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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Friday, January 31, 2014

Throwing over "iconic"

An avid Wordlady reader has asked me to do something to stop the overuse of the words "icon" and "iconic". (For the history of these words, see this post.)

Which is a shame, because I want to invite you all to see two truly iconic ballet companies and some iconic dance works on my ballet trip to New York in May (click here for more details).

It is true that this hyperbolic use is getting out of hand, as you can see in the chart at the end of this post (click here if you can't see it), but hyperbole seems to be the way of the world. If it's any consolation, you can see that "icon" seems to have peaked, though "iconic" continues its steady march upward. As hyperbolic words are overused, they lose their force, and then we have to look for something else to overuse.

The OED dates this new sense development of "icon" to 1952:

A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect.
1952   C. S. Holmes in Pacific Spectator Spring 248/2   ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’, the work of a high-spirited young man turning a critical eye upon a national icon, satirically fabulizes the American Mr. Moneybags.
1975   Business Week (Nexis) 12 May 74   A large number of freshmen Congressmen sympathetic to knocking down institutional icons such as the ICC and CAB.

and of "iconic" to 1976:

Designating a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context. 
1976   Newsweek 23 Feb. 59/3   His long-distance picture of Robert Smithson's iconic ‘Spiral Jetty’, with the artist seen as a speck walking along the top of an arch of his own work, is the finest example of its kind.

The ngram chart does show the beginning of the upward trend in the mid-70s.

You are perhaps wondering why a word that means "exaggeration" (hyperbole) is so similar to one that you learned in math class to describe this:
 They both come from a Greek word meaning "excess", from hyper (over) and ballein (to throw). Doubtless my "icon(ic)"-hating correspondent would like these words to be thrown over, but unfortunately that is not in Wordlady's power (although she's certainly no fan of mindless hyperbole).

While we're on the subject of exaggerating, you may also be interested to know that this word comes from the Latin word agger (heap) and originally meant literally "heap or pile up".  Whatever kind of heap or pile you think of when next you hear or see the word "icon(ic)" is of course up to you.

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! 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

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

How to improve your association meetings

Would you like to improve your professional or industry association meetings with a little light relief from the information-heavy and serious (and, let's say it, often boring) presentations? I can tailor a fun talk to just about any topic. I just entertained the general meeting of the Adhesives and Sealants Manufacturers Association of Canada with a talk about words related to sticky stuff. If I can do it for glue, I can do it for you!
Please contact me to see what I can do for you.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Vote for Wordlady as Best Language Blog

Thank you to those who nominated Wordlady  for Macmillan Dictionaries Love English "Best Blog" award. Now it's time to vote! Please follow this link and vote for Wordlady!
Thank you.

5 more language errors to avoid

Continuing on in our series, here are five more mistakes to avoid (just click on the link to take you to the post):

1) VERY COMMON ERROR: incorrect verb tense sequence in conditional sentences (I know, I know, it just doesn't get more exciting than that)

2) pouring over a book 

3) priviledge 

4) florescent, floride 

5) pedal and peddle 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

It's, like, older than you think.

The New York Times  has just published this interesting interview with the new editor-in-chief of the Oxford English Dictionary, Michael Proffitt. Michael taught me how to write OED entries when I first started with Oxford Dictionaries 21 years ago. I know he will do great things.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Canadian Hustle

The Academy Award nominations are in, and American Hustle is a frontrunner. (Somehow, I just can't imagine a film called Canadian Hustle. It seems so, well, un-Canadian.) The word "hustle" is older than you probably think.

From its first appearance in English in the 1600s, "hustle" has been associated with money and somewhat disreputable activities. It comes from the Dutch husseln or hutselen (to shake). This was particularly used in reference to a gambling game called hustle-cap or pitch-and-hustle. In the first round of this, coins were shaken in a hat, then each player tossed one onto the ground, aiming at a mark. The coins were then shaken again and all tossed onto the ground, with the player whose coin had landed closest to the mark winning all the coins that landed heads up.

By the 1700s, "hustle" was being used to mean "shake or jostle a person violently" (especially with the intent of robbing them). From there, it acquired its many other senses:

move roughly, quickly, or forcibly.
sell aggressively
swindle out of money
work as a prostitute.

As you can see, we kept the basic Dutch "HUSSLE" pronunciation, but as usual, though for a while we were quite happy to spell it "hussle" as well, we chose to make our lives difficult by settling for a spelling that included a silent t, by analogy with words like "castle", "bustle", "bristle" and so on, where at least the t was originally pronounced.

If you want to experience a good kind of "American Hustle", the hustle and bustle of New York and the energetic dancing of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, please check out my upcoming ballet trip to the Big Apple at the end of May. Click here for details: http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2014/01/ballet-weekend-in-new-york-may-2014-now.html 

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year's Resolution: Get Naked

Many of you may have made your New Year's resolution to go and lift some weights and ride the exercise bikes at the gym. 

But I bet you weren't thinking, "and I will do my exercises naked, too!"

Nonetheless, this is the origin of the word gym, or more specifically of its longer, now barely (ha!) used form, gymnasium.

In ancient Greek, gymnos meant "naked", and because Greek athletes really did exercise naked, they developed a verb meaning exactly that, gymnazein (roughly, "to nakedize"), and called the place where they did it the gymnazion. The Romans took this word and turned it into gymnasium. We borrowed it, like so many Latin words, at the Renaissance, although at that time we were not referring to the local sweat parlour but to these places in the ancient world. By the early 1800s, though, after Europe's first gymnasium in the modern sense opened in Copenhagen in 1799, gymnasiums were cropping up in England, thanks to the rising popularity of doing exercises for physical fitness. By 1860, the short form "gym" was being used by Yale University students.

In the Germanic countries, however, the word "gymnasium" underwent a different evolution. Presumably because of the "healthy mind in a healthy body" motto of the ancients, by 1600, Germans were already using "Gymnasium" to mean a secondary school. So if you are in Germany and see a gymnasium, do not pop in expecting to pump some iron. In Germany, the physical fitness type of gymnasium is more likely to be called... "ein Fitnessclub"!

What is the plural of gymnasium? Gymnasiums? Gymnasia? There is really no reason to use the Latin form, although some writers do so when referring to the gymnasia of the ancient world. Otherwise, stick with the English plural. (For more on Latin plurals and why not to use them in English, see this post.)

I hope you stick to your gymnastic resolutions (or even better, try beginner adult ballet!), but please... keep your clothes on!

It's not too late to join my very popular History of the English Language course. If you missed the first one, don't worry, we'll do a quick review before launching into the next week's topic. More info: click here.

Friday, January 3, 2014


Last year, in the days before Epiphany (January 6) we looked at great length at the word frankincense, so now it's time to look at one of the other gifts of the Magi: myrrh.

Myrrh is a bitter, aromatic gum resin exuded by various Arabian and African trees of the genus Commiphora and used traditionally in perfumes and medicines. The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, and thus as one of the gifts of the Magi it is believed to foreshadow the death of Christ.

It is one of a very few words, almost all of them church-related, borrowed from Latin into English during the Old English (pre-1066) period. It had come into Latin from Greek, and ultimately comes from a Semitic root meaning "bitter", making it  related to the Hebrew word maror (bitter herb), used of herbs (usually horseradish) eaten at the Passover Seder service as a reminder of the bitterness of the Israelites' captivity in Egypt.

Myrrh's very odd spelling (all those extra consonants for a word pronounced in British English like "muh") is due to people imitating one of the Latin spellings -- the most complicated one, naturally -- at the Renaissance. For a while in the Middle Ages we flirted with nice, simple "mir", but that would never do. 

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! 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 to wordlady.barber@gmail.com
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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.