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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, March 23, 2012

When Skates were Skateses


With our fabulous skaters competing at the World Figure Skating Championships next week, let's look at the word “skate”. 

The English borrowed it in the late 1600s from the Dutch, who had been skating recreationally on their canals since the Middle Ages. The Dutch word schaats had been adapted from the Old French word eschasse (stilt), which came from a Frankish word for a wooden leg (definitely not a helpful attribute in figure skating). In Dutch, you had one schaats and two schaatsen

So in English, it should be one skates and two skateses. But the English, naturally thinking the s was the plural ending, used “skates” for the pair, and lopped off the s to form the singular “skate”. 

It took very little time at all for this noun to become a verb (yes, another one of those!). The current earliest evidence for the noun in the OED dates from 1684, with the verb dating from 1696.

And those jumps that seem, to the uninitiated, as indistinguishable as they are impossible? They are named after the three skaters who invented them: the Norwegian Axel Paulsen, the Austrian Alois Lutz, and the Swedish Ulrich Salchow, who in addition to being a good jumper was a model of sportsmanship, famous for offering his 1902 Worlds gold medal to the second-place finisher Madge Syers, who he thought deserved it more. 

For another word that experienced the same phenomenon, click here to learn about "cherry". 

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  1. Hello,

    "But the English, naturally thinking the s was the plural ending,[...]"

    Did that include their Academy ?

    Thank you.

    1. The English have never had an Academy. Neither did any language back in the Middle Ages when this happened.


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.