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!


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Sunday, December 17, 2017

#ScienceNotSilence: Vulnerable

"Vulnerable" is one of the words that the US administration has reportedly told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention they may no longer use in budget reports.

It's an odd word, when you look at it. What can it literally mean? "Able to be vulnered"? It is in fact a 16th-century borrowing from Latin vulnerābilis wounding, from vulnerāre to wound. 

One of those many "inkhorn terms" we borrowed from Latin at the time, "vulnerable" did originally mean "able to wound", but very quickly it took on a passive sense, "able to be wounded". At first, this was literal, as in this quotation from Macbeth:
a1616   Shakespeare Macbeth (1623) v. x. 11   Let fall thy blade on vulnerable Crests, I beare a charmed Life. 
But very soon it came to be used figuratively:

b. fig. Open to attack or injury of a non-physical nature; esp., offering an opening to the attacks of raillery, criticism, calumny, etc.

1678   R. Cudworth The true intellectual system of the universe: the first part We had further Observed it, to have been the Method of our Modern Atheists, to make their First Assault against Christianity, as thinking that to be the most Vulnerable.
The most recent usage started in sociology in the 1940s. Consider the second quotation and contemplate how much wisdom is to be found in the quotations of the Oxford English Dictionary!
Designating a person in need of special care, support, or protection (esp. provided as a social service) because of age, disability, risk of abuse or neglect, etc.
1947  Journal of Educational Sociology  20 261   We have cited above the more dramatic ways in which children are hurt and neglected by their communities and their families. These are the ‘vulnerable’ children, those who need extra care, extra protection, and a background of careful planning for them.
1963  The Times Literary Supplement 15 Feb. 112/3   The care of vulnerable groups is one indication of a country's degree of civilization...
The other words reportedly banned are

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! You can sign up for the whole 8-week course or just drop in for the lecture(s) of your choice (so long as you book in advance). More info here:

To have fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox, click here to subscribe by email. 
Looking for an entertaining speaker? Here are some of my topics:
Why is English so wacky?
A fun-filled and light-hearted but informative look at the weirdness of the English language and how it got to be the way it is. Includes things you never suspected about husbands, ptarmigan, porcelain, and much more. Laughs guaranteed...even when you find out why "guarantee" has such an odd spelling.

Bachelor for Rent: Things You Never Suspected About Canadian English”
A hilarious look at what is distinctive about Canadians and their language
English Schminglish: How Jews have Enriched our Language
An entertaining look at how Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched the English language for thousands of years

Friday, December 15, 2017

How do you pronounce CLAMBER?

Hey Ma! I clamb the tree!!

Kittens love to clamber up trees (...and curtains). 

But... do they "CLAMburr" or do they "CLAMMER"?

First of all, let us look at the word from which "clamber" derives: "climb". Although the b was pronounced back in Anglo-Saxon times, it started being dropped by the time of the Norman Conquest, and by the 1500s it had become silent. As a result, we even sensibly spelled the word "clime" for about two centuries. But, as usual with English spelling, less sensible heads prevailed, we reinstated the silent b, and we ended up with our modern spelling.

When the past tense of "climb" was "clamb"

"Climb" has not always been the regular verb it is today: 
present: climb
simple past: climbed
past participle: has climbed
Instead, from the earliest times, the past tense was 
clamb, clumb, or clomb

and the past participle
  clumb or clomb

For some people, these forms survived into the 1800s, and according to the OED, in Scottish English this verb is to this day conjugated
 clim, clam, clum
I love it!

Starting in about 1300, though, a new regular past tense and past participle, "clim(b)ed", crept into the language, and was pretty well established by the Renaissance.

How "clamb" gave us "clamber"

But that old irregular past tense "clam(b)" is at the origin of "clamber", a word which cropped up in the 1400s.  By that time, the b was not being pronounced in "climb" (or the past tense "clamb"), so neither was it pronounced in "clamber",  which was in fact more likely to be spelled "clammer" well into the 17th century. 

But just as "climb" got its b back, so too "clamber" acquired a b in its spelling. But unlike "climb", "clamber" also acquired a b in the pronunciation, probably because almost all other English words ending in -mber have a pronounced b

Why some North Americans say CLAMMER

This introduction of a b into the pronunciation, however, happened after English colonists took the CLAMMER pronunciation with them to America. In North America, this older, b-less pronunciation of "clamber" survived. This survival of older vocabulary and pronunciation on this side of the pond frequently explains differences between North American and British English.

All the same, according to a survey I did, CLAMMER, though still healthy, especially in the US, is much less common than the b-full pronunciation. Here are the results:

US: CLAMburr: 113  CLAMMER: 46
Canada:  CLAMburr: 83  CLAMMER: 12

No one outside North America said CLAMMER. 

As you can see, although CLAMMER is the minority pronunciation in both countries, CLAMMER is more common in the US than in Canada.  For all that, a Montrealer told me she had never heard anyone saying CLAMburr. (Meanwhile a Vancouverite told me she had never heard CLAMMER!) 

All this has nothing to do with "clamour/clamor", which is a completely different word, borrowed from French in the 1400s and ultimately from Latin clāmōr (a call, shout, cry). As should be evident from the explanation above, people who pronounce "clamber" as a homophone of "clamour" are not simply confusing these very semantically different words. And those who suggest that it's wrong to pronounce it CLAMMER because then it and "clamour" would be homophones are simply ignoring the literally hundreds of homophones we have in English which rarely present an obstacle to understanding (great for punning, though).

When I worked on the entry for "clamber" in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a colleague and I were each convinced that the other's pronunciation was WRONG. Or at the very least RIDICULOUS. I said CLAMburr, he said CLAMMER. Both pronunciations ended up in the dictionary, and he and I still talk to one another. (But CLAMburr is listed first, ha!) 

All the same, one of the things you learn (or should learn) when working on a dictionary is that you have to be humble about variants other than your own (and that in fact you might not have even known about previously).  Because CLAMMER is the minority variant, some of my poll respondents who used it apologized for doing so, accusing themselves of "lazy" speech. Others who didn't use it dismissed it out of hand as "a mistake". But as you can see from the above, there are usually legitimate historical reasons for variants such as these. Just look at the fascinating facts about the English language you can unearth if your reaction is "I wonder WHY?" rather than "Well, that's just WRONG because I don't say it that way".

How do YOU pronounce "clamber" (and what variety of English do you speak)?

For the silent b in lamb, click here:

For the silent b in crumb, click here

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! You can sign up for the whole 8-week course or just drop in for the lecture(s) of your choice (so long as you book in advance). More info here:

Photo credit: Koen Eijkelenboom on Unsplash

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How do you pronounce "grimace"?


A friend of mine recently posted on facebook that she was surprised to hear a narrator pronounce the word "grimace" as "grim ACE". 

Several others chimed in that this was clearly wrong.  Everyone knows it's pronounced "GRIM us".

I thought so too, but it's always best to check before making pronunciation pronouncements. Lo! It appears that "GRIM us" is an upstart. A hundred years ago, "grim ACE" was the only pronunciation for this word. 

Before that, when we first borrowed the noun in the 1600s from the French grimace, we pronounced it a la francaise "gree MASS". By the time we turned the noun into a verb in the 1700s, it was being pronounced "gree MACE".

It is not uncommon for the stress in English to migrate from the second syllable to the first, leaving the vowel in the second, unstressed syllable to be reduced to a schwa. This is clearly what happened, though it is hard to say when exactly in the 20th century this came about. 

One thing is for sure, when we surveyed Canadians about their pronunciation of "grimace" for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, no one said "grim ACE", so we included only the "GRIM us" pronunciation. Other dictionaries, however, give "GRIM us" first and "grim ACE" second.
There are two theories as to the ultimate origin of "grimace":
  1. Middle French, alteration of grimache, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English grīma mask
  2. Spanish grimazo caricature, from grima fright.
How do you pronounce "grimace"? 

I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! More info here:

Photo credit: Tom Roberts on Unsplash

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Why is there a toe in mistletoe?

Are you hoping to smooch with someone under "A yellowish-green, dichotomously branched, hemiparasitic Eurasian shrub, Viscum album" (as the OED so unromantically defines it) this Christmas?

Back in Old English, this plant with reputed magical properties was called mistiltan. Tān was the Old English word for "twig". But coincidentally tān was also the plural of (toe). This led to a very early confusion of the two words, especially as tān lost the battle to "twig" and died out of the language. 

As for the possible etymology of the "mistle" part, it may make you less inclined to hang out under a sprig of this plant. The OED tells us this:
etymology uncertain: perhaps < the Germanic base of mix (the now obsolete Old English word for "dung"), from the fact that the plant is propagated in the excrement of birds
You will have noticed that the botanical name for mistletoe is Viscum album (album meaning "white").  Being smart word lovers, you will have instantly recognized the source of our word "viscous". Viscum was what the Romans called not only mistletoe, but the slimy, sticky substance made from its berries that was spread on tree branches to catch birds.

Having now filled your brain with associations like "excrement" and "slime" for this innocent word, may I express my wish for you that any relationship that starts (or continues) for you under the mistletoe this Christmas is one that... sticks.

I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! More info here:

Friday, December 8, 2017

Rollicking Story of English course January - March 2018

I am once again offering this fun and informative survey of the English language, described by one of my students as "the best course I've ever taken".

Wednesday, 1:00-3:00 pm, January 17 - March 8, 
Goethe Institute
100 University Ave., North Tower,
Suite 201
on the west side of University a few steps south of King
1 minute walk from St Andrew subway station

10 minutes or less walk from Union Station GO, fully covered via the PATH.
This venue is fully accessible.
For nearby parking see here:


Price: 8 2-hour classes for $240 including HST
Enrollment limited to 20 people.

Subject to space, you may attend one or more individual lectures at $35 each, but you must let me know which ones you will be attending at least a week in advance.

Please register in advance by 

emailing me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com or phoning me at 416-693-4496
and either
1) arranging an Interac e-transfer
2) sending a cheque made out to
Katherine Barber
201 Hanson Street
Toronto ON
M4C 1A7
Please write "English course" on the cheque

Why is English spelling so chaotic? Why do we have so many synonyms? What might your name tell you about the history of the language? What is the history behind your favourite language pet peeve? This course is a highly informative and entertaining survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years. We will tie linguistic developments with the social and political events with which they coincided. Forget your dull high school English classes as Katherine Barber takes you on a surprisingly hilarious trip through a crazy language.

  1. Week 1 Celts and Anglo-Saxons:

Celtic and Latin relics from pre-5th century Britain. The Germanic origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar. Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use apostrophe s for the possessive.  Relics of Anglo-Saxon dialects in Modern English.

  1. Week 2  Using the Oxford English Dictionary.

A primer in using this essential online and print tool to research the history of English words.

  1. Week 3 The Vikings:

Old Norse borrowings into English. Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous.

  1. Week 4 The Norman Invasion:

A brief history of French. Middle English. Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The origins of chaotic English spelling.

  1. Week 5 The Renaissance: Early Modern English

Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. The Great Vowel Shift. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"? The effect of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on the vocabulary

  1. Week 6 The 18th Century:

The prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century at the origin of our present grammar “rules”. Samuel Johnson. Re-examining our pet peeves. 

  1. Week 7 The 19th Century to the Present :

The influence of Sir Walter Scott, the industrial revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire. Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags". 

Week 8 American and Canadian English:

Have they corrupted the language? Noah Webster and his dictionary. Why are British and American spelling different? The history of Canadian English. Are we more British or more American? How we can be very confusing to other English speakers. 

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! Sign up here.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

12 Days of Wordlady

In case you missed this in previous years, my series  starts here (links to the subsequent days are listed in each post).

Farting is involved.

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.