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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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Monday, August 24, 2020

An issue with "issue"

 A Wordlady reader has written to complain about the word "issue", to wit

 What about "issues" which in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic has replaced all possible synonyms and more to the further impoverishment of our language. What is its origin and has it always been abused as it is these days?

Whew.  Abuse, impoverishment (nay, FURTHER impoverishment), replacing all possible synonyms, that's a lot to pack into two sentences. Hyperbole is not uncommon when people take against new usages. 

"Issue" has been around since 1325 and has 19 meanings, plus more sub-meanings, in the OED, so it's definitely a polysemous word. When it entered English from French (ultimately from Latin exīre to go out, < ex out + īre to go) it had the meanings "a flowing out" and "offspring". If you object to all other usages than those being "abuse", well... good luck with that.

It certainly has not replaced all its possible synonyms. Let's look at some of them, from the Oxford Paperback Thesaurus:

  • 1. the committee discussed the issue: matter (in question), question, point (at issue), affair, case, subject, topic; problem, bone of contention.
  • 2. the issue of a special stamp: issuing, publication, publishing; circulation, distribution, supplying, appearance.
  • 3. the latest issue of our magazine: edition, number, instalment, copy.
  • 4. (Law) she died without issue: offspring, descendants, heirs, successors, children, progeny, family; informal kids;
  • 5. an issue of blood: discharge, emission, release, outflow, outflowing, outflux; secretion, emanation, exudation, effluence; technical efflux.
  • 6. (dated) a favourable issue: (end) result, outcome, consequence, upshot, conclusion, end. 

Last time I checked, all these words are alive and well. 

I think what this reader is objecting to is the use of "issue" to mean "problem". This usage has been around since the 70s and has certainly taken off since the 80s. Its origins were in psychology in the US, most likely, I suspect, to avoid the negative judgemental connotation of "problem". Personally I don't see anything wrong with avoiding negative judgemental connotations. I like to give the example of a ballet teacher of mine who would give us an exercise and when we were done making a hash of it would say,  "Three issues:..." This made me feel much better than if he had said "Three problems".  And in the great scheme of things, was I going to turn out as a better ballet dancer if he'd crushed me with a word with demeaning connotations?

This is a perfectly normal outgrowth of the sense of "issue" meaning "point of contention, difficulty to be resolved" which has been around since, oh, 1400.

I really do not understand why people claim that some change in the language is an "impoverishment". English has a history dating back to the arrival of the Normans of loving synonyms. When a word acquires another meaning, surely that is an enrichment. "Problem" is not going anywhere, but now we can reserve it for really negative difficulties, while we also have "issue" for the kind of difficulty that is discussed on the psychiatrist's couch (or is susceptible to correction by a patient ballet teacher). I have to admit to having a chuckle on hearing a 6-year-old whose backpack strap had got caught between the seats on the subway saying, "Mum, I have an issue with my backpack"!

I have to wonder if, in the late 1500s, people objected to the newfangled meaning  of  "problem" usurping, or adding to previous words.  "What is wrong with ye "hardnesse" or ye "dyffycultie"? This word "problem" is being abused! It should only mean "riddle"," they might have said.

Another issue with "issue" is its pronunciation. Judging by the medieval spellings, it has been pronounced ISHoo since it first came into English. Probably under the influence of the spelling, British English dictionaries started recommending ISSyoo in the early 20th century, but ISHoo is making a comeback. In North America ISHoo has always been the preferred pronunciation.  I can't help it, but ISSyoo sounds precious to me. 

There you go, I can be negative and judgemental by moments too.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Normalcy or normality?

This picture is relevant. Keep reading to find out how.

A Canadian Wordlady reader has inquired about the word normalcy, which she feels is taking over from normality.

The fact of the matter is that these words are pretty much of the same vintage: normality dates from 1839, normalcy from 1857, along with another but much less successful contender, normalness from 1854.  

Normalcy has in fact been the more frequent form in North America and, interestingly, in South Asian English. It is not overwhelmingly more common, however: the proportion is about two-thirds in favour of normalcy vs. one-third in favour of normality.

In Britain, however, the numbers are very much more skewed, and in the other direction: over 90% in favour of normality. Normalcy is seen with some hatred and much opprobrium as an evil Americanism. Indeed, British usage pundits have been withering about normalcy: H.W. Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage said it "seems to have nothing to recommend it" and Robert Burchfield in his update said, "In BrE normality is the customary term, and normalcy is widely scorned." The 1969 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary labelled normalcy "irregular".

In Canada, a dramatic shift happened between the 80s and the 90s. I certainly remember being taught in the 70s that normalcy was WRONG and normality was RIGHT. In the 1980s, possibly under British (or more likely WE'RE NOT AMERICAN) influence, Canadian writers were 94% in favour of normality, but by the 90s had shifted to only 37% in favour of normality, and since then to only about 25%.

Normalcy was given a boost in the US by the 1920 election campaign of President Warren J Harding, who promised a return to normalcy after the First World War. Harding's political opponents seized on this as an example of Harding's shaky grip on the language, saying that normalcy was not a real word. They were successful in besmirching his vocabulary, if not in defeating his presidential ambitions, to the extent that decades later people were claiming that normalcy was a malapropism invented by Harding, though it wasn't. But certainly his use of it popularized the word so that it started on its upward trajectory against normality. It must be remembered that normality wasn't a terribly common word at the time either, hard though that may be to imagine.

This was because the adjective normal itself didn't start to become common until the 1840s. Surprising, eh?

It is derived from classical Latin normālis (right-angled), also in the 4th–5th centuries "conforming to or governed by a rule", ultimately from norma (a carpenter's square). It was borrowed into English in the 1500s but remained quite rare until the 1800s. Even then, such little use as it had was restricted to scientific usage.

It may have been given a boost by the French, starting in 1794. Wishing to centralize teaching, establish "norms" (a word which also did not exist in English until the early 1800s) and wrest the education of children from the clergy, who were in any case in disarray after the revolution, the French government established the "Ecole Normale" for teacher training, based on Austrian and German 18th-century model "Normalschulen" which aimed to instil pedagogical norms or standards into teachers. 

By 1839, teacher training colleges in North America were also being called normal schools. Not familiar with this usage, I remember hearing as a child that my grandmother and great aunt had been to "normal school" and wondered why anyone needed to make a point they hadn't gone to "abnormal school"! In English, the term "normal school" is now mostly historical.

If you are wondering about the name Norma, it was apparently invented by Felice Romani in his libretto for Bellini's opera of that name (first performed in 1832) and seems to have nothing to do with the Latin word norma. It would indeed be odd to name a baby after a carpenter's square. The name soared to popularity in the 1930s, reaching the rank of 25th most popular baby name in the US, before precipitously declining after 1950, until there were no baby Normas in British Columbia, for instance, in 1975 or any year since. By clicking here you can see the name's "witch's hat" curve typical of names that experience a surge in popularity and then become unfashionable. While you're there you can check out some other names. It's fun!

Would you call a baby "Norma" or do you know any young Normas? (Not that there's anything wrong with the name Norma!)

What do you say? Normality or normalcy?  Either is fine in North America. Whatever we call it, we all fervently wish for a return to it as soon as possible.

For more about baby names, see this post. https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2015/03/thats-lady-grantham-to-you-downton.html

Have you missed out on previous Wordlady posts? You can click here and just keep scrolling to your heart's content. 

 

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Patience on a monument

Titanic memorial in Belfast

Yesterday a nice young man knocked on my door and asked if he might look for a monument in my back yard. Since my garden is quite bereft of statuary, I thought, "Good luck with that!" but let him through.

And lo! After some digging and waving around of a metal detector (I was so hoping he would find some hidden treasure), he found the monument! But it was a very unprepossessing square iron peg buried under my fence.

I learned a meaning of "monument" that I didn't know before. The young man was a surveyor, and it has a specific meaning in surveying of "a marker of a property boundary".  It has had that meaning since the 1650s!

At least my surveyor didn't find in my garden a monument in the Scottish sense of  "A ridiculous or objectionable person or thing; a laughing-stock, a fool, a rogue."

"Monument", which came into English in the 1300s, is derived from classical Latin monumentum, monimentum commemorative statue or building, tomb, from monēre to remind, which is also the root of "admonish", "monitor" and even "summon".





Monday, July 27, 2020

Don't touch that... (whatever)! Fomite



Remember when the object pictured above didn't strike dread into our hearts and cause us to go rushing for the nearest Lysol wipe? Remember when the vocabulary of infectious diseases didn't come trippingly off our tongues?

You may think this is an ordinary doorknob, but you may also have come to learn that in the language of infectious diseases it is potentially a fomite (pronounced FOAM ite), a surface covered with infectious material transmissible from it to our hands and from there to our mucous membranes.

This word has an interesting history, as it is an example of back-formation. Back-formation,

a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix (e.g., laze from lazy and edit from editor)

is a perfectly legitimate and quite common method of word formation. For instance, "kidnapper" came first, and "kidnap" was a back formation from it.

So what's the story with fomite? Originally, when the word was first borrowed into English around the beginning of the 19th century, it was fomes (pronounced FOAM eez), the Latin word for "tinder", since it could "spark" an infection. The plural of fomes was fomites (pronounced FOAM itt eez). But by the end of the 19th century people had back-formed a new singular from this, fomite, and anglicized the pronunciation. I suspect that this was because the singular fomes was very rare indeed, and the word was encountered more in writing than in speech.

Many general and specialized medical dictionaries, still give the fomes/fomites listing, with fomites pronounced FOAM itt eez. Merriam-Webster, however, gives only fomite, with the FOAM ite pronunciation first and, for the plural, FOAM itt eez only as a variant pronunciation. Looking at current corpus evidence, it seems that singular fomite has completely eclipsed singular fomes.

For other examples of back-formation, see my posts about swashbuckling, windsurf, mentee and peddle.

Photo by elias on Unsplash

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Where does bunk come from? Wordlady explains


Where does bunk come from? It's been around for much longer than the internet, but it seems to be more omnipresent than ever in our social media feeds. If only we could stop it at the source.

Wordlady has the answer.

Bunk comes from North Carolina!

Really, it does.

I am of course talking about the word "bunk", meaning "nonsense", although I expect North Carolina, like most places, produces its fair share of the nonsense known by that name.

You may not be surprised to learn that "bunk" had its birth in politics, and more particularly in the US House of Representatives.

In 1820, the Representative for Buncombe County, North Carolina (in the Blue Ridge Mountains about 200 km west of Charlotte) rose to make a lengthy, boring speech that was entirely irrelevant to the subject under discussion. His colleagues implored him to shut up so that they could proceed to the vote, but he persisted, maintaining that his constituents expected it and that he was duty bound to make a speech for Buncombe.

As a result, "buncombe", soon spelled phonetically "bunkum", came to mean any meaningless political drivel uttered to please the electors. From there it was a short step to any kind of claptrap, and by 1900 the word was shortened to "bunk", in time for Henry Ford's famous declaration in 1916: "History is bunk".

Some brave souls devote huge amounts of time to "debunking" the various flourishing  conspiracy theories and misinformation. This word we owe to the American journalist Edward Woodward, who coined it in a book called Bunk  in 1923, in which we find this ominously prescient statement:
To keep the United States thoroughly de-bunked would require the continual services of..half a million persons.
As for the other bunk, the stacked beds? Its origin is uncertain.

Photo of North Carolina by Cameron Stewart on Unsplash

PS some of you have been having problems with the formatting of my posts. This seems to be because a new version of my platform Blogger is not somehow passing along my formatting to my mailer program Feedburner. The mailed version looks quite different from the version that is actually up on my blog but I have no way of checking that till it goes out.  If you have this problem, just click on "Wordlady" at the top of a post and it will take you to the actual blog.


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Fightors and visiters

Why not a fightor?

Two Wordlady fans have coincidentally written with questions about -or and -er endings.

-er vs -or: why are visitors and fighters spelled with different endings. Is there a rule?
These two suffixes are called "agent suffixes", creating what are known as "agent nouns". It makes them sound like they work for the FBI: "Agent Noun, please meet Agent Suffix".  But they allow us to designate a person or thing that performs the action of the verb.

As usual with situations where we have two ways of doing things, the fault lies with the hybrid nature of English: partly Germanic from the Anglo-Saxons and partly Latin from the Norman French and from Latin itself.

The easy answer is this:

-er endings, which are Anglo-Saxon in origin, go with verbs that are originally Anglo-Saxon:
fight > fighter, in this example.

-or endings, which are Latin in origin, go with verbs that are originally Latin, some of which came into English by way of French:
visit > visitor, in this example.

Voila! A rule. Easy peasy. Well, that is, if you know off the top of your head whether the root verb is Anglo-Saxon or Latin. Otherwise, as with so much to do with English spelling, you just have to memorize, or check a dictionary. This must be particularly annoying for Francophones, for whom "-eur" covers both -or and -er territory for most words.

This "rule" works for many words, perhaps especially for the -or words.

But...

A rule. Ahahahahaha. This is English after all. We must have many exceptions!

The unfortunate OED lexicographer who was gifted with the task of writing the entry for "-er" had this to say (probably while thinking, "I'm throwing in the towel; let's go to the pub!"):

In received spelling, the choice between the two forms [-er and -or] is often capricious, or determined by other than historical reasons.
Thus we have some Norman French agent nouns originally ending in -our which evolved into -er endings, among them:

interpreter came from interpretour < late Latin interpretātōr and was "interpretor" until the late 1500s when it became "interpreter".

barber (such a good word!) started off as Anglo-Norman barbour, from Old French barbeor < Latin barbātōr, and should have become "barbor", but evolved into "barber" by the end of the 1500s. The older form survives in the (especially Scottish) surname Barbour.

And then there were many nouns that had -er or -ier endings in Middle French, for instance

treasurer, gardener, customer, and many others.

And with many other words the -er ending just won out in English, despite the root verb being Latin.

The opposite also happened, though less frequently.

"Sailor" is derived from an Anglo-Saxon verb and was in fact originally "sailer", but "sailor" took over at the beginning of the 19th century. This was partly on the analogy of "tailor", which originally was Latin tāliātōr, and partly to make a distinction between professional sailors and amateur sailers. Nowadays, "sailer" only survives as a description of a kind of boat: A fast sailer such as Constitution could make as much as 14 knots under sail.

There are some nouns where we haven't made up our minds yet, or are changing our minds, for instance:

conjuror / conjurer
According to the "rule", this should be "conjuror" (< Latin conjūrātor). But in spite of "conjuror" being the first form given in Oxford dictionaries, "conjurer", which has been around since we borrowed the word in  the 1300s, is actually somewhat more common, especially in the US, where it is the form given first by Merriam-Webster.

impostor / imposter
This came from French imposteur < late Latin impostor < impōnĕre to impose. "Impostor" and "imposter" co-existed from the 1600s, when the word entered English, but dictionaries came to favour "impostor", as being the original Latin form. However, this has not defeated "imposter" at all, and the two are in a neck-and-neck race as to which is used more frequently. In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we took the leap and listed "imposter" as the headword with "impostor" as the variant. I seem to remember getting at least one angry letter about that. But, to use the technical lexicographic term, "impostor" just looks weird to me. (Fear not, "looks weird" was not a criterion we used in establishing spellings).

adaptor / adapter
Both (on a Latin base) entered English in the mid-1700s, but "adapter" has been consistently more common, and is listed by most dictionaries first. An exception to this is the Australian and New Zealand Oxford Dictionaries, which list "adaptor" first.  This is a bit puzzling because Antipodean corpus evidence suggests "adapter" is more common. The lexicographers, however, almost certainly had their own data and their own reasons, and I'm sure "looks weird" wasn't one of them.

advisor / adviser
My other correspondent inquires:
When did “advisor” become “adviser”? It seemed to occur overnight and no one told me when the vote was.
"Advise" is a French word derived from Latin, so you might expect it to take the -or ending only. But in fact the noun has had an -er ending since it first appeared about 1536, earlier than the -or variant, which dates from about 50 years later. "Adviser" has been by far the more common spelling over the centuries, and it is only since about 1900 that "advisor" has crept up towards it, I suspect under the influence of "supervisor" or even "visor", but more likely "advisory". (Please don't ask me why some words are -ory and others are -ary!!)  All dictionaries give "adviser" as the more common form, so I'm intrigued to know where this correspondent learned that "advisor" was the original and "adviser" was an upstart.

In 2017 the CBC reported this bizarre information:

There's a difference between a financial adviser and a financial advisor: "Advisers" are regulated and have a legal responsibility to act in your best interest. "Advisors" are … not the same.

So, be careful: Banks may call them "advisors" so a salesperson sounds impressive, but you could be stuck without protection.

The Ontario Securities Commission confirms that "adviser" is a legal term under securities law that describes a person or company that is registered to give advice about securities, whereas "advisor" is not.
This seems to me ridiculous, because we are just talking about a spelling variant. It's like saying that a labour negotiator doesn't have the same standing if you call them a labor negotiator instead.

Which of these variants do you use? Does "impostor" look weird to you? Or will you defend it to your dying day?

We're not quite done with our agent suffixes. Just to be annoying, there are also liar and beggar, where the spelling -ar is a survival of the occasional Middle English variant -ar(e. "Beggar" was in fact spelled more frequently "begger" until the end of the 17th century, at which point, for reasons unknown, "beggar" took over.

My original correspondents may have thought this was an easy question. Ha! But you've borne with me (I hope) through this lengthy and complicated discussion. Suffixes! How exciting is that!!! It beggars* belief. Or beggers it. Whatever.
(*Yet another one of those noun-verb conversions that we don't bat an eye at.)
For more about agent nouns (because it's such an exciting topic!), see this post: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2019/06/when-your-surname-is-your-destiny.html
 
Photo by Samuel Penn on Unsplash

Saturday, July 4, 2020

What's in a name?

The Barber map
Wordlady loves the stories behind words, as you know. But she also loves the stories behind names: first names, family names, place names. The study of names is called "onomastics", from the Greek onoma meaning "name".

She also loves maps, so just imagine how excited she gets about a website that combines names and maps! So with my Namelady hat on, I would like to introduce you to the "Named" website, which I am sure will give you some fun.

"Named" maps places in  the UK where one (or two) surnames have a historically unusually high local population. It uses a recent UK electoral roll and was created in 2016. The data include names that are not originally British as well as names that go back to Anglo-Saxon times. If  you have a rare name it won't show the data for privacy reasons as it might allow someone to zero in on your house.

All you do is enter your surname, and the website maps where in the UK there is an unusually high number of people with that surname living.

The creator of the website, geographer Ollie O'Brien, has this to say about it:
Although it uses relatively recent data, it may well show you where your surname was historically most concentrated. It has been demonstrated that most traditional UK surname distributions remain surprisingly unchanged over many years – internal migration in the UK is a lot less than might be traditionally perceived.

The map shows places where you are unusually likely to bump into somebody with that name. In very rural areas  you don’t need to have very many people with a name for it to show up as a hotspot, because there aren’t very many people with any other names either. Whereas, in more populated parts of the country, you need a large number of people.

Give it a spin with your family names here
Let me know what you find out!

If you want to share your map with friends and relatives, you can right-click on the circle with the map in it, and choose "Save image as..."


To see all Wordlady posts, click here: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Whetting your appetite

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

I recently saw someone online criticizing an editor for not correcting the past tense "whet" to "whetted".

This got me thinking.

Is "whet" in fact a possible past tense for "whet"? Is it perhaps a holdover from former days? "Whet" is clearly an Anglo-Saxon word; that "wh-" is a dead giveaway (it would have been "hw-" in Anglo-Saxon).

Non Anglo-Saxon words ending in -et, like "vet", all have regular conjugations, i.e. vet, vetted, vetted; jet, jetted, jetted. But if you think of single-syllable Anglo-Saxon verbs ending in -et that are very much more common than "whet":
"set", "let",
they are identical in the present and the past tenses: today I set the table, yesterday I set the table.

And thus it was with "whet", the past and past participle of which were "whet" from its origins, and for centuries thereafter. It was only in the Middle English period (after the Norman Conquest) that the regular conjugation "whetted" cropped up, eventually taking over, but not till the 1700s. The same phenomenon happened with "fret".

But although "whetted" is clearly dominant at the moment, the past form "whet" has continued to burble along, not dying out in the 1700s as the OED would have it.

Similarly, "whet"'s homophone "wet" had (and still has) a past and past participle "wet" from earliest times, having acquired the variant "wetted" only since the 1500s. I would say that "wetted" is still a second runner against "wet" as you can see in this chart:


And although it sounds ok (sort of?) to say "he wetted his finger" rather than "he wet his finger", I don't think it sounds at all idiomatic to say "the child wetted the bed".

So, when you combine
  1. the fact that "whet" isn't  a terribly frequent word (occurring between 0.1 and 1.0 times per million words in typical modern English usage. )
  2. with the very strong influence of common analogous words like "set", "let", and especially the homophone "wet",
  3. and the fact that past "whet" is an old form that still survives,
it's not at all surprising that someone might (and some people do, according to corpus evidence) use "whet" rather than "whetted" as a past tense of "whet". It could be argued that it is a minority variant form. Failing to change "whet" to "whetted", as editing "errors" go, is hardly the most egregious mistake.

As I have said before, when you come across a usage different than your own, it's so much more rewarding (though time-consuming) to start with the reaction "I wonder..." than to simply crow "WRONG!!" and march onward, feeling superior.

"Whet" is a word we don't use much in its literal sense of "sharpen" anymore. Exceptions are historical fiction and poetry, though it is rare there too. "I'm going to whet this knife and then slice me some tomatoes for a sandwich" sounds vaguely ridiculous and somehow sinister. (I do however have an object in my kitchen drawer that I still call a "whetstone", along with a different object that I call a "knife sharpener"). We don't react to the clanging bell of a van passing through the neighbourhood by saying, "Oh the knife whetter is here!" 

What we do whet nowadays is someone's appetite or, to a lesser degree, their curiosity.

What we shouldn't whet is our whistle. This is the other "wet". The expression "wet someone's whistle" means to have a drink, the "whistle" in question being the voice.

Would you say "it has whet my appetite" or only "it has whetted my appetite"? Would you have to think about it before you chose a form?

* The force of analogy is also noticeable with the much more recent verb "pet", about the etymology and past tense of which you can read in this post. Since someone asked that question five years ago, I have certainly noticed "pet" being used as a past tense.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Shingles (the roof kind and the illness)

Photo by Austin Walker on Unsplash
A friend of mine came down with the painful ailment known as shingles last week. All her friends commiserated on Facebook and wished her a speedy recovery.

I, meanwhile, heartless as usual, was thinking:
  1. What does that have to do with the shingles on my roof?
  2. Is "shingles" singular or plural?
Actually I did wish her well too! Shingles is a horrible affliction.

First question: What does that have to do with the shingles on my roof?

Well.... nothing.

These are two entirely different words.

The roofing shingles, like so many architecture words, apparently came into English from French after the Norman Conquest, though no such word now survives in French. It is thought that it came from Latin scindula, a later form of scandula ‘a split piece of wood’.

There are a couple of idioms associated with this word:

hang out one's shingle
(apparently only North American, though I did not know this before)
  • Begin to practise a profession.

    ‘a license to hang out their shingle as a financial adviser’

And the ever inventive Australians have come up with
a shingle short
Australian informal

(of a person) stupid or slightly mad.

The malady "shingles", on the other hand, which also came into English in the Middle English period, comes from Latin cingulus (a girdle or belt), because the red rash caused by it looks like a belt around the torso. This description can be better detected in the modern German name for the disease, Gürtelrose. The medical name for the condition also includes this idea of a girdle: herpes zoster comes ultimately from Greek zōstēr ‘girdle, belt, and herpēs, literally ‘creeping’, from herpein ‘to creep’.

2nd question: Is "shingles" singular or plural?

As you can see, the "s" at the end of "shingles" is not etymologically an indicator of a plural; it's just the "s" in the Latin cingulus. So technically "shingles" is a singular noun, and treated as such.

shingles is a painful, blistering skin rash that affects more than 1 million Americans every year

It can be plural when the emphasis is on the resulting blisters rather than the illness itself (The shingles were extremely painful), although I don't think it's possible to create a singular "shingle". But most of the people on my friend's Facebook post referred to the disease in the plural, no doubt influenced, as we English speakers are so much, by that final s.

One good result of this: it reminded me I was due for the booster on my shingles vaccine, so I hustled off to the drugstore to have that taken care of.  I wish it hadn't taken her coming down with it to give me that nudge.

To see all Wordlady posts, click here: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/

Friday, June 12, 2020

What's a boulevard?



Thank you to everyone who confirmed the Great Budgie/Parakeet Divide. I have to admit, my mind is still blown by this.

Now to something else that goes by different names in different places: the strip of vegetation between a sidewalk and a road. Consider the picture above. This is that thing at Chateau Wordlady (I love irises and chives, what can I say?). You can see the sidewalk in the lower right hand corner.

I call it a boulevard, as I think would most Western Canadians. In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we have this usage of boulevard labelled "Cdn & Upper Midwest & North Central US".

Wikipedia has dug up an astounding number of names for this, including "parkway",  "verge", "berm", "curb strip", "curb lawn" and even the intriguing "hellstrip". For the full list with their geographical distribution, see here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_verge. And please let me know what you say and where you learned that word (although I have lived in Toronto for 30 years, I will betray my Winnipeg roots with this word to the end of my days).

Another boulevard labelled "Cdn & Upper Midwest & North Central US" is the planted median down the middle of a wide road in an urban area. Other names for this elsewhere are "median (strip)" or "central reservation".

Boulevard is more generally used to mean "a broad street, often planted with rows of trees." In Winnipeg, what differentiated this kind of boulevard from a mere avenue or street was a median strip planted with trees.

The model for these was the boulevards of Paris, the first of which was created by Louis XIV's famous military engineer Vauban, who in 1670 demolished the city wall of Paris going from Porte St-Denis to the Bastille, to create a pedestrian promenade. On the modern-day map of Paris you can still detect along this route the outline of the old city wall. I would not recommend strolling down the middle of  Boulevard Beaumarchais today though.



The origin of the word "boulevard" is connected with these city walls. 

In the 14th century, both English and French borrowed a Dutch word bolwerc for a defensive fortification, a rampart. By the 16th century this had become "boulevard" in French, and ... "bulwark" in English. The literal military meaning was extended in English to the figurative "powerful defence or safeguard" sense of "bulwark": the Plain English Campaign – a force for the democratic good, a bulwark against jargon, legalese, obfuscation and spin.  In French, "boulevard" continued to designate fortifications, especially the flat horizontal part along the top where sentries walked up and down. So when Vauban eliminated the actual "boulevard", the word survived to designate the broad thoroughfare thus created.

Over the next two centuries, Paris's various city walls came down and were replaced with more "boulevards". British visitors in the 18th century liked to show off that they'd been to Paris by using French words for things they'd seen there ("hotel" was another borrowing from this time) and so we acquired "boulevard", little realizing that it was a doublet of "bulwark".

Parisian boulevards really came into their own with Baron Haussmann's wholesale renovation of the city in the mid-19th century which bequeathed the city with many broad, elegant, tree-lined streets, often tracing the line of the former city walls. Soon every city had to have some, even if they couldn't rival Paris for beauty.

Here's the rather unfortunate Lagimodière Boulevard in Winnipeg.


Well, it's broad. And it's got a centre median. And some kind of vegetation.

Baron Haussmann is no doubt turning in his grave.

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Budgies and parakeets


I had one of those "What? Americans don't say that?" moments this week when reading Lynne Murphy's excellent blog about the differences between British and American English, where she asserts

But there is a meaning difference for parakeet. AmE uses that name for the little birds that are kept as pets, what BrE (and some US pet bird enthusiasts) call budgerigars or budgies, for short.

Whaaaaat?  No budgies in the US? I had no idea. I am pretty sure that "budgie" is the common name in Canada, rather than "parakeet".

A corpus search does indeed reveal a relative dearth of budgies in the US, compared to Canada and other English-speaking countries.

If you are Canadian or American, please let me know what you call this bird**.

Budgie dates from the 1930s, while its parent, "budgerigar", was a mid 19th-century Australian borrowing of Aboriginal origin, perhaps an alteration of gijirrigaa, the bird's name in Kamilaroi (the language of an Indigenous Australian people whose lands extend from New South Wales to southern Queensland). A budgerigar is a kind of parakeet (a small parrot):

a small gregarious Australian parakeet which is green with a yellow head in the wild. It is popular as a cage bird and has been bred in a variety of colours.

I have always loved it when dictionaries use the word "gregarious" in fauna definitions. I can't help having images of the budgies getting together with their pals for a tea party.

"Parakeet", on the other hand, is a mid 16th-century borrowing from Old French paroquet, Italian parrocchetto, and Spanish periquito; its origin is uncertain, perhaps (via Italian) based on a diminutive meaning ‘little wig’, referring to head plumage, or (via Spanish) based on a diminutive of the given name Pedro.

Now, I know that if I don't head you off at the pass, some of you are going to mention in the comments or in emails a famous Australianism / New Zealandism:

budgie smugglers

plural noun

informal Australian, New Zealand

Men's brief, tight-fitting swimming trunks. [what other varieties of English call "Speedos"]

‘Tarzan, as we dubbed him, took to wearing the tiniest pair of purple budgie smugglers while sunbathing on his corrugated iron roof

The OED, which dates this term from 1998, explains its etymology primly thus:

With reference to the appearance of the male genitals in figure-hugging trunks.

Here's a picture if you lack imagination.

"Parakeet smuggler" just doesn't have the same ring to it.


**By the way, it was lovely hearing from so many of you about "chesterfield" and your linguistic bios. It would seem that "chesterfield" is still alive and well among the over-seventies. So not dead! But it certainly has faded away amongst those younger than that.
Those in their forties, fifties and sixties reported "I used that as a kid, or my parents used it, but sometime in the 1970s/80s I switched over to couch or sofa."
There is a furniture chain in greater Toronto called The Chesterfield Shop. According to their website it is, tellingly, "a family-owned furniture store since 1948", but, equally tellingly, the tabs on their website are for "sofas" and "sofa beds".  So I think "chesterfield" in their name is a kind of fossil.

Budgie photo by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash
Swimmer photo by Mika on Unsplash

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Chesterfield: not quite dead

The cockles of my little Canadian heart were warmed this week when I read that the Crime Writers of Canada 2020 Arthur Ellis Prize has been awarded to 58-year-old Albertan author Wayne Arthurson's The Red Chesterfield, which features a severed foot found in an abandoned sofa. Coincidentally, I had just seen another mention of "chesterfield" in a novel by 62-year-old Nova Scotian Anne Emery the night before. (This is called the first law of lexicography: just when you think a word might not exist, you read it in the paper or hear it on TV.)

For decades in the 20th century, "chesterfield" was a shibboleth of Canadian English. Canadians, and only Canadians, called a multi-seated upholstered piece of furniture a chesterfield rather than a couch or a sofa.

In other varieties of English, a chesterfield is a specific kind of sofa, the kind you might find in smoky gentlemen's clubs, upholstered in tufted leather, with the back and the arms of the same height.


But starting in the early years of the 20th century, Canadians started to apply the word generically to any kind of sofa. There were scatterings of this usage in the US but they faded away. In Canada, "chesterfield" had its heyday through the 1970s, but started to wane, until by the 1990s, fewer than 10% of Torontonians in their twenties were saying "chesterfield", having abandoned it in favour of "couch".

I grew up calling this piece of furniture a chesterfield, but shifted to "sofa", sometime in the eighties, which seems to have been "peak sofa" time in North America. I do use "couch" occasionally. But "sofa", too, has lost the battle to "couch" with most North Americans, although it is still the preferred term for the British.

But "chesterfield" is not yet dead, especially outside Toronto, witness the two authors I have mentioned, who though not spring chickens, are not really old either (I may be a bit biased in this assessment). Where they live is also significant. Searches in Canadian newspapers for the last three years turned up a few dozen chesterfields (fortunately not including severed feet) in the Prairies, BC, and Atlantic Canada. They were, however, vastly outnumbered by couches (over 20,000 hits) and, struggling along, sofas (5,800 hits).

If you're a Canadian, what do you call this item of furniture? Have you ever called it a "chesterfield"? And if so, how old are you and what part of the country are you from? I would love to keep "chesterfield" alive, but I fear it is doomed. The language evolves organically and there is little we can do to change it.

A bit of etymology for these three words:

Sofa ultimately goes back to Arabic ṣoffah, a slightly raised platform covered with carpet and cushions, on which people could sit or recline. It was applied to what we know as a sofa in the 1700s.

Chesterfields are named for one of the 19th-century Earls of Chesterfield.

Couch comes from French coucher, a typical squishing-down of  Latin collocāre to lay in its place, from  com- together + locāre to place.

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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.