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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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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Happy Birthday, Franz!

January 31 is Franz Schubert's birthday, so what better day for a music-themed post.
The word "music" itself comes ultimately from the Muses, the ancient Greek goddesses of the arts who hung out with the über arts god, Apollo. This came into English via Latin and French, which meant the word wasn't available to the Anglo-Saxons. Their word for "music" was gliw, which has given us the word "glee". Already by the 1200s, "glee" was being used as a synonym for "mirth", but, for all you avid fans of that TV show, Glee does not mean "happiness" in this context. "Glees" were a specific type of part song in the 1600s, and "glee clubs" grew up in the early 1800s. All the same, I find it quite delightful that a word meaning "music" ended up meaning "happiness".

To make you gleeful, and as a homage to Schubert, please enjoy this amazing ballet, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, set to the final movement of his Great C Major Symphony, choreographed by William Forsythe, full of high-energy virtuosity and featuring the world's coolest tutus. Performed here by Claire-Marie Osta, Delphine Baey, Eleonora Abbagnato, Hervé Moreau and Nicolas Noel of the Paris Opera Ballet (if you like ballet, check out my other blog, www.toursenlair.blogspot.com).

Monday, January 23, 2012

The cat's p*jamas

Papagena (without pyjamas, -- or legs, apparently)
A Canadian twitter follower of mine recently asked which is the correct spelling: pyjamas or pajamas. Traditionally Canadians have followed the British in using "pyjamas" whereas Americans use "pajamas". She felt (and lamented) that Canadians were "sliding" into American usage on this. When we edited the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, "pyjamas" was definitely more common, but this comment suggested it was time to look into it again, so I conducted a facebook poll. So far, 37 Canadians have answered "pyjamas" versus only 6 saying "pajamas", so I don't think much sliding is going on. If you're Canadian and haven't participated in my facebook poll, let me know what spelling you use in the comments (or send me an email).

This is one of the many words that the English borrowed during their time in India. It comes from the Urdu pāy-jāma, pā-jāma, (in turn coming from Persian pāy , foot, leg + jāma clothing, garment) and originally designated the loose floaty trousers worn in the Indian subcontinent. The English adopted these as sleepwear in the 19th century, and combined them with a light jacket. As you can see, there is no -s ending in the original language: it was added in English by analogy with "trousers", "pants", etc. 

Intriguingly, until the early 20th century, this word was apparently pronounced "pie jamma" 

As for the phrase "the cat's pyjamas", we do not know what wit thought it up, but it cropped up, along with its variants "cat's whiskers" and "cat's meow", or -- my father's favourite -- "cat's ass" in the 1920s,

Friday, January 20, 2012


For Lunar New Year (celebrated this coming Monday), let's look at a word English acquired from Chinese: chopstick. The English started trading with the Chinese in the 1600s, and to facilitate communication a pidgin, or mixture of the two languages, grew up. In Chinese pidgin, “chop” meant “quick” (this is also the origin of “chop-chop” meaning “hurry”.) “Chopsticks” were “quick sticks”, a partial translation of the Chinese name for them, kwaizi, literally “nimble children” or “nimble ones”.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hats off to the toque!

Here in southern Ontario, until today, we've been having such an unusually mild winter (above freezing, woohoo!) that we haven't had to dig out the heavy-hitter of the Canadian winter garb armamentarium (cool word, eh?): the toque. Now, if you're not Canadian, the only familiarity you have with this word is for this piece of headgear:
toque (1)
and you may be wondering why on earth  we would wear one in the wintertime! If you have a greater knowledge of historical headdresses, you may also be familiar with this:

toque (2)
but by now you have decided that we Canadians are seriously wacko.
But the toque much beloved to us is neither of these, and neither is it pronounced "toke" like those above (so beware, any of  you non-Canadians asking for one in a store!). It rhymes with "kook" and looks like this:

 charming Canadian family wearing toques (3)

So why is our pronunciation so out of line with the spelling? This piece of headgear is something we borrowed from French Canadians, who call it a "tuque" (and this is indeed an alternate spelling of the word in Canadian English). The French word comes ultimately from a very old pre-Roman word meaning "hill" or "gourd"  which stayed alive in some French dialects and was brought over to North America. It is probably because of the similarity in shape between a hill and the knitted cap that the word was adopted for its current use. English Canadians, though, while grateful that their ears were now warm, never having seen the word "tuque" before, thought it must in fact be the similar hat-related word "toque" (which comes from an Italian name for a kind of silk fabric). 
So if you're Canadian, you have no difficulty with a sentence like "They were dressed like loggers, in toques and boots". But if you're from somewhere else and that sentence elicits bizarre images of lumberjacks wearing chef's hats or, like the Monty Python song, dressing up in women's clothing, you can now set your mind at ease. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Things are seldom what they seem

I was quite surprised to see on the Royal Opera House's YouTube channel a reference, written by someone at the ROH,  to "Kenneth MacMillan's seldomly performed Rite of Spring". Seldomly? The word "seldom" is already an adverb, and a very old one, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. It doesn't need an -ly tacked on the end of it. It's a myth that adverbs have to end in -ly, which I'll come back to further down.
But this led me to investigate "seldom" a bit more, and unfortunately it looks as though it may be dying (or at least ailing). Perhaps this is why the ROH writer didn't know how to use it. Google's ngram shows a decidedly consistent downward trend in frequency of usage since the 1820s (click here to see it), when "seldom" seems to have been by far the most common term for the notion "not often". "Rarely", as the chart reveals, has been plodding along steadily throughout that time.
"Seldomly", though very rare compared to any of those synonyms, showed a remarkable uptick from 1960 on (click here to see it). My theory is that, as "seldom" became less and less frequent, fewer English speakers knew that it is in fact an adverb. And something they had been taught in school led them to "fix" it by adding -ly.
In addition to adverbs that have no -ly form and no corresponding adjective, like "often", "soon", and "seldom", there is a category of adverb, called "flat adverbs", where the adjective and adverb have been identical since the Middle Ages. Think of "come close, work hard, run fast, sing loud, do right, hug tight, go slow". But the prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century, to whom we owe many of the ill-founded (wait a minute, there's another one - "ill") grammatical bugbears we were taught in school, could not understand how these words could be adverbs, and, maintaining that they were misused adjectives, inveighed against their use and decreed that they should be replaced by their siblings ending in -ly. Generations of schoolchildren have been subjected to this rule, with the result that many of my students and audience members, reacting to -ly-less adverbs, bewail to me that "adverbs are dying" (which of course is impossible). Inevitably this leads to hypercorrection ("correcting" something that is already correct, based on a misunderstood "rule"), which I believe is the root of the upsurge in "seldomly" in the last 50 years.
I'm curious to know your thoughts about "seldom". Do you use it? Often? Occasionally? Never? Or... seldom? Let me know in the comments (or on my facebook page).

Friday, January 6, 2012

The new NIMBY

I literally laughed out loud when I read this post on a friend's Facebook page:
This story (about residents signing a petition to prevent the building of a new low-rise seniors' residence in their suburban neighbourhood, citing fears of noise and vandalism and elderly people watching what they're barbecuing) inspired my friend John McGrath to coin a new term: instead of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), what we have here are BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing, Anywhere Near Anything). That seems to be the new attitude.
 Subsequently the friend said he had not invented the term but learned it one summer working at the Ontario Ministry of Energy. 
I LOVE it!

Breakfast at Epiphany's

A famous movie starring Audrey Hepburn. 

Stained glass lamps. 

A zillion little girls born in the eighties.

What do they all have to do with the glum looking gentlemen in the picture?

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men (or Magi) brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The word "epiphany" comes from two Greek words, epi ("to") and phainein ("show"), the idea being that with the visit of the wise men, Christ's divinity was being revealed or manifested to the greater world of the Gentiles (beyond the shepherds abiding in the fields). 

But in the Middle Ages, there was also another word for the feast day, which combined  phainein with the Greek word meaning "God": theos. Theophaneia meant "the showing of a God". In Old French, this got corrupted to "Tiphanie", and baby girls born on or near this feast day in the Middle Ages were often christened with this name.

Some people ended up with it as their surname, like the famous American jewellers and stained glass artists of the Tiffany family to whom we owe beautiful lamps such as this one:
Tiffany lamp

But with the rise of Protestantism, it was no longer popular to name children after the feast days of the Catholic Church. Tiffany fell out of favour for centuries as a first name. Its resurgence in recent years is due to the immense popularity of the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's (and doubtless the doomed hope on the part of parents that their baby would grow up to be as beautiful and glamorous as its star, Audrey Hepburn). 

When I used the term "zillion" above, I was speaking scientifically, as you can see from this listing on the US Social Security Administration's cool website about baby names, with "Tiffany" pretty firmly in the top twenty from 1980 to 1989.  Significantly, it wasn't even in the top 1000 before 1962. But poor Tiffany. Looks like she's in freefall, beaten out by Isabella, Emma, Olivia, Sophia, and Ava and so many others.

SSA logo: link to Social Security home page

Popularity of a  Name


Popularity of the female name Tiffany
Year of birth Rank
2010 311
2009 281
2008 250
2007 211
2006 210
2005 196
2004 175
2003 148
2002 140
2001 127
2000 101
1999 80
1998 67
1997 61
1996 52
1995 46
1994 35
1993 33
1992 32
1991 27
1990 23
1989 16
1988 13
1987 18
1986 17
1985 23
1984 14
1983 14
1982 13
1981 14
1980 14
1979 28
1978 32
1977 34
1976 32
1975 37
1974 41
1973 52
1972 61
1971 62
1970 99
1969 143
1968 178
1967 192
1966 242
1965 389
1964 461
1963 696
1962 784
Note: Rank 1 is the most popular, rank 2 is the next most popular, and so forth. Data are not shown for some of the years you specified because the name Tiffany was not in the top 1000 names for those years. Name data are from Social Security card applications for births that occurred in the United States.

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Of hordes and hoarding

I hope you all now have a nice hoard of presents and shiny electronic devices as a result of your loved ones battling the hordes in the shops before Christmas and in the Boxing Day sales. 

If only they could have bought you a handy way to distinguish "horde" and "hoard", which are very frequently confused.

Horde, defined by the OED as "A large gathering of people, esp. of wild or fierce people; a gang, troop, crew", has a fascinating etymology.  The Persian word urdū meant "camp". Russian borrowed this as orda to designate a tribe or troop of Asiatic nomads, dwelling in camps , and migrating from place to place for pasturage, or for war or plunder. From Russian it spread to Polish, where it acquired an initial h, and from thence to other European languages in the 1500s. By the 1600s it was already being used to mean any large gathering, especially an unruly one. This "horde" is typically used only as a noun.

Now, in case you're making wild etymological leaps and wondering whether urdū  has anything to do with "Urdu" (the language of Pakistan), well, ..... yes, it does! How exciting is that? Back in Asia, the phrase zabān-i-urdū was used to mean ‘the language of the camp’. This became shortened to urdū and the language came to be called that. (For a couple of English words with Urdu origins, visit this post and this post.)

The other "hoard" goes all the way back to Old English, and was spelled hord from that time until the 18th century, when the "hoard" spelling took over, probably on the analogy of "board". Hord was the Anglo-Saxon word for "treasure" (a word derived from French), but as was typical for money-related words after the Norman Conquest, it was replaced to a certain extent by its French equivalent. 

However, we kept "hoard" as a useful word for an accumulation of things, with slightly different connotations than "treasure". "Hoard" can also be used as a verb.

It's hard to find a mnemonic to help you remember which word has the "a" and which one doesn't, but here's my best stab at it:

Many synonyms of "hoard" also have an "a":
save stash cache gather garner amass 

For "horde", think of its synonym "crowd". No "a"!

I hope that helps!

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.