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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, April 26, 2013

Why is there a silent p in ptarmigan?

To honour the return of birds in the spring and the birthday of the renowned bird painter John James Audubon (born 26 April, 1785), let's look at the hard-to-spell ptarmigan, a grouse-like bird found in the far north. 

Its name comes from a Gaelic word, tàrmachan, meaning “grumbler” or “croaker”, presumably in reference to the sound the bird makes. In Gaelic, as you see, there was no “p” at the beginning of the word. But in the late 17th century, some meddlesome person, thinking the word was derived from the Greek ptero (meaning “feather” or “wing”), stuck a “p” at the beginning to reflect its “Greek” origin (that it doesn't have). It's been there ever since. 

Thank goodness they didn't get a hold of the Canada … pgoose!

Ptarmigan as painted by Audubon

REMINDER: March 16 "Tea and Wordlady": Bachelor for Rent: Things You Never Suspected About Canadian English. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2016/02/tea-and-wordlady-wednesday-16-march.html

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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.