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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, May 31, 2013

Why are striped cats called tabbies?

The received wisdom is that if you want to succeed on the internet, the key is...

So, since this is a subject near and dear to my heart, I am hereby inaugurating a "Cat word of the month" series.

And what better word to start with than "tabby". (OK, I'm biased.)

 You might think this is a short form of the woman's name Tabitha, an Aramaic name meaning "doe", which was quite popular as a girl's name after the Reformation, thanks to it being the name of a woman restored to life by St Peter as recounted in Acts 9:36-41.

But while many would-be witty cat owners call their stripy moggies "Tabitha" (and I have to admit it is a very fine name for a cat), the word "tabby" has another source. 
Way back when, there was a neighbourhood of Baghdad called ʿattābiy, renowned for producing striped silk taffeta. By the 1400s these fabrics were being imported by the French, who called them atabis  or tabis. By the 1600s, the English, too, were using "taby" fabric. It was not long before the word was being applied to striped cats. 

Interestingly, only English made this leap from striped silk to striped cats; most other European languages call them, well, "striped cats" or by their version of "tiger cat" (the Dutch intriguingly call them "Cypriot (cyperse) cats"). What the English called them in the Middle Ages, I do not know, as even the words "striped" and "stripy" are not found earlier than the Renaissance. One candidate is "brinded", (which later became "brindled") a word possibly related to the verb "burn". 

Striped cats have clearly been around for a long time, and are often found in art from the Middle Ages onward.


In this depiction of the Supper at Emmaus by Tintoretto (1540), you can see a tabby cat in the lower left corner:


and here's one (possibly Papagena's distant ancestor?) being very cat-like in Bassano's depiction of the same scene from 1538. That snoozing dog had better watch out!


Next month we will look at the name for a particular type of tabby, the orange tabby or "marmalade" cat.

Frequent Wordlady readers know that in addition to being a word lover and a cat lover, I am also a ballet lover, so here is the famous "Pussycat pas de deux" from The Sleeping Beauty. If you love ballet, you might want to check out my upcoming season of fabulous ballet trips by clicking here

Birmingham Royal Ballet - Puss in Boots divert from The Sleeping Beauty from Rob Lindsay on Vimeo.


Friday, May 24, 2013

In Memori... um???

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend in the US, so today we are going to look at three words all having to do with remembering, and all very often misspelled.

The first is the phrase "in memoriam", frequently misspelled "in memorium". It is a Latin phrase, and the Latin word for "memory" is the feminine memoria. If you misspell this, just think of the word "memorial".

The second is "memento", frequently misspelled "momento". This also comes from Latin, being the imperative of the verb meaning "remember!" In the 16th century, it was quite common for people to have skulls or other lugubrious objects about to remind them of the transitory nature of life. Such an object was called a "memento mori", meaning literally, "remember that you must die". 

Over the years, the sense has weakened so that our mementoes  (or mementos) are more likely to be dust-gathering tchotchkes brought back to remind us of a trip. Souvenir shops probably realized quite early that skulls reminding us of our mortality weren't hot sellers. It should not be too difficult to remember how to spell memento, as the first three letters are also found in "memory" and "remember".

Finally, there is the word "remembrance", frequently misspelled "rememberance". Admittedly, this is one of those cases of inconsistent English spelling: why do we have an e before the second r in the verb but not in the noun? Back when we borrowed this from French in the Middle Ages, the French verb was remembrer and the noun remembraunce. (Since then, the French have given up on this verb altogether, preferring rappeler and souvenir.) As with the similar, but unrelated "member" (a word which has a titillating history of its own), which came from membre, by the Middle English period we didn't like having dangling schwas (that indeterminate "uh" sound) at the end of words, so we switched the order of the final consonant-vowel cluster around, and remembre (re mem bruh) became "remember" (re mem bur). But in the noun, we didn't have a dangling schwa problem, so it remained as it was.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Wile E. ... Togony?

Canadians have a remarkable quirk when it comes to spelling and pronunciation variants: each Canadian believes that his or her linguistic practice is the "true Canadian" one and anything else must be wrong -- and probably American to boot. So I have had people who pronounce "missile" to rhyme with "missal" tell me, outraged, that those other Canadians who rhyme it with "mile" are obviously wrong and have sold out to those nefarious Americans. Of course, the truth is that "missal" is the only pronunciation used by Americans, whereas the other pronunciation is used by the British. 

But Canadians don't usually like to let the truth interfere with a little zealous anti-Americanism. A flurry of controversy which arose in Toronto a while ago about how to pronounce the word "coyote", prompted by sightings of the animal in local parks and ravines, is a classic example of this, with the added fillip of a dash of Western anti-Ontarianism. 

Torontonians, whose only previous acquaintance with the animal was seeing it flattened by a cartoon anvil, not surprisingly call it a "ky OAT ee". Westerners, who have lived with the animal longer and traditionally have more commonly said "KY oat" or even "KY oot", may be prompted to launch into a spate of righteous indignation about Ontarians' supposed ignorance, and, worse, their supposed susceptibility to American influences, whereas Westerners are much more impervious to this and can keep true Canadianness alive. 

Being a Westerner myself, I too say "KY oat", but I like to take a more dispassionate view. Perhaps we should look into the facts of the case. Just who does say "KY oat" and who does say "ky OAT ee"? Is "KY oat" more "truly Canadian" than "ky OAT ee"? (One of my colleagues at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary admitted to me that he had always thought that "KY oat" was the "weird pronunciation", and probably American). 

The animal's name is ultimately derived from Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, for whom the crafty canine was a "coyotl". Reviving this version of the word might solve all our problems. The fact that it no longer exists can be blamed on the Spanish speakers of Mexico, who were totally unable to pronounce the string "tl" at the end of a word and thus transformed it into the three-syllable "coyote", which is what the English speakers in the Southwestern United States borrowed from them in the early 1800s. 

It is unclear how the two-syllable variant arose from this, but it is analogous to what happened to the word "chocolate" as it passed into English from the Nahuatl "chocolatl" via Spanish "chocolate". The fact is that for "coyote" all American dictionaries give both pronunciations, some of them with the "KY oat" version first. 

Dear God, this means that BOTH pronunciations are American!! Now what do we do if we want to be "truly Canadian"?? 

Well, of course they're both American. Where else would we get a Mexican Spanish word for a native animal from? It's hardly likely to have come into Canadian English via Britain, or to have leapfrogged right over the US to land in Canada untarnished. We could of course also ask the philosophical question as to why it would be better if it HAD come from Britain, but the point is moot. 

Now, the coyote does go by other names, such as "prairie wolf" or "brush wolf", which would avoid the pronunciation problem but incur the wrath of zoologists who would point out that it is not a wolf. Perhaps a more uniquely Canadian solution would be to revive the words "mishagunis" and "togony" adapted by English speakers such as Palliser from Algonquian names for the animal in the 1800s. Good luck if you wish to try this. 

It is hardly the environmentally correct thing to suggest that we might enlist the services of a handy roadrunner to ensure that all of Toronto's coyotes are hoist with their own petard (produced by the Acme Petard Company, it goes without saying) and thus spare us the necessity of talking about them at all. 

So perhaps we should take the tolerant Canadian view and say "You say KYoat and I say ky OAT ee; let's call the whole thing ... legitimate pronunciation variation". Try setting that to a Broadway tune!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Premises, premises...

A Wordlady reader has inquired about the use of "premise" to mean "location", instead of the plural "premises". 

It's odd that a word meaning "a starting point for reasoning" also means "a locality". 

This is how it evolved.  

In the Middle Ages, the word meant "the first statement in an argument" (from a Latin word meaning "set before"). Then medieval lawyers started to use it to refer to any foregoing statement in a legal document. In particular,  they used it for the opening statement in a deed or conveyance of property.  In such documents, the things mentioned right off the top were the lands, dwellings, and other buildings, and these were subsequently referred to in the document as "the premises".  Since such things were usually in the plural, or probably referred to in the plural by lawyers just to cover the eventuality that there might be more than one, the plural form took over. 

Gradually, the usage spread beyond the legal profession, and people began to think of "premises" as a synonym for "A house or building together with its grounds, outhouses,etc." [that's "outhouses" in the British sense of outbuildings!]. But there was still a plural notion about it.  Only gradually did the plural noun "premises" come to designate a singular entity like a building or a shop. 

But English just doesn't like plural nouns for things that are (or are perceived as) singular. Stamina and molasses were both originally plural nouns, but have now become singular (it's actually surprising that molasses didn't become molass in the process).  We don't even like singular things having names that sound like they're plural: singular skates, cherise, and pease became skate, cherry, and pea. Under the weight of this pressure, I think it is inevitable that plural "premises" will yield to the singular "premise".

In fact, if you do a Google search on "licensed premise" you find the term in many legal documents, from all over the English-speaking world. 

If this usage bothers you, my advice is: hie you to a licensed premise, drink up, and accept the inevitable.
  1. Complain about a licensed premise
    www.warwickdc.gov.uk › ... › Your CouncilOnline ServicesForms
    Use this form to complain about a Licensed Premise.

  2. www.tabc.state.tx.us/licensing/license_and_permit_description.asp
    Dec 20, 2012 – ... Permit or Wine and Beer Retailer's Permit if food service is the primary business being operated on the licensed premise or to the holder of a ...

  3. www.rld.state.nm.us/.../Special_Dispenser_Permits.aspx
    All laws that apply on a normal licensed premise apply at the location of the SDP or public celebration. For SDP Information Letter 1/7/13, click here. To obtain an ...

  4. www.personallicencescotland.com/scottish-certificate-for-licensed-pr...
    Licensed Premises Staff includes anyone serving alcohol form behind a bar, sales counter or directly to a table from a licensed premise or temporary event ...

  5. www.maine.gov/dps/liqr/regulations.html - United States
    Whoever is found in charge of a licensed premise or making service or waiting on trade in such licensed premise shall be prima facie construed to be a clerk, ...

  6. [PDF] 
    www.qhint.com/.../9-... - Australia
    File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat - Quick View
    A customer can remain on a licensed premise when showing severe signs of intoxication if they promise not to drink any more alcohol. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

To B or not to B

English spelling? Baa!

This coming Sunday is Easter for Greeks, and others of the Orthodox Church. Traditionally, lamb is eaten.

Why is there a silent "b" in "lamb"?

In Old English, this "b" was pronounced, but by the end of the Middle Ages, people had stopped pronouncing it.  Quite sensibly, a few people tried spelling the word "lam" or "lamm", but English spelling has never been sensible, so we stuck with a spelling reflecting a long-dead pronunciation. The same thing happened with "comb" and "dumb", but for the word "crumb", where the explanation is different, tune in to a Wordlady post in June.

We were, however, a little more sensible with the plural form of "lamb". In Old English, this had been lomberu. In the Middle Ages, people reformed it along the lines of other irregular plurals like "children" and "brethren". So for a while we had singular lamb and plural "lambren". This, thank goodness, did not survive, as we decided to make it a regular plural ending in s.

We use the word "lamb" whether the lamb is gambolling in the fields or sitting as a chop on our plates. This is unusual in English, where for most animals we distinguish between the live and cooked versions:
Cow  - beef
Sheep - mutton
Calf - veal
Pig/swine - pork
In all these cases the first word is of English origin and the second of French origin. This is a remnant of the Norman Conquest in 1066, after which French cooking terms flooded the language. The usual explanation is that the Anglo-Saxon (English) speakers would have been tending the animals in the fields while the French speakers were roasting them in the aristocratic kitchens.

Thank you to a Wordlady reader for asking about the silent b in "lamb". If you have questions or suggestions for Wordlady, please feel free to send them to me!

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

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.