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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, 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. 

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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.