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, July 25, 2014

Do not confuse: Regimen, Regiment

Back a few weeks ago when we Canadians were all agog at how our compatriots were faring at Wimbledon, one of our national newspapers invited us to find out more about Milos Raonic's "intense off-season training regiment" in a video on their website.

What they meant was his regimen. (They actually posted the video in January 2014 and despite my chiding them on twitter, they still haven't corrected it).

"Regimen" and "regiment" ultimately come from the same Latin word  regimen (control, management, guidance), derived from regere (to rule, direct). In medieval Latin, this word also meant a course of medical treatment, a way of "controlling" or "managing" your body. From the 1400s on, both "regimen" and "regiment" were used in English to refer to a course of diet, exercise, and medication prescribed for restoration or preservation of health (apparently this included wearing your crown when you took a bath).

But by the 1800s, "regiment" had died out in this sense (except, apparently, at The Globe and Mail), no doubt because meanwhile it had come to refer to  a large body of troops under the command (the "control") of a superior officer, usually forming a permanent unit of an army. The first people to use "regiment" in this sense were the Germans in the 1400s, and from Germany the usage spread to all European languages.

Not content with having only two words derived from this Latin regimen, English borrowed another one, "regime", from French. This also designated a diet and exercise program for "governing" one's life, and showed up in such books as the hilariously titled 1596 tome, Easie Method to cure Spanish Sicknes (i.e. "Curing Syphilis for Dummies"):   "The rest of the time they use good regime, and drinke no other drinke."

It was not until after the French Revolution in 1789 that English adopted the "government" sense of "regime", which was then much in the news as references were made to the French ancien régime.  "Regime" in this sense has never been quite able to shake the negative connotations of totalitarian government which clung to it at its birth.  But the "diet and exercise program" sense has no negative connotations, especially in British English, where people are more likely to talk about their "fitness/health regime" whereas on this side of the pond we are more likely to refer to our "fitness/health regimen". 

But NEVER our "regiment". 

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Nipped in the bud

A Wordlady fan has asked about the word "nip". If it means a small piece of something, why does it also mean "go somewhere nearby quickly"?

"Nip" came into English in the 1300s, probably from a Dutch word meaning "pinch" and meant "pinch, bite or squeeze sharply", as it still does.  Since this kind of pinch or bite was something that was done quickly, soon the idea of "snatch or seize quickly" became attached to "nip" and from there it was a short step to "move quickly", a usage that has been with us since the early 1800s. 

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary both label this sense as "especially British". Of course we North Americans do not "nip down the pub" (at least not in so many words!) or "nip round the shops", but in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we did not put a geographically restrictive label on this meaning, which suggests we had plenty of North American evidence of people nipping out for a smoke or nipping down to the store. If you are Canadian or American, please let me know if this usage strikes you as more British.

There is a specifically Canadian use of the word "nip", found in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, where a nip (usually in a "nip and chips" combo) is a hamburger. This is particularly associated with the Salisbury House chain of restaurants which started using "Salisbury Nips" as a name for sandwiches and burgers in 1931 and registered it as a trademark in 1933.  Well-brought-up young ladies from Ontario told stories of being shocked when invited by their Winnipeg beau to go for a "nip", thinking they were proposing a shot of hard liquor (that's yet another "nip", derived from a Dutch word meaning "sip").
For another example of the linguistically fraught relationship between westerners and easterners, see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/guess-whos-coming-to.html

Of course the "nip" that's most popular at Chateau Wordlady is the one that caters to Minkus's and Papagena's drug habit: catnip. This word is totally unrelated to the other "nips", being derived from the Latin name of the plant (possibly of Etruscan origin), nepeta.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Taking a dive

This may be the dive Arjen Robben is apologizing for. Or maybe not. Only the Dutch striker really knows for sure.

Seeing as, with the World Cup on, it's been all soccer all the time, you may be wondering about the origin of the word "soccer". It comes from the term “Association Football”, which was used in England to distinguish football played under the rules of the “Football Association” from that played under the rules developed at Rugby, a famous private boys' school. “Association Football” being too long to say, people abbreviated “Association” to “Assoc.” and created the word “soccer”.

With that out of the way, let us turn our attention to a word much bandied about in these World Cup games: dive. Of course this provokes many "did he or didn't he?" conversations, not to mention many more conversations discussing whether one should say "he dived" or "he dove". 

The verb "dive" is very old indeed, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times (surprisingly, we didn't think to turn it into a noun until several centuries later, in the 1700s). The Anglo-Saxon dýfan , dýfde , gedýfd was a regular transitive verb meaning "to submerge". But it got conflated with another Anglo-Saxon verb, this time an irregular transitive one meaning "dive, plunge" dúfan , past tense déaf , plural dufon , past participle dofen. 

The regular conjugation (dive, dived, dived) won out, as is usually the way with these things. But for some reason, an irregular past tense for "dive" cropped up sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, especially in North America: "dove" (rhymes with stove). Most dictionaries will tell you that the earliest attestation is from Longfellow, but here's one from almost fifty years earlier:

The Lovers of La Vendee: Or Revolutionary Tyranny

My notice was just in time, he dove as the boatmen fired.

The OED suggests that "dove" arose by analogy with "drove", though it offers no explanation for the lack of "diven" in that case. 

If you are wondering whether it is ok to say or write, "He dove", there is no reason not to do so. North American dictionaries list it as one of the possible past tenses of the verb. Mind you, they give no advice on whether it is wise to say so when watching a World Cup match with supporters of the other team.

Friday, July 4, 2014

British vs. American English

I laughed when I found this on Tom Freeman's twitter @Snoozeinbrief and couldn't find an easy way to put it on facebook, so this is why I'm posting it here. You can also follow Tom's blog at http://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/. I am interpreting this as an ironic comment on British assumptions about American English!

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Down with "Wimbleton"


I have a friend who is driven crazy when she hears people mispronouncing the famous shrine of lawn tennis as "Wimbleton". "WimbleDDDDDDDDDDDDDon. Argh!!" she vents on her facebook page. 

And she is right to complain. The name "Wimbledon" was first recorded  in about 950 as "Wunemannedune", which clearly would take up too many characters for people tweeting about tennis, so needed to be shortened. Dun(e) was one of the Anglo-Saxon words for "hill" (a cousin of the French word that gave us "dune"), so this place was probably originally the hill of a man called Wunemann. Dun is not to be confused with tun, the Anglo-Saxon word that gave us "town", and which does of course show up in many place names. Just not this one.

(Wimbledon seems to be the victim of another mispronunciation: "Wimpleton". A wimple is a type of veil covering the head, chin, sides of the face, and neck, common in medieval times and surviving in traditional nuns' attire. The word dates from Old English.)

I'm not done with dun, though, because it's, well, downright fascinating.

Just as tun ended up as "town", dun ended up as "down", and although we don't call hills in general "downs" anymore, this word has survived as the name of the Downs, the treeless rolling chalk uplands of the south and south-east of England (apparently they also have Darling Downs in Australia). 


One of the world's most famous racecourses is found here, the Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, and no doubt in homage to it, "downs" is also used in the names of many racetracks in North America. Bizarrely, though, the only dictionary to include this sense of "downs" is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary!

But there was an even greater destiny in store for this Saxon word meaning "hill": it would become... an adverb! and... a preposition!! And pretty important ones, too. 

In Old English, the way to say "from the hill" was  of dune. Since people coming from a hill were of necessity going from a higher point to a lower one, the reduced form adune came to mean "to a lower point, closer to the earth". Adune quickly became dune, and the two words ended up as  "adown" (which the OED is still not ready to call obsolete) and its wildly successful offspring "down". It's entertaining (at least to me) to realize that the word "downhill" means, etymologically speaking, "hillhill".

For the origin of the word "tennis", see this post: 

For the origin of "racquet", see this post:

PS Happy Fourth of July to my American followers!

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.