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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, January 25, 2013

Robbie Burns Day

In my post for Hogmanay, I mentioned the Scottish love for whisky, and what better day than today to look at the etymology of this word.

Back in the 1400s, the intoxicating substance found in fermented drinks had been called "burning water" or "ardent water" ("ardent" in its original literal sense of "burning", from Latin ardere to burn). It was also known by a Latin term meaning "water of life": aqua vitae. In Gaelic, water is uisge and life is beatha, and these two words ended up together as  usquebaugh, which word soon came to designate the particular tipple of Ireland and Scotland distilled from barley malt (with, in the case of the Irish drink and blended Scotch, corn). The word became further corrupted in English as "whiskybae", subsequently shortened to "whisky".

Towards the end of the 19th century, the drinks industry created a spelling distinction between "whiskey" for the Irish version and "whisky" for the Scottish one. Meanwhile, in the US, "whiskey" has always been the preferred spelling for their version made from corn, bourbon, named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it was first made. Here in Canada, as you might expect, we use both spellings for our traditional beverage, rye whisky, with "whisky" having an edge over "whiskey".

Whisky is not the only kind of alcoholic drink whose name disguises an allusion to water. "Vodka" literally means "little water".

Friday, January 18, 2013

Isn't it funny how a bear likes honey?

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of A. A. Milne, and in honour of the creator of Winnie the Pooh, it seems appropriate to look at the word "honey", and in particular at its ridiculous spelling. "Hunny" would make much more sense, so why don't we spell it that way?.

Not surprisingly, since  honey is a basic foodstuff, the word goes back to Anglo-Saxon, where it was indeed spelled with a "u". But this word, like "love" and "son", underwent a spelling change during the Middle Ages thanks to a  problem created by the handwriting at the time (a phenomenon called "minim confusion").

As  you can see, when u's and i's and m's and n's got together (especially because there was no dot on the i at the time), the words became almost incomprehensible (come to think of it, it looks not unlike those captchas that websites - including this one if you want to make a comment - inflict on us to make sure we're not a spambot). So someone had the clever (at the time) idea of using an "o" instead of a "u" in words like this to make them more readable. And voila, yet another complication added to English spelling.

It's not at all surprising that so many of us, like Pooh, find English spelling challenging. It seems apposite to quote the bear himself: "My spelling is Wobbly. It's good spelling, but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places."
File:Harry Colebourne and Winnie.jpg
The original Winnie was a teddy bear belonging to  Milne's son Christopher, who had named him after a black bear cub (above) at London Zoo.  This bear cub had been given his name by Lieutenant Harry Colebourn of the Fort Garry Horse, in honour of the city of Winnipeg, when, on his way  to England, he bought the cub from a hunter in northern Ontario. The bear quickly became the regiment's  unofficial mascot, but had to be left at the zoo when the regiment shipped to France.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Slip sliding away

After an almost snowless winter last year, the kids in Toronto are once more enjoying the thrills of sliding down a snowy slope on a toboggan.

The word comes to us from an Algonquian language, probably Mi'kmaq or Abenaki. As early as the 1690s, the French in Canada were talking about the tabaganne, a very useful invention of the native peoples for transporting things over snow. The Algonquian word is derived ultimately from two roots meaning "a device" and "pulling by a cord". When English speakers moved north to Canada after the American Revolution, they too adopted both the word and the thing from the French Canadians.

Canadians may find it amusing to know that, in some parts of the US, a toboggan is what we would call a toque (see this post), so you might come across a sentence like "The burglar was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants"! Check out this link.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Of valets and varlets

On Sunday, we North Americans finally got our new fix of Downton Abbey, and the episode seemed to be all about valets. Would the Earl of Grantham's scheming valet Thomas undermine Alfred the tall new guy as valet to Matthew? Would Matthew's current valet Molesley get left behind as butler to the indomitable Isobel Crawley? Would, shock horror, Matthew give up having a valet at all? Would the former valet Mr. Bates have his innocence proved and be released from jail?

But the most burning valet-related question of all for North Americans was surely: "Why don't these people know how to pronounce the word 'valet'? What's with this 'VAL it' nonsense?"

"VAL it" is indeed the first pronunciation still given in British dictionaries for this word, whereas on this side of the pond we say "VAL ay".

"Valet" came into French from the popular Latin vassellittus, a diminutive of vassus (servant), itself derived from a Celtic word and also at the origin of our word "vassal". In French, a valet was originally a young gentleman who was not yet a knight. By the 12th century, the word was already being used to mean a manservant, the only sense it had when it was borrowed into English in the 1300s. Judging by many spellings with two final t's, the final consonant seems to have been pronounced then, but in Scotland a t-less pronunciation, "vallie", also existed.

As far as I can gather, the word "valet" would have been familiar to Americans only through reading about Europe. Then valet parking was invented in the mid 1950s. When English has borrowed words from French since the Renaissance rather than before, the French pronunciation is usually preferred, especially in contexts implying prestige. I think that is why the more French-sounding "VAL ay" is used in North America for this word.

Another variant of the Old French valet was varlet. This underwent the same semantic evolution as "knave", which started out meaning "boy", then became "male servant" and eventually came to be a term of opprobrium, so that by the 1500s "varlet" meant, as the OED inimitably puts it:

A person of a low, mean, or knavish disposition; a knave, rogue, rascal.

Perhaps 15th-century valets/varlets were as nefarious as the evil Thomas at Downton!


Monday, January 7, 2013

Do not misspell "tentative"

I just noticed that "tentative" is not infrequently misspelled "tenative". On reflection, this is not surprising, because in North American speech, it is often pronounced this way, much as "dentist" is pronounced "dennis" in informal contexts.
However, that is no excuse.
"Tentative" has three t's. Something tentative is an attempt, and the words both have the same Latin source, temptare (to try, to tempt). So think of "attempt" when you are writing "tentative".

Friday, January 4, 2013

Frankly, I'm incensed

 This Sunday is the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the Wise Men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the baby Jesus. What the heck is frankincense anyway? Is it any different from the smoky stuff smelling like cat pee on burning tires with which acolytes afflict church choristers on a regular basis? (You'll never have guessed that I'm in the chorister category, right?)

I have been known, getting choked by a mouthful of smoke just as I'm gearing up to unleash one of my dulcet e-flats on the unsuspecting congregation, to get angry. 

Incensed, even. 

And in fact, the verb "incense" (to make angry) and the noun "incense" come from the same Latin word, incendĕre (to set on fire). The past participle was incensus,  and its derivative  incensum meant  ‘that which is set on fire’. Since we borrowed the word from the French (for whom incense is encens), the first syllable was en- rather than in- throughout the Middle Ages. But then in the Renaissance it was felt that the spelling should reflect the original Latin word, so it became "incense". At about the same time, we borrowed the verb directly from Latin, originally to mean literally "set on fire" (though limited to poetic usage) and then "inflame with passion" and "inflame with wrath". 

But why did the baby Jesus get frankincense instead of plain incense? Well, because He was special. Frankincense was superior quality incense,  the word "frank" having had "high quality" as one of its numerous senses in its fascinating history.

It all started out with a Germanic tribe living in what is now southern Germany. Their weapon of choice was the javelin, called a frankon. They therefore came to be known as Franks. In about 600, they invaded what the Romans had known as Gaul and what we now know, thanks to them, as France. In Frankish Gaul, only the members of the conquering people had full freedom, so "frank" came to mean "free". Originally applied to political freedom, "frank" soon came to be used of freedom from all sorts of constraints, including those on expressing oneself honestly.  

Another of these freedoms was freedom from payment, so originally "franking" a letter was writing an official authorization on it so that it would be conveyed without charging. The term was resurrected when the practice of cancelling postage stamps arose,

But, back in the Middle Ages,  "frank" also took on another sense: generous (much as we say someone is "free with their money"). This sense came also to apply to trees that produced abundant and high quality fruit. It is from this branch that "frank" took on the meaning "of superior quality", a meaning that survives today only in "frankincense", which technically is an aromatic gum resin yielded by trees of the genus Boswellia.

Here's a lovely motet for Epiphany by Francis Poulenc:

Latin.png Latin text

Videntes stellam magi gavisi sunt gaudio magno:
et intrantes domum,
obtulerunt Domino,
aurum, thus et myrrham.

English.png English translation

Seeing the star, the magi rejoiced with great joy;
and entering the house,
they offered the Lord gifts:
gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

Those of you who are into these things will recognize in the Latin word for incense, thus (pronounced TOOSE), the origin of our word for an incense burner, "thurible" (also called a "censer", the French having lopped off the initial syllable en- fairly early on):

and for the person waving it in my face, the "thurifer". 

If you live in Toronto and want to hear this motet sung live, along with William Byrd's sublime Mass for Four Voices (not to mention a dose of incense), why not visit St Thomas's Anglican Church on Huron Street south of Bloor (one block west of St George) for the morning service:

Sunday, January 20 | Epiphany II [Septuagesima]

11:00 Solemn Eucharist

  • Mass for Four Voices, William Byrd
  • Motet: Videntes stellam, Francis Poulenc
  • Organ: Wie schön leucht’ uns der Morgenstern, Dietrich Buxtehude; Præludium in g, Dietrich Buxtehude
By the way, isn't Septuagesima a cool word? More about that in another post.

That's more than enough about incense. You'll have to wait till next year's Epiphany to find out about myrrh.

 But did you know that a popular girl's name is also etymologically related to the Epiphany? Click here for more!

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.