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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, December 7, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Turtle-doves

I hope you've all recovered from the shocking revelations about partridges and are now ready to move on.

The first time I heard "the voice of the turtle is heard in the land" in the Song of Solomon, I thought, "That's just WEIRD. Do turtles even have voices?"

I was confusing two words of entirely different origins.

The turtle with a shell was originally a tortuca in popular Latin, believed to be a derivative of tortus (twisted), because the south European species had crooked feet*. This came into English around 1400 as "tortuce". This could be spelled in a dizzying variety of ways, so of course we ended up settling for the least logical one, "tortoise". Apparently, according to  some British English dictionaries, this is in fact pronounced "TORtoyze" by some people. Do any of you say this, rather than the more common "TORt'ss"?

Meanwhile the French had also got their tongues wrapped around tortuca, and had reduced it to tortu, so we borrowed that one too just to be on the safe side. 

This is where confusion arose. English sailors confused the word "tortu" with the already existing "turtle" (about which more later), and started calling marine tortoises "turtles". In North America "turtle" came to be the default word in common speech for all critters of the order Testudines, though zoologists make a distinction between strictly terrestrial tortoises and freshwater or saltwater turtles. 

The "turtle" with which  "tortu" became confused was the turtle dove, so called since Anglo-Saxon times, the proverbially affectionate pigeon which the Romans brilliantly dubbed a turtur in imitation of its burbling coo.

Here's a beautiful pas de deux from Frederick Ashton's Two Pigeons which plays on the association of doves and love (start at 1:40). You can see the entire fabulous ballet live from the Royal Ballet in cinemas in January 2016! (If you're a ballet lover, please check out my ballet website toursenlair.blogspot.com):


Why is "dove" (and "love", for that matter) pronounced "duv" but spelled with an "o"? See this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/01/isnt-it-funny-how-bear-likes-honey.html

  *Note: Merriam-Webster gives a different etymology for this  "turtle": "modification of French tortue, from Late Latin (bestia) tartarucha, feminine of tartaruchus of Tartarus, from Greek tartarouchos, from Tartaros Tartarus; from Mithraic and early Christian association of the turtle with infernal forces"

For why we write "twelfth" rather than "twelvth":

For pipers, click here:

For lords a-leaping:

For why I'm not the Word Wench:

For why milkmaids work in a dairy rather than a milkery:

For what swans have to do with singing, click here: 

Why we don't say "gooses" and "gooselings: 

For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:


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:
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  1. I have just discovered you Wordlady - but spell check keeps insisting you are called Wordplay, which isn't a bad alternative nom-de-blog. I am enjoying the 12 Days. Thanks


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.