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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, August 30, 2013

A peculiar people

In last week's post about "minster" and "minister", I mentioned that Westminster Abbey has an odd designation: it is a "royal peculiar", as is St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, where my choir also sang. 

In the Church of England, a peculiar is a parish, church, chapel, or ecclesiastical court exempt from the jurisdiction of the diocese in which it is physically located.There are very few of these left now, but there are still churches that are "royal peculiars": chapels exempt from any jurisdiction but that of the sovereign. The church belongs not to the diocese, like most churches in denominations with bishops, but is the exclusive possession of the crown.

"Peculiar" has a surprising range of meanings, going from this "exclusive or particular to" meaning, all the way to "bizarre", a phenomenon that always causes smirks in church when it's time for the following Bible reading in the King James Version: "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal Priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people"  (1 Peter ii. 9). The idea is that of a people chosen exclusively by God, but of course that's not what springs immediately to the 21st- century mind! Modern translations opt for things like "God's special possession", "God's own possession", "a people for God's own possession", "His own special people", etc.

Even more surprising is that "peculiar" started its long semantic journey as a Latin word meaning "cattle": pecu. From this arose a derivative peculium (property), since cattle were private property. The adjective related to this was peculiaris (relating to private property). So "peculiar" came to designate things that were a person's private property, something that belonged to you and no one else. You could say of a politician that he "had not so much advanced the common wealth as his own private things and peculiar estate" (that's a quote from 1548, which just goes to show that some things never change!). 

From designating material things such as your possessions, "peculiar" soon came to be applied also to more abstract qualities and characteristics that were unique or "peculiar" to one person or group. And since anything that distinguishes one person from the rest of humanity usually becomes stigmatized as strangeness, "peculiar" eventually came to mean downright odd. 

Although languages can manage one word having many different meanings, when one of those meanings is SO different from another, and has negative connotations to boot, it usually results in the less negative meaning falling out of the language. I am therefore hereby going out on a limb and predicting the demise of the "unique to" sense of peculiar. It's already ailing, or the Bible translators wouldn't be tinkering with that verse we saw.

There. People are always asking me to predict what's going to happen with the language. Usually I demur, but now I've done it. Be careful what you ask for!

Incidentally, another word that came from this same Latin word for cattle is "pecuniary", because cattle signified wealth and money.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Of minsters and ministers

My choir recently had the privilege of singing services for a week at Westminster Abbey. Here we are in all our glory before the high altar (that's me third from the left in the front row):

Many people mispronounce "Westminster" as "Westminister", substituting the word they are familiar with, "minister", for the one they don't know, "minster". But "minister" and "minster" are two completely different words.

"Minister" came into English from French in about 1300. It is derived from the Latin minister (servant, priest's attendant, priest, subordinate), which in turn came from  minus (less), the neuter form of minor (smaller, lesser, younger).

"Minster" is much older. It was the Old English (i.e. dating back to about 700) word for a monastery, and is in fact derived, in a much-squished form, from the Latin word monasterium. It is one of a very few Latin-derived words, almost all of them church-related, that made their way into English before the Norman Conquest. Monasterium itself was ultimately derived from the Greek word monos (single), due to the habit of early monks living alone like hermits, before religious communities were established. The word "monastery" did not start to compete with "minster" until the 1400s, when English started borrowing more enthusiastically directly from Latin. 

It is typical of English to have at least three words for every notion, one from its Germanic roots, one from French, and one directly from Latin. So by the time we borrowed "monastery", we already had another synonym for "minster", this one derived from Norman French: "abbey". This came into English in about 1300, although the word "abbot" for the head of a monastery had been around as long as "minster" had. It comes from Byzantine Greek ἀββάς, a title of respect given to monks in general, especially to prominent ascetics and abbots of monasteries, ultimately coming from the Syriac abbā (father).

"Westminster Abbey" is, therefore, an etymologically redundant name, literally meaning "Western (because it was to the west of the original city of London) monastery monastery". This redundancy is oh so appropriate, in a place that is inextricably tied in with the government of England, as it underlines the dual Germanic-French nature of our language and history.  

But nowadays "minster" survives only in the proper names of Westminster and some other great English churches (York Minster, for instance), as, helped along by the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the word "minster" died out in English, leaving people to think it must be "minister" instead.

Westminster Abbey is classified, quaintly, as a "royal peculiar". Tune in next week to find out what this means and what "peculiar" has to do with cows.

And by the way, the Abbey liked us so much that they've invited us back! But you don't have to go to London to hear us. If you are in Toronto, you can drop by St Thomas's Anglican Church (on Huron Street near Bloor and St. George) any Sunday at 7 pm for Evensong. St. Thomas's Anglican Church Choir - "as seen at Westminster Abbey"!

For words with a surprising connection to Canterbury Cathedral, where we also sang, please visit this post

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Wordlady makes a pronouncement

A great irony of English is that  one of our most frequently mispronounced words is... "pronunciation". Many people pronounce it "pronounciation" and even spell it that way, but I have to tell you (uncharacteristically for me, I admit) that this is WRONG.

All the same, it's an interesting question why people do this, when they don't do it with the other words following the same pattern, to wit:
announce - annunciation
denounce - denunciation
renounce - renunciation
At least, I thought they didn't, but of course a check on Google shows a fair number of examples of "announciation", "denounciation", and "renounciation"! Not so much as with "pronunciation", though.

All these words (as well as "enunciate") have as their root the Latin word nuntium (message). The classical Latin prōnuntiāre  had pretty much the same meanings as "pronounce" has in English. In Central French, this became prononcer, but in the Norman French that we English inherited, this morphed into pronouncer or pronuncer.  The second syllable would have been pronounced something like "noon" in the Middle Ages, but because of the Great Vowel Shift in English starting in the 1400s, this gradually came to sound like "noun".

"Pronounce" was pretty well established in the 1400s in English, and if people wanted to make a noun from it, they did the simple English thing: they added the suffix "-ing", as we see in this vivid description, which could well apply to an English speaker trying to speak French: 
c1450   J. Capgrave Life St. Augustine:   For not only were these words expressed with labour of his tongue, but his forehead, cheeks, his eyes, and all his limbs in manner laboured in pronounsyng of these words.

Meanwhile, however, there was also the original Latin noun for this verb: pronuntiatio. As the 1400s wore on, "pronunciation" started to give "pronouncing" a run for its money, and with the Renaissance of the 1500s making Latin ever so fashionable, "pronunciation" trounced (or possibly trunced) "pronouncing". 

But its victory was not total. Even in the 1500s and 1600s, people were (logically) trying to make "pronunciation" into "pronounciation":
1530   J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement  They have utterly neglected the frenche mennes maner of pronounciation, and so rede frenche as theyr fantasy or opinion dyde lede them.

The battle has been going on ever since, though "pronounciation" has been considered non-standard since the 18th century, a prescriptivist time in love with Latinate models.

The French, it must be said, are unbothered by all this, having taken "prononcer" to their hearts and quite happily produced "prononciation" as well, without worrying about what the Latin was. Yet again, English makes itself more complicated than it needs to be, but we're stuck with it. I recommend that you say and spell "pronunciation". Even Wordlady cringes at "pronounciation"!

Maybe she shouldn't. Those who make pronouncements about what others should and shouldn't say are usually doomed to failure, as witness this -- to us -- startling statement about the now most common of the "-nounce" words:

1638   D. Featley Stricturæ in Lyndomastygem i. 207 in H. Lynde Case for Spectacles,   The Jesuits and Seminarie Priests at Doway and Rhemes..have fraught their English translation of the Bible, with so many affected harsh-sounding, and uncouth words to English eares, as announce..

Thanks to an avid Wordlady reader for suggesting this topic!

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Wheelbarrow or wheelbarrel?

I overheard a landscaper yesterday talking to his colleagues about a "wheelbarrel". This is an occasional mistake people make; indeed when I worked at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary department we had a letter from someone who said she had a bet with her boyfriend about it and a pizza was riding on the outcome! 

It's not surprising that people change "barrow" into "barrel" because "barrow", originally something like a stretcher on legs with shafts by which it could be lifted, is not a common word anymore. This phenomenon of exchanging an unfamiliar word to a similar sounding familiar one has been quite common over the course of the history of the language. For instance, as we saw earlier, the Old English word "goom" became "groom".  

 Another phenomenon favouring the understanding of "Barrow" as "barrel" is that terminal l's are often swallowed up in speech, or in some varieties of the language turned into a vowel, so some people will say "barrel" as if it were "barrew". 

"Barrel" came into English from French; its ultimate origin is unknown. "Barrow", on the other hand, like most garden equipment terms, likely goes back to Anglo-Saxon, related to the word "bear" (carry).

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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Friday, August 2, 2013

Good for what ails you

Last week I shared with you my favourite ginger crinkle cookie recipe, a key ingredient being molasses. The word "molasses" comes to us from the Portuguese melaço
 which in turn comes from the Latin mellaceus (honey-like, from mel honey). The English borrowed the Portuguese word in the 16th century, the Portuguese having made it to the sugar-producing West Indies before the English got there. But the English borrowed the plural form melaços, since molasses is actually the "dregs" of raw sugar. In 1870, it was correct to say, "The Americans are all fond of molasses, using them regularly at breakfast and supper to their buckwheat cakes and waffles." But, although this plural usage has survived in some parts of the southern US, now "molasses" is treated as a singular. This evolution in usage is similar to what is happening with "data" and "media", yet no one castigates anyone for using "molasses" in the singular.

There are different grades of molasses, the darkest being called "blackstrap". It's not certain where the "strap" part of this term came from, though  it may reflect the Dutch word stroop which was a 17th-century variant of siroop (syrup).

In Britain, molasses is known as "treacle" (or "black treacle" to distinguish it from golden syrup, which is also called "treacle".) "Treacle" has an even more interesting history.  In ancient Greek, a therios was a wild beast or venomous reptile. As we saw with the story of basil, venomous reptiles and antidotes to their attacks ("theriacal antidotes") seem to have been a bit of an obsession with the Greeks. The ancient Romans shortened the "theriacal antidote" to a theriaca, soon further shortened to tiriaca.

By the time the apothecaries of the Middle Ages were peddling it, it was called "triacle" (pronounced tree ACK'll), and over the years salves and nostrums called this were claimed to cure everything from snake bite and poisoning to rheumatism, scurvy, plague, smallpox, cancer and venereal diseases! How this word migrated over to molasses in the 17th century is unknown, but I suspect some of these remedies were very syrupy in consistency. In North America, we rarely use the word "treacle", but the adjective "treacly" (excessively sweet figuratively speaking), though less common than in British English, is not unknown.

I love molasses, and I substitute it for sugar everywhere I can. Here's another recipe, which I find is a delicious improvement on ordinary pancakes. If you're used to eating plain white insipid pancakes, the chestnut brown colour may seem odd, but trust me, you'll love 'em. In Canada the kinds of molasses that are easily available in groceries are called "Fancy" and "Cooking". The "Cooking" molasses is a little less sweet (but not bitter like blackstrap molasses), has a stronger flavour, and about four times as much iron and five times as much calcium as the "Fancy" molasses, so I use it in preference.
Who knows, perhaps they'll cure your rheumatism!

Molasses-sweetened Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes

Stir together:
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ginger (optional)

In  measuring cup, combine:
1 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup plain yogourt)
2 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. molasses
1 egg

Stir wet ingredients into dry and add 1/2 cup fresh blueberries.

Heat frying pan over medium heat until a drop of water skitters across the surface when shaken on the pan. Brush lightly with oil.
Measure  1/4 cup of batter per pancake onto pan and spread out a little. Cook until bubbles break on surface, then flip and cook about a minute longer.
Batter can be kept in the fridge for a few days so that you can whip up pancakes for breakfast with no mess.
For more recipes using molasses, visit

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.