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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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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dr. Whose

Don't confuse who's and whose.

We are so conditioned to think that apostrophe s indicates a possessive that it is very easy to make this mistake, but who's is not a possessive. Rather, it's a contraction.

If you mean "who is" or "who has", use who's, as in "Who's Katherine's favourite dancer?" or "Who's seen Robert Tewsley dance?" or "Katherine, who's seen Robert Tewsley dance more times than she can count...."

Use whose when using "who is" or "who has" instead would sound wrong, as in statements like "Robert Tewsley, whose acting is as fabulous as his dancing..." or  "Whose version of Romeo and Juliet will he be dancing?"

(If you're wondering, "Who's Robert Tewsley?" you can find out more here and see pictures here.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Anthony and... Katherine?

I know it doesn't have the same ring as Cleopatra! In honour of my patron saint, whose feast day it is today, this post is not about ancient lovers, but about an etymological quirk found in my name and also in the name "Anthony". North Americans may notice that many British English speakers pronounce the name "Anthony" as if it were "Antony". And why is one of the short forms of "Katherine" Kate?
Both these names started out in the ancient world without any h's, the former from the ancient Roman family name Antonius and the latter from the Alexandrian saint referred to in Greek as Aikaterine. Here she is with her famous wheel:
But both these names were affected by people's tendency to folk-etymologize. People assumed that the saint's name had to be related to the Greek word for "pure", katharos, so they inserted an h into the spelling. But despite the "improved" spelling,  English speakers in the Middle Ages (like the French from whom they had borrowed the name) did not pronounce "Katherine" with a "th", but still with a "t". This gave rise to the short forms "Kat" and "Kate" (both of which Shakespeare uses punningly in The Taming of the Shrew). The vowel sound in "Kate" shifted from a short a to a long a under the influence of a phenomenon that affected many English vowels between 1400 and 1600 called the Great Vowel Shift.Vowels followed by two or more consonants were unaffected, though, so the vowel remained short in "Katherine" while it was lengthened in "Kate".
One can see why a saint could be associated with purity, but the folk etymology which affected "Antonius" was a bit weirder. For some reason, the English renaissance scholars who just loved lumbering English spelling with silent letters to reflect the words' classical origins were determined that the name "Antony" really had something to do with flowers (anthos in Greek). So they started spelling the name "Anthony". You will notice that the Antoines, Antons, Antonins, Antonios, and so on of the rest of Europe are not similarly afflicted. Unlike the case of Katherine, though, the "th" pronunciation in Anthony did not follow the "th" spelling, at least not in Britain. In North America we have let the (erroneous) spelling influence our pronunciation of this name.

For the etymology of the word "taffy", traditionally eaten by French-Canadians on St. Katherine's day, visit this post.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Excessive heroine consumption

I recently came across an article which referred to "heroine ingestion". This gave me pause.

A heroine is the principal female character in a story, or a woman who displays heroic characteristics. Heroin is a drug. There is, however, a connection between the two words. The Bayer company of Germany (the same people who gave us Aspirin, though originally a dye manufacturer rather than a pharmaceutical firm) thought they had found a dandy new painkiller and cough medication (!) when they made it commercially available in 1898 under the trademarked name "heroin", so-called because the now notorious instant euphoria it provides made people feel as if they were larger-than-life heroes. (Not for long, though).

The word "hero" also has an interesting history. It came from the Greek heros, but English speakers, so accustomed to words ending in -s being plurals, lopped the final -s off to create "hero". (For a similar story, see my post about the word "cherry".

In short, do not write "excessive heroine consumption", unless of course you are speaking of the trend in19th-century operas to bump off the leading lady with tuberculosis.

Heroin. Do not confuse with


Friday, November 18, 2011

Kittens and Mittens

With winter upon us, it's time to get out your mittens. The origin of this word is uncertain, but one possibility, unfortunately for cat lovers like me, is that it comes from the Old French word mite (puss, kitty), which probably originated as an imitation of a cat mewing. Mittens were originally lined with fur, very possibly cat fur. 

You may wish to prevent the annual scourge of mitten loss by attaching them to what we Canadians call, with characteristic sensitivity, “idiot strings”, a long string running through the sleeves and across the inside of your coat, with a mitten attached at either end. The thing (though not the word) was a clever invention of the Inuit, for whom losing a mitten would be a serious problem indeed.

Monday, November 14, 2011

That sinking feeling...

Some people tell me they "shudder" when they hear Americans (as usual, people love to blame Americans!) use "sunk" as the simple past tense of "sink": "Yesterday they sunk three ships". But, although nowadays only North Americans do this (use this form for the past tense, I mean, not sink ships!), we can't "blame" them.

In Old English, there were three simple pasts of "sink": "sank" or "sonk" (!) if the subject was singular, and "sunk" if the subject was plural. Languages like to simplify things, and since "sunk" had always been the past participle of "sink", it's not surprising that by the 1500s it had beaten out "sank" as the past tense too. That great British authority on the English language, Samuel Johnson, stated in his dictionary in 1755 that the simple past was "sunk" and that "sank" was archaic (in fact the term he used was "anciently"!).  I'm not quite sure why "sank" was resurrected, but I suspect it might have been on analogy with the forms of "drink".

Like "sink", "drink" had more than one simple past in Old English: "drank" if the subject was singular and "drunk" if the subject was plural. But the language took the opposite tack from what it had done with "sink": from about the 13th century on, people used only "drank".  But then in the 16th century people started to use "drunk" for the simple past instead, just as they were using "sunk" as the simple past of "sink". So, as you can see, both were possible, but finally "drank" won out. 

If "sunk" was the standard past tense of "sink" at the time that North America was settled, as Johnson's dictionary suggests, this would explain why it has survived in North America. But the British obviously changed their minds about it and re-adopted "sank". I always like to say it's not the Americans that corrupt English, but the British! 

In Canada we tend to be caught between the two standards. In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we gave both "sank" and "sunk" as the simple past of "sink", with "sank" first, as it is more common. But "sunk" is not wrong. So, one less thing for you to shudder about.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Dust to dust

Today being Remembrance Day, let us look at the word "khaki", so associated with military uniforms. It comes from an Urdu word meaning "dust". The colour, probably achieved by washing the fabric in muddy water, was adopted for use in uniforms by the British army in India and Afghanistan in the 1840s, the first use of camouflage. If you think of the pictures we see on TV of Afghanistan, you can see why "dust colour" makes for good camouflage. Up till then, the British wore highly conspicuous red uniforms, but with improvements in the accuracy of firearms, the wisdom of camouflage became obvious.
A peculiarly Canadian pronunciation of this word exists (and I use the word "peculiar" not in its pejorative sense): CARkee. About fifty years ago it was probably the most common Canadian pronunciation. I recently conducted a facebook poll to see how it is faring, and the results from Canadian respondents were:
CACKee: 45
CAHkee:: 19
CARkee: 15

Not wanting to be indiscreet,  I did not ask how old the "CARkee" respondents are, but judging from their facebook profile pictures, they are not in the first flush of youth. So this Canadian pronunciation is certainly not dead yet, but on its way out. It is interesting, however, to see that CAHkee (the standard British pronunciation) has a stronger showing here than in the US, where my CACKee respondents outnumbered the CAHkee ones 11 to 1.
For another Remembrance Day-themed post, see In Flanders Fields the poppies... and Soldiering on.
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Monday, November 7, 2011

In Flanders fields the poppies...

I recently took a group of ballet lovers on a trip to Paris and Belgium that included a visit to the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp. Driving from Antwerp to Bruges, we noticed that, as Canadian John McCrae's  First World War poem immortalized, the poppies in Flanders do indeed.... Well, what exactly is it they do? If you filled in that line with "grow" you would be botanically correct, but in fact the famous line is "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row."
(There is some controversy about whether he did in fact use "blow" or "grow" in his original version, but the first published edition has "blow" in the first line. Later in the poem he does have " If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.)
"Blow" in this context means "bloom", the word which has for all intents and purposes taken over from it, but wouldn't have provided McCrae with a very good rhyme. It is not the same "blow" as the one we use when referring to strong winds or extinguishing birthday candles, but rather is derived from the Old English word blowan (to bloom, related to the modern German word for "bloom", bluehen). The windy "blow" came from another Old English word, blawan. As luck would have it, the past tense for these verbs was identical, so gradually blawan acquired the same spelling in all its forms as blowan.
In this week of Remembrance Day, whatever those poppies are doing in the fields of Belgium, spare a thought for all those who are buried beneath them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fans for fans

For the past few weeks, baseball fans have been worshipping at their chosen shrine with a fervour that verges on the religious. This is not surprising in view of the origins of the word “fan”. It was in reference to baseball, in fact, that the word was first used, in the 1880s, before being extended to other sports and then to the theatre and other activities. It is a shortening of “fanatic”, derived from the Latin word fanaticus meaning “pertaining to a temple” (the Latin word for “temple” being fanum). But fanaticus also had an extended meaning, “inspired by orgiastic rites, frantic with religious enthusiasm”. I don't know if a baseball game can be described as an orgiastic rite, but fans can certainly get frantic.
To cool their ardour, they might want the other kind of fan, but that is a different word entirely, from the Latin vannus, originally a type of basket for winnowing grain by tossing it in the air. This word came to be applied to a hand held device used for agitating the air.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The whys and wherefores

The subject of my ballet appreciation courses this week has been Romeo and Juliet, and we've been watching some pretty fabulous balcony scene pas de deux:

Of course, in ballet they don't have to use words at all, but in Shakespeare this scene includes the famous line "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

Wherefore does not mean "where".

It means "why". Juliet is lamenting the fact that Romeo is who he is, the son of the enemies of her family. WHY oh why does it have to be that way? Why are you Romeo Montague and not some Capulet guy my parents would be happy to marry me off to? 

Think of it as a twin of "therefore". "Therefore" makes a statement: "as a result, in consequence". "Wherefore" asks the question: "as a result OF WHAT?" Unlike "therefore", though, "wherefore" is pretty much dead in English except in the (redundant) phrase "whys and wherefores" and... in mistaken allusions to Romeo and Juliet!

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.