Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

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.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

This post has been thoroughly vetted

There is much talk in the news these days of the "vetting" of refugee claimants.

Does this have anything to do with that friendly medical professional that Minkus and Papagena so love to visit?

Surprisingly, yes. The word "veterinarian" (derived from Latin veterīnus: belonging or pertaining to cattle) came into English in the 1600s, when we LOVED borrowing Latin words. Admittedly it's a mouthful, and by the mid-1800s it was shortened to "vet". 

A few decades later, the inevitable had happened: the noun became a verb, "To submit (an animal) to examination or treatment by a veterinary surgeon":
Of the 73 stallions..only 39 came back for a second inspection after they had been ‘vetted’
Almost at the same time, in slang, the verb took on an extended sense: "make a careful and critical examination of (a plan, work, candidate, etc.)." By the 1950s, this sense had moved from slang to the neutral register of the language.

The other "vet" was shortened from "veteran", also in the mid-1800s. "Veteran", which we borrowed from French in the early 1500s, ultimately comes from the Latin word vetus (old).

To search the archives of this blog,

click here, then replace the word "search" in the search window with the term you are looking for.

To have fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox, click here to subscribe by email.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

The dossier on "dossier"

A thick dossier

This week, according to Merriam-Webster dictionaries,
Lookups for 'dossier' spiked after the news that U.S. investigators had confirmed portions of a dossier on Trump's ties to Russia
Why do we call a collection of documents about a person or event this? 

The French dossier comes from the word for "back" (dos); a bundle of documents on a particular subject was called this because it had a label on the back. We borrowed "dossier" in the mid-19th century, although we had the perfectly good "file" already (more about that later). Of course English has never been reluctant to acquire more synonyms for words it already has. 

The early quotation that Merriam-Webster gives is
I may, however, mention from high legal authority, that the President laboured under a mistake when he demanded the displacement or even communication of the “dossiers” (legal papers) of the Boulogne and Strasburg affairs.
Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 11 Jan. 1849
Various criminal cases in French-speaking jurisdictions were reported on in English newspapers, and the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century gave the word a bit of a bump in English as journalists reported on the scandal. Perhaps the fact that French was the language of diplomacy contributed to the word being borrowed in government circles.

DOSSY-ay or DOSSY-ur?

It seems that "dossier" first entered English through print rather than speech, because the OED's entry, written in 1897, gives as its first pronunciation not the French "doe SYAY", but rather the anglicized "DOSSY uh". But, while a very few people still do say this (or its r-ful North American variant, "DOSSY ur"), with English speakers becoming more familiar with French, we have, over time, ended up with a hybrid English/French pronunciation: "DOSSY ay" is now overwhelmingly most common in all varieties of English.  A very small number of anglophones do, however, pronounce this word "DOE see ay".


Now, what about file? (Thank GOD everyone pronounces it the same!)

In Latin, the word fīlum meant "thread". This came into Old French as fil (pronounced "FEEL"), and it means "thread" to this day in French (as well as "wire" and other extensions of meaning). 

But English went a different way with "fil" after we borrowed it from French in about 1500, using it for a very specific kind of thread: a string or wire on which papers and documents were strung for safekeeping and reference. From there it was just a short step for "file" to refer to the papers themselves, and then to other methods of keeping and organizing them, until in the 21st century our "files" are made of electrons.


Here in Canada we have our very own extension of the word "file":
  • 4. Cdn issues and responsibilities in a specified area, considered collectively: what progress has the prime minister made on the unity file?
Oddly enough, this is a context where other varieties of the language might use the word ... "dossier"! In fact, I suspect that this is a usage that arose as a loan translation of the French dossier in Canada's bilingual federal public service.


The "single file" sense of "file" is also ultimately derived from the same Latin word meaning "thread". The file we use on our fingernails is a different word, dating all the way back to Anglo-Saxon.  

And of course, all of these "files" have, quite naturally, generated verbs. Yes, more of those. No sign of "dossier" being used as a verb yet, but it's a fairly new word in English so it may be only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, please do not consign this blog post to the "circular file" (a term celebrating its 50th birthday in 2017)!

To search the archives of this blog,

click here, then replace the word "search" in the search window with the term you are looking for.

To have fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox, click here to subscribe by email. 

Check out my fun History of the English language course here 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Impeachment: When things ain't peachy

Image result for impeach

"Impeach" comes to us ultimately from the Latin word for foot, pes, of which pedam was one of the forms. From this the Romans derived their word for "fetter", (one of those chains you put on a prisoner's feet), pedica, and a verb impedicare (to catch by the feet or entangle). 

In French, as usually happened, a few syllables were lost from the Latin, and they ended up with empecher, which is the Modern French word for "prevent." And "prevent" or "impede" was what "impeach" first meant when we borrowed it into English in the late 1300s. 

But even as early as that it was also used to mean "accuse" by people who thought it derived from another Latin word impetere (which was the Latin for "accuse"). A sense of accusing of treason or another high crime dates from the 1500s, and from there the verb came to apply specifically to charging someone in public office of misconduct. It was an easy step from there to the meaning "remove someone from public office for misconduct". 

Perhaps surprisingly, PEACH (in the usage "to peach on someone" = to be an informer) is connected to "impeach", and to a synonym "appeach" that existed in the Middle Ages. Just like "impeach", "peach" in the 1400s meant "accuse" or "bring to trial." By Shakespeare's time it meant "inform against an accomplice" - in effect, accuse one's accomplice of the crime. 

For peach (the fruit), see this post:

To search the archives of this blog,

click here, then replace the word "search" in the search window with the term you are looking for.

To have fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox, click here to subscribe by email.

About Me

My photo
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.