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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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Friday, February 23, 2018

Just stop thinking and praying already

This week on Wordlady's Empty Pious Platitudes Watch....

No, you're not imagining it. The use of that annoying phrase "thoughts and prayers" really has increased exponentially in the last couple of decades, especially in North America. Here's the Google Books chart for American English, 1850-2008:

The British are not so guilty, but they have also increased their use of this cliché

The evidence on the corpus of Contemporary American English for "thoughts and prayers are with" is even more striking (the third column of numbers is occurrences per million words):

1990-1994 5 104.0 0.05
1995-1999 6 103.4 0.06
2000-2004 13 102.9 0.13
2005-2009 23 102.0 0.23
2010-2014 20 102.9 0.19
2015-2017 42 62.3 0.67

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Friday, February 16, 2018

Oo! Wales!

I am currently researching a course about varieties of English worldwide, one of these being Welsh English. I had read that a distinctive characteristic of Welsh English speakers is the way they pronounce some words which for the rest of us have an "oo" sound, as in "boot".

First, they pronounce "blew" and "blue" differently, the former having a slight short "i" sound before the "oo" and the latter not.

I felt that my research would not be complete without looking at (oh yeah, and listening to) YouTube videos of the actor Ioan Gruffudd being interviewed. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. The sacrifices I make for my students.

Imagine how thrilled I was when he spontaneously uttered "blew" in this interview. You can hear it at the 4:53 mark. It (and also his vowel in "withdrew" a bit later) is definitely different than the vowel he uses in "two" and "roommate" later in the clip. https://youtu.be/8tubh_QYZ8E?t=4m6s

Another "oo" word that has a distinctively Welsh pronunciation is "tooth", where Welsh English speakers use the vowel of "book" rather than the vowel of "boot". A particularly grisly scene from the Welsh detective series Hinterland fortuitously delivered up confirmation of this. 

OK, so I may be the only person who watches TV and gets excited like this: "She said tooth!!! He said blew!!!"

Friday, February 9, 2018

Empty vessels

Some empty vessels (and one that isn't)

Goodness knows why, considering the current political situation, but I came to reflect on the proverbial phrase "empty vessels make the most noise" and got to wondering how long that bit of folk wisdom has been around.

Turns out that people were already onto blowhards in the 1500s:
1547   W. Baldwin A treatise of morall phylosophie contaynyng the sayinges of the wyse   As emptye vesselles make the lowdest sounde: so they that haue leaste wyt, are the greatest babblers. 
1589   R. Greene Menaphon: Camillas alarum to slumbering Euphues   Emptie vessells haue the highest sounds..and pratling gloriosers, the smallest performaunce of courage.
I definitely think it is well past time for the revival of the term "prattling glorioser".

While looking into this, I discovered three other folksy sayings that I was not familiar with:
an empty sack (bag) cannot stand (upright)  [after Italian sacco vuoto non puo star in piedi]: great hunger or need renders a person weak, weary, or desperate.
he could start a fight in an empty room

better are small fish than an empty dish

The "p" in "empty" has not always been there. Back in Old English (when the word could mean "at leisure" or even "unmarried" in addition to its current sense), it was √¶metteg. But the middle "e" got squished out of it, leaving "m" and "t" bumped up against one another. In this phonetic situation, a "p" inserted itself to make the transition from one consonant to the other easier. By the 1600s, a new spelling reflecting this, "empty", had ousted the old spelling "emty". 

But I'm pretty sure I don't pronounce the "p" myself, even when speaking very carefully (I don't pronounce it in "temptation" either). Do you pronounce it?

Photo by Paul on Unsplash

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A fun noun-verb/verb-noun conversion quiz

MacMillan Dictionaries has created this fun quiz on my favourite subject, functional shifts, better known as "Is it OK to use a noun as a verb or a verb as a noun?" The answer is YES, by the way. You can read my thoughts about it here:
For many other examples that I've written about, you can click on the "nouns as verbs" tag.

Here's the quiz:

I don't think the point of the quiz is to see how many you get "right", actually. I think it is to show how very embedded these conversions have become in English, so we no longer have any notion that "Well, that's really a NOUN; it shouldn't be used as a verb". Or vice versa.

Oh, and by the way, if you're tempted to quote Calvin and Hobbes "Verbing weirds language" as someone always does when this topic comes up, please don't. Verbing enriches the language, and it's perfectly normal. Not weird at all. 

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.