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.
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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Of Pilgrims and Peregrines

This is Thanksgiving weekend in the US, so an appropriate time to look at the word "pilgrim". Did you know that it and "peregrine" (as in the falcon) were originally the same word? As, you can see, the resemblance is striking.


The Latin adjective peregrīnus meant "coming from foreign parts" and is perhaps derived from  per- (through) + ager (field, territory, land, country). By the 5th century this word was also being used to specifically describe people who travelled to visit religious sites. The Norman French squished this word down and changed the r to an l, resulting in
pilegrin, and ultimately pilgrim. (In Central France, they squished it even further into pèlerin.)

Meanwhile, however, Latin was still a living language throughout the Middle Ages, so the original form also survived, particularly in reference to the falcons which were most highly prized for hunting because of their speed and accuracy.  Why were they called falco peregrinus? Since peregrine falcons build their nests on high, inaccessible crags (more latterly on high-rise buildings!), falconers could not get at them in order to steal the young ones. They had to wait and catch them during the bird's migration -- its "pilgrimage", in effect.

"Peregrination" also originally had this sense of "pilgrimage", but by the 1500s it was already being used in its current sense of "travelling or wandering about; coming and going."

Wherever your peregrinations may take you on this holiday weekend, I wish all my American readers a happy Thanksgiving.

Why is a turkey called a turkey? Click here.
For the story on "Black Friday", click here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Condensed" History of the English Language Course

I will be offering a two-week, four-session, condensed version of my popular History of the English Language course through University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies next spring. It is a rare opportunity for those of you who cannot attend daytime courses. Classes will be offered at the St. George (downtown) campus of the U of T.

2414 History of the English Language

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To register, follow this link:

Course Details

Did you know that the word "travel" is derived from an instrument of torture? That "tragedy" originally had something to do with goats? That hotels and hospitals have something in common? The fascinating history of the English language is full of such surprises. This course is a survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years, covering the Anglo-Saxon and Viking origins, the influx of Norman French and Central French, later Latin and Greek borrowings, standardization and French borrowing in the 18th century, and international borrowing since the 18th century. We will tie linguistic developments in with the social and political events with which they coincided. Topics will include why English spelling is so difficult, and why we have such a large wordstock,

Learner Outcomes

"See course details"




2414 - 005 History of the English Language  
Winter - 14
Section Schedule(s):   Mon, Wed 6:30PM - 8:30PM
24 Mar 2014 to 2 Apr 2014
Number of Sessions: : 4
Tuition Option(s):   Flat Fee non-credit    $160.00

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Share the love with the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards 2013

Posted by on November 19, 2013 Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards 2013There are lots of things to look forward to in November: Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving, the turning on of the Christmas lights, and the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards of course!
These awards, hosted by Macmillan Dictionary, give you a chance to tell us which is your favourite blog and website about the English language. We know there are lots of excellent English language resource sites out there (in many languages too) – this is the time to show your love and appreciation for the blogs/websites that feed your craving for English language knowledge!
To learn more about the Love English Awards, including previous years’ winners, visit our Love English Awards page.
Nominations are now open – why not nominate your favourites:
  • Nominate your favourite English language blog here.
  • Nominate your favourite English language website here.
Nominate now and be in in with a chance of winning a Nexus 7 Tablet!
Find out how you can win a Nexus 7 Tablet.
Important dates to remember:
  • Nominations end on 12 January 2014
  • Voting starts on 21 January 2014
  • Voting ends on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2014
  • Winners and runners-up of the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards 2013 and the lucky winner of the Google Nexus 7 tablet will be announced on 18 February 2014.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cat word of the month: Puss

My puss's puss

Cats rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, but apparently English, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Irish, and even Lithuanian cats agree that when they hear someone calling "Puss!" they should head on over to see whether tasty treats might be on offer. How all these languages settled on this string of sounds to call a cat is unclear, but it has been thus since the Renaissance. I don't know how people addressed their cats before then. Maybe they were sensible enough to realize that calling a cat to come is often a waste of one's breath.

In light of recent events, I cannot alas gloss over the more racy sense of "puss" and "pussy", which dates from the late 1600s. 

The use of "puss" for another part of the anatomy, the face or mouth ("punched him in the puss") is unrelated. It comes from
Irish pus (lip, mouth) and has been used in English since the mid-1800s.

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.  

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

A "mountainously incontinent" (?) mayor

The National Post's Andrew Coyne recently weighed in on the Rob Ford scandal, the opening words of his article being the following:

"No one seems to know how to get Toronto out of its mayoral mess. It is the product of a flawed civic architecture that, in all fairness, never contemplated the existence of a mayor so mountainously incontinent, yet so impervious to shame."

This use of "incontinent" was dismissed by many as an unintentionally hilarious typo or malapropism that would surely be corrected to "incompetent" in short order, but in fact Coyne, who has a better-than-average grasp of English vocabulary, was using the word in its original sense, dating from the 1300s, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary:

 "1. Not continent; wanting in self-restraint: chiefly with reference to sexual appetite."


Now, I wouldn't put it past Coyne to indulge in some double entendre, but nonetheless, "incontinent" is a very good word to describe Rob Ford's shenanigans.


The currently more common meaning of "incontinent" is much more recent, attested since the early 1800s.  It is likely to bump the "lacking in self-restraint" sense out of the language, but has not done so yet, as we can still find examples like Coyne's and this one, quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of English: "the incontinent hysteria of the massed pop fans."

 "Incontinent" is, obviously, the opposite of "continent". How did the same English word come to mean "large land mass" on the one hand and both "controlled, restrained" and "able to control urination and defecation" on the other?


"Continent" comes from the Latin continēnt-em,the present participle of continēre (literally "contain, hold together"). Since large land masses are "held together", continēnt-em came to mean "contiguous, connected, continuous" while at the same time also  meaning ‘holding oneself in, self-restraining, restraining one's passions’. The latter was the sense in which the word was first adopted into modern languages.  So in 1382 an English translation of the Bible had the following: " It bihoueth a bischop forto be..iust, hooly, contynent", whereas the "large landmass" sense did not start being used till the 1600s.

Those who do not let their ignorance of the history of the English language get in the way of being rude to Andrew Coyne on twitter might well consider subscribing to Wordlady to broaden their lexical horizons.

 For my related discussion of how to spell "drunken stupor", please see this post.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Is "immediate" a verb?

This week I am the guest blogger for Oxford Dictionaries OxfordWords blog. Find out whether it's ok to use an adjective as a verb!

Friday, November 15, 2013

10 language errors that you really shouldn't make

Last month we looked at ten usages which started off being criticized as wrong but have since become standard. This month, I offer you a list of usages that you really should avoid, with links to my articles about them. It actually amazes me that I can find this many linguistic issues that I have condemned as "wrong", but I even have enough left over to make another list next month!

1) Casting dispersions

2) Misplaced modifiers

3) Pronounciation

4) have went

5) Confusing whose and who's

6) enervate

7) synonomous, autonomous, etc.

8) sneak peak

9) In memorium, rememberance, momento

10 forebearer

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.   

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Friday, November 8, 2013

The British: a nation of schemers?

Something that always takes me aback when I am in England is how British and North American usage of the word "scheme" differs.

Here in North America, a "scheme" usually has negative connotations of something underhanded or conniving -- or at the very least somewhat suspect. It has this sense in British English as well. But in England, there are also laudable "schemes" everywhere: building schemes, funding schemes, training schemes, pension schemes, and so on. In Scotland, public housing is called "housing schemes". In all these cases, we North Americans would use "plan" or "project" or "program" (why we have a fondness for words starting in "p" I don't know).

You can even see that the word "scheme" is more common in British English than in American English by looking at this frequency chart based on Google Books (admittedly a rather clumsy tool, but nonetheless I think this is significant):

Here are some examples, in none of which would a North American use the word "scheme":

and, from Birmingham Royal Ballet's website:

"A longer version of this article originally appeared in Entrechat, the magazine of the BRB Friends. To find out more about the scheme [i.e. the Friends of BRB], click here."
"I have also worked there as a Regional Representative within Merseyside for their Young Dance Ambassador Scheme".

"Scheme" comes ultimately from the Greek schema (form, figure). Its first use in English, in the Renaissance, was for a rhetorical device, but it was also used to mean a diagram. From the literal "plan" of something, it soon came to designate a plan of action or a project. The idea of an underhanded plot came to be attached to the word in the 18th century,  and the negativity seems to have clung more tenaciously on this side of the Atlantic than on the other. There are of course neutral expressions like "colour scheme" and "in the great scheme of things" in all varieties of English.

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.  

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Stupor or stupour?

Much to the cringing dismay of us Torontonians, the entire world now seems to know that our buffoon of a mayor admitted to smoking crack cocaine "in one of [his] drunken stupors". 

Of course, the burning question that occurs to Wordlady and her many followers is: 

"How is stupor spelled? If Rob Ford is Canadian, shouldn't he be in a drunken stupour rather than a drunken stupor?"

Apparently that is what the publisher of the Toronto Star, John Cruickshank, thinks in an article published November 6, How do you cover a deceiver without reporting mistruth?: "Ford says he tried crack once while in a drunken stupour."

But "stupor" is one of those words that is never spelled with an -our. Unlike the words we do spell with an -our ending (colour, labour, etc.), which stopped off in French before they landed in English, "stupor" came into English directly from its Latin origin, stupor (the etymology for which in the OED is "see stupid", and I bet the OED lexicographers don't even know Rob Ford). Both words come from the verb stupere (be stunned or benumbed).

We Canadians tend to hypercorrect such words, changing -or to -our just in case someone might -- shock, horror, or do I mean horrour -- mistake us for Americans. But our hypercorrection is incorrect. Stupor is the correct spelling (as is horror).

For the full story on why the British and most Canadians use -our endings while Americans use -or, see this post.

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.  

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Can you buckle a swash?

English National Ballet has just premiered a new production of Le Corsaire, a rip-roaring 19th-century classic featuring pirates, slave traders, abductions, opium-smoking, women in bare-midriffed tutus, lots of leaping about, and much derring-do. Inevitably, the word "swashbuckling" is much in evidence in publicity and reviews.

But what is swashbuckling exactly?

The word, which dates from the late 1600s, is not, as you might think, a combination of a noun "swash" (whatever that might be!) and the progressive form of the verb "buckle". Rather, the word was created by a phenomenon called "back-formation", derived from the century-older "swashbuckler", defined delightfully in the OED as "A swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio". But swashbucklers were not buckling swashes (as the creators of "swashbuckling" apparently thought); they were swashing bucklers. 

The verb "swash" arose in the Renaissance, imitating the sound made when something is thrown or moved with great energy, like "swish" but more forceful. In particular, swords were swashed about, and often what they were swashed against was a buckler, not someone who buckles, but a small round shield with a knob-like protuberance in the middle.

Elizabeathan gentlemen engaging in sword and buckler play

Although we already had the Germanic word "shield" since Anglo-Saxon times, we English have always liked a synonym, so we borrowed "buckler" from the French boucler in the Middle Ages (in Modern French the word for "shield" is still bouclier). The French had got it from the Latin adjective bucculārius, describing objects having a boss like the knob in the centre of this shield. This in turn came from buccula (a diminutive of bucca cheek) which designated either the cheek strap of a helmet or the boss of a shield. 

You will have guessed that the word "buckle" is from the same source. In French, the boucle was first the boss in the centre of the boucler, and then the loop or ring serving as a handle, which was affixed behind it, before finally settling down as the device used for fastening such a strap.  Interestingly, whereas in English "buckle" focuses on the metal fastening, French has also retained the "loop" sense.  So a loop-like itinerary is a boucle and so are earrings and big round curls in the hair.

For other examples of back-formation, see my posts about "mentee" and "peddle".

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.  

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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.