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, 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.

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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.