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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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Sunday, February 24, 2013

More linguistic anachronism in Downton Abbey

"Sod this! I'm bushed!" announced Jimmy the footman as he audaciously plumped himself down into one of the drawing room chairs at Downton in the final episode of Season 3. (Yes, yes, I know there were more startling and upsetting things that happened in the episode.)
Would a young Yorkshireman have said this circa 1920?
Highly unlikely!
Until recently, British dictionaries were labelling the "tired" sense of "bushed" as North American only, then "esp. North American". The two most recent editions of the Oxford Dictionary of English no longer label it, so I guess it has now made its way into British English.
But it certainly is North American in origin, having been used since the 1870s. Perhaps Jimmy picked it up from that racy maid of Cora's mother's.
For more linguistic anachronisms in Downton, see this post.
For another Downton-inspired post, on the word "valet", please click here.

Friday, February 22, 2013


Tomorrow night marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Purim, which celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a planned extermination in the Persian empire in the 5th century BC.

The story is recounted in the Book of Esther. The Persian king's prime minister, Haman, became enraged at the Jews when one of them, Mordecai, refused to bow down before him. So Haman convinced the king that all the Jews in his empire should be eliminated. But the king had a Jewish wife -- this was Esther -- who interceded with him at the risk of her own life to spare the Jews. The king granted her request and had Haman hanged. The day on which the slaughter of the Jews was to take place had been selected by Haman by drawing lots, and purim is the Hebrew word for "lot".

Since it turned out to be a day when the Jews defeated their enemies instead and emerged triumphant, Purim is quite a joyous festival, marked by the custom of eating particularly tasty triangular cookies with (traditionally) a prune or poppyseed filling. They are supposed to look like Haman's three-cornered hat and thus are called "hamantaschen" or "Haman's hat". Here's a recipe:

Friday, February 15, 2013

February or Febuary?

Here we are in February, so an opportune time to talk about the origin and pronunciation of this word.

In ancient Roman times, this was the last month of the year, a suitable time for ritual purification and atonement for sin in preparation for a fresh start in the new year. In particular, February 15 was the feast of ritual purification called Lupercalia.  Men wearing nothing but a wolf mask and a loincloth ran through the streets striking passersby with strips of goat hide.  This was supposed to impart fertility. I wouldn't recommend reviving this custom in Canada. Or anywhere, really.

In Latin, the word februa meant "purification". It's possible the word derived ultimately from the same Indo-European root word that gave Greek its word for sulphur, which was used in purificatory rites. So February was literally the month of purification.
When Christianity came to England, the Roman month names came with it, replacing in this case the evocative word meaning "Mud Month" that the Anglo-Saxons used for this time of year. (Along the same lines, the calendar designers of the French Revolution called it Pluviôse, or Rainy Month.)

It seems that ever since then people have had some difficulty pronouncing the two r's in such close succession. When two identical sounds are found close together in a word, a phonetic phenomenon called "dissimilation" tends to occur, in which one of them changes to make pronunciation easier.

With two r's, a particularly difficult phonetic feat to accomplish, one  often morphs into an l. For instance, the word "laurel" was originally "laurer" (and still is laurier in French, though the second r is now silent). And indeed, there is medieval evidence of February also being called "Feverel", following the same pattern.
Another tactic would be to drop one r altogether, and as early as the 1600s we see spellings suggesting that people were not pronouncing the first r.  To reinforce this trend, we conveniently have the name of January providing an analogy.

This "Febuary" pronunciation has become more and more common, so that nowadays, most dictionaries include it, and many  (among them the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary) give it as the most common pronunciation. Although the Oxford Dictionary of English gives this pronunciation second, it then provides this note: "most people replace the r following Feb- with a y sound: Feb-yoo- rather than Feb-roo-. This is now becoming the accepted standard." 

The placing of the Febyooairy pronunciation first in the  Canadian Oxford Dictionary would have been based on a survey we did, but this month I conducted a new poll on facebook and was, I have to admit, astounded to discover that 79% of my respondents (most of whom are Canadian) said they pronounced the first r.
I bet you're wondering what I say! I'm a Febyooairy woman myself. This came as a surprise to some of my friends, who consider this pronunciation uneducated. The pronunciation of "February" seems to be a hot-button usage issue with some people.

Maybe we should revert to "Mud Month".

No matter how you pronounce "February", make sure you spell it correctly, with two r's
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash... Wensday?

Today is Ash Wednesday. If you can tear yourself away from your penitential mortifications, you might want to reflect on how this word is pronounced.
Overwhelmingly, we do not pronounce the first d.  A recent facebook poll I conducted had 53 people saying Wenzday versus only nine who said Wed'nzday.
Wednesday was originally "Woden's Day", the day of the Germanic god Woden. The Germanic tribes got the idea from the Romans, who had named their days after the five planets that they knew at the time, Mercury being one of them. The Norse equivalent of the trickster god Mercury, who also accompanied the dead to Hades, was Odin, or in Anglo-Saxon, Woden, so Mercury's Day became Wodnesday.

Woden. You don't want to mispronounce this guy's name.
In some dialects of Anglo-Saxon, "Wodnes" came to be pronounced "Wednes". For instance, a town in Derbyshire originally called Wodnesleie, "the sacred grove of the god Woden", morphed through Wednesleg  until finally settling as Wensley.
Likewise, a variant of "Wodnesdei" was "Wednesdei".
The string of consonants d-n-z-d is quite hard to say, so already by the 13th century there is evidence of a form where the consonants are switched around (a phenomenon called metathesis), so that the word was spelled "Wendesdei". From there, it was but a short step to lose the first d in the pronunciation altogether, and this was indeed happening by the late 14th century. 
So, as Wodnesleie ended up as Wensley, so Wodnesdei ended up, at least in the pronunciation, as "Wensday". In spite of that, the "Wednesday" spelling, which was only one of many possible competitors for the prize, established itself by the end of the 17th century. 
One cannot argue that because "Wednesday" is spelled the way it is, it is "wrong" or "lazy" to pronounce it "Wensday". Lord knows we have plenty of unpronounced letters in English! 
However, some people (a very small minority, according to my survey), do pronounce both d's in Wednesday. This pronunciation survived particularly in some varieties of Scots English and in northern English speech. Interestingly, the very first person who replied "Wed'nz day" to my poll was born in Scotland. The others may have acquired it from growing up in a particular Scottish-influenced area, of which there are many in Canada.
For the origins of the other days of the week, click here.
For more on metathesis, see this post and this one.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Linguistic anachronism in Downton Abbey

For a series that pays such exquisite attention to period detail in manners, clothing, and design, down to the very degrees of colour gradation in phases of mourning, Downton Abbey plays surprisingly fast and loose with the language. This is all the more surprising because doing research to find out whether a word existed at the time in question is much easier than researching fashion and interior decor: all you have to do is consult the Oxford English Dictionary online, which is available through most public libraries.
 Last night, Mr. Bates called Jimmy a "big girl's blouse", a British English term for a feeble or cowardly man. The OED's earliest quotation for this is from 1969. Hearing it used in the 1920s was as jarring for me as if Lady Mary had suddenly turned up dressed like this:

http://www.twiggylawson.co.uk/fashionpic3.gif For another Downton-inspired post, on the word "valet", please click here.
For more linguistic anachronisms in Downton, see this post.

Friday, February 8, 2013

My favourite word

You may recall in my post about frankincense that I mentioned the word Septuagesima, which is the third Sunday before the beginning of Lent (originally the period of 70 days from then until the Saturday in Easter week), derived from the Latin septuāgēsimus (seventieth). 

But this coming Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, has an even cooler-sounding name, which happens to be my favourite word (well, actually, it's in a tie with "mellifluous").


Don't you just love the sound of it? kwinkwa JESSA muh.

Its etymology follows the same pattern as Septuagesima's (and the intervening... you guessed it... Sexagesima): post-classical Latin quinquagesima fiftieth day (counting inclusively) before Easter, short for Quinquagesima dies (fiftieth day), the feminine of classical Latin quīnquāgēsimus (fiftieth).

Another related word I love the sound of is "quinquereme" (from rēmus oar). The OED has this to say about quinqueremes:

An ancient Greek or Roman galley rowed by oarsmen arranged in groups of five, perhaps with three banks of oars, one above the other, the top two each pulled by a pair of men, the bottom by one. There is continuing debate as to the precise significance of the numerical prefix. Some authorities believe that it refers to a ship having five banks of oars, but in view of the instability of such a design this is unlikely.

I cannot think of quinqueremes (admittedly not something I do often!) without remembering this evocative poem I learned and loved as a child. How many of you also know this poem from your schooldays?

John Masefield

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Friday, February 1, 2013

How much wood...?

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, when the chubby rodent is supposed to tell us how much longer winter will last.

Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks, which leads to the question, "What do they have to do with chucking wood?"

Actually, nothing. The word is derived from the native Algonquian names for the beastie. For example, in Cree, the word is  wuchak (though a related southern New England language is the more likely source for the borrowing, which happened in the late 1600s).

When borrowing or using unfamiliar words, people are very likely to re-form them by analogy with words they already know, a process known as "folk etymology".  Groundhogs tend to make their winter burrows in wooded or brushy areas, which may account for English speakers understanding the first part of the Algonquian word as "wood".

The verb "chuck" (throw) was first used to mean "tap someone under the chin", and probably comes from Old French chuquer (later choquer, the source of "shock") meaning "to knock, bump".
The famous albino groundhog from Wiarton in SW Ontario

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.