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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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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Go for baroque

I recently started taking a baroque dance class, and wandering around Vienna and Prague, I have been seeing plenty of baroque art and architecture. This has got me thinking about all things baroque, including the word itself. 

The Portuguese word barroco designated irregularly shaped pearls, which were highly prized by Renaissance jewellers for their uniqueness. The word was borrowed into French in the 1500s as baroque and soon was extended beyond the realm of jewellery to describe anything odd or whimsical. It then came to apply to the new style of art and architecture, revelling in abnormality, distortion, and ornamentation, which replaced the sober correctness of Renaissance classicism. The word "baroque" was always somewhat derogatory and confined to art history until the late19th century, at which time it started to be applied to 17th- and 18th-century music as well as art and architecture. 

"Baroque" is pronounced differently in Britain and North America. In Britain, they go for ba-ROCK, whereas on this side of the pond we go for ba-ROKE. The British pronunciation seems to have arisen fairly recently, in the 20th century, since the OED's entry for the word, published in 1885, lists only ba-ROKE. Presumably British English speakers have let themselves be influenced by the French pronunciation. Where the "ba-ROKE" pronunciation came from is a bit of a mystery to me; possibly it was influenced by "rococo".

Here's a beautiful example of baroque dance (starting at 7:10)

If you want to be this elegant, why not sign up for a class yourself? You don't have to wear the outfit.

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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.