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.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


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Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy Hogmanay!

Those of you who have read my book Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do with Pigs know that pigs crop up in the most unexpected places, etymologically speaking. And so you may think that today's word of the week is yet another example. But in fact "hogmanay", the word used in Scotland to designate New Year's Eve, has nothing to do with pigs. 
Edinburgh on Hogmanay

This unusual word probably comes from hoguinané, a Norman French form of Old French aguillanneuf. The first element of aguillanneuf  is of unknown origin, tacked on to l'an neuf (the new year). This was a shout with which people (especially children) greeted the New Year and demanded a New Year's gift (rather as children shout "Trick or treat!" on Halloween). The gift was traditionally oatcakes (a round, flat, not very sweet oat biscuit), from which custom the day also came to be known as "cake day". 

Just to be confusing, there are some actual cakes traditionally eaten in Scotland on Hogmanay, but they are not called cakes. One is is the "Scotch bun" (also known as "black bun"), a spiced fruitcake with a pastry crust. Another is the delightfully named "cloutie dumpling". This version of Christmas pudding is wrapped in a cloth (a "clout" in Scots English, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word clut, originally meaning a piece of something but quite quickly applied specifically to pieces of fabric).

Oatcakes, black buns, cloutie dumplings... all washed down with a wee dram, no doubt. Or a not so wee one.

So I'll wish you Happy Hogmanay, and all the very best in 2013!



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Friday, December 21, 2012

Yule love this one

Today is the winter solstice, celebrated as “Yule” by Wiccans. “Yule” came into Anglo-Saxon from Old Norse, as a word for December or January, and in particular designating a pre-Christian feast celebrating the annual rebirth of light and lasting twelve days, which probably is the origin of the “12 Days of Christmas” from December 25th to Epiphany on January 6,. Yule logs burned throughout this festival to symbolize perpetual light. After the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, the name for their festival transferred to the Christian one celebrating the birth of the “Light of the World”. The Latin version “Christmas” (“Christ's mass) took over only after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Here's my favourite yule log recipe:

For 15 x 10 inch jelly roll pan:
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/3 c water
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup sifted flour
1 tsp. baking powder

For 17 x 11 inch jelly roll pan:
5 large eggs
1 1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tsp vanilla
1 2/3 cup sifted flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

Grease sides of jelly roll pan and line bottom with waxed paper or parchment paper. Grease the paper.  Beat eggs until very thick and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, beating well. Beat water and vanilla in on low speed. Combine flour and baking powder and beat in on low speed.
Pour batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake 12 to 15 minutes at 350 or until top springs back when lightly touched in centre.  Do not overcook. Sprinkle icing sugar over top of cake and turn out on towel Sprinkle icing sugar over cake. Roll cake and towel up together loosely from narrow end.and let stand on cake rack until cool. Carefully unroll, trim off the crispy edges with a sharp serrated knife, and spread with coffee-flavoured butter icing. Reserve a small amount of coffee icing to decorate the ends.. Roll up cake. Cut both ends of the "log" on the diagonal and set the cut off bits aside. Ice the log with chocolate butter icing, roughing it up with your knife to make it look like bark. Use the reserved coffee icing to ice the ends, making concentric marks with the tines of a fork to look like a tree's growth rings.  Trim the cut off bits of cake so that you can place them on the log to look like the stubs of branches. Ice around the outside of the "branches" with chocolate icing, and ice the exposed ends with coffee icing, marking with a fork as before. You can decorate the log with red and green glace cherries to look like holly. Use a sharp serrated knife (bread knife) to cut the cake.
If you prefer chocolate cake, substitute 1/4 cup cocoa for 1/4 cup flour. You can add rum or brandy to the icing if you like.
You can use coffee-flavoured whipped cream in the centre of the cake for a somewhat less sweet yule log.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Throughout December, many charitable souls in Canada turn their attention to the tradition of putting together Christmas hampers for the needy or choosing gift hampers for their friends. Americans, for whom the word "hamper" is used only of laundry baskets, may wonder why we think our dirty unmentionables are the ideal holiday gift (they probably also have trepidations about the "hampers" we bring on picnics!).  But here hampers are baskets of food.

The word was originally "hanaper",  a case designed specifically to hold "hanaps", which were drinking goblets. By about 1500, wicker was the most common material for making hanapers, which by then, because of pronunciation difficulties, had become "hampers". Gradually the idea arose that a hamper was by definition a wicker basket with a lid. Since these were handy for transporting food, hampers became associated with picnics, a custom which dates from Victorian times. The charitable Christmas hamper arose at the same time, but nowadays is more likely to consist of several large cardboard boxes.

The verb "hamper" (obstruct) is unrelated and of unknown origin.

Friday, December 7, 2012

When a smart cookie has had the biscuit

December for me is usually a marathon of cookie baking: ballerina-shaped cookies for my ballet class, cat- and dog-shaped cookies for the vet, star-shaped cookies for my choir's post-carol-service reception, various cookies for gifts.
Wordlady's famous pointe shoe cookie

We in North America call these sweet treats "cookies" thanks to the Dutch, for whom small cakes (koek, pronounced "kook") were koekjes (kook-yuhz).

The British call them "biscuits", a word borrowed from Old French in the 1300s and ultimately derived from the Latin word biscoctum, literally "twice baked". In the middle ages, small flat cakes were cooked twice to dry them out and ensure long keeping. This is also the source of the word "biscotti", a type of cookie which is literally twice baked.

The interesting thing about the word "biscuit" is its spelling. For 300 years, from the 1500s to the 1700s, we quite sensibly spelled it "bisket", to reflect the pronunciation. But once again English's allergy to sensible spelling reared its ugly head, and sometime in the 1700s, when it was trendy to borrow French words, we committed what the OED disapprovingly refers to as "a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling, without the French pronunciation".

Here in Canada, we have a particular saying, "to have had the biscuit", meaning to be worn out, useless, no longer functioning, etc. This is not to be confused with the British English expression "take the biscuit" which  means "be the most remarkable or foolish of its kind". We in North America would say "take the cake" instead.

Just to add to the confusion, North Americans do use the word "biscuit" (in Canada often "tea biscuit"), but for a small not-too sweet cake more like a scone (for more on scones, see this post).
Here's my favourite recipe for rolled cookies, along with a hot tip for making the rolling more convenient and less messy. These hold their shape really well as there is no baking powder in the recipe to make them spread and puff up.

7 oz (200g) soft butter (NOT margarine!)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
3 cups flour (400 g)
(for chocolate cookies, replace 1/3 cup of the flour with 1/2 cup of cocoa)
Beat butter, sugar, and vanilla together for 2 minutes. Add egg and beat for another 30 seconds. Beat in flour on slow speed until dough clings together, finish with hands to make a smooth ball of dough. Divide in two and put each smaller ball into a large zipper-closure freezer bag. Chill for about 1/2 hour to an hour.
With dough still in bag, roll out (ie you will be rolling your rolling pin on top of the plastic) till it is a square of even thickness (about 1/4 inch) completely filling the bag (you may have to turn the bag over, and open the "zipper" occasionally to remove creases and air bubbles). Open the zipper closure, run a knife down the side edges of the bag and peel the top side of the bag off the cookie dough (it won't stick). If you want to decorate the cookies with coloured sugar, sprinkles, etc., spread them over the cookie dough, fold the plastic back over it and run the rolling pin lightly over the whole surface just so the decorations cling to the dough. Cut out shapes.  Place on parchment paper on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees until top of cookie is no longer soft (varies from 5 to 12 minutes depending on size of cookie).
Gather any trimmings and reroll.
 The advantage of using the freezer bag is that you don't need to flour your board or rolling pin, which means that the cookies don't get tougher as more flour is added to them, and you also have a lot less cleanup.
A tip if you want to make cat cookies: If you have friends with an orange "marmalade"  cat, make the cookie dough substituting orange extract for the vanilla and enough red and yellow food colouring to tint a deep orange colour. Mix in about 1/3 cup of orange sprinkles before rolling and cutting out with cat-shaped cookie cutters. The sprinkles will look like tabby markings when the cookies are baked.
For instructions on how to make the pointe shoe cookies, click here.
Recipe can be doubled if you need many many cookies (and who doesn't?)

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.