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, October 26, 2012


The World Series has just started, so let's look at the word "umpire".
In medieval France, a nonper (literally “not a pair”) was an impartial third party. We borrowed this as noumpere, but after about a century, people started to think that “a noumpere” (an arbitrator in a dispute) was “an oumpere”. The same n-migration phenomenon happened with “apron” (originally “napron”). Oumpere gradually morphed into “umpire” and started being used in sports in the 1700s.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fobbed off

I recently saw a memo alerting employees at the National Ballet of Canada to the fact that a new security door had been installed, and henceforth they would need a FOB [sic] to activate the door. Throughout the memo, FOB was written in all caps, as if it were an acronym, and in fact I was puzzling what it might stand for. Friends Of Ballet? Then I realized that it was simply the word "fob", which the writer of the memo had not realized was an ordinary word.
"Fob" started out as thieves' slang in the 17th century for a small waistband pocket, especially used for holding a watch or money (you can see why thieves would need their own special word for that!). Although it's uncertain where English thieves got this word from, there is a similar word for "pocket" in a German dialect: fuppe. Gradually the word migrated from the pocket itself to the watch that was in it, then to the chain connected to the watch, and finally to the ornament attached to the end of the chain. In recent times, this has been extended to the much less attractive but oh-so-practical devices that we attach to our bunches of keys to let us in to electronically controlled doors. No word on whether the National Ballet wardrobe department will now be sewing special pockets into the waistbands of tutus to accommodate them.
The verb "to fob off" is older, dating to the Renaissance, and of equally obscure origin, though it may be related to the German foppen (to deceive).

If you live in the Niagara region and would like to hear Wordlady live, eat great food and drink great wine, you have the opportunity at this year's Grimsby Museum fundraiser. More info here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Wordlady live (and wine)


Bachelor for Rent: Things you never suspected about Canadian English
A hilarious look at what is distinctive about Canadians and their language.

Guest Speaker: Katherine Barber ~ Canada’s Word Lady

Casablanca Winery Inn, 4 Windward Drive, Grimsby ON
Saturday November 17, 2012
6:00 Cocktails
6:45 Keynote Speaker
7:30 Dinner

The four course gourmet dinner is paired
with a selection of Niagara wines.
A vegetarian alternative is available

$90.00 per person
RSVP: by November 6th, 2012

Feeling squirrelly

Mm, mm, tasty! Love the way Wordlady leaves out snacks for me!
It's full-on squirrel warfare at Chateau Wordlady as I try to keep the bushy-tailed bandits away from my newly planted tulip bulbs.

Even while they are driving you other gardeners crazy, though, I'm sure you are wondering, "Where does the word squirrel come from anyway?"

The Anglo-Saxons called them ácweorna (a cognate of the modern German word for squirrel, Eichhorn). Surprisingly, considering that the farming Anglo-Saxon speakers probably had cause to say, "Damn acweorna has dug up my plants again!" quite a lot, this was supplanted by a Norman French word, esquirel. Possibly because squirrel fur was used in the fashion industry, a French preserve, the French word won out.

Esquirel ultimately came from the critter's Latin name, sciūrus, with a diminutive -ellus added on. 

The Romans had got it -- and this is where the story gets cute -- from the Greek skiouros, from skia (shade) +  oura (tail). The shady-tailed ones! How handy that they have a built-in parasol for sunny days.

The evocative verb "squirrel" meaning to stash away (have I mentioned how I love the way English turns nouns into verbs?) is fairly recent, dating from the 1920s.

And in other squirrel trivia, the word was pronounced "SQUARE 'll" until the mid-19th century.

Wordlady's secret Anti-Squirrel Warfare weapon on guard duty..
... and hard at work battling the sciurine hordes

Friday, October 5, 2012

Herb or Erb?

Are you salivating already at the thought of your Thanksgiving dinner? (For those non-Canadians reading this, we celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October whereas Americans celebrate it on a Thursday in November). 
How bland our turkey stuffing would taste without herbs, but why do the British pronounce the "h" and the Americans not? (Canadians are pretty evenly split down the middle on this one).  

Many of you may be thinking that this is another dastardly American plot to corrupt the language (for more of these, click here) but in fact it is the British who are responsible for changing the pronunciation,  In Latin, the word was herba, but the "h" disappeared from the pronunciation even before the word migrated into Old French. Being sensible, the French didn't put letters in their words to represent non-existent sounds, so their word was erbe. From about 1200, when it was adopted from French, till about 1500, the word was "erb", with no" h" to pronounce. 

The h was added to the spelling in the Renaissance when people felt that English spellings should reflect Latin word origins, but the British (at least those in whose dialect initial h's are pronounced) did not start pronouncing the "h" till the late 19th century, when compulsory education meant that some pronunciations started to reflect spelling. But Americans retained the older pronunciation, and, since the roots of Canadian English are in American English, about 50% of us do too. 
For the similar story of the word "history", please click here, and for the story of "heir", 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.