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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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Sunday, September 30, 2012

I should have went

OK, stop shuddering now. This particular construction seems to be high on the hackle-raising scale. "Illiterate!!!" people will thunder.
Because, well, the conjugation of the verb "go" is so logical. I mean, "Go, went, gone", what's not intuitive about that??
Why IS the word "go" so weird?
And why do so many people use "went" as both the past participle and the simple past, though "have went" is so OBVIOUSLY WRONG!!!!
Back in Anglo-Saxon times, "go" was fairly easy to conjugate. The infinitive was "go", the past participle was "gone" and the simple past was.... "goed".  Bet you didn't see that one coming. Young children still conjugate it this way.
There was another verb, "wend", which meant "move, turn, or change direction", and gradually came to mean "go in a certain direction". This survives now only in the phrase "wend one's way". The simple past was "wende". But from about 1200 on, the form "went" started to be used for both the simple past and the past participle of "wend": I wend, I went, I have went. Because of the similarity in meaning between "go" and "move in a certain direction", "went" migrated over to the verb "to go" and settled in there by about 1500 as its simple past, booting out "goed", and, in some varieties of the language, "gone" as well. Here's the proof:

1642   W. Sedgwicke Zions Deliv. Ded. sig. A2v,   A Judge that would have went right if the times had not beene bad.
1729   S. Switzer Hydrost. & Hydraul. 319   The Length of Time it [an engine] has went.

Clearly someone who is writing about hydrostatics and hydraulics is not illiterate!
But, for whatever reason (there are never logical reasons in the language), by the 19th century, "went" was stigmatized as the past participle of "go", though considered perfectly correct for the simple past. However, the past participle "went" is obviously still alive and well, since many people still say "have went".
There is always a historical explanation behind language usage.  I'm not suggesting that you should use "have went", because it really is stigmatized, but those of you who think it's the most terrible solecism, please do recognize that it COULD just as easily be the standard past participle of "go" as "gone" is. People who say "have went" are just the linguistic heirs of that 18th-century guy writing about hydrostatics. If their version had been the prestige dialect, the "have went" people would now be looking down their noses at those who say "have gone".

 As for "wend", because its past tense had been shanghaied by "go", it became a regular verb: wend, wended, wended.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Raisins of Wrath

Image result for grapes

The grape harvest is in full swing in Ontario, but if it weren't for a historical misunderstanding, the grape growers in Niagara would be harvesting raisins instead. 

In French, the word raisin designates grapes collectively. A grappe (related to “grapple”) was a hook used for harvesting, and so a grappe de raisin was a “hookful” of grapes. 

The English, who had little to do with this fruit before the French invaded, got confused, and thought that the word meaning “bunch” was the name of the fruit, and that's why we call them grapes. But we also cannily realized that keeping “raisin” allowed us to make a distinction between the fresh and the dried fruit.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A lingua franca for 160 million Nigerians

A fascinating article in the Guardian about how Nigerian pidgin, known as Naija, is becoming a unifying language for the country's 160 million inhabitants and 500 language groups:


Friday, September 21, 2012

Mad as a ... Milliner?

For fashionistas like me, this is a very important time of year: Milan fashion week.
OK, maybe I'm not a fashionista (I hope those of you who know me have recovered from falling off your chair laughing at the thought) but I do like hats, and over the years have done my bit to enrich the coffers of milliners. Why are hat-makers called this?
In the Middle Ages, Milan was pronounced "MILLIN" in English. I will come back to the current pronunciation of the word later on, but back then, people from Milan were called either Milanese or "Milliners".
Even then Milan was renowned as a fashion centre, and particularly for producing fancy textiles and trim. Milan lace, "Milan bonnets", and other accessories were big items. (For the etymology of the word "bonnet", click here.) By the 1500s, people who sold these fancy wares were being called “milliners”, and since hats are a major accessory, the word became restricted to those who make or sell them.
In looking into this, I was entertained to discover that the tradition of making up etymologies has a long and undistinguished history, as evidenced by this fanciful theory:
1617   J. Minsheu Ὴγεμὼν είς τὰς γλῶσσας: Ductor in Linguas at Habberdasher,   An Habberdasher of small wares... In London also called a Millenier, à Lat: mille, i. a thousand, as one hauing a thousand small wares to sell.
Before milliners, we also had the plain English word "hatter". In fact, Henry VII felt moved to pass a law in 1488 forbidding them to charge more than 20 pence for a hat. But of course, a word evoking chic Italy would be much more desirable in the fashion trade. No word on whether "milliners" got to charge more than "hatters" (I bet they tried!).
The word "hatter" had another strike against it: the phrase "mad as a hatter" ("mad as a milliner" would be so much more alliterative). This arose because of the toxic effects on the brain that hatters suffered from using mercury in the creation of felt hats. Lewis Carroll  riffed on this already existing phrase when he created the character of the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

And now, about the pronunciation of Milan, or more specifically the second syllable. The first time I heard someone say "MillAHN", I thought, "Oh how terribly pretentious." (You see, I do have my judgmental moments about the language, but  I slap myself whenever I feel one coming on). You realize that I am strongly in the MillANN camp. This is the only pronunciation in Britain, but it turns out that the AHN version is the more common one in the US. This leads inquiring minds to wonder, as usual: What do Canadians say? Based on a recent facebook poll I conducted (you can add your voice to it by clicking here), ANN is more popular in Canada (60% of respondents vs. 40% for AHN). Since my younger facebook friends tended more towards AHN, however, I suspect that it is becoming more common, no doubt influenced by American pronunciation and the apparent belief that the AH vowel should be used in foreign words.

If you're thinking of going to Milan -- and I recommend it highly, it's a beautiful city -- you might want to check out my travel tips by clicking here.

Speaking of travelling, if you love Jane Austen you might want to think about my "Ballet and Jane Austen" trip to England next February. Email me at toursenlair@gmail.com for details.

Friday, September 14, 2012


It's hurricane season, and, since these storms brew up in the Caribbean, the word comes, not surprisingly, from a Caribbean language. In the now extinct Taino, spoken in the Bahamas and Greater Antilles, hurakán meant “god of the storm”. When Europeans started exploring the Caribbean and having their first taste of violent tropical storms, they adapted this native word, the Spanish as huracán and the Portuguese as furacão. Until the spelling finally settled down as “hurricane” in English in the 1680s, there were about thirty different spellings, the most common being “furacane”. In the 1700s, a “hurricane” was also a kind of fashionable social gathering where your house was overrun with people.
For the etymology of hurricane's Pacific cousin, typhoon, please click here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Canadians and heritage

Further to my post about whether to use "an" or "a" before words starting with "h", today one of my facebook friends [she is an archaeologist] mentioned "an heritage bridge". When I asked her if she always used "an" before "heritage", she confirmed that she did, and that one of her colleagues also did so "sometimes", though the other never did. I was intrigued by this, and when I did a Google search it became even more intriguing. "A heritage" is vastly, hugely, overwhelmingly more common than "an heritage". But when I eliminated all of the "an heritage" instances that were from the King James Version of the Bible, and those used by non-native speakers of English, the few that remained were predominantly Canadian. Not to say that Canadians prefer "an heritage" to "a heritage", but if you do say "an heritage", you are more likely to be Canadian than not.
This word underwent the same evolution as "history", starting out as "eritage", acquiring an etymological initial "h" in the Renaissance, then acquiring the "h" in the pronunciation in the 19th century.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Please forbear from using "forebearer"

It seems that Wordlady is in a schoolmarmy reproving sort of mood in time for back-to-school, so once again I am writing about a - gasp - language error.

I have recently seen several instances where people used the word "forebearer" when what they meant was "forebear" (an ancestor or predecessor).

Although the famously inclusive Merriam-Webster dictionaries have an entry for "forebearer", and even the famously judgemental American Heritage Dictionary acknowledges that this variant may soon be acceptable (but not yet), most American and British dictionaries and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary consider "forebearer" to be a mistake.

It is not really surprising that people make this mistake, because you would think, looking at the word "forebear", that it comes from "fore" plus "bear", i.e. that these were the people who were born before you. But astonishingly, this is not true. The word was originally "forebeer", nothing to do with ale, but simply a noun "be-er", that is, someone who was before you. It was originally a Scottish term, which explains why the vowel was pronounced more like "bay" than like "be".

Most dictionaries accept "forbear" as a variant spelling of "forebear", but my advice would be to keep "forebear" for the noun and "forbear" for the verb, now very formal, meaning "refrain from doing something", e.g. "She forbore from commenting."

You can see this verb's slide into oblivion on the Google frequency chart below. The apparent post-2000 uptick is due to dictionaries and recent editions of 19th-century books being loaded onto Google Books. It is clear that the verb "forbear" is in its death throes. "Forbearance" has always been healthier than the verb from which it derives, but even it is not what it once was.

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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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.