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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Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy Hogmanay!

Those of you who have read my book Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do with Pigs know that pigs crop up in the most unexpected places, etymologically speaking. And so you may think that today's word of the week is yet another example. But in fact "hogmanay", the word used in Scotland to designate New Year's Eve, has nothing to do with pigs. 
Edinburgh on Hogmanay

This unusual word probably comes from hoguinané, a Norman French form of Old French aguillanneuf. The first element of aguillanneuf  is of unknown origin, tacked on to l'an neuf (the new year). This was a shout with which people (especially children) greeted the New Year and demanded a New Year's gift (rather as children shout "Trick or treat!" on Halloween). The gift was traditionally oatcakes (a round, flat, not very sweet oat biscuit), from which custom the day also came to be known as "cake day". 

Just to be confusing, there are some actual cakes traditionally eaten in Scotland on Hogmanay, but they are not called cakes. One is is the "Scotch bun" (also known as "black bun"), a spiced fruitcake with a pastry crust. Another is the delightfully named "cloutie dumpling". This version of Christmas pudding is wrapped in a cloth (a "clout" in Scots English, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word clut, originally meaning a piece of something but quite quickly applied specifically to pieces of fabric).

Oatcakes, black buns, cloutie dumplings... all washed down with a wee dram, no doubt. Or a not so wee one.

So I'll wish you Happy Hogmanay, and all the very best in 2013!



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:

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Yule love this one

Today is the winter solstice, celebrated as “Yule” by Wiccans. “Yule” came into Anglo-Saxon from Old Norse, as a word for December or January, and in particular designating a pre-Christian feast celebrating the annual rebirth of light and lasting twelve days, which probably is the origin of the “12 Days of Christmas” from December 25th to Epiphany on January 6,. Yule logs burned throughout this festival to symbolize perpetual light. After the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, the name for their festival transferred to the Christian one celebrating the birth of the “Light of the World”. The Latin version “Christmas” (“Christ's mass) took over only after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Here's my favourite yule log recipe:

For 15 x 10 inch jelly roll pan:
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/3 c water
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup sifted flour
1 tsp. baking powder

For 17 x 11 inch jelly roll pan:
5 large eggs
1 1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tsp vanilla
1 2/3 cup sifted flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

Grease sides of jelly roll pan and line bottom with waxed paper or parchment paper. Grease the paper.  Beat eggs until very thick and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, beating well. Beat water and vanilla in on low speed. Combine flour and baking powder and beat in on low speed.
Pour batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake 12 to 15 minutes at 350 or until top springs back when lightly touched in centre.  Do not overcook. Sprinkle icing sugar over top of cake and turn out on towel Sprinkle icing sugar over cake. Roll cake and towel up together loosely from narrow end.and let stand on cake rack until cool. Carefully unroll, trim off the crispy edges with a sharp serrated knife, and spread with coffee-flavoured butter icing. Reserve a small amount of coffee icing to decorate the ends.. Roll up cake. Cut both ends of the "log" on the diagonal and set the cut off bits aside. Ice the log with chocolate butter icing, roughing it up with your knife to make it look like bark. Use the reserved coffee icing to ice the ends, making concentric marks with the tines of a fork to look like a tree's growth rings.  Trim the cut off bits of cake so that you can place them on the log to look like the stubs of branches. Ice around the outside of the "branches" with chocolate icing, and ice the exposed ends with coffee icing, marking with a fork as before. You can decorate the log with red and green glace cherries to look like holly. Use a sharp serrated knife (bread knife) to cut the cake.
If you prefer chocolate cake, substitute 1/4 cup cocoa for 1/4 cup flour. You can add rum or brandy to the icing if you like.
You can use coffee-flavoured whipped cream in the centre of the cake for a somewhat less sweet yule log.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Throughout December, many charitable souls in Canada turn their attention to the tradition of putting together Christmas hampers for the needy or choosing gift hampers for their friends. Americans, for whom the word "hamper" is used only of laundry baskets, may wonder why we think our dirty unmentionables are the ideal holiday gift (they probably also have trepidations about the "hampers" we bring on picnics!).  But here hampers are baskets of food.

The word was originally "hanaper",  a case designed specifically to hold "hanaps", which were drinking goblets. By about 1500, wicker was the most common material for making hanapers, which by then, because of pronunciation difficulties, had become "hampers". Gradually the idea arose that a hamper was by definition a wicker basket with a lid. Since these were handy for transporting food, hampers became associated with picnics, a custom which dates from Victorian times. The charitable Christmas hamper arose at the same time, but nowadays is more likely to consist of several large cardboard boxes.

The verb "hamper" (obstruct) is unrelated and of unknown origin.

Friday, December 7, 2012

When a smart cookie has had the biscuit

December for me is usually a marathon of cookie baking: ballerina-shaped cookies for my ballet class, cat- and dog-shaped cookies for the vet, star-shaped cookies for my choir's post-carol-service reception, various cookies for gifts.
Wordlady's famous pointe shoe cookie

We in North America call these sweet treats "cookies" thanks to the Dutch, for whom small cakes (koek, pronounced "kook") were koekjes (kook-yuhz).

The British call them "biscuits", a word borrowed from Old French in the 1300s and ultimately derived from the Latin word biscoctum, literally "twice baked". In the middle ages, small flat cakes were cooked twice to dry them out and ensure long keeping. This is also the source of the word "biscotti", a type of cookie which is literally twice baked.

The interesting thing about the word "biscuit" is its spelling. For 300 years, from the 1500s to the 1700s, we quite sensibly spelled it "bisket", to reflect the pronunciation. But once again English's allergy to sensible spelling reared its ugly head, and sometime in the 1700s, when it was trendy to borrow French words, we committed what the OED disapprovingly refers to as "a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling, without the French pronunciation".

Here in Canada, we have a particular saying, "to have had the biscuit", meaning to be worn out, useless, no longer functioning, etc. This is not to be confused with the British English expression "take the biscuit" which  means "be the most remarkable or foolish of its kind". We in North America would say "take the cake" instead.

Just to add to the confusion, North Americans do use the word "biscuit" (in Canada often "tea biscuit"), but for a small not-too sweet cake more like a scone (for more on scones, see this post).
Here's my favourite recipe for rolled cookies, along with a hot tip for making the rolling more convenient and less messy. These hold their shape really well as there is no baking powder in the recipe to make them spread and puff up.

7 oz (200g) soft butter (NOT margarine!)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
3 cups flour (400 g)
(for chocolate cookies, replace 1/3 cup of the flour with 1/2 cup of cocoa)
Beat butter, sugar, and vanilla together for 2 minutes. Add egg and beat for another 30 seconds. Beat in flour on slow speed until dough clings together, finish with hands to make a smooth ball of dough. Divide in two and put each smaller ball into a large zipper-closure freezer bag. Chill for about 1/2 hour to an hour.
With dough still in bag, roll out (ie you will be rolling your rolling pin on top of the plastic) till it is a square of even thickness (about 1/4 inch) completely filling the bag (you may have to turn the bag over, and open the "zipper" occasionally to remove creases and air bubbles). Open the zipper closure, run a knife down the side edges of the bag and peel the top side of the bag off the cookie dough (it won't stick). If you want to decorate the cookies with coloured sugar, sprinkles, etc., spread them over the cookie dough, fold the plastic back over it and run the rolling pin lightly over the whole surface just so the decorations cling to the dough. Cut out shapes.  Place on parchment paper on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees until top of cookie is no longer soft (varies from 5 to 12 minutes depending on size of cookie).
Gather any trimmings and reroll.
 The advantage of using the freezer bag is that you don't need to flour your board or rolling pin, which means that the cookies don't get tougher as more flour is added to them, and you also have a lot less cleanup.
A tip if you want to make cat cookies: If you have friends with an orange "marmalade"  cat, make the cookie dough substituting orange extract for the vanilla and enough red and yellow food colouring to tint a deep orange colour. Mix in about 1/3 cup of orange sprinkles before rolling and cutting out with cat-shaped cookie cutters. The sprinkles will look like tabby markings when the cookies are baked.
For instructions on how to make the pointe shoe cookies, click here.
Recipe can be doubled if you need many many cookies (and who doesn't?)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday

Today is Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the US. The day after American Thanksgiving (as we Canadians call it) has been called this since the early 1960s, so dubbed by Philadelphia police officers dismayed at the congestion in downtown Philadelphia brought about by shoppers rushing to get the deals. The name, and the custom of deep discounting and early opening hours, gradually spread to other cities, and has also recently established itself in Canada.
But the word "black" itself is intriguing. As you might expect, the early Anglo-Saxon word for this colour (or absence of colour" is similar to the modern German word, which is schwarz. For the Anglo-Saxons, black things were "swart", a word that still survives in "swarthy". But fairly early on, another word started to compete with "swart". The Anglo-Saxon word blac seems to be related to the word for "ink" or a black metallic alloy in other Germanic languages.
Obviously "black" won out.  Somehow, "Swarthy Friday", doesn't sound quite right!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The dismal days

If by some bizarre circumstance you were thinking of going in for some bloodletting tomorrow, you might want to hold off, because November 17th was, according to some medieval writers, one of the “dies mali” (“bad days” in Latin), two days every month particularly unsuited for this medical intervention. In English, these 24 unlucky days were called collectively “the dismal”, but by the 1400s, people started to call them, with unwitting redundancy, “the dismal days”, and thus “dismal” became an adjective meaning first “unlucky”, but eventually “gloomy and depressing”, a good description for most November days.

Friday, November 9, 2012


We've been subjected to more than our fair share of punditry in the last few weeks as the professionally opinionated weigh in on the US election. But why do we call these talking heads "pundits"?
The word comes from India, where a pandita was (and still is) a very learned or wise person well versed in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, religion, and law. It is one of quite a few Indian words that the British adopted during their time in the subcontinent. In the mid-19th century, at the height of the Raj, the British used the word to designate an officer in the Indian judiciary with the responsibility of advising British judges on questions of Hindu law, or an Indian person trained and employed to survey regions beyond the British frontier.
But the word took on a life of its own beyond India's borders, being used to mean "expert" by the beginning of the 19th century, oddly enough predating the noun "expert"  itself by about 50 years, though the adjective "expert"  (derived from the Latin experire "to experience") had been around since Chaucer's time. 
By the early 20th century it had acquired its derivative "punditry", to which has been added more recently "punditocracy". 
To me "pundit" has a slightly disparaging tone to it. While acknowledging that the pundits are specialists in their field, the word does suggest to me an opinion for hire willing to spout off in the media. I doubt that news anchors or moderators would refer to their experts as pundits to their faces. What do you think about the connotations of this word?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday the ...Twoth?

Today is the second of November. How on earth did we get the ordinal "second" from the cardinal number "two"? This is still a challenge for some non-native speakers of English, as I quite frequently see French and German speakers writing "April 22th", for instance, and who can blame them? The fact is, the Anglo-Saxons didn't have an ordinal number corresponding to "two": they used the word "other". But as this could be ambiguous, once the French invaded with their handy "second" from the Latin secundus ("following", from the verb sequi to follow), the English were more than happy to borrow it.
For an explanation of how we got "third" from "three", click here.
For an explanation of why the ordinal of "one" is "first", click here.

Friday, October 26, 2012


The World Series has just started, so let's look at the word "umpire".
In medieval France, a nonper (literally “not a pair”) was an impartial third party. We borrowed this as noumpere, but after about a century, people started to think that “a noumpere” (an arbitrator in a dispute) was “an oumpere”. The same n-migration phenomenon happened with “apron” (originally “napron”). Oumpere gradually morphed into “umpire” and started being used in sports in the 1700s.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fobbed off

I recently saw a memo alerting employees at the National Ballet of Canada to the fact that a new security door had been installed, and henceforth they would need a FOB [sic] to activate the door. Throughout the memo, FOB was written in all caps, as if it were an acronym, and in fact I was puzzling what it might stand for. Friends Of Ballet? Then I realized that it was simply the word "fob", which the writer of the memo had not realized was an ordinary word.
"Fob" started out as thieves' slang in the 17th century for a small waistband pocket, especially used for holding a watch or money (you can see why thieves would need their own special word for that!). Although it's uncertain where English thieves got this word from, there is a similar word for "pocket" in a German dialect: fuppe. Gradually the word migrated from the pocket itself to the watch that was in it, then to the chain connected to the watch, and finally to the ornament attached to the end of the chain. In recent times, this has been extended to the much less attractive but oh-so-practical devices that we attach to our bunches of keys to let us in to electronically controlled doors. No word on whether the National Ballet wardrobe department will now be sewing special pockets into the waistbands of tutus to accommodate them.
The verb "to fob off" is older, dating to the Renaissance, and of equally obscure origin, though it may be related to the German foppen (to deceive).

If you live in the Niagara region and would like to hear Wordlady live, eat great food and drink great wine, you have the opportunity at this year's Grimsby Museum fundraiser. More info here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Wordlady live (and wine)


Bachelor for Rent: Things you never suspected about Canadian English
A hilarious look at what is distinctive about Canadians and their language.

Guest Speaker: Katherine Barber ~ Canada’s Word Lady

Casablanca Winery Inn, 4 Windward Drive, Grimsby ON
Saturday November 17, 2012
6:00 Cocktails
6:45 Keynote Speaker
7:30 Dinner

The four course gourmet dinner is paired
with a selection of Niagara wines.
A vegetarian alternative is available

$90.00 per person
RSVP: by November 6th, 2012

Feeling squirrelly

Mm, mm, tasty! Love the way Wordlady leaves out snacks for me!
It's full-on squirrel warfare at Chateau Wordlady as I try to keep the bushy-tailed bandits away from my newly planted tulip bulbs.

Even while they are driving you other gardeners crazy, though, I'm sure you are wondering, "Where does the word squirrel come from anyway?"

The Anglo-Saxons called them ácweorna (a cognate of the modern German word for squirrel, Eichhorn). Surprisingly, considering that the farming Anglo-Saxon speakers probably had cause to say, "Damn acweorna has dug up my plants again!" quite a lot, this was supplanted by a Norman French word, esquirel. Possibly because squirrel fur was used in the fashion industry, a French preserve, the French word won out.

Esquirel ultimately came from the critter's Latin name, sciūrus, with a diminutive -ellus added on. 

The Romans had got it -- and this is where the story gets cute -- from the Greek skiouros, from skia (shade) +  oura (tail). The shady-tailed ones! How handy that they have a built-in parasol for sunny days.

The evocative verb "squirrel" meaning to stash away (have I mentioned how I love the way English turns nouns into verbs?) is fairly recent, dating from the 1920s.

And in other squirrel trivia, the word was pronounced "SQUARE 'll" until the mid-19th century.

Wordlady's secret Anti-Squirrel Warfare weapon on guard duty..
... and hard at work battling the sciurine hordes

Friday, October 5, 2012

Herb or Erb?

Are you salivating already at the thought of your Thanksgiving dinner? (For those non-Canadians reading this, we celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October whereas Americans celebrate it on a Thursday in November). 
How bland our turkey stuffing would taste without herbs, but why do the British pronounce the "h" and the Americans not? (Canadians are pretty evenly split down the middle on this one).  

Many of you may be thinking that this is another dastardly American plot to corrupt the language (for more of these, click here) but in fact it is the British who are responsible for changing the pronunciation,  In Latin, the word was herba, but the "h" disappeared from the pronunciation even before the word migrated into Old French. Being sensible, the French didn't put letters in their words to represent non-existent sounds, so their word was erbe. From about 1200, when it was adopted from French, till about 1500, the word was "erb", with no" h" to pronounce. 

The h was added to the spelling in the Renaissance when people felt that English spellings should reflect Latin word origins, but the British (at least those in whose dialect initial h's are pronounced) did not start pronouncing the "h" till the late 19th century, when compulsory education meant that some pronunciations started to reflect spelling. But Americans retained the older pronunciation, and, since the roots of Canadian English are in American English, about 50% of us do too. 
For the similar story of the word "history", please click here, and for the story of "heir", click here.

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
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

I should have went

OK, stop shuddering now. This particular construction seems to be high on the hackle-raising scale. "Illiterate!!!" people will thunder.
Because, well, the conjugation of the verb "go" is so logical. I mean, "Go, went, gone", what's not intuitive about that??
Why IS the word "go" so weird?
And why do so many people use "went" as both the past participle and the simple past, though "have went" is so OBVIOUSLY WRONG!!!!
Back in Anglo-Saxon times, "go" was fairly easy to conjugate. The infinitive was "go", the past participle was "gone" and the simple past was.... "goed".  Bet you didn't see that one coming. Young children still conjugate it this way.
There was another verb, "wend", which meant "move, turn, or change direction", and gradually came to mean "go in a certain direction". This survives now only in the phrase "wend one's way". The simple past was "wende". But from about 1200 on, the form "went" started to be used for both the simple past and the past participle of "wend": I wend, I went, I have went. Because of the similarity in meaning between "go" and "move in a certain direction", "went" migrated over to the verb "to go" and settled in there by about 1500 as its simple past, booting out "goed", and, in some varieties of the language, "gone" as well. Here's the proof:

1642   W. Sedgwicke Zions Deliv. Ded. sig. A2v,   A Judge that would have went right if the times had not beene bad.
1729   S. Switzer Hydrost. & Hydraul. 319   The Length of Time it [an engine] has went.

Clearly someone who is writing about hydrostatics and hydraulics is not illiterate!
But, for whatever reason (there are never logical reasons in the language), by the 19th century, "went" was stigmatized as the past participle of "go", though considered perfectly correct for the simple past. However, the past participle "went" is obviously still alive and well, since many people still say "have went".
There is always a historical explanation behind language usage.  I'm not suggesting that you should use "have went", because it really is stigmatized, but those of you who think it's the most terrible solecism, please do recognize that it COULD just as easily be the standard past participle of "go" as "gone" is. People who say "have went" are just the linguistic heirs of that 18th-century guy writing about hydrostatics. If their version had been the prestige dialect, the "have went" people would now be looking down their noses at those who say "have gone".

 As for "wend", because its past tense had been shanghaied by "go", it became a regular verb: wend, wended, wended.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Raisins of Wrath

Image result for grapes

The grape harvest is in full swing in Ontario, but if it weren't for a historical misunderstanding, the grape growers in Niagara would be harvesting raisins instead. 

In French, the word raisin designates grapes collectively. A grappe (related to “grapple”) was a hook used for harvesting, and so a grappe de raisin was a “hookful” of grapes. 

The English, who had little to do with this fruit before the French invaded, got confused, and thought that the word meaning “bunch” was the name of the fruit, and that's why we call them grapes. But we also cannily realized that keeping “raisin” allowed us to make a distinction between the fresh and the dried fruit.

COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. REGISTRATION NOW OPEN AND SPACE IS LIMITED. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html

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! SUBSCRIPTION IS FREE! You can either:
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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A lingua franca for 160 million Nigerians

A fascinating article in the Guardian about how Nigerian pidgin, known as Naija, is becoming a unifying language for the country's 160 million inhabitants and 500 language groups:


Friday, September 21, 2012

Mad as a ... Milliner?

For fashionistas like me, this is a very important time of year: Milan fashion week.
OK, maybe I'm not a fashionista (I hope those of you who know me have recovered from falling off your chair laughing at the thought) but I do like hats, and over the years have done my bit to enrich the coffers of milliners. Why are hat-makers called this?
In the Middle Ages, Milan was pronounced "MILLIN" in English. I will come back to the current pronunciation of the word later on, but back then, people from Milan were called either Milanese or "Milliners".
Even then Milan was renowned as a fashion centre, and particularly for producing fancy textiles and trim. Milan lace, "Milan bonnets", and other accessories were big items. (For the etymology of the word "bonnet", click here.) By the 1500s, people who sold these fancy wares were being called “milliners”, and since hats are a major accessory, the word became restricted to those who make or sell them.
In looking into this, I was entertained to discover that the tradition of making up etymologies has a long and undistinguished history, as evidenced by this fanciful theory:
1617   J. Minsheu Ὴγεμὼν είς τὰς γλῶσσας: Ductor in Linguas at Habberdasher,   An Habberdasher of small wares... In London also called a Millenier, à Lat: mille, i. a thousand, as one hauing a thousand small wares to sell.
Before milliners, we also had the plain English word "hatter". In fact, Henry VII felt moved to pass a law in 1488 forbidding them to charge more than 20 pence for a hat. But of course, a word evoking chic Italy would be much more desirable in the fashion trade. No word on whether "milliners" got to charge more than "hatters" (I bet they tried!).
The word "hatter" had another strike against it: the phrase "mad as a hatter" ("mad as a milliner" would be so much more alliterative). This arose because of the toxic effects on the brain that hatters suffered from using mercury in the creation of felt hats. Lewis Carroll  riffed on this already existing phrase when he created the character of the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

And now, about the pronunciation of Milan, or more specifically the second syllable. The first time I heard someone say "MillAHN", I thought, "Oh how terribly pretentious." (You see, I do have my judgmental moments about the language, but  I slap myself whenever I feel one coming on). You realize that I am strongly in the MillANN camp. This is the only pronunciation in Britain, but it turns out that the AHN version is the more common one in the US. This leads inquiring minds to wonder, as usual: What do Canadians say? Based on a recent facebook poll I conducted (you can add your voice to it by clicking here), ANN is more popular in Canada (60% of respondents vs. 40% for AHN). Since my younger facebook friends tended more towards AHN, however, I suspect that it is becoming more common, no doubt influenced by American pronunciation and the apparent belief that the AH vowel should be used in foreign words.

If you're thinking of going to Milan -- and I recommend it highly, it's a beautiful city -- you might want to check out my travel tips by clicking here.

Speaking of travelling, if you love Jane Austen you might want to think about my "Ballet and Jane Austen" trip to England next February. Email me at toursenlair@gmail.com for details.

Friday, September 14, 2012


It's hurricane season, and, since these storms brew up in the Caribbean, the word comes, not surprisingly, from a Caribbean language. In the now extinct Taino, spoken in the Bahamas and Greater Antilles, hurakán meant “god of the storm”. When Europeans started exploring the Caribbean and having their first taste of violent tropical storms, they adapted this native word, the Spanish as huracán and the Portuguese as furacão. Until the spelling finally settled down as “hurricane” in English in the 1680s, there were about thirty different spellings, the most common being “furacane”. In the 1700s, a “hurricane” was also a kind of fashionable social gathering where your house was overrun with people.
For the etymology of hurricane's Pacific cousin, typhoon, please click here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Canadians and heritage

Further to my post about whether to use "an" or "a" before words starting with "h", today one of my facebook friends [she is an archaeologist] mentioned "an heritage bridge". When I asked her if she always used "an" before "heritage", she confirmed that she did, and that one of her colleagues also did so "sometimes", though the other never did. I was intrigued by this, and when I did a Google search it became even more intriguing. "A heritage" is vastly, hugely, overwhelmingly more common than "an heritage". But when I eliminated all of the "an heritage" instances that were from the King James Version of the Bible, and those used by non-native speakers of English, the few that remained were predominantly Canadian. Not to say that Canadians prefer "an heritage" to "a heritage", but if you do say "an heritage", you are more likely to be Canadian than not.
This word underwent the same evolution as "history", starting out as "eritage", acquiring an etymological initial "h" in the Renaissance, then acquiring the "h" in the pronunciation in the 19th century.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Please forbear from using "forebearer"

It seems that Wordlady is in a schoolmarmy reproving sort of mood in time for back-to-school, so once again I am writing about a - gasp - language error.

I have recently seen several instances where people used the word "forebearer" when what they meant was "forebear" (an ancestor or predecessor).

Although the famously inclusive Merriam-Webster dictionaries have an entry for "forebearer", and even the famously judgemental American Heritage Dictionary acknowledges that this variant may soon be acceptable (but not yet), most American and British dictionaries and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary consider "forebearer" to be a mistake.

It is not really surprising that people make this mistake, because you would think, looking at the word "forebear", that it comes from "fore" plus "bear", i.e. that these were the people who were born before you. But astonishingly, this is not true. The word was originally "forebeer", nothing to do with ale, but simply a noun "be-er", that is, someone who was before you. It was originally a Scottish term, which explains why the vowel was pronounced more like "bay" than like "be".

Most dictionaries accept "forbear" as a variant spelling of "forebear", but my advice would be to keep "forebear" for the noun and "forbear" for the verb, now very formal, meaning "refrain from doing something", e.g. "She forbore from commenting."

You can see this verb's slide into oblivion on the Google frequency chart below. The apparent post-2000 uptick is due to dictionaries and recent editions of 19th-century books being loaded onto Google Books. It is clear that the verb "forbear" is in its death throes. "Forbearance" has always been healthier than the verb from which it derives, but even it is not what it once was.

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Don't misplace your modifiers

Talk about going to extreme lengths for advertising.

“Hung as the signage for Mojo's Cycles, the owner says the bike is a Sears model.” But unless he, and not the bike, really is suspended above his store, this sentence, found in a Toronto newspaper, illustrates the grammatical error called a misplaced modifier.

I know you expect your weekly Wordlady to be a word history rather than a grammar lesson, but this very common mistake really bugs me, so bear with me while I rant.

Make sure that descriptive phrases are properly attached to the thing they describe, to avoid unintended and sometimes hilarious consequences like the following, all found in Toronto newspapers. Those of you who would never misplace a modifier can just laugh or feel smug. But judging by the frequency of these errors, many people can just not see what the problem is, so I have highlighted the misplaced modifier in red and the thing it is grammatically (but not intentionally) modifying in green.

Small enough to take with you on your next shopping trip, wine experts Phillips and Harradine guide you through the best-value wines at the LCBO.”

“A 53-year-old Winnipeg truck driver, who has been in Canada since he was a baby, has been deported to England, where he was born after being convicted on drug charges.

Built for people on the go, Oakville's Mariel Bradley has produced a cookbook.”

Meant to reflect the newly revamped ROM, the station's leaky, moldy tiles have been replaced by five column designs.”

And the all-time, cringe-inducing winner:

“This latest contraceptive is a flexible ring, about the diameter of an egg, worn as far up your vagina as you can push it for three weeks at a time.


For another entertaining misplaced modifier, see my "Casting dispersions" post.

Friday, August 24, 2012

What the h...?

With the Olympics over, thank God we won't have to hear every last thing being described as "historic" any more. But is a new world record "a historic event" or "an historic event"?

A recent facebook poll I conducted showed "an historic" favoured over "a historic" by 60% of respondents, and this seemed to cut across generational lines. This is such an intriguing phenomenon. Typically in English, we use "a" before a pronounced h (as in "history") and "an" before silent h (as in "hour", "honour", etc.). So why do so many people (you've probably guessed I'm not one of them) do the counterintuitive thing and say "an historic" even though the h is pronounced?

If you look on the ever-helpful internet, you will find all sorts of wacko "rules" about this, depending on whether it's a noun or a verb, whether the first or second syllable is stressed, how many syllables the word has, what happens in French (in French!) and many other variables. Why do people make their lives this complicated?

Especially when THERE IS NO REASON TO DO THIS!! It's just a result of a quirk in the history (or should I say istory?) of English spelling and pronunciation.

"Historic" and "historical" didn't come into English till the Renaissance, but "history" has been around much longer. In Latin it was historia, but the Romans stopped pronouncing the h long before Latin morphed into Old French. The French didn't pronounce it (still don't) and being sensible people back then, didn't put an unpronounced letter in the spelling. Voilà: istorie. We borrowed the word, h-less in both spelling and pronunciation.

But then the Renaissance came along, and we developed a mania for putting silent letters in our spellings to reflect the original Latin word. So "istory" and its derivatives acquired an h in the spelling, but still not in the pronunciation. It therefore was perfectly natural to say "an history" or "an historic event", just as we still say "an hour" or "an honour".

 It was not until the end of the 19th century, and the advent of both mass literacy and social opprobrium for people who "drop their aitches", that we started pronouncing the h in "history" and "historic" (and many other words besides). But for some reason, although we all sensibly adjusted our indefinite article from "an" to "a" before "history", some of us didn't do the same before "historic".

Mastering counterintuitive linguistic "rules" like this is a good way to make you feel superior to those who do the opposite --but naturally idiomatic-- thing, and I believe this has something to do with the survival of "an historic". I am not saying that all my friends who say this are consciously asserting their linguistic superiority, but  I think they must be channelling something they were taught in school.

I even see the tendency spilling over onto other words starting with h. In the last few months I have seen all of the following:

an helicopter
an hospital
an horrific
an hilarious
an Hispanic
an hibiscus

and there is ample evidence on Google for all of these. Admit it, you "an historic" types, you're thinking, "But those are ridiculous!". Aren't you?

(For another example, "an heritage", see this post.)

Something has to give, though.  It's just too much work -- and not natural English -- to say "an" and then pronounce your h afterwards, so either the n or the h has to go. Indeed, I heard a CBC-TV reporter talking about one of those multitudinous historic events at the Olympics, and it certainly sounded to me like "an istoric day". Some linguists believe that the pronounced h"is doomed to die in Standard English as it has done in so many languages, and perhaps this is a sign of it ailing, though there are vast numbers of words in English with a very healthy initial h.

My advice is:

Use "an" before the FOUR (count 'em!) words and their approximately twelve common derivatives, that start with a silent h in standard English (i.e. not those varieties of English, like Cockney, in which all initial h's are silent):

heir, honest, honour, hour

For Americans and about 50% of Canadians, the word "herb" is also in this category.

Use  "a" before h's that are pronounced (everything else). EVEN "HISTORIC"!! (For some speakers, "humour" and "human" also have a silent "h", but since those words start with a "you" sound, they also take "a".)

How easy is that?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Please stand!

Over the past few weeks we have heard many national anthems played at the Olympics, and meanwhile in my church choir I've been singing another kind of anthem, a choral setting of a biblical text.

Where does this word "anthem" come from? It has come a very long way, having its ultimate origins in the Greek elements anti (against) and phone (sound). This became the church Latin word antiphona (a composition sung with one choir responding to another), which has given us the word "antiphon".

But antiphona was fated to have another evolution as well. When the Anglo-Saxons were confronted with this church Latin word, they decided to drop a few syllables and thus turned antiphona into antefne. Even for the Anglo-Saxons, though, antefne was a hard mouthful of consonants, so gradually the f became an m and the final ne dropped off altogether, leaving us with "anthem" by about 1500.

Throughout this time, it maintained the original meaning of an antiphonal composition, but starting with Chaucer, it also meant a piece of scripture set to music. Any singer who has ever made it through Holy Week can sympathize with the speaker in Henry IV part 2 who said "For my voice, I have lost it with hallowing, and singing of Anthems." The word "anthem" for such pieces tends to be used of English compositions and the Church of England. On the continent and in Catholic churches such religious choral pieces are more likely to be called "motets", a diminutive of the French word mot (meaning "word"): a "little word".

Shakespeare also used "anthem" more figuratively to mean any song of praise, and this led ultimately to its being used to describe the royalist song that gained popularity in the mid-1700s. But even in late Victorian times, pedants were complaining that "anthem" was not the "right" word for "God Save the Queen", and that it should be called a "national hymn" instead (as indeed national anthems are in French and German and other languages). This just shows that pedants never win out in matters lexical. Just think how they would react to the latest evolution of the word, as in "Technohead's irresistibly zany pro-marijuana anthem". Definitely not suitable for the Olympics. Or church!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

It ain't easy doing adagio

Over on my ballet website, I've started a weekly series on the history of some ballet terms. We start with "adagio", and how it is surprisingly related to the words "easy" and "adjacent". Please click here.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Of mice and men

With the Olympics monopolizing the airwaves for the last two weeks, a lot of muscle has been on display. But lest you think athletes have a monopoly on muscle, you might want to contemplate these pictures of ballet dancers. (You will probably want to contemplate them no matter what you think!)

Canadian dancer Matthew Golding of
Dutch National Ballet
photo credit: Erwin Olaf
Yes, male ballet dancers, the people that popular culture, in one of the world's inexplicable mysteries, considers to be "wimpy".

OK, class, stop drooling now, and apply your mind to more intellectual pursuits, to wit: the etymology of the word "muscle". (If you want to see Matthew's muscles in the flesh, you could always come with me on a ballet trip to Holland next May .)
"Muscle" ultimately derives from the Latin musculus (little mouse), mus meaning "mouse" and culus being a diminutive ending. The Romans saw a similarity in shape between muscles (especially the biceps) and mice (hey, this is an excuse for you to look at those pics again to check just how much those biceps look like mice). OK, are you back with me now? Another mouse-shaped thing also called a musculus was the bivalve mollusc Mytilus edulis, which you and I know as a ... mussel.
mussels: tasty, but less exciting than muscles

"Mussel" came directly from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, much earlier than "muscle", which arrived in English via French in the 14th century. They both seem to have kept the "K" sound from the Latin origin (as indeed the French word muscle still does) through the 16th century, at which point the "MUSSLE" pronunciation won out. The spelling distinction, with "muscle" reserved for the body part and "mussel" for the shellfish, was not definitively established till the 19th century. It is not surprising that an anatomical term kept a silent letter reflecting the original Latin spelling of the word, while a food term did not, anatomy being the purview of learned folk while eating is for ordinary folk.

If all this leaves you wondering why the French word for "mouse" is souris instead of some derivative of the Latin mus,  this is  a typical case of Old French deriving its vocabulary from Popular Latin (i.e. Latin slang) rather than Classical Latin. In Popular Latin, the word for "mouse" was sorex, which in Classical Latin meant "shrew" (ie the rodent, not the ill-tempered woman).

Now, I  don't want to leave you without giving you a chance to see those beautiful balletic muscles in action, so here you go. MUCH better than the Olympics!
If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips in 2012-13 by clicking here.

Robert Tewsley and Julia Kraemer in the comic Le Grand Pas de Deux:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Casting dispersions

Reading a recent article in my local newspaper, I stumbled on this malapropism:
"I cast no dispersions, but I know in my heart there's got to be a better way."
 According to Google, this is a not uncommon mistake for "cast aspersions". "Aspersion" comes from the Latin word  aspergere (sprinkle), and was first used of the act of sprinkling the faithful with holy water. But, who knows why, it almost immediately came to acquire the figurative sense of "damaging imputations or unjust insinuations", a rather genteel version of the image we get from the synonymous "mud-slinging".

In this case, I suspect the mistake was made by the reporter recounting the speaker's words rather than the speaker himself, because the article was rife with howlers:

Thanks to a misplaced modifier, Toronto police acquired an unusual new uniform and weapons:
"A patient walked out of Toronto East General Hospital and was later shot by police wearing a hospital gown and wielding scissors."
I guess budget cuts account for the fact that the police had only one hospital gown amongst them (and goodness knows they're hard enough to fasten up the back when there's only one body in them!) .

Apparently,  the demands of the heart are such that hospitals need an alarm code to cover the eventuality of patients running off to get married:
"The most high profile incidents in the past year have been the two code yellows (the hospital code for a missing, wandering, or eloped patient)."
 Did they really mean "eloped"? Perhaps there's some legal usage of the word I am not familiar with (if so I am sure an eager reader will let me know), although the only strictly legal definition the OED gives is the one it phrases so delightfully.

Of a wife: To run away from her husband in the company of a paramour.

 I'm thinking that definition may be up for review when the lexicographers get to the letter E!

Mountains are to be found in hospital offices:
"a tour of the hospital Friday morning giving a peak inside the security office"
For the difference between "peak", "peek" and even "pique", see this post.

But I don't think the reporter can be blamed for this particular gem of bureaucratese:
"If there's a person in crisis that we believe less lethal support could be used."
I think this means "we probably shouldn't shoot mentally ill patients dead."  It does rather suggest that the speaker thinks that such a thing as "lethal support" could exist, but there are less lethal options available. I tend to think of "lethal" (when being used literally) as absolute; something either kills you or it doesn't.
But perhaps I shouldn't cast dispersions on him for his language use.


Friday, July 27, 2012


In case you hadn't heard, the Olympic Games open today. Anyone looking at the Olympics realizes that sport is a very serious business indeed, but “sport” was originally the equivalent of “fun”, and didn't necessarily involve physical exertion. It was a shortened form of “disport” (a pastime), from the Latin dis (away) and portare (carry), the idea being that amusement carried one away from serious or sad occupations, in much the same way that a “diversion” is literally something that “turns you away” from other matters.

Friday, July 20, 2012


It's Tour de France season, and this week we heard of the misfortunes of the cyclists whose tires were punctured by tacks which someone had maliciously scattered across their route. Cyclists (yay us!) are, in fact, the people we have to thank for the nice air-filled shock-absorbing tires on our vehicles. Pneumatic tires were invented by Robert Thomson in 1845, but they didn't catch on because people preferred soid rubber tires, probably thinking they were more durable. But then cycling started to take off, and in 1888, John Dunlop, a Belfast veterinarian, revived the idea of air-filled rubber tires and patented them for bicycles. Then the Michelin company in France adapted pneumatic tires for cars in 1895 (hence the French word for "tire": pneu). It was about this time that the British opted for the spelling "tyre", while North Americans stuck with the older form "tire".

But tires of one sort or another have, surprisingly, been with us since the late 1400s. Back then what you got was a set of curved pieces of iron plate to cover your wooden carriage wheels. Not very shock-absorbing! The word was a shortening of "attire": tires were what you "clothed" your wheels with. "Attire" came from a French word, atirier (to arrange in a row, to put in order). It is related to our word "tier" as in "tiers of seats", and also, more surprisingly, to the word "artillery". The artillerie in 13th-century France was all of your weapons of war lined up in a row; it got narrowed down to cannon and guns in the 14th century.

The verb "tire" (fatigue) is a different word altogether, coming from Anglo-Saxon.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Friday the 13th is a good day to look at the word "superstition". Back in the 1500s, English speakers liked to borrow words from Latin to sound learned, and because of the Protestant Reformation they were always on the lookout for ways to slag off the Catholic Church. With "superstition", they got a two-for-one deal. It is derived from the Latin word superstitiōnem, the noun of action derived from superstāre (to stand upon or over).
It is thought that the etymological meaning of this is ‘standing over a thing in amazement or awe’. When it was first used in English, it was with the sense "Unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary, esp. in connection with religion; religious belief or practice founded upon fear or ignorance", and the quotations from the time will give you an idea of the tenor of the debate, if you could call it that:
a1538   T. Starkey Dial. Pole & Lupset  Their [the monks'] solitary life which hath brought forth with little profit to the public state, much superstycyon.
1547  J. Griffiths Two Bks. Homilies Other kinds of papistical superstitions‥as of Beads, of Lady Psalters and Rosaries.
1549  H. Latimer Serm. Ploughers Where the Devyll is residente‥up with all superstition and Idolatrie, sensing,‥holye water, and newe service of mens inventing.
This was obviously a much more loaded term than the one we use now for touching a rabbit's foot for good luck! 
For an explanation of why we say "thirteenth" instead of "threeteenth", click here.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Is "ask" a noun?

A friend of mine mentioned to me recently that he had just heard the word "ask" used as a noun (a phenomenon he found distasteful). This usage is particularly popular amongst fundraisers, who butter up their prospects before going for the "ask" for money. 

But should we object to the usage? And how new is it? Well, you may be shocked to learn that "ask" has been a noun for quite some time... a millennium, in fact! So we can't object to it on grounds of newness (even if that were a valid objection to usages, which it isn't).  

Can we object to it on the grounds that verbs shouldn't be used as nouns? Well, only if you want, on the same grounds, to stop using nouns like "take" (as in "they counted the take"), "walk" and "run" ("go for a walk/run"), "stretch", "hold", and many other nouns that started out life as verbs. Words can shift their function, and there is no rule against this. In fact, it is one of the great flexibilities of language. For more on the reverse phenomenon, "nouns being used as verbs", please click here.

While we're on the subject of the word "ask", just how awful are those people who pronounce it "ax"? 

In Old English, the word was áscian. This should have ended up as "ash" in modern English, following the same pattern that transformed Old English  æsce into "ash" (the tree), and wæsc(e)an into "wash". But because metathesis (the inverting of the order of consonants) was quite common in Old English, an "aks" variant had arisen even before the Normans arrived, a form which survived down to nearly 1600 as the regular literary form. This still survives in some dialects of English, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. As with all such things, it is just an accident of history that we now use the "ask" form instead of the "ax" one. 

For more on metathesis, click here. 

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! You can either:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
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Friday, June 29, 2012


If you have a summer trip planned, there will be fares involved: airfares, train fares, bus fares, and taxi fares. In Old English, “fare” was the verb meaning “travel” (as the German “fahren” still does). So “farewell” actually meant, “Have a good trip!”. The verb now survives only in the phrases “fare well (or badly)” and in “seafarer”. The noun “fare” has survived better; originally designating a trip, it subsequently became the price you pay for one.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Wimbledon opens on Monday, so time to look at the word "tennis". The game of batting a ball around a court seems to have been brought to England by the French in the 1300s. The French apparently yelled, “Tenez!” (“Here, take it!”) before they served. The English pronounced this as t'NETZ, then t'NESS, until finally we ended up with “tennis”. In 1873 a version of the game played outdoors on a lawn was invented, and dubbed with the unwieldy faux Greek name “sphairistike”, purportedly meaning “the art of ball-playing” and pronounced sfair-ISS-ticky. Not being stupid, people opted for the more manageable “lawn tennis” the inventor also offered. And then, ironically, the French borrowed the word back from English as le tennis.
For the history of the word "racquet", click here.

Friday, June 15, 2012


It is the season for people to throw themselves with much pomp into the state known as wedlock. The word has nothing to do with locks, despite its ending. Derived from the Old English word wed (pledge) and the suffix lac (the action of), it simply means “the act of pledging”. If the suffix lac is related to any other English word at all, it is to one meaning “play”, “fun”, and “glee”. No balls and chains!

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Queen and Disco

What does this:

have to do with this:

and even this:

More than you would think! This week I have been asked to be the guest blogger at the Macmillan Dictionary blog, and you will find the answer (and some fascinating word histories!) there by clicking here.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Paeans for peonies

One of the joys of June is the sight of a peony in profligate bloom. It is sure to make anyone feel better, and in fact peonies are named after the ancient Greek word for “doctor”, which came from the name of Paean, the physician of the gods. As time went on, Paean became identified with the god Apollo, to whom hymns of thanksgiving for victory in battle were sung. Since all these songs started with the invocation “O Paean!”, they became known as paeans, and eventually a paean became any expression of praise.

Learn more fascinating facts about the English language in my "Rollicking Story of English" course this fall. Registration is now open. More info here:

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 have not already subscribe, you can either:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Friday, May 25, 2012


The flowers that bloom in the spring lighten the hearts of many, but only clog up the nasal passages of others. The word “allergy” was coined in 1906 from the Greek word, allos (different) and the end of the word “energy”. But surely people had allergies before then? Indeed they did. An Italian doctor of the mid-1500s, observing the sneezing and itching suffered by a patient exposed to roses, dubbed the affliction “rose fever”. But in the 1820s we begin to see references to “hay asthma” or “hay fever”, the latter term becoming established when a physician in the mid-1800s fingered grass and other pollens as the culprit. He advised his patients to avoid it by spending the summer on a yacht. Try getting your health plan to cover that!
For the fascinating history of the word "sneeze", click here.

Friday, May 18, 2012


In May, many of us have the very civilized pleasure of feasting on rhubarb harvested from our gardens. Since it first came into Europe by way of Russia, the Greeks called it rha, which may have been an old name for the Volga River. The Romans insisted even more on its foreignness by tacking on the adjective barbarum (foreign), derived from an imitative Greek word, barbaros (babbling). The ancient Greeks dismissed foreign languages as babbling, and thought anyone who didn't have the good fortune to be Greek was automatically uncivilized; this is why barbaros has also given us the word “barbarian”.

Friday, May 4, 2012

I could have danced all night

I'm just back from a wonderful week in Germany escorting a group of ballet lovers to see 21 ballets in 10 days. What better time to look at the word "dance".  Surprisingly, its origins are somewhat obscure. It didn't show up in English until the 1200s, borrowed from the French, who seem (along with other Romance languages) to have borrowed it from an Old High German word dansôn (to stretch out). The sense ‘to form a file or chain in dancing’ is thought to have arisen from this. 

But people had danced in Anglo-Saxon England before the French arrived, despite severe moral disapproval from the church and even attempts to ban dancing. For one thing, dancing had been used in pre-Christian fertility rites. What's more, dancing was associated in the Bible with Salome: clearly dancers had a propensity for demanding people's heads on a platter.

 Never trust a dancer

Clerics notwithstanding, the Anglo-Saxons carried on dancing, their word for it being tumbian. Like the Latin word for dance, saltare, it also meant "leap". Tumbian later acquired an -le ending (what linguists call a frequentative ending, which indicates frequent repetition or intensity) and became "tumble". Is it not interesting that a word that started out meaning "dance" ended up meaning "fall over"? We saw this with the word "trip" as well (click here). What does this say about the innate English ability to dance? Perhaps my tendency to fall over my feet in my ballet classes can be ascribed, not to any individual failing, but to an unavoidable genetic inheritance!

For the origin of some dance terms:
For  "adage", click here.
For  "entrechat", click here.  

For "ballotté", click here.
For "fouetté", click here
For "bourrée", click here
For "pirouette", click here

If you're interested in travelling to see great dancing in beautiful places (no tripping, tumbling, or heads on platters, I promise), please check out my website at toursenlair.blogspot.com

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.