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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, December 27, 2013

Guess who's coming to....

You're probably still digesting that mountainous meal you tucked into two days ago. But what meal was it? Dinner? Supper?

A Saskatchewanian once recounted to me how, as a young woman, she made a date for dinner with an Ontarian she had her eye on. She arrived at the restaurant promptly at midday, and he, equally punctual, arrived... 6 hours later. 

This linguistic contretemps highlights an intriguing phenomenon: what we call our midday and evening meals. Many Canadians, on first encountering someone from another province referring to lunch as dinner, make sweeping generalizations of the type “In Ontario we all say lunch and in the Maritimes they all say dinner”, but it is not really a regional distinction. If the object of Saskatchewanian desire had been from rural Ontario, he probably would have turned up at the restaurant at noon too. 

By far the majority of Canadians call their midday meal “lunch”. Their evening meal is “dinner” or “supper”, which words can be used interchangeably. I myself might say, “I have to make dinner” and then announce its arrival on the table half an hour later with a cheery “Supper's ready!” 

However, we do make some distinctions. For instance, we usually call it only “dinner” when we go out to a restaurant, are feeling formal, or invite people over. The only circumstances in which we would use “dinner” for an earlier meal is for very large meals eaten in the middle of the afternoon like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Meanwhile, some say, “supper” is a lighter evening meal. Try telling that to someone who has just consumed one of those epitomes of epicurism, the community “lobster supper” of the Maritimes and “fall supper” or “fowl supper” of the West, which prove that no matter what we call the meal, we are united in our belief that the object is to stuff ourselves with as much food as possible. 

Speaking of that pre-eminent Prairie poultry pigout, people sometimes ask me which is “correct”: fall or fowl? Both are correct, and both are appropriate, since these events happen in the autumn and turkey is usually the pièce de résistance.

For some, especially older Canadians or those from rural areas, the midday meal is always “dinner” and the evening meal always “supper”. But then, just to confuse matters further, “lunch” may mean a late evening snack, or indeed afternoon refreshments. I have fond memories of my great-aunts in southwestern Manitoba offering a “lunch” (at what I would call teatime), said “lunch” turning out to be an enormous repast featuring the best farmwife's home baking and preserving.

There is even a uniquely Canadian idiom involving dinner: “done like dinner”, meaning “completely defeated or over with”. Oddly, the Australians have a similar, but not identical, expression, “done like a dinner”, which to them means “outwitted”.

As for those Ontarian and Saskatchewanian lovebirds, well, in spite of the rocky start to their romance, they've been together for many years, but they keep their “mixed marriage” on an even keel only by agreeing to use “supper” for meals at home and “dinner” for meals out. A typically Canadian compromise, thankfully; what a shame it would have been for their relationship to be done like ... lunch?

What do you call your midday, evening, and festive meals? Let me know in the comments (along with some info about where you are from, age, urban/rural, whatever you think pertinent)!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beware the dreaded Foosh

What is the most common cause of broken wrists? 
Thrusting out your hands to protect yourself when you fall. 
So common is this that emergency doctors have even invented a snappy acronym for "Fall On OutStretched Hand": FOOSH. It's been around since the early 90s, and I certainly hope you have no cause to hear it after venturing out on Ontario's icy sidewalks today. 
I don't know if there are any recommendations of what to do instead of sticking out your hands; it seems to me that if you don't do that you will end up with a Fall On OutStretched Nose.

Of silver thaws and glitter storms

I'm looking out my window at the trees encased in ice and thinking "Well that's pretty" (and then thinking, "How am I going to get to choir tonight?" 
Perhaps it would make all of us southern Ontarians trapped by an ice storm happier if we adopt the word they use for this phenomenon down in the Maritimes and Newfoundland: silver thaw. Poetic, eh? 
This word is not unique to Eastern Canada; apparently it is also used in the Pacific Northwest. Neither does it seem to be a North American invention, as Thomas Hardy (among others) used it.
But Newfoundlanders up the poetic ante with another word for freezing rain and its effects that is unique to them: glitter storm.
How prosaic are we with our "freezing rain" and "ice storm"!

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Cool interactive dialect questionnaire

What does the way you speak say about where you’re from? The New York Times has developed a cool interactive quiz. This is based on American English, but for Canadians it may reveal how unlike Americans you are. Also, who knew that there was a word for "drive-through liquor store", let alone more than one?


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Friday, December 20, 2013

What's that smell?

An avid Wordlady reader has written to inquire why the French word odeur has different connotations than the English word odour. This question arose because she, a singer like me, is rehearsing the lovely 17th-century French Christmas carol "Quelle est cette odeur agréable?". Clearly we cannot translate this into English as "What's that agreeable odour?", since "odour" has come to mean "unpleasant smell". As you will see below, English translators have opted instead for "fragrance".

The classical Latin word odor covered quite an olfactory range: smell, pleasant scent, unpleasant smell, perfume, spice.  In Old French, odeur tended to be used of a pleasant scent, and we took on the same positive connotations when we borrowed the word in the 14th century (we already had "stink" and "smell" for noisome smells). Gradually, though, "odour" became more and more associated with assaults on the nostrils, so that by the beginning of the 20th century, only negative connotations were left (in French, odeur is still used of both pleasant and unpleasant smells). 

But back to 17th-century France. Isn't it weird that a Christmas carol would be talking about odours at all, pleasant or otherwise? There was a belief that the bodies of saints near or after death exhaled a sweet balsamic odour, which was proof of their saintliness. In French this was called the odeur de sainteté. Imagine, then, what streams of aromatic exhalations would come from the newborn Jesus.

Not at all the type of odour you would normally associate with a baby.

My choir won't be singing this one this year, but we will be singing a lot of other lovely carols on Sunday the 22nd at St Thomas's Anglican Church, 383 Huron Street, Toronto ON:
7:00 p.m. Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols

  • Sussex Carol, English trad., ar. Willcocks
  • Adam lay ybounden, Boris Ord 
  • God rest you merry
  • The Holly and the Ivy, Eng., ar. H.W. Davies 74 (vv. 1-4)
  • Angelus ad Virginem, Basque, ar. Andrew Carter
  • In dulci jubilo, ar. Pearsall
  • Noël nouvelet, French trad., ar. Stephen Jackson
  • A Babe is born in Bethlehem, William Mathias
Organ: Variations sur un Noël Bourguignon, André Fleury; In dulci jubilo, BWV 729, 608 and 751, J.S. Bach
Do drop by

Here's "Quelle est cette odeur agréable?", and with it may I wish all Wordlady readers a very happy Christmas.

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French text

Quelle est cette odeur agréable,
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?
S’exhale-t-il rien de semblable
Au milieu des fleurs du printemps?
Quelle est cette odeur agréable
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?

Mais quelle éclatante lumière
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux
L’astre de jour, dans sa carrière,
Fût-il jamais si radieux!
Mais quelle éclatante lumière
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux.

A Bethléem, dans une crèche
Il vient de vous naître un Sauveur
Allons, que rien ne vous empeche
D’adorer votre redémpteur
A Bethléem, dans une crèche,
Il vient de vous naître un Sauveur.

Dieu tout puissant, gloire éternelle
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux.
Que la paix soit universelle
Que la grace abonde en tous lieux.
Dieu tout puissant, gloire éternelle
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux

English translation
by Rod Mather

Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?
adorns the air, and nothing like it
the shepherds sensed in fields in May?
Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?

A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.
The light of Christ, it is so radiant,
the beam it casts to be our way.
A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.

Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.
Adore your God and your redeemer;
Saviour of all to win the day
Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.

All pow'rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord.
Grace, peace and truth give to all nations
Spring forth from Jesus Christ our Lord.
All pow’rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Your birthday word: Wordlady's is... hydroflumethiazide?

The Oxford English Dictionary has a cool "birthday word" generator which lets you find out what word shares your year of birth (and sometimes your actual birthday).

How to search for a personal birthday word

If you don't have subscriber access to the OED, 
1) Complain to your public library that they should get it!
2) go to the Oxford Words blog, where you can find out a word first attested in the year of your birth.

If you have access to the online OED (for instance through your public library, such as Toronto Public Library for those of you who have a TPL card, and most university libraries), you can find out what word is first attested in the month of your birth, sometimes even on your birthday itself. 

Subscriber only Advanced Search

Step 1: Choose Advanced Search (under the "Quick Search" window at the top of the OED homepage)

Step 2: Enter the abbreviation for your month of birth in the advanced search box.

Month Abbreviation
January Jan
February Feb
March Mar
April Apr
May May
June June
July July
August Aug
September Sept
October Oct
November Nov
December Dec
Step 3: Select the  ‘-First Quotation’ option from the drop down menu  
Step 4: Enter your year of birth in the ‘Date of entry’ field  
Step 5: Click Search and discover if you have a personal OED birthday word.

You can imagine how excited I was to discover that the word closest to my birthday designates

A white crystalline compound, C8H8F3N3O4S2, analogous to hydrochlorothiazide and having similar effects and uses (given orally in the treatment of œdema and as an adjuvant in the treatment of hypertension).

and how mortified to discover that I almost share a birthday with... Barbie!

Share YOUR birthday word in the comments!

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

It's beginning to look a lot like Xmas: another newfangled abbreviation?

Photo by Tom Rickhuss on Unsplash

Clearly we can't blame Twitter and text messaging for the abbreviation Xmas, as it was around before they were, but I would be willing to bet that most people think that it is a fairly recent innovation attributable to nasty (and probably heathen) commercial interests for whom the word Christmas takes up too much room on their flyers and advertisements.

The truth is quite amazing.

In Greek, the word for "Christ" was Χρῑστός (khristos, literally "the anointed one"). The early clerics abbreviated this, not by using the Latin transliteration of the Greek sounds, which gave "Cr", but by using the Latin letters that looked like the first two Greek letters Χρ (chi and rho), so Xp. Way back in about 1022 (yes, you read that right), the person who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referred to early Christmas morning 1021 as "Xp̄es mæsse uhtan" ("uhtan" was an Anglo-Saxon word for the time just before sunrise, which we have managed to live without since about 1400).

Obviously, the desire to abbreviate frequently-used words is not a new invention of texters and tweeters; in fact if I were a monk spending my whole day in a cold monastery writing manuscripts, I'd want to abbreviate as much as possible! Throughout the Middle Ages, this Xp abbreviation for Christ was popular, and by the Renaissance it was shortened even more to X. By the same time, the older form "Christes mass" had become conflated to "Christmas", and logically, Xmas took over from "Xpes mass". Far from being informal or commercial, it was used in government and legal documents, and has been with us in its current form since the 1600s.

For the story of "Yule", see this post

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Do you make these 5 common language errors?

In last month's post, I gave you a list of 10 language naughtinesses. Here are five more (just click on the link to take you to the explanation):

1) Westminister

2) sing-a-long

3) just desserts

4) Brussel sprouts

5) faulty hyphenation

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Some of my friends are clergy; the rest are lewd

Well, Rob Ford continues to provide grist for Wordlady's mill, not least by, notoriously, making lewd remarks. You, dear readers, were no doubt not concentrating on the content of those remarks but rather were thinking, "Lewd, now that's an interesting word, where does it come from?"

Surprisingly, the original meaning of "lewd", way back in Anglo-Saxon, was "lay".

Not THAT "lay"!!

"Lay" as in, "not a member of the clergy". Because most non-clerics were illiterate, by the 13th century "lewd" had taken on the meaning of "unlearned", and with that the rot set in. "Lewd" went on a downward spiral through "vulgar", "ill-bred", and "evil, wicked" before finally coming to rest at " lustful, lecherous, wanton" and " indecent, offensive in a sexual way".

This may be a good example of word evolution to keep in mind the next time you need to argue with someone who insists that "decimate" has to mean literally "kill one in ten" because it comes from the Latin word for ten. By this logic, clergy could not possibly be lewd. NOT, of course, that I am suggesting anything, my clergy friends!

Now you'll be wondering why non-clerics are called laypeople. This "lay" has its origin in the Greek word laos (the people).

Can I tempt you with a ballet trip to Paris and Amsterdam in the springtime? For info, please click here: 

Don't forget to nominate Wordlady for a "Best English language blog" award: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/11/nominate-wordlady-for-best-english.html 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

For a laugh: Linguistic Prescriptivism in the workplace


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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.