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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, March 6, 2015

Shuffle off to ...

I was just watching an item on the news about the reintroduction of humped, shaggy-coated bovids to Banff National Park. 



At least that is what I would call them. But zoologists don't like this, saying that buffalo are a different animal (literally) and that the impressive monarch of the Canadian prairies is a "bison". Just to drive the point home, the animal's taxonomic name is Bison bison ("Didn't you hear me the first time???"). 

What interested me in this report, though, was the varying pronunciations. The reporter and the wildlife guys said "BIZE 'n", whereas someone else said "BICE 'n" (mind you, that person also invented the word "habitated", so perhaps his speech practices are suspect). 

Both  pronunciations are in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, with BIZE being the more frequent one. British and Australian dictionaries give only BICE, while American dictionaries give both BICE and BIZE, but in that order. Is saying "BIZE 'n", therefore, a more Canadian trait, perhaps influenced by the French pronunciation bee-ZON?

Entertainingly, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry edited in 1887, also gives "BISS'n" and "BIZZ'n", saying "Etymologically, BISS'n is most correct". So much for etymology!

What do you say?  

In this TV segment, someone also weighed in about the sacred significance of this animal for his people, the aboriginal peoples of the Prairies. How did he pronounce it?


For several years now, the Manitoba Telephone System has been featuring bison in a clever series of ads. My father, a prairie boy at heart, loved these ads, which are very entertaining, so here is one for you to enjoy. Make sure you watch right to the end.

For information on my spring "Rollicking Story of the English language" course, please click here.

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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.