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!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Friday, October 18, 2013

11 surprising "language errors" that have become standard usage

If you're a regular reader of Wordlady, you know that a common theme is that many of our now standard usages (word choice, pronunciation, spelling) were once criticized as being "wrong" or "barbarous" or "infelicitous" or "uncouth" by self-appointed guardians of the language.  Here's a list of eleven (there are many, many more, but we'll start with eleven -- ten would be so predictable) which are particularly surprising:

 1) alphabet: a "vulgar error"
One famous lexicographer, Cotgrave, sniffily dismissed the word "alphabet" as vulgar in 1611: "Touching the French abece, for alphabet I will not call it, according to the vulgar error, that word being peculiar only to the Greek tongue." 

2) announce: "affected, harsh-sounding, and uncouth"
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...
(For more on words ending in -nounce, see "Wordlady makes a pronouncement")

3) anthem: "inappropriate"
1866   C. Engel Introd. Study National Music i. 2 (Note to ‘National Anthem’)   Anthem is musically an inappropriate title for this tune. 

4) contact = get in touch with: banned
1927   Spectator 6 Aug. 212/2   Dreiser should not be allowed to corrupt his language by writing ‘anything that Clyde had personally contacted here’.

1935   A. P. Herbert What a Word! 100   A charming lady in the publicity business shocked me when we parted by saying ‘It has been such fun contacting you.’

In 1931, a highly ranked employee of the Western Union tried to have the use of the verb "contact" banned in his company.

5) couple 
Usage commentators in the late 19th and early 20th century, undaunted by five centuries of usage, objected to "couple" being used to mean "two", saying that it originally meant the link between two things, not the things themselves. 
(For more on "couple", see A couple (of) issues with "couple")

6) jeopardize: "useless"
1828   Noah Webster Amer. Dict. Eng. Lang.,   Jeopardize..(This is a modern word ... synonymous with jeopard, and therefore useless.)

7)  one: "barbarous"
In 1685, Christopher Cooper, writing a grammar of English, described the pronunciation wun for ‘one’ as ‘barbarous speaking’.

(For more on "one", see Atonement)

8) sound: "condemned"
In the sense of "something heard", this is derived from the Norman French soun, which in turn comes from the Latin sonum. In the 1300s, when we first borrowed the word, there was no -d, but the OED tells us that "The form with excrescent -d finally established itself in the 16th cent., but is condemned by Stanyhurst as late as 1582 (Æneid To Reader, p. 11)."

9) television: "ugly"
1942   T. S. Eliot Mus. Poetry 18   There are words which are ugly because of foreignness or ill~breeding (e.g. television

10) width: "a low word"
In his 1755 Dictionary, Samuel Johnson called it "a low word", preferring "wideness". 
(For more on width, length, and height, see The long and the short of it)

11) yolk: "mistake"
Walton Burgess’s Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing, and Writing the English Language, Corrected (1856) No. 23. “I prefer the yolk of an egg to the white:” the more common word is yelk, with the l sounded  

Many more current accepted usages did start out as mistakes of one sort or another (mistaking one word for another, understanding a singular as a plural, etc.). 

The moral is: language changes, and prescriptive pronouncements rarely succeed in stopping it. 

For 10 more, click here:

And another 8, click here:

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


  1. Thank you, Katherine! We need more of these reminders to accept language change more graciously.

  2. Okay, I have to ask: how DID Christopher Cooper want "one" pronounced? "Own"? Something else?

    1. Yes, "own". See this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/09/atonement.html

    2. Very interesting! (I should've thought to search your archives!)

  3. Thanks Katherine! My wife sings with you. I myself (-granted a tautology) listened to you eagerly when you were on CBC...have your book too! Not being a part of your word world is something up with which i shall not put. :-)

  4. C. Engel is right, at least in technical language: national anthems are actually hymns or ballads than anthems, which are traditionally passages of prose set to music. In the 19C, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sometimes called "the national ballad" in the U.S.


About Me

My photo
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.