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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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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The real source of stamina

When you talk about someone's stamina you are literally saying that he or she is at the mercy of the Fates.  

Stamina is the plural of the Latin word stamen (thread), which of course has given us the word for the threadlike part of a flower.
Image result for stamens
Image result for stamens

But stamen was also used to mean the thread spun by the three Fates in Greek and Roman mythology, the length of which determined one's life. 

Image result for three fates
Her stamina has definitely run out

When "stamina" first came into English around 1700, it was as the plural of this word "stamen". Maintaining the metaphor of the thread spun by the Fates, it meant all the bodily characteristics that could be expected to determine one's life expectancy. That sense died out, leaving us with the current meaning, the capacity to endure fatigue and exertion. 

The word ceased to be plural and became a singular. Knowing this may come in handy the next time someone berates you for using "media" or "data" with a singular verb. Would they say "Her stamina are extraordinary"?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

More English Masochism

Dear faithful Wordlady readers! As you can see, even when I am washing my hands I am thinking of what nifty info about the language I can share with you.

So this week's topic is the plant called chamomile. Or is it camomile? And if the former, what the heck is that silent h doing in there?  You will notice there is no h in the French version.

Like so many names for herbs and other foodstuffs, this is a word we borrowed from French after the Norman Conquest. Old French camomille came from late Latin chamomilla, which came from Greek khamaimēlon (literally "earth apple" from khamai earth + mēlon apple, because of its low-growing habit and the apple-like smell of its flowers). Old French did not believe in inserting unpronounced letters just because they happened to be in the Latin word.

So, in English too, from the 1200s to the 1500s, "camomile" was spelled as it was pronounced. But, as we have seen before, starting in the 1500s English had a mania for inserting silent letters in words to represent Latin etymology. "Camomile", like "debt" and "receipt" and so many other words, was influenced by this trend, but did not completely succumb to it. 

Or not yet. Traditionally, dictionaries will tell you, the United States prefers "chamomile" while everyone else prefers "camomile". However, a survey I did this week of an international group of editors revealed that a whopping 191 opted for "chamomile" versus only 23 for "camomile".  This trend crossed geographical boundaries, and is supported by various corpus searches, which show "camomile" beating a retreat. And this, despite the fact that non-American dictionaries list "camomile" first. Shows you how little influence dictionaries have when the users of the language get the bit in their teeth.

But WHY, when we had the choice between an easier-to-spell, more intuitive variant and a harder-to-spell, less intuitive one, did we have to opt for the latter? I can only conclude that we English speakers really are masochistic when it comes to spelling.

Another question about this word is: How is it pronounced? Does the last syllable sound like "mile" or like "meal"?

Here we have a quite stark North America / Rest of the World divide. My survey revealed the following:

US: Overwhelmingly "meal"
UK, Ireland, Australia: Overwhelmingly, almost exclusively "mile"

This meant, of course, that Canadians had to do their usual thing and be split more or less down the middle, with a slight preference for "mile".

Interestingly, a couple of Texans and a smattering of others had a pronunciation not listed in dictionaries: "mill". 

This pronunciation difference may be a result of the Great Vowel Shift. Before the 1500s, "camomile" (and "mile") were pronounced like modern "meal". Then the shift happened, but perhaps it didn't affect "camomile" as quickly as it affected "mile" and so the earlier version came over to North America. I used to think "camomeel" was an affectation but I should stop being so judgemental.

For just a few of our many other silent letters in English, please see this post:

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The times they are a-changing

I was recently reading a blurb for a book about 19th century prescriptivism  (Language Between Description and Prescription: Verbs and Verb Categories in Nineteenth-Century Grammars of English by Lieselotte Anderwald) which referred to "one of the most violently hated constructions of the time".

Grammarians of the time called it "a clumsy solecism", "an incongruous and ridiculous form of speech", "an awkward neologism, which neither convenience, intelligibility, nor syntactical congruity demands".

Can you guess what it was?

The progressive passive.  As in "the house is being built". 

Unobjectionable, you say? HA! Many teeth were being gnashed and much hair was being pulled out by grammarians who insisted that the good old "the house is building" or "the house is a-building" were perfectly fine, thank you very much.

As late as 1871, in A grammar of the English language: for the use of schools and academies. With copious parsing exercises, William Bingham held forth, blaming the usual suspects:
Out of this form ("The house is a building") has grown, by the omission of the preposition, what grammarians call "the passive voice of the participle in -ing" as, "The house is building.". This latter is, in turn, almost entirely superseded by a very objectionable form engrafted upon the language by the newspaper press: -- "The house is being built" which literally means, the house is existing in a built state.

By the end of the 19th century, when grammarian Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury admitted that the new progressive passive was here to stay, he still opined 
Double methods of expression, like "the house is building" and "the house is being built" will in some cases doubtless continue to exist side by side for a long time to come.
Time makes fools of us all.

For more usages formerly criticized as wrong see this post:

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Meekly kneeling upon your knees

Image result for kneeling
OK, so I had a LOT of sins to confess. Didn't realize it would take THIS long

I always tend to smile inwardly when I hear the following adjuration in church: "Make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees."

"What the hell, oops I mean heck (I am in church after all) else could you kneel on?" think I irreverently.

Kneeling made headlines recently when, as a sign of protest against social injustice, football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers dropped to their knees rather than standing during the pre-game singing of the American national anthem

But what would you say? "They kneeled"? or "They knelt"? 

I would only say "knelt", and I assumed that this irregular past tense was something we had inherited from Anglo-Saxon, like a lot of our irregular tenses. Indeed my kneejerk (emphasis on the jerk) reaction on seeing "kneeled" was that it was some recent upstart and probably INCORRECT.

Brace yourself, o reader. I was WRONG. (I hate when I have to say that). 

"Knelt" did not in fact crop up until the 17th century, before which time "kneeled" was the past tense. It followed in the footsteps of "feel", the past tense of which gradually shifted (or should I say "creeped"?) from "feeled" to "felt" between the Norman Conquest and Shakespeare's time. But the fact that "knelt" was later to the party than "felt" meant that "kneeled" came over to North America, where it has survived, whereas "feeled" died out of all varieties of English. 

Subsequently, "knelt" also migrated to North America, where it is now considerably more common than "kneeled".

Over time, some verbs that started out as irregular have become regular (see, for example, this post about "reach") and the reverse has also happened, as we have seen with "kneel". We grow to accept whatever catches on. Some people rant about "dove" rather than "dived" as a past tense of "dive" (see this post) and "snuck" rather than "sneaked" as a past tense of "sneak", but they are just further examples of this time-honoured tradition.

It's time for back to school and... back to Tea and Wordlady! Full afternoon tea plus talk $50, 230 pm. Please let me know if you would sign up for any of the following, and which day of the week suits you best: Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.
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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Doing the needful

A Wordlady reader has inquired whether the phrase "do the needful" is of Indian English origin, saying this:
I only started hearing/reading "do the needful" when IT off-shoring started happening on a big scale and I began interacting with folks based in or originally from India.
The corpus evidence suggests that this is indeed a very common phrase in Indian English, much more common than in other parts of the English-speaking world, and it seems to have achieved the status of a catchphrase, judging from this statement:
 The many dialects of Indian English are as varied as the country itself...there are other relatives of mine who are verbose and unfailingly flowery in their emails, generally ending with “Kindly do the needful”,
The other South Asian countries -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka -- are also fond of this phrase, as are, to a somewhat lesser extent, the English-speaking countries of West Africa.
In this article, it is described as "the granddaddy of all Indianisms"

Do the needful

The granddaddy of all Indianisms, a clunky phrase mostly used only by bureaucrats and people forced to plead with the bureaucracy. And yet so apt when you don’t want to type out, “Please send me the five forms I need to file my taxes” or “Please fix the road in front of my house that I have written three letters about already”. “Do the needful” covers a multitude of requirements, and avoids repetition. Should it be revived, old fashioned though it is?
But it is neither unique to, nor originally from, the Indian subcontinent. There is plenty of British English evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary:
1710   J. Lovett Let. 1 Apr. in M. M. Verney Verney Lett. (1930) I. xii. 210   Waiting on proper persons and doing the needful in all places.
1831   Sir Walter Scott Jrnl. 24 Apr. (1946) 164   Young Clarkson had already done the needful—that is, had bled & blisterd severely, and placed me on a very restrictd [sic] diet.
1865   F. Locker-Lampson Select. from Wks. 155   This cloth will dip, And make a famous pair—get Snip To do the needful.
1929   I. Colvin Life of Dyer xvii. 167   The conspirators at Delhi..sent orders..‘to look out and do the needful at once’.
1992   J. Torrington Swing Hammer Swing! xiii. 118,   I went over to the drinks cabinet to do the needful.
and likewise in online corpora, although it is certainly not as frequent as in South Asian English.

Furthermore, it is fairly absent from North American sources historically, so this might lead North Americans to think it is an invention of Indian English. What is in fact happening is a not infrequent phenomenon in post-colonial Englishes:  Indian English has taken a phrase that existed in British English and run with it, so to speak. It will be interesting to see if this brings about a revival of the phrase in other varieties of English.

COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. REGISTRATION NOW OPEN AND SPACE IS LIMITED. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html
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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.