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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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Thursday, April 28, 2016

A smorgasbord of possibilities



Inquiring minds want to know...

What's with the word "smorgasbord"? Does anyone use it anymore?

In my Winnipeg youth, quite a few restaurants boasted a smorgasbord or all-you-can-eat buffet, but it's a word that is hardly ever used in English in this literal sense anymore, except referring specifically to the original Swedish buffet of open sandwiches and other dishes, such as smoked and pickled fish, cheeses, and salads. 

Its etymology is as follows:
< Swedish, < smörgås (slice of) bread and butter ( < smör butter, cognate with smear n. + gås goose, lump of butter) + bord board n., table
Food fashions are notoriously transient, and the smorgasbord trend of the 60s and 70s seems to have been particularly fleeting. I don't really know if these smorgasbords limited themselves to authentic Swedish food; I rather think they were just buffets with a fancy name. 

But we English speakers have not abandoned the word "smorgasbord". That would be so unlike us, to get rid of a good word. It is alive and well meaning "a rich variety or selection".   Here are some examples of the types of smorgasbord we may hear about today:
a smorgasbord of:
sights
events
possibilities
ideas
approaches
political candidates
law school dropouts
Do you use the word "smorgasbord" to mean "buffet"? Did you in the past?

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Friday, April 15, 2016

When you are mizzled by English spelling

We all know that English spelling and pronunciation do not match up very well.

A facebook group I belong to recently had a very entertaining discussion of words that its members had mispronounced for a very long time because they had only ever seen them written.
The culprits:


WORD MISTAKEN PRONUNCIATION CORRECT PRONUNCIATION
Placebo PLACE-bo Pluh SEE bo
Pinochle Pin OACH'll PEE nuckle
Epitome EPPY tome ip PITTA mee
Awry AWEree Uh RYE
Rely RELLee Ruh LIE
Asylum ASSY lum Uh SYE lum
Misled MIZZ'ld, MIZE'ld Miss LED
Underfed Un DERFD Under FED
Ascites ASS kitties Uh SITE eez
Whodunit WODD you nit Hoo DUNNit
Subunit Soo BUNNit SUB you nit
Fatigue FATTY goo Fuh TEEG
Anathema ANNA THEEmuh Uh NATH uh muh
Voila VOYL uh Vwah LA
Infrared In FRAIRD IN fruh RED
Flamingo FLAY ming go Fluh MING go
Sundried (tomatoes) SUN dreed SUN dried
Nauseating NAW seeting NAW zee ate ing
Paradigm Para DIDGE um PARA dime
Omnipotent Omnee POTE 'nt Om NIP uh t'nt
Redolent Ree DOLE 'nt REDDA l'nt
Picturesque PICK chur skew Pick chur ESK
Cesarean Seez ur EEN Suhz AIR ee 'n
Pseudo Puh SWAYED oh SOO do
Hyperbole HIPE ur bole Hi PURR buh lee
Colonel Koe l'n ell KER n'll
Bedraggled BED ragg 'lld Buh DRAG 'lld
Hitherto HITHER toe HITHER too
Indict In DICKT In DITE
Chaos CHAY oze KAY oss
Fajitas Fuh JYE tiss, FADGY tass Fu HEE tuhzz
Aspartame A SPARTA mee ASS purr tame
Inchoate INCH oh ate In KO uht, INKO uht

What words have you had this experience with?

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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Friday, April 8, 2016

No rhyme or reason

Coat of arms of Canada.svg
There's a reason for those thistles and shamrocks

A Vancouverite facebook friend of mine recently posted that she had "rhymed off" her telephone number to someone. 

I leapt on it, as I am wont to do. "Did you know that 'rhyme off' is a CANADIANISM?" I exulted triumphantly (and felt quite smug when a few Americans chimed in to say that they had indeed been perplexed by her usage). "Ha!" said I. "Seeeeee! Other people don't use this!"

But I was much deflated the very next day when the First Law of Lexicography (The minute you make a pronouncement about a word not being used, you will be sure to hear it or see it in the mass media within 24 hours) raised its ugly head. Thanks to another facebook post, I learned that a certain Ross O'Carroll-Kelly (a name so cartoonishly Irish that it is, not surprisingly, a pseudonym) wrote this in The Irish Times
Sorcha goes, “Oh my God, Ross, this is the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done to me!”
I’m pretty sure it’s not. I could rhyme off a list, although I’m not sure it would help the situation.
Was I -- gasp -- WRONG about "rhyme off"?

The OED did not include "rhyme off" when they revised the entry for "rhyme" in 2010. Not surprising that they overlooked it, considering that there are only two instances of the phrase (both from Scottish speakers) in the 1.6 BILLION words of British Hansard (the record of the debates in the British parliament) between 1805 and 2005. Only one example (from Ireland) appears in the 100 million words of the British National Corpus. So it certainly isn't used in English English. 

The 1.9-billion word corpus of Global Web-based English has only 
5 examples from the UK, three of those being definitely Scottish, 
5 from Ireland,
none from anywhere else,
but a significant
18 from Canada
In contrast, in a mere 50 million words of the Strathy Canadian corpus, "rhyme off" appears 9 times. 

So I think we can still claim Canadian citizenship for this word. 

Or perhaps we should say Canadian landed immigrant status, because it seems we inherited it from our numerous Scottish and Irish settlers.

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has this entry:

rhyme off verb to recite; to talk (UK: SCOTLAND) From Scottish dialect rame (to talk nonsense; to reiterate): "For one thing, rhyming off the places he'd broken into."
The OED also has an entry for "rame":
Of uncertain origin.
Scottish, Irish English (northern), and English regional (northern)
To shout, cry aloud, scream; to keep up the same cry, to repeat the same thing continuously; to complain persistently.

So it would seem that "rhyme off" is actually a corruption by folk etymology of "rame off", and has nothing really to do with rhymes.  Clearly, it landed on fertile soil when it arrived in Canada, where it has continued to thrive

Tell us about YOUR usage of "rhyme off". Where are you from, and do you use it/recognize it, or not

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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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.