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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, April 20, 2012

Jubilant Birthday to you!

The Word Lady would like to take this opportunity to wish a very happy 86th birthday tomorrow to another lady, Queen Elizabeth II (I'm sure she's an avid reader of the Wordlady blog), whose 60th jubilee is much in the news. "Jubilee" is a word that, surprisingly, comes from an ancient Hebrew word meaning "ram": yobel, which came to apply not only to the rams themselves but also to the rams' horns used for making trumpets which were blown on religious occasions.

One of the religious customs of the ancient Jews, which is described in Leviticus, was to observe one year every fifty during which slaves were freed and people who had been forced to mortgage their land had it returned to them. It's unsure whether these years were ever in fact observed, or whether it was just laid down in Leviticus; but they were described as being initiated by the blowing of the ram's horn trumpet on Yom Kippur. And so the name of the trumpet came also to apply to the year.

By the time the Romans got a hold of yobel when they were translating the Bible into Latin, they confused it with a word used by Roman country folk, jubilare, which essentially meant "yell out to attract attention". So yobel became jubilaeus and ended up in English as "jubilee". Originally the word "jubilee" was only used in reference to this Hebrew custom in the Bible, but then the Catholic Church invented its own kind of jubilee to be celebrated every fifty years (that's now every twenty-five years) to be observed as a special time of penitence and almsgiving and pilgrimage. Eventually the idea of a special anniversary became attached to the word and that's why we use "jubilee" as we do today. No rams need apply.

The Queen's name also has an interesting story behind it. It is derived from the Hebrew name Elisheba ("God is my oath") , the name borne by the wife of Aaron, and, in the New Testament, by the mother of John the Baptist. But, as regular Wordlady readers will know by now, people in the 16th century, when our current queen's illustrious namesake was on the throne, did a lot of false etymologizing, and sheba (oath) got associated in people's minds with shabath (sabbath), so they changed the ending to “sabeth” or “zabeth”
(For more personal names affected by false etymology in the Renaissance, click here.)


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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.