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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, July 26, 2013

Cat word of the month: Ginger

Following on last month's investigation of "marmalade", we shall now look at another word for orange cats: ginger.

Ginger has been a valued spice for a very long time, so it is not surprising that its name goes back all the way to Sanskrit. The Sanskrit name srngavera was influenced by their word for "horn", srnga, because ginger root looks like an antler. 

By the time the thing and the word had travelled as far as Britain, in the Middle Ages, it got simplified to gingifer and then to ginger

The word started to be applied to a light sandy ginger-like colour, especially of hair, in the 19th century,  but since then I would say it is applied to darker oranges, as all redheads tend to be called "ginger". 

Here's our neighbourhood huge fluffy ginger tom, Nemo, who likes to wander into my office without so much as a by-your-leave.

There's another ginger cat in my neighbourhood who goes by the name "Mackintosh". What a brilliant name! (For those of you in the US, Mackintosh is a brand of toffee that is available in Britain in Canada, but not in the States, I believe).

A word I find quite delightful for an orange cat with white markings, especially on the front, is the "creamsicle" cat.

For those of you who don't live in North America, Creamsicle is the brand name here of a popsicle that is orange ice on the outside encasing vanilla ice cream in the middle:


The earliest example of "creamsicle cat" I can find on the web is from 2001. I remember taking a quotation for it (and being delighted by it) in a novel by Canadian author Douglas Coupland  when I was doing research for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. I think the novel in question was Girlfriend in a Coma, which dates from 1998, so perhaps we can credit Coupland with this invention.

"Gingerly", by the way, has nothing to do with ginger. At its origins in English, in the 1500s, "gingerly" was probably an adverb used in dancing to mean "daintily, delicately, with small, elegant steps". It came from a French word gensor (pretty or graceful), in turn derived from the Latin gent (aristocratic), which has also given us genteel. There has always been this association between noble birth and refined manners and movement, so originally if you said someone danced gingerly, it was a compliment, but gradually it came to have derogatory overtones of mincing, until finally it came to apply (as an adjective rather than an adverb) to any motion that is timid, wary, or tentative. It could be said that I always dance gingerly in my ballet classes, not because I look aristocratic, but because I am always afraid of falling over!

For the origins of the word "tabby", click here.

I love ginger, and in particular I love ginger crinkle cookies, and since I haven't given you a recipe in at least a week, here's my favourite one (for another recipe using ginger, try my cantaloupe cake).

2 cups sifted flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon ginger
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter or margarine
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg

Sift together dry ingredients. Beat butter and sugar till light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Blend in molasses and egg and beat for another minute. Beat in dry ingredients on low speed. Refrigerate at least one hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Using a tablespoon measuring spoon, form balls of dough, and roll in sugar.
Place 2 inches apart on parchment-paper lined cookie sheets.  Bake 12 -14 minutes; remove when still just a little soft in the middle. Let cool on the cookie sheet then remove to a wire rack.
(you can replace half the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour; a bit of fibre, and no-one will notice. Heck, with the iron from the molasses and the antioxidants from the spices, you can even delude yourself that you are eating something healthy!)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cantering to Canterbury

I am currently in the lovely cathedral town of Canterbury, where my choir is singing Evensong in these amazing surroundings for three days.

Naturally, my mind turns to the thought of... horses.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Canterbury was, famously, a site of pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket. The pilgrims rode along the way to the shrine at a sedate gallop, somewhat faster than a trot, but slower than a full gallop (for the fascinating history of the word "gallop", see this post.) 
 This came to be known as a "Canterbury pace" or "Canterbury trot", but by the 18th century had been shortened to the word we know now: canter.

Another linguistic debt we owe to Canterbury is the common name for a species of the flower Campanula: Canterbury bells, so-called in reference to the small bells pilgrims carried on their horses. 

The name "Canterbury" itself comes from the original Celtic name for the county of Kent and Anglo-Saxon elements meaning "stronghold or fortified town".

For an interesting discussion of "Westminster Abbey" (where we also sang), please click here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

By degrees

A faithful Wordlady reader, after reading my post about "diploma", inquired about the word "degree", and why it means a university accreditation in English whereas it does not in French. 

"Degree" and "graduate" are etymologically linked words.

"Graduation" comes from the Latin word gradus (a step in flight of stairs). This has given English many words, among them "gradual". There is one surviving usage in English in which "gradual" has retained the literal sense of the original gradus. In some Christian liturgies, there is something called a "gradual psalm". I used to think it was called that because it can seem to go on forever, but actually it is because originally this psalm was sung from the steps of the altar!

In medieval university Latin, gradus also meant a figurative step in the process of acquiring an academic education, and graduare was the verb used for acknowledging the achievement of each of those stages. By the late 1400s, there was an anglicized derivative of  this, "graduate", for a person who had achieved the first stage of his education. 

The verb "to graduate" came a century later. Then, and for about four centuries thereafter, it was used only transitively, for conferring a university degree upon someone. So universities graduated students, and students were graduated from universities. In the 1800s, an intransitive use arose: students graduated from universities. Predictably, this new usage prompted a lot of harumphing from usage commentators, and the transitive use ("I was graduated from" rather than "I graduated from") clung to life in the US longer than in the UK, though it has been in a freefall over the last century.

Just when usage commentators were probably admitting defeat on "she graduated from university",  in the mid-20th century, another development happened: people started saying, "She graduated university."  Hurrah! Something else to harumph about! As you can see from this graph, this usage is slowly (one might say gradually) increasing, and has already outstripped the original "was graduated from" pattern. But, for now, it still bugs many people.

"Degree" is another derivative of the original Latin word gradus, but it stopped off in French on its way from Latin to English. A degradus in Latin was also a step, but specifically a step down. As usual, the French dropped a few consonants from the Latin word to end up with degré. For several hundred years after we borrowed it from French in the 1200s, a "degree" was literally a step. But, just like gradus, it acquired figurative meanings so that by the 1300s it was also used to mean the stages of a university education and the diplomas marking them, a sense it did have in French also for a while but no longer.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Inflamed almonds

I was at my German conversation class the other day when one of the participants announced she had had inflamed almonds. Thinking there might be a tasty recipe involved that I could share with you, I inquired further... only to discover that, in addition to meaning "almond", the German word Mandel means ... tonsil. Not quite so tasty.

At this point in my blog, I would usually include a helpful picture showing you how much tonsils look like almonds, but really, the ones I found on Google were just too repulsive. Trust me, they look like almonds.

For a few centuries after the first appearance of "almond" in English, we too used this word for the almond-shaped glands of the throat, but by the 1800s the much more learned-sounding "tonsil", derived from Latin tonsilla, took over. 

But most European languages still use an almond-related word for the tonsils, even though  you might not recognize it as such. French uses the much fancier-sounding amygdale, but amygdala was simply the Latin word for, you guessed it, "almond".  In English, the word "amygdala" also exists, but for a roughly almond-shaped mass of grey matter inside each cerebral hemisphere, involved with the experiencing of emotions.

Amygdala is in fact the source of the word "almond", though you might not think it. In late Latin the word morphed into amandula and from there into the French amande. In Norman French, the variety that landed in England in 1066, the L in the final Latin syllable had somehow migrated to the beginning of the word, so we ended up with "almond". Originally this would have been pronounced, but L's after a vowel and before an M tend to get swallowed up and pronounced as a vowel themselves before disappearing entirely, so we ended up saying "AH-m'nd". The same thing happened with "calm" and "psalm" and "palm" (for more about which, see this post).

But as universal literacy took hold in the late 19th century, people started to think they should pronounce the L that they saw before their eyes, so now once again we have both pronunciations: AH-m'nd and AHL-m'nd. What is the correct way to pronounce "almond"? A recent survey I did showed that about 60% of Canadians do not pronounce the L while 40% do.  Meanwhile, 100% of the Americans who responded pronounce the L, but as there were only 5 of them, the only conclusion I can draw is that the L-ful pronunciation is likely more common than the L-less one among Americans (though American dictionaries list it second). Both pronunciations have to be considered correct.

Well, after all this talk about almonds, I feel I do have to provide a tasty recipe after all, so here's a "Mandelkuchen" from my favourite German cake book (I sure hope they meant almonds and not tonsils!) It has next to no flour (in fact I suspect you could leave the flour out altogether, or replace it with cornstarch), so helpful for those avoiding gluten.

Almost-Gluten-Free Almond Cake

6 eggs
165g sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 heaping Tbsp flour
1 tsp baking powder
250 g ground almonds (either blanched or unblanched)

Beat eggs until foamy. Beat in sugar, vanilla and cinnamon until fluffy. Mix ground almonds with  flour and baking powder, beat in on low speed. Pour into a parchment-paper lined 13X9" pan. Bake at 400 degrees about 15-20 minutes. Turn out immediately onto a sugar-strewn piece of parchment paper. Brush the paper attached to the cake with cold water and remove carefully but quickly. Let cool, cut in half lengthwise, fill and ice with chocolate icing or whipped cream.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Brides and gooms

It's summer, so high season for weddings. And this year, thanks to the recent legal decisions in the US, there will be even more weddings than usual, as gay couples can tie the knot (here in Ontario this has been possible since 2003). Who will be the bride and who the groom?

Bride is a very old word. It goes back to the Anglo-Saxons, and meant then exactly what it means now. (For "bridal", see this post. 

But the interesting thing is that for a while in the 14th and 15th centuries, "bride" applied to both sexes, so you could have a male bride or a female bride, and perhaps with same-sex marriage, this trend will be revived; who knows. In fact, a gay friend of mine who got married shortly after the law in Ontario permitted same-sex marriage told me that he and his partner had to decide which of them was going to be listed as "bride" on their marriage licence application. The Ontario government has fixed this since, opting for the ever-so-romantic ...

"Applicant #1" and "Applicant #2!

American states which have only recently allowed same-sex marriage may have to reconsider the wording on their marriage licence applications.

As for the other half of the couple, in Old English the word was brydguma, guma being a poetic word for "man". But the word guma died out in the Middle Ages, and by the 16th century, people could no longer figure out why a man would be called a bridegoom. By Shakespeare's time,  people had reinvented r-less "bridegoom", substituting a word they did know: "groom". In Old English "groom" had meant "boy", but by the 1400s was applied to any male person, so "bridegroom" effectively meant "bride-guy".

Non-English speakers must often wonder why the same word designates a husband on his wedding day and someone who looks after horses. "Groom", still meaning "guy", did not apply specifically to a servant looking after horses till some time later, in the 1600s. By the 1800s, the noun had become a verb as well (gosh, yet another instance of that nefarious trend!), meaning "care for horses", and, a century later "care for one's appearance". 

Marriage equality has had an impact on dictionary definitions. There was quite a stir when I announced in 2003 that the Canadian Oxford Dictionary had changed its definition of "marriage" (the first dictionary to do so) from
  • 1. the legal or religious union of a man and a woman.   
  • 1. the legal or religious union of two people.  

This seemed to me a self-evident change, since the reality had changed in Canada, so the dictionary had to keep up, just as we no longer define "car" with the OED's first definition:
 1.  a. A wheeled, usually horse-drawn conveyance; a carriage, cart, or wagon.

I was quite proud of how on the ball we were, but suffice it to say that many vociferous people did not view this change quite so dispassionately!

We did not at the time change the definition


noun a married man esp. in relation to his wife.
since we had to wait to see if usage would in fact change, or whether "partner" would be preferred to "husband". One could say that that lexico-weasel word "esp." gave us some wiggle room in comparison to other dictionaries' definition:

noun a married man considered in relation to his wife:

However, "husband" and "wife" are now clearly used of married same-sex couples, so it is time for dictionaries to get with the program.

Dearly beloved, our survey of these wedding-related words is complete. You may now kiss the applicant.

For "nuptial", see this post
For "wedlock", see this post.
For "confetti", see this post.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

More fun: Turgid Sentence Generator

Since I'm on a "plain language" kick at the moment, I thought I'd share this.
The University of Chicago Writing Program has created a fun "Write your own academic sentence" program. You too can produce some turgid prose like the deathless "The historicization of post-capitalist hegemony clarifies the position of the linguistic construction of the gendered body."
Give it a spin here: 

See also this post.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Unplain English

I am going to be the dinner speaker at this year's conference of the Plain Language Association in Vancouver.
Here's a very entertaining example of the opposite of plain language:

See also this post.

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.