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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.


  1. Dear Wordlady,
    Can you find a nice plain synonym for hoity-toity Latinate "ubiquitous"? The Canadian Oxford offers none, and it isn't in the C.A. Thesaurus. "Omnipresent" (Websters)is just as bad but doesn't really mean the same anyway.

  2. Paperback Oxford Canadian Thesaurus offers: ever-present, pervasive, universal, worldwide, global, rife, prevalent, far-reaching, inescapable. I guess you could also say "very common". I don't think "ubiquitous" is a hoity-toity word though.


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.