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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, June 27, 2014

The Back of Beyond

I don't know if you've noticed, but the word "beyond" has acquired a new function recently. It has always been an adverb, meaning "farther away, on the other side", and is related to the now mostly defunct word "yon". 


But in the last few years it has taken on a different adverbial function: modifying and intensifying adjectives, especially positive ones like "happy", "excited", "beautiful", and "thrilled", although I have recently seen "beyond insane" and "beyond jealous", but the winner seems to be "beyond angry", as in the following (keep scrolling down after the chart, as there's a bit of a gap before the post continues): 

  Here is the earliest example I could find on Google Books, from 1976 (you can thank me later, Oxford English Dictionary).

The Man who Loved Beauty - Page 6

Leonard W. Robinson - 1976 - ‎Snippet view - ‎More editions
I had turned, in a kind of slow dreamlike turn, and there was the goddess herself, Zeus's wife, standing beside me in the flesh. And she was beyond beautiful. She was Beauty itself.


from 1983 

Double Love - Page 11

Kate William, ‎Francine Pascal - 1983 -
"And now she was beyond happy that she'd made the decision to keep it to herself. Todd and Jessica. It makes perfect sense, Liz thought. The star of the football team would go for the the captain of the cheerleading squad.."

This is a work of teen fiction (I bet you would never have guessed), so rivetingly described that I know you will want to rush out and get a copy: "WELCOME TO SWEET Valley High—a world of good girls and bad girls, hot boys with fast cars, perfect tans and natural highlights . . . all under the Southern California sun."

If it weren't for the 1976 quotation above, I would therefore wonder whether this usage started in Valley Girl slang, if the authors were making a conscious effort to emulate the usage of their protagonists.


  I also found this early one for "beyond angry": 

Business as Usual - Page 179

Linda Wisdom - 1984 - ‎Snippet view - ‎More editions
No, she was beyond angry. From the time Casey had walked out of the house until Kate's arrival, Drew had had plenty of hours to think over Casey's words. The tears had dried up, the trembling lower lip stiffened, the sniffing silenced and ... 

As far as I can tell, this is romantic fiction (never say I don't introduce you to great literature!).

You are no doubt beyond thrilled that I have brought this to your attention. Beyond ecstatic, even (goodness, we are excitable and hyperbolic these days). In fact, if I had entitled this post "Beyond takes on new adverbial function", it would probably have gone beyond viral.

What other adjectives have you noticed that are modified by “beyond”? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Sweven

Midsummer Day is traditionally observed June 21 or 24, though here in Ontario it feels as though winter is barely behind us. My thoughts turn of course to Shakespeare, and in particular to the word "dream". 

You would think that the word must date back to Anglo-Saxon times, but in fact "dream" is surprisingly mysterious. There was an Old English word "dream", but it meant "joy, pleasure, rejoicing" and also "music or song" (we have already seen with the word "glee" this connection between joy and music). The related verb also meant "behave in a drunken manner", but I shall gloss over that quickly.

It is possible that these Anglo-Saxon words morphed into "(events you) see in your sleep", but as these latter usages of "dream" didn't crop up till the 1300s, the connection is tenuous.  The Anglo-Saxons used the words sweven, meting, or i-sight for what we call dreams.

Another question about "dream" is: are the past forms "dreamt" or "dreamed"? Both seem to have existed since the Middle Ages. "Dreamed" is now much more common than "dreamt" in all varieties of English, but "dreamt" continues to plug along, less commonly used in American English than in other varieties. I'd be interested to know (in the comments) which one you use, and if it depends on whether you're saying "Last night I  [had a dream]" or "In my wildest imaginings I never would have [thought] I'd be a ballerina".

As for nightmares (like me being a ballerina), they have nothing to do with horses. "Mare" in this case was an Anglo-Saxon word for an evil spirit who was believed to suffocate people in their sleep.

But speaking of equines, here's a cute video from Dutch National Ballet, showing a day in the life of "Bottom" in Sir Frederick Ashton's charming Dream.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

A word you never suspected had something to do with poets

Here in Canada we have an annual poetry award, the Griffin Prize. The prize for 2014 was announced last night, so in honour of poetry we are going to look at a word you never suspected had something to do with poets: scold.

Scold comes from skald, a Viking word for an ancient Scandinavian poet. Goodness knows what Viking poets were like, because the word subsequently came to mean "a person of ribald speech". From there it was but a step to "a verbally abusive person". By about 1400 the noun had morphed into a verb meaning "to use violent or unseemly language in vituperation" (gotta love those Oxford English Dictionary definitions!)

I think it highly unlikely that 500 years from now, English speakers will be saying something like "My mother really poeted me after I stayed out all night"!

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.