Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

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.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Guardian style guru lists Wordlady in Top 20 language blogs

David Marsh, longtime editor and style guru at the prestigious English newspaper The Guardian, and part of the witty two-person-and-a-dog team at the Guardian Style Guide twitter feed (@guardianstyle), will be launching his new book this week, For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection. 
Among the features is a "Top 20 Language Books and Blogs" list, and Wordlady is one of them!

The book is available this week through amazon.co.uk:
and amazon.com:

and will be released in Canada on January 28, 2014. Available for pre-order now:

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cat word of the month:Tomcat

What man's name do you automatically associate with male cats?

Gilbert, right?

Well, for some reason, that's what people thought of in the Middle Ages.

"Gilbert" is an Old French name of Germanic (Frankish) origin, derived from gisil ‘pledge’ + berht ‘bright, famous’. It was adopted by the Normans, who introduced it to Britain. Its short form, "Gib" was particularly popular for male cats. From the 1500s to the 1800s, male cats were known as "gib cats" (also as "ram cats" or "boar cats").

Another name used to name cats was "Tibert", which was the moniker of the feline in the 13th-century bestseller, the immensely popular Roman de Renart (The Story of Reynard the Fox)

Renart and Thibert fight over a sausage (14th-century manuscript)

Only a cat could outwit a fox!

Thibert was derived from Theodberht (theod = people + berht = brilliant). Shakespeare puns on it in Romeo and Juliet when he has Mercutio address Tybalt (whose name was really a version, not of Theobert, but of the similar "Theobald") thus: 
Mercutio: Tibalt, you ratcatcher, will you walke? 
Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me?  
Mercutio. Good King of Cats, nothing but one of your nine lives. 

In Old French, before the Roman de Renart, a fox was called a goupil, derived from the Latin vulpecula (little fox), a diminutive of vulpes (fox). But crafty Renart was so popular that his name ended up becoming the French word for "fox". "Tibert" didn't have the same success, but, in a similar fashion, it was another popular book that gave English its name for a male cat. 

In 1760 an anonymous work, The Life and Adventures of a Cat, was published. Cat-mania obviously existed long before the internet, because this book became very popular. The hero's name was Tom (it was a close call, because, according to the book, several of his father's friends wanted to name him Michael), and he was commonly referred to as ‘Tom the Cat’. Thus Tom became a favourite allusive name for a male cat and people said ‘this cat is a Tom’. Poor Gib and Tib were defeated, and "tom cat" took over.

I feel this post is not complete unless I share with you the OED's inimitably worded definition for the verb "tomcat", which dates from the 1920s: " intr. To pursue women promiscuously for sexual gratification."

I used to have a beautiful charcoal-grey-and-white male "tuxedo cat" whom, in reference to his tom-ness (and a grave philosophical air he had), I called "Aquinas" after the 13th-century philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Next month, we look at the word "tuxedo". 

Thomas Aquinas, clearly looking like...
...a tuxedo cat

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

For "marmalade", click here
For "ginger", click here.
For another word derived from the name "Tom", click here
For "calico", click here.

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You can sign up to have your word of the week delivered directly to your inbox here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

History of the English Language: New course available!

Due to popular demand, and to satisfy the large numbers of people who couldn't get into my sold-out History of the English Language courses this fall, I will be offering the course again starting in January.
Katherine Barber, Canada's Word Lady
Founding Editor-in-Chief, Canadian Oxford Dictionary

The Rollicking History of the English Language
Thursdays: 9 January – 27 March, 2014, 1:00-3:00 pm
No class February 20, 13 March, 20 March

Women's Art Association of Canada
23 Prince Arthur Avenue, Toronto
3 minutes walk from St George Subway Station (Bedford St. exit)
Limited free parking available – paid parking nearby
Open to the general public

Why is English spelling so chaotic? Why do we have so many synonyms? What might your name tell you about the history of the language? What is the history behind your favourite language pet peeve? This course is a highly entertaining and informative survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years.
1) Celts and Anglo-Saxons: Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use the apostrophe for the possessive.  German origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar. 

Vikings: Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous. 

3) The Norman Invasion: Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The Norman Conquest, Medieval England and the origins of chaotic English spelling.

Renaissance English: Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"?

The 18th Century: Re-examining our pet peeves. British and American spelling is different.  Why?

The 19th Century to the Present : Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags" and why the French love "relooking".

American English: Have they corrupted the language?

Canadian English: How we can be very confusing to other English speakers. 

$25/lecture including refreshments during the break
Pay only for the lectures you attend.
payable at the door by cash or cheque

For more information or to register, call 416-693-4496 or email wordlady.barber@gmail.com

Friday, September 20, 2013

Breaded codpieces

Well, this week you were going to get an irreproachably unsalacious back-to-school discussion of the word "pupil".

But then, as I was idly grocery shopping last weekend, I did a whiplash-inducing double take on passing one of the freezers emblazoned with a sign: 
"Breaded cod pieces, $10.99". 
Who knew what lurks at No Frills on the way from the bananas to the butter!

This, of course, got me thinking about codpieces. The WORD. (Please get your mind out of the gutter). Why is a codpiece called that? What do fish have to do with it (if anything)?

The "cod" in "codpiece" was an Anglo-Saxon word for a small bag, especially the round kind closed with a drawstring used as a purse or suchlike. This was opposed to a "sack" -- borrowed from Latin probably before the Anglo-Saxons left Germany-- which was a big bag. The word "bag" itself was borrowed a little later, from the Vikings.

Not surprisingly, by the 1400s, the word "cod" was being used for what the OED defines delicately as "The integument enveloping the testicles, the scrotum". This usage survived till the late 18th century.

In the late 1400s, men's tunics, which until then had covered the lower body well below the thighs, started getting shorter so that they no longer covered the crotch. What men wore under their tunic was essentially a pair of very long socks reaching to the waist but not sewn shut across the crotch like a pair of tights. You can see the problem. The fabric codpiece was invented to fill the gap, so to speak.

Being a lexicographer of unassailable virtue, I cannot imagine why the next development happened, but men actually started making their codpieces bigger and padding them. Eventually, in Spain, the codpieces became very large and vertical (you can go check this out on Google images by yourself). By the end of the 1600s, though, this fashion was mocked, and more concealing modes of dress took over.

What does all this have to do with fish? Probably nothing. The word "cod" in the fish sense cropped up in the 1300s, and is of uncertain origin.

Another usage of "cod" you may not be familiar with is a British one, also of uncertain origin, meaning "fake". The first time I came across this was in a review of the ballet Don Quixote, and I was most perplexed to know what on earth "cod-Spanish sets, costume and music" might mean.

Friday, September 13, 2013


The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, literally the Day of Atonement, when one fasts and repents of the past year's shortcomings, starts tonight at sundown.

"Atone" is a fascinating word, for it comes from the phrase "set or make at one", meaning "to be in harmony, to reconcile, to be united".

If you were "at one" with someone, you were in harmony, concord, or friendship with them, especially if you had previously been in a state of dissension ("at two", I guess), and were now reconciled.

The idea of "atonement" started off as being reconciled with God after having offended, and then gradually the meaning shifted to that of making amends for the offence.

At this point you are thinking: Hey, Smartypants Wordlady, how can "atone" come from "at one"? How come we don't pronounce it "at WUN m'nt" then?

Really, the question is: Why the heck do we pronounce something spelled "one" as WUN or, especially in Northern England, as WON (as in wonton)?? 

As with so many confusing English spellings, "one" reflects the way the word was pronounced in the Middle Ages, when it in fact sounded like the pronunciation we now use for "own" (which of course was also pronounced differently back then, sigh). But with some words starting with "o", a phenomenon occurred in the late Middle Ages where a "w" sound was introduced at the beginning. For a while, we had spellings like "wone" and "won" to reflect this. A similar thing happened with "oat" and "oak", which in some dialects came to be pronounced "woat" and "woak". Then the vowel also changed from a long o to a short u (or in some varieties of British English, that short o). 

For some reason, the initial "w" pronunciation of "one" became the standard,  though the w-less version still exists, of course. Every time you say "little 'uns", you use it (though you probably think you are just being lazy in your pronunciation). 

But the spelling with "w" which would have logically reflected the new pronunciation did not become the standard spelling, and we are stuck with the spelling from the Middle Ages before all these pronunciation changes happened.

And of course, before the "wun" pronunciation became standard, someone had to harumph about how awful and illiterate it was. In 1685, Christopher Cooper, writing a grammar of English in Latin (because that makes SO much sense), described the pronunciation wun for ‘one’ as ‘barbarous speaking’.

The switch from the pronunciation "oan" to "wun" did not happen in the word "atone" because by that time, "one" was buried in the middle of the word and so was not subject to the initial-w insertion.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Cat word of the month: Calico

How cute is that?
In the last two "cat words" posts, we looked at names for orange tabby cats, and now we are going to mix in some black and white, and look at calico cats. Is the kitten above dreaming of exotic India? That is where the word "calico" comes from. 

The city now known as Kozhikode on the southwest coast of India was called in Malayalam Kōlịkōdụ, and in the 16th century it was the second busiest port for trade between Europe and India. In English, the city was called "Calicut". 

View Larger Map

One of the items that India exported to England through this port was cotton fabric, so that by the time Samuel Johnson wrote his dictionary in the mid-1700s, what he described as

‘an Indian stuff made of cotton, sometimes stained with gay and beautiful colours’

was known as "Calicut cloth" or, in something more closely approximating the original language, "calico cloth", often shortened to "calico".


In England, "calico" applied to any cotton, plain or printed, but in the US, the word came to apply specifically to multicoloured printed cottons, which were a specialty of India. In the early 1800s, Americans started to apply the name "calico" to other multicoloured things, especially piebald horses.

Cute Baby Calico


By the 1890s, those so-common cats with their patches of orange, white, and black, which were obviously just crying out for a descriptive name, also became "calico".  


I believe that calico cats are more commonly called that in North America than in Britain. If you are a British English speaker, please let me know if this is true, and what other word you might use for this colour of cat. 


Almost all calico cats are female, so you would be very unlikely to run across a calico version of our next month's cat word: tomcat.

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

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You can sign up to have your word of the week delivered directly to your inbox here.

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.