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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, June 16, 2016


Following my post accumulating all my gardening words, a Wordlady reader has written to inquire about COTONEASTER, a quite popular shrub. She became acquainted with the written word before hearing it spoken (a problem shared with the people in this post), and so thought it was pronounced "Cotton Easter". I must admit I shared that misapprehension with her for a long time. (Be honest, now, how did you hear the title of this blog post in your head when you saw it?)  

In fact it is "kuh tony ASS ter".

Its name comes from modern botanical Latin cotonea (quince) + the suffix  -aster, essentially the Latin equivalent of  "-ish". So a cotoneaster is a plant that is "quince-ish", kinda like a quince:

The flower called an "aster" tout court gets its name from another word, the Latin and Greek word for "star", aster. As you can see in this photo, it is an appropriate name. 

Fortunately, botanists have resisted the urge to name an aster-ish flower an "asteraster".

The story of how we got to "quince" is also quite fascinating. The Romans had originally called the fruit a mālum Cydōnium, from mālum (apple) + Cydōnea (the name of the town in Crete now known as Khania). This became classical Latin cotoneum.
As we have seen before (peach), Latin words got squished into something shorter by the French, who usually dropped the ending and the middle consonant. So cotoneum became coin in Old French (a different coin than the one meaning "corner"). In modern French this is spelled coing, just so we English don't have a monopoly on ridiculous silent letters in spelling

Like many French food words, coin (also spelled quoyne or quyne) was borrowed into Middle English. So why don't we call the fruit  a "quin"? Very early on, the plural "coins/quynes" (also spelled "quince") was taken to be the singular. Naturally, we then had to create a new plural, to wit "quinces".

For another surprising word history involving quinces (and cats), 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.