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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 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 

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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.