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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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Sunday, October 12, 2014

The cream of the crop

Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians!

I hope you all enjoy a generous dollop of whipped cream with your pumpkin pie (I feel it is only a matter of time before the medical establishment determines that cream is, in fact, the absolutely best thing for our health).

Most dairy-product-related words go back, not surprisingly, to Anglo-Saxon times: milk, cheese, skim, curd, butter, cow. But "cream" didn't crop up in English till the 1300s. So, first of all, you have to wonder what the Anglo-Saxons called the stuff, since they obviously knew it existed. Their word was fliete, which was related to "float" (because cream floats on top of milk). "Cream" came into the language with the arrival of the French. We probably ended up using the French word because cream is, after all, a luxury product, and the French were the ruling classes in medieval England. 

Where the French got the word is an interesting story. They crossed a word from Gaulish (i.e. the language of the Celts living in France before the Romans arrived) meaning "cream" with the Latin word chrisma (an oil for anointing). In particular, chrisma was a specially consecrated oil mixed with balm  and used in certain sacraments such as baptism and confirmation. "Chrism" has this meaning still in modern English. Since cream is a fatty substance, the French took this Latin word meaning "oil" and applied it to "oil of milk", so to speak.

For the story behind "pumpkin", click here
For the story behind "turkey", click here

And if you're a fan of cream teas, you might want to check out my ballet trip to London in February. Click here for details. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

When is a Segway not a segue?

I recently came across this sentence in an article about Royal Ballet dancer Eric Underwood:
"And while he may not have intended for his “black and white” remark to be a pun, it does create a segway into ballet and its relationship with race." 

"Segway" is a proprietary name for a kind of scooter. One has to assume that this is not what the writer had in mind.

The correct spelling (and indeed the inspiration for the name "Segway") is "segue", which admittedly is a pretty unusual way in English to transcribe a word sounding like "SEGway". But, like so many musical terms, this one is originally Italian, segue being the third person singular present of seguire (to follow). It came into English, again like many Italian musical terms, in the 18th century, and has been used since then as a musical direction (1) to proceed to the following movement without a break, and (2) to continue a formula which has been indicated.

It chugged along as a technical term known only to musicians for a couple of centuries, until the mid-20th century, when musicians started to use it to mean "transition without a break from one melody or song to another". By the 1970s, "segue" had expanded beyond the world of music to cover any kind of transition, and was being used as both a noun and a verb.

All of the conjugated forms of "segue" look a little odd, but here they are: segues, segued, segueing.

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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.