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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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Rollicking Story of English course September - November 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".

What another student has to say:
Katherine is brilliant, and this is a FANTASTIC class packed with information both historical and practical. Katherine will provide you with the tools to legitimately assess all kinds of word questions you invariably run into. The Barber name has become a verb in our home when it comes to delving into word origin and usage, as in "I've got to Katherine Barber that when I get home." Take this class if you can!

Monday, 1:30-3:30 pm, September 17 - November 19,  
(no class on Thanksgiving)
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: 9 2-hour classes for $275 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. 

Week 9 How are Dictionaries Written?
Are lexicographers judging you? When does a new word make it into a dictionary? Different dictionaries for different folks.

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


Sunday, August 12, 2018

How prepositions can make us sound like old fogeys

Are you enamoured / enamored of something?
Enamoured / enamored by something?
Enamoured / enamored with something?
How about enamoured / enamored on something?

What preposition is correct after "enamoured / enamored"?

I know, you thought, "Well, definitely NOT "on"!" You may be surprised to learn that for the first three centuries or so after we borrowed this word from French, we English speakers were enamoured on people. Then, starting in about 1600, we became enamoured of people, and also of things.  

A much less frequent possibility was "enamoured with", so infrequent that the OED editors in 1891 declared it obsolete, although it wasn't.  "Enamoured with" burbled along for a couple of centuries, but then starting in the 1970s, began to stage a come-from-behind win on "of". (Keep scrolling after the chart, there's more.)

In the NOW corpus (6 billion words of online newspaper and magazine text starting in 2010), "enamo(u)red with" (1973 instances when I did the search) has pulled clearly ahead of  "enamo(u)red of" (1065 instances). This is confirmed by the Canadian Newsstream database of Canadian newspapers (2425 with vs 1166 of since 2010). Indeed, the late nineties seem to have been decisive in the onward march of with as you can see from this chart of yearly usages of "enamo(u)red with" in Canadian Newsstream starting in 1991.

We're not done yet with this preposition competition. Lurking on the horizon is "enamo(u)red by": 1289 instances on NOW, notably more than "enamo(u)red of", and 509 on Canadian Newsstream.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary offers only "of" but if I were revising it today I would change that. Personally, I say "enamoured of" and there is certainly nothing wrong with that, but as time marches on I will probably start to sound like an old fogey. What am I saying, I probably already sound like an old fogey to Young People Today. At least I don't say "enamoured on"!

For another prepositional shift, and more evidence of the arbitrariness of prepositions, see This is exciting.

I will be offering my fun "Rollicking Story of English" course in downtown Toronto again this fall. Subscribe to Wordlady to make sure you can be first to sign up when I open registration in a couple of weeks.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

More about mauve

Last week's post about the pronunciation of "mauve" created quite a stir. I promised that I would tell you more about this word, and here we are.

We owe the popularity of "mauve" in English to a British chemist, William Henry Perkin (1838–1907). As a student at the ripe old age of 18, Perkin was given the task of chemically synthesizing quinine, which was much in demand as an anti-malaria medication and at the time had to be derived from the bark of the cinchona tree.

Tinkering around in his lab with coal-tar derivatives, Perkin created a substance which, as it turned out, was not quinine, and useless against malaria, but fantastic as a colourfast and fade-resistant rich purple colouring matter. He had stumbled upon the first synthetic dye. 

Being a chemist and not a poet, Perkin called it "aniline purple", but he knew he was on to something. Previously, purple dyes had had to be obtained from a Mediterranean shellfish and were so expensive that only royalty wore purple clothes. Still only 19, Perkin plunged his father's life savings into a  factory to produce his dye, which others started to call "Perkin's purple". But two years later, in 1859, the more chic-sounding "mauve", borrowed from French (always our go-to language for fashion), took over. I'm not sad about the demise of "Perkin's purple" because can you imagine having to say, "This year's fashion must-have is this lovely Perkin's purple purse." Mauve quickly became all the rage in the fashion industry and Perkin became a very wealthy man. 

The French had been using mauve to designate a delicate purple colour since the beginning of the 19th century.  It was in fact the name for this plant:

Malva sylvestris

Mauve derived from the Latin name of the plant, malva. English had also borrowed this Latin word, as far back as Anglo-Saxon times, but in English it evolved into "mallow". (The Latin name was also revived in the Renaissance -- of course -- and is now commonly used by gardeners.) 

One variety of mallow is the "marsh mallow"

The roots of this particular mallow yield a mucilaginous substance that has over the centuries been used in medicinal preparations. Starting in the 19th century, it was also used to give the distinctive texture to the pillowy confectionery item we like to put in our s'mores. Nowadays, gum arabic has replaced the actual marsh mallow, but the name has stuck. 

And what is the French word for marshmallow? Guimauve!

For a flower that was even more successful in having a colour named after it, see pink

For more plant- and gardening-related posts, click here.

S'mores photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

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.