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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, February 28, 2014

Short Shrift for Shrove Tuesday

Next Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent, is what the French call Mardi gras ("Fat Tuesday"), better known in English as Pancake Day, or more liturgically, as Shrove Tuesday. If you're planning to scarf down some pancakes, you might want to check out this post about crêpes, but if you're more into penitential mortification, you might be thinking "What is a shrove, anyway?".

"Shrove" was the past tense of the Old English verb "shrive" (impose a penance on, hear someone's confession).  "Shrive", written scrífan in Anglo-Saxon, is related to the modern German word for "write", schreiben; the connection probably being that a penance was a prescribed penalty.

In preparation for the beginning of Lent, it was the custom to confess your sins, to "be shriven" so as to start the penitential period with a clean slate. The Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday was your last chance and thus came to be known as "Shrove Tuesday",  although we could have kept one of the earlier names for this day which emphasized the "beginning of fasting" aspect rather than the confessing aspect: Fastens-een, Fast-gong, and Fastingong (from "fast" + "ingang" (entrance).

Although the base verb "shrive" from which "shrove" derived lost out to "confess" (this latter word being a Jeannot-come-lately  borrowed from the French in the late 1300s), another "shrive" derivative survives, or, more precisely, was revived, in the phrase "give someone short shrift". "Shrift" was the Anglo-Saxon word for "confession"; it took its first blow from the French upstart and then really suffered as a result of the English Reformation, which abolished the practice of confession altogether as being a Catholic thing.

A "short shrift" was originally a brief space of time allowed for a criminal to make his confession before execution. It is mentioned in Shakespeare but then not again until Walter Scott used it a couple of times in his historical novels in the early 1800s. Scott loved reviving archaisms, and he was such  a popular writer that he succeeded in reinstating many such words in the English language. By the mid-1800s, "short shrift" had come to mean "brusque or dismissive treatment", and this usage took off quite rapidly.

Don't forget my weekday evening "condensed" history of the English language course starts March 24th! More info, click here: 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Congratulations, Women's Hockey Team! (Now, how do I say that?)

A while ago I ran a survey asking people how they pronounced "congratulate/congratulations". With many medal-winners deserving to hear those words these days, it seems an appropriate time to look at the results. 

The question was:

Do you say 




(some people insisted they said con GRAT you, but frankly I don't believe them, unless perhaps they were having to sing the word in a church choir).

The Canadian speakers' results were:

The GRADGE group tended to be under the age of 40.





So, GRADGE is clearly a North American phenomenon.  American and Canadian dictionaries give both pronunciations, with GRATCH first. But not so long ago, the Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), which is remarkably non-judgemental in its pronunciations, felt the need to say that "GRADGE" was "chiefly in sub-standard speech", and I have certainly heard it criticized. This "language maven", for instance, calls it an "informal and sloppy" "beastly mispronunciation"  (conveniently not addressing the question why the -tion in "pronunciation" is not equally "sloppy"...)

But, as is so often the case in language change, a phenomenon originally considered "sub-standard" becomes the norm. It seems to me when I watch American TV shows, the only version I hear is GRADGE (people are always congradgalating someone on The Good Wife, for instance).

The question is: why has GRATCH become GRADGE?  Phonetically what is happening is that the voiceless consonant "tch" is being replaced by its voiced equivalent "dg". Replacing a voiceless "t" between two vowels with a voiced "d" is standard in North American English, where "tutor" and "Tudor", "traitor" and "trader" end up sounding the same. But we don't typically do it with the "tch" sound. The only other two words that I could find that have the same pattern of vowels and consonants as "congratulate", "spatula" and "flatulent" (I don't make these things up!) don't become "spadgula" and "fladgulent".  

I have two theories. Possibly we are recasting "congratulation" on the model of "adulation". But I rather doubt it.  I suspect our tendency to voice intervocalic consonants (a tendency that goes back to Anglo-Saxon times and accounts for why the plural of "half" is "halves") is being reinforced in the case of "congratulate" because, in addition to the two vowels surrounding the central "tch", the consonants leading up to it are all also voiced: n, g, r . In "spatula" and "flatulent", on the other hand, the initial consonants are voiceless.  Well, that's my theory; I would love to hear any comments from phonologists.

In any case, whether we say conGRADGalations or conGRATCHalations... kudos to all those Olympic athletes!

And, speaking of which, how do you pronounce "kudos"? Let me know (if you're a speaker of Canadian English) in my poll: 

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The injustice of injuries

The Olympics are now in full swing, and all this pushed-to-the-limit physical activity brings with it the risk of injury, such as the one that caused figure skater Evgeni Plushenko to pull out of the competition and retire from the sport.

Working so hard for so long, only to have all chances of winning eliminated by an instance of body betrayal does seem to reflect a fundamental cosmic unfairness, and in fact the word "injury" is related to the word "injustice".

In Latin, jus meant "right, law, justice"; in derivatives, jus became jur-. This is why we have the word "justice" but also related words like "jury, jurisprudence" and so on. So, in Latin, an injuria was an injustice done to someone. This was the sense that "injury" first had in English when we borrowed it from Latin in the 1300s.

A couple of hundred years later, "injury" had taken on another meaning: a spoken injustice, an insult. Although it no longer has this sense in English, in French the word for "insult" is still injure.

By the 1400s, "injury" was also being used to mean some physical damage or loss, but it could apply to damage caused by the elements to a building, or the physical unpleasantness of standing out in the rain. It wasn't until the 1800s that it settled down into its now most common meaning of more serious, temporarily incapacitating damage inflicted on some internal part of the body.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Testing one's medal

The Olympics are upon us, and as usual there will be much handwringing and gnashing of teeth over the use of "medal" as an intransitive verb meaning "win a medal". 

As you know by now, there is nothing wrong with taking a noun and making it a verb (see this post).

What will no doubt surprise you is just how long this has been done with "medal", and who the "culprits" are. In 1822, Byron wrote this: "He was medalled and well mounted." and in 1860, Thackeray wrote this: "Irving went home medalled by the king." These examples are both transitive, in the sense "provide with a medal, bestow a medal upon", but the "win a medal" sense also dates from the mid-19th century. In the specifically sporting sense, it dates back to the 1960s at least (that's fifty years ago, so hardly "new").

I really see no reason to object to it; it's really quite an efficient way of saying "win a medal". Incidentally, the word "place" underwent the same evolution: originally a noun, then used as a transitive verb, and finally as an intransitive verb meaning "finish in a certain place". 

I suspect that one reason people don't like "medal" as a verb is that we already have the identical-sounding "meddle" (which has a complicated history we'll go into some other time), and, for that matter for us North Americans, "metal" and "mettle". However, English has hundreds of homophones, so this is not a valid objection either. 

The noun "medal" came to us via French and Italian in the 1500s, and ultimately goes back to the name of an ancient Roman coin, the medalia, which was worth half a denarius (a coin originally worth ten asses).

If you're wondering how to spell the present participle and past forms of the verb "medal", they are:
"medalling" and "medalled" if you follow British spelling practice, 
"medaling" and "medaled" for American spelling practice. Canadians do both; traditionally it was "medalling" and "medalled", but I suspect it is shifting towards the American practice. 

Now, what about the verb "to podium"?

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.