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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 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.

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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.