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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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Sunday, March 29, 2020

(Not) Written in the stars

"Nothing to do with us!"
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
I do not for a moment believe in astrology, but our ancestors did, so it is not surprising that the "aster" in "disaster" is derived from the Greek word astron meaning "star". Disasters were literally events thought to be caused by our stars being misaligned.

You might think that it is the same astron showing up in catastrophe.

But no. Catastrophe has nothing to do with stars, not even etymologically.

Catastrophe comes from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophē ‘overturning, sudden turn’, from kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’ (from strephein ‘to turn’).

It was originally (in the 1500s) a theatrical term, designating the final resolution or dénouement of the plot in a play. In a tragedy, this usually involved the death (or "overturning") of the protagonist. It was possible, though, to have happy or comical catastrophes. But because there were many tragedies, the association with an unhappy ending soon took over, so that catastrophe soon came to mean "a disastrous or unhappy conclusion". By the end of the 1700s it acquired its current meaning "a disastrous, usually widespread, event."

A question:  While we are all confined to quarters, how frequently would you like Wordlady updates? Daily (not sure that I could keep that up, to be honest)? Twice a week? Once a week? Please let me know. I want to keep you entertained but I don't want to overwhelm you.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Stroke someone's ego or stoke someone's ego?

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

A friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook about someone's ego being stroked by the sycophants surrounding them. I'll let you guess who that someone was.

But then her daughter weighed in to say that the correct expression was "stoke someone's ego".

Who was right?

The verb "stroke", which has been with us since Anglo-Saxon times, has been used since the 1500s in a figurative sense to mean "manipulate someone with flattery, persuasion, compliments, etc."
 1561   T. Norton tr. J. Calvin Instit. (1562) ii. i. §2. 70   There is nothing that mannes nature more coueteth, than to be stroked with flattery.
But "ego" didn't enter the language till the 1800s, and it was only after 1900 that it came to be used to mean "self-esteem or self-importance". The phrase "stroke someone's ego" dates from the 1940s. 

In the last ten years, however, we have started to see "stoke someone's ego", much less frequently than the earlier expression, but nonetheless out there. It may have started out as a malapropism for "stroke someone's ego", but the metaphor is different, with the ego seen as something highly combustible which is fanned to higher flames by compliments being shovelled onto it. In contrast, "stroke someone's ego" seems placatory.

Well, I think in our current circumstances we need both expressions!

Monday, March 23, 2020

Psalm: why the silent P?

Photo by Alabaster Co on Unsplash

My post about the pronunciation of "salmon" (click here) elicited this entertaining story from Wordlady reader Ian Angus:
Your piece reminded me of an experience my family had in the early 1960s.
We had just moved from Vancouver to a rural area about 35 miles south of Ottawa, where much of the population was of Irish Protestant descent.
My sister was in Grade 8 in the local two-room school. Bible readings were still mandatory. One day she came home, with instructions to learn some verses from Sam 23. She diligently searched through the two Books of Samuel, and couldn't find it -- of course it was Psalm 23.
That was when we realized that the local pronunciation of the "al" in many words was a flat "a".  So palm was pam, calm was cam, and so on.
I still live in the area, and that pronunciation has long since disappeared.
I did a survey, and it transpires that this pronunciation is alive and well in Ireland, with even young people using it. There is also some evidence from Scotland. Elsewhere, however, it is dying out. In Canada, we find it, but only rarely, and among older (i.e. 70+) speakers, in areas historically dominated by Irish or Scottish  settlers: in addition to the Ottawa Valley, it is attested in southwestern Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, the Prairies. It may also be in Newfoundland but I have no information from there, so if any of you do, please let me know.

This is probably a holdover from the earliest pronunciation of "psalm", which was likely to have been S AL M. Over the centuries, the L got swallowed up into the preceding vowel, which gradually shifted to an AH sound in England. The Scots and Irish also dropped the L but their vowel sound didn't shift.

Do you know anyone who says "SAM" or "CAM" for these words? If so, where?

And lo! another silent letter! Where did that initial P come from and why don't we pronounce it?

"Psalm" is derived from post-classical Latin psalmus from ancient Greek psalmos (song sung to the harp), from psallein (to pluck, twitch, twang, play). The word was one of those ecclesiastical words borrowed fairly early into Anglo-Saxon, directly from Latin rather than by way of French as happened after the Norman Conquest. But the initial /ps/ in the pronunciation had already been simplified to /s/ in spoken post-classical Latin, so when the Romance, Germanic, and Celtic languages borrowed it, it was pronounced and written with only an initial s-

Because this was a religious word, and Latin was the language of the church, in some languages, spellings (but not pronunciations) with initial ps- were occasionally reintroduced by analogy with written Latin. This trend accelerated with the tendency to Latinized spellings from the Renaissance onwards. Although most European languages resisted the temptation to put a P at the beginning of the word, French, German, Dutch,and (of course) English succumbed. In French, German, and Dutch, the Latinized spelling has resulted in the initial P being now pronounced.  

But in English, as usual, we complicated our lives even more: adding the P but then keeping it silent! When will we ever learn?

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Whiling or wiling?

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
A Wordlady reader has asked what we are doing during our enforced isolation.

Are we

whiling away the hours


wiling away the hours.

Since ever fewer people pronounce initial wh- as "hw", these two verbs are perfect homophones for most English speakers.

Knowing that the noun wile means
A crafty, cunning, or deceitful trick; a sly, insidious, or underhand artifice; a stratagem, ruse [think Wile E. Coyote],
you might think that you are warding off boredom with cunning ruses and that hence, "wile away the hours" is the right choice.  

Indeed, many people have thought this over the last two centuries, including Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, who wrote in Oliver Twist: "I was reading a book to-night to wile the time away."

But let's be serious. I don't know about you, but I'm not that cunning in finding ways to pass the time. Cuddle cat. Check. Watch TV. Check. Cuddle cat again. Check. Write Wordlady post. Check. Back to the cat.

Thankfully, in the early 1600s English speakers turned the very old noun "while" (dating from Old English and meaning "a portion of time") into a verb meaning "to pass the time". So we can (and do) while away the time/hours etc.

Maybe as this isolation wears on, we will have to find more cunning ways to pass the time and we really will be wiling away the hours, but for now I think we are just whiling them away.

By the way, you noticed, right, that both verbs while and wile are derived from the related nouns? Of course you know I would never miss an opportunity to point out a noun-verb conversion! 

Looking for a good way to while away the hours? Why not read some of the over 600 blog posts on Wordlady? And, hey, share (oh hey, there's another verb that started out as a noun) a few on social media for your friends who are also looking for ways to while away the time. All you have to do is click on the "Wordlady" at the top of this page and you will be able to access every post.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The L in salmon

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook:
"You might as well go ahead and pronounce the L in SALMON. Nothing matters anymore"
I had a bit of a chuckle, though as you know I am not judgemental about variant pronunciations.

The real question is, why DON'T we pronounce the L in "salmon"?

The word comes ultimately from the Latin salmon, but we got it by way of French, as we did with so many other food words. The French, as was their wont, had swallowed up the Latin L in their pronunciation, so by the time we English borrowed the word, it was saumon, no L in the spelling and so no L in the pronunciation. It is saumon in French to this day.

But as faithful Wordlady readers know, in English this was doomed to change, thanks to the Renaissance obsession with reflecting Latin origins in English spelling, a phenomenon responsible for many of our silent letters.  By the 17th century, the spelling without an L had died out altogether. Most of us still do pronounce the word SAMMON, but there is some evidence of people saying SALmon (or else the above meme wouldn't exist).

It is exactly the same phenomenon as happened with falcon, palm, almond, and calm.

The influence of literacy, and seeing that L before our eyes, is very strong. In this case, it is reinforced by the pronunciation of "salmonella", which is indeed pronounced -- or supposed to be pronounced -- SAL mon ella. It has nothing to do with fish (unless you eat one that's gone off). The word "salmonella" was coined in French in 1900 to honour the American veterinarian
Daniel Salmon.

How do YOU pronounce "salmon"? With an L or without? 

For more explanations of silent letters in English, go to this post: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2014/11/silent-letters-in-english-series.html
or click on the "silent letters" tag at the bottom of this post.

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.