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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, November 23, 2012

Black Friday

Today is Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the US. The day after American Thanksgiving (as we Canadians call it) has been called this since the early 1960s, so dubbed by Philadelphia police officers dismayed at the congestion in downtown Philadelphia brought about by shoppers rushing to get the deals. The name, and the custom of deep discounting and early opening hours, gradually spread to other cities, and has also recently established itself in Canada.
But the word "black" itself is intriguing. As you might expect, the early Anglo-Saxon word for this colour (or absence of colour" is similar to the modern German word, which is schwarz. For the Anglo-Saxons, black things were "swart", a word that still survives in "swarthy". But fairly early on, another word started to compete with "swart". The Anglo-Saxon word blac seems to be related to the word for "ink" or a black metallic alloy in other Germanic languages.
Obviously "black" won out.  Somehow, "Swarthy Friday", doesn't sound quite right!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The dismal days

If by some bizarre circumstance you were thinking of going in for some bloodletting tomorrow, you might want to hold off, because November 17th was, according to some medieval writers, one of the “dies mali” (“bad days” in Latin), two days every month particularly unsuited for this medical intervention. In English, these 24 unlucky days were called collectively “the dismal”, but by the 1400s, people started to call them, with unwitting redundancy, “the dismal days”, and thus “dismal” became an adjective meaning first “unlucky”, but eventually “gloomy and depressing”, a good description for most November days.

Friday, November 9, 2012


We've been subjected to more than our fair share of punditry in the last few weeks as the professionally opinionated weigh in on the US election. But why do we call these talking heads "pundits"?
The word comes from India, where a pandita was (and still is) a very learned or wise person well versed in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, religion, and law. It is one of quite a few Indian words that the British adopted during their time in the subcontinent. In the mid-19th century, at the height of the Raj, the British used the word to designate an officer in the Indian judiciary with the responsibility of advising British judges on questions of Hindu law, or an Indian person trained and employed to survey regions beyond the British frontier.
But the word took on a life of its own beyond India's borders, being used to mean "expert" by the beginning of the 19th century, oddly enough predating the noun "expert"  itself by about 50 years, though the adjective "expert"  (derived from the Latin experire "to experience") had been around since Chaucer's time. 
By the early 20th century it had acquired its derivative "punditry", to which has been added more recently "punditocracy". 
To me "pundit" has a slightly disparaging tone to it. While acknowledging that the pundits are specialists in their field, the word does suggest to me an opinion for hire willing to spout off in the media. I doubt that news anchors or moderators would refer to their experts as pundits to their faces. What do you think about the connotations of this word?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday the ...Twoth?

Today is the second of November. How on earth did we get the ordinal "second" from the cardinal number "two"? This is still a challenge for some non-native speakers of English, as I quite frequently see French and German speakers writing "April 22th", for instance, and who can blame them? The fact is, the Anglo-Saxons didn't have an ordinal number corresponding to "two": they used the word "other". But as this could be ambiguous, once the French invaded with their handy "second" from the Latin secundus ("following", from the verb sequi to follow), the English were more than happy to borrow it.
For an explanation of how we got "third" from "three", click here.
For an explanation of why the ordinal of "one" is "first", click here.

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.