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

Thursday, May 3, 2018


I was just at a ballet symposium in San Francisco, and was brought up short by hearing speakers pronounce "ancillary" as

ANsill airy

I only say (and thought I had only ever heard)

an SILL uh ree


Once I got over my "These Yanks talk weird" reaction, I thought I'd better check it out. Yes, American dictionaries give 

ANsill airy

whereas British dictionaries and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary give only

an SILL uh ree  

As is so often the case, the American pronunciation is the older one (see also clamber, process, lieutenant, height, primer, herb). It would seem that the British switchover started in the 19th century and was not firmly established till the 20th.

I'm always rather surprised when I find Canadians opting overwhelmingly for a British pronunciation; usually we are split 50/50 or 75/25. If you are Canadian, please let me know how you pronounce this word!


Where does the word "ancillary" come from? The Latin word ancilla meant "slave girl", and will be recognized by anyone familiar with the Magnificat: 
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden: For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
I cannot of course omit to mention that this line was given a particularly beautiful setting by Bach:



It appears that many people misspell this word "ancilliary" as if it were like "auxiliary", and as a result (or perhaps the cause of the misspelling) pronounce it

an SILLY airy 
an SILL yuh ree

Do not do this. 


When "ancillary" was first borrowed from Latin in the 1600s, it meant "additional, but less important than". Some people in the 19th century used it to mean "of or pertaining to a maidservant", but the Oxford English Dictionary (uncharacteristically, it must be said) minces no words about its opinion of THAT:
rare and affected.
Take THAT, Thackeray! 

It acquired a new meaning, 
Providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, system, etc.
in the early 20th century, and as you can see, enjoyed a  quite rapid increase in popularity, although now it seems to be waning:


  1. I'm Canadian, and pronounce ancillary with the accent on the second syllable.

    Also: I see so many people who are usually excellent spellers spelling "led" as "lead" that I'm beginning to wonder if I've been wrong about it all these years. I'm beginning to doubt myself!


    1. You're right, that is a very common spelling mistake indeed. I guess if we have read, read, read, it would make more sense to have lead, lead, lead. It's like "sneak peek". It's got to the point where when I see it spelled correctly rather than as "sneak peak", I have to stop and think!

  2. I am Canadian and pronounce it "an SILL uh ree". I have noticed other similar differences. Presbytery, for example, is normally pronounced in Canada "PRESS bi tree", and in the US "PREZ bit airy".

  3. Accent on the second syllable. I'm Canadian, from Toronto. Might the American way have something to do with how "ancillae" is pronounced (from cursory online research, which might also be American)?

    1. When I studied Latin the teacher had us pronounce the c always hard (k), and told us the emphasis was generally on the penultimate syllable, which would make ancilla pronounced an-KILL-a and the Canadian/British pronunciation correct.

    2. except that we're not speaking Latin :-)

  4. given the meaning of 'additional, but less important than' and 'Providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, system, etc.' how does ancillary relate to the word auxiliary, as in auxiliary nurse?

  5. I say "an SILL uh ree." Like you, I don't remember ever hearing the American pronunciation. Mind you, I probably wouldn't have recognized it as the same word!

    1. I definitely had to stop and think when I heard it!

  6. an-SILL-uh-ree is how I have always heard it pronounced. (But I watch a lot of British television.) This word came up this week in my email Word for Today from the Merriam Webster dictionary and I was surprised to hear a different pronunciation. I see the Cambridge Dictionary has provided both pronunciations with the one I use as the U.K. version. Canadians need our own dictionary webpage!


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.