A recent facebook poll I conducted about the spelling of this word had 39 well-educated Canadians opting for "honourary" versus 22 for "honorary", similar to the results we found when we conducted a survey for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, as a result of which it is possibly the only dictionary of current English to include "honourary" as a spelling variant. Traditionally, dictionaries have held to the belief that since "honorary" came directly into English from Latin honorarius, it should be spelled without a u. "Honour" on the other hand, came through French. Not surprisingly, though, the spelling "honourary" was used in the 17th and 18th centuries alongside the u-less variant, and I see no reason why Canadians should not be allowed to use it.

That Simpsons episode also poked fun at Canadian English by having Bart call his nerdy friend "Milhoose", but that's a subject for another post.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Happy Canada Day! Wave those Maple Leaf flags about! Where does the name of our national tree come from? In Old English, the tree was called a mapuldur. It and the apple tree (apuldur) were the only trees whose name ended in -dur. The Anglo-Saxons figured that if an apuldur was a tree producing apples, then -dur must mean “tree”, and, undeterred by the fact that a maple tree does not produce mapples, proceeded to consider the -dur ending redundant and lopped it off. Some sort of tribal memory of this reasoning may still survive in England. I once saw in an Oxford deli a notice advertising “Canadian-style carrot cake”. Intrigued, I asked what made it Canadian, to which the server replied, “The Canadian woman who makes the cake puts some special Canadian ingredient in it...maple nuts, I think”!

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.