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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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Thursday, April 30, 2020

When a breakup is a disaster

The North Saskatchewan River near Edmonton, April 2020 photo courtesy Sherry Dawn Knettle

My friends in Western Canada have been posting pictures of nearby bodies of water with the ice going out.

It's "spring breakup", as we call it in Canada.

When I give talks about Canadian English, I always joke that non-Canadians, on hearing us talk about "spring breakup", must wonder, "What, they do that every year in Canada? March 1st, time to turf the old boyfriend and get a new one!"

I don't know if other varieties of English even have a word for this. Let me know if you do! Perhaps you just call it the "spring thaw".

This sense of "breakup" has existed in Canada since the mid-19th century. French has had a word for the phenomenon since the 1600s, one that may surprise you: débâcle.

Débâcle probably ultimately goes back to the Latin baculum (stick), via the French verb bâcler meaning "lock or bar (a door etc.) with a stick" and thence "close down navigation on a river". Débâcler therefore meant "open up navigation on a river". One can see how important a notion this would be in New France, which was likely locked up by ice from November through the end of March.

But débâcle also has a more specific sense, because the phenomenon can have catastrophic consequences. When the ice floes accumulate at a narrow point in the river or at its mouth, they back up the water behind them, causing flooding upstream. When the pressure of the rushing water and accumulated blocks of ice becomes too great, the ice jam will give way, causing a destructive rush of water and ice, and flooding downstream. This also is a débâcle.

(In Ottawa, city work crews literally blow up the Rideau River every year to prevent these ice jams and resulting inundations. I used to live near the river in Ottawa, and it was always the first sign of spring: "Let me just flip the calendar to March the Fir..." BOOOOM!!!)

Not surprisingly then, by the early 19th century débâcle took on a figurative meaning in French: a sudden change in a situation which results in a panicked rushing or fleeing, a catastrophic stampede. From there it was just a short step to "catastrophe, rout". 

Shortly thereafter, English adopted this figurative meaning of debacle, originally to mean a sudden downfall accompanied by a stampede, but now simply a usually sudden and ignominious failure, a fiasco. I don't think there is any need to use an acute accent and circumflex when spelling this word in English.

For synonyms of debacle, see my post about catastrophe and disaster.
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Monday, April 27, 2020

No man is an iland

Photo by Tom Winckels on Unsplash

A Wordlady reader has asked about the silent s in "island".

The s is an interloper.

Way back in Anglo-Saxon, the word was ígland, íland. The first syllable was derived from a word meaning ‘of or pertaining to water’, ‘watery’, and thus an íland was a ‘watery place, land surrounded by water’. Iland came to be the most common spelling in the Middle English period, and indeed survived until the 1600s, appearing in both the King James Bible and Paradise Lost.

But meanwhile the French arrived with their synonymous ile (in Modern French spelled île). Of course being English we decided to keep both the Anglo-Saxon word and the French one.

Ile was derived, with much French squishing, from Latin insula. In the 1400s and 1500s the French had a little flutter with Latinizing spellings and silent letters, so they started to spell it isle. But they smartened up and by the end of the 19th century settled on the modern spelling île, with the circumflex indicating the missing s (which they needn't have reinserted in the first place, but never mind).

Iland, meanwhile, as we have seen, had no historical connection to the Latin insula. But that didn't stop us from messing with the spelling. If ile comes from insula, then iland must too, and we'd better stick a silent s in both of them to show it. 

In the 1500s we started to do that, and by 1700 "island" and "isle" became the only correct spellings.

I suppose we should be grateful that we didn't end up with "insland".

For other words where the silent letter is based on false etymology, see ptarmigan and gyrfalcon

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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Of bananas and bandanas

The picture in my previous post which hilariously suggested "bananas" rather than "bandanas" as suitable face masks may have some of you wondering where the word bandana comes from.

We owe bandana, like some other fabric words (see also calico), to the highly coloured cloths that Europeans encountered when they arrived in India.  It came from a Hindi word designating a tie-dyed silk handkerchief, and probably came into English via Portuguese. Of course nowadays bandanas are much more likely to be made of cotton and are printed rather than tie-dyed.

Although "bandanna" is, surprisingly, the only spelling listed in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the two spellings, bandanna and bandana, are pretty much neck-and-neck in American English, and "bandana" is much more frequent in English over all.  It is the first spelling given in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

Banana, meanwhile, also came into English by way of Portuguese, but is originally from the name for the fruit in the West African language Wolof.

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Word of the week: scarf

This screenshot is hilarious because of the reference to wearing "bananas" as face masks, but it also had some people asking whether "scarfs" is the correct plural for "scarf".
It wasn't till the 1800s that the knitted thing that keeps our necks and noses warm on wintry January days came to be called a “scarf” rather than a “muffler”. 
Originally, a scarf (escarpe in medieval French) was a kind of sling worn diagonally in which pilgrims carried the alms they begged on their way to a shrine. When the word came into English as “scarf” in the 1500s, it was used for a diagonal sash worn across the chest by military officers – now seen only decoratively in dress uniform but formerly a practical accessory for carrying things.
The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry dating from 1910 which lists scarfs before scarves as the plural, has this to say about the plural:
"The original plural form scarfs has never gone out of use; but from the beginning of the 18th cent. the form scarves (on the analogy of halves, etc.) has been common, and in London commercial use it appeared to have become universal in the early 20th cent. No other noun of other than native origin had this change of f into v in the plural."
Personally I would only use scarves, and some searches in corpora show that scarves outnumbers scarfs in a ratio of about 20 to 1 in North American English and 35 to 1 in British English. But I'm curious to know what you would use. Let me know in the comments!
Some of you will be wondering where the verb scarf (eat) comes from. This is a fairly recent addition to English, dating from the 1960s, and is a variant of "scoff", the origin of which is unclear. 

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Wordlady Online: Problems with PayPal?

Hello Wordlady fans,

It has come to my attention that those of you who receive your Wordlady posts automatically as an email may not be able to use the PayPal button to sign up for my Hebrew and Yiddish talk, especially if you are on a mobile device.

To access the button that works, please use the link below to go directly to my blog and it should (I hope) work from there.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English: Wordlady online

Hello all Wordlady fans!

I am offering Wordlady talks online via Zoom! If you haven't used Zoom before, it's pretty easy.

Payment is by PayPal. You can use your PayPal account if you have one, or if not, you can simply use your credit card. Just click or tap on the buttons below to take you to your shopping cart. Once you sign up, I will send you the link to connect to Zoom.

Tip: if you don't know what time 2pm Eastern is in your time zone, just type "2 pm Eastern Time" into Google and it will convert it for you.

Looking for one of my online courses but it's sold out or you can't make it for that time? I will be rescheduling more sessions. Drop me an email at wordlady.barber@gmail.com and I'll notify you as soon as the new session time is  up. Thanks for your patience. 

First up:

"English Schminglish: Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English" 
Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched the English language for much longer than you may think, and continue to do so. From messiah to maven, sabbath to schnook, English wouldn’t be the same without its Jewish heritage. Whether you are familiar with Hebrew and Yiddish or not, this fun lecture will open your ears to an important source of English vocabulary.

Part 1:

  • Day: Thursday, May 7th, 2020
  • Time: 2:00 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time (please join the waiting room by 1:50 pm)
  • Location: online on zoom.us. Once you have paid for the talk, I will send you the meeting link
  • Fee: $15.00 Cdn (HST included)

Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English Part 1

Part 2:

  • Day: Friday, May 8th, 2020
  • Time: 2:00 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time (please join the waiting room by 1:50 pm)
  • Location: online on zoom.us. Once you have paid for the talk, I will send you the meeting link
  • Fee: $15.00 Cdn (HST included) 

Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English Part 2

Check out more Wordlady posts here

Best Actress in a supporting gown


Whenever the Academy Awards roll around, people have burning questions. 

Who will be best actor/actress? Which film will be the best picture? 

Who cares? 

We know what people are really interested in: the gowns.

In Late Latin, the word gunna meant "fur". By the 8th century this word was being used to mean a fur garment that elderly or sick monks were allowed to wear over their habits (it being pretty darn nippy getting up in the middle of the night in those chilly monasteries to sing one of the offices of the day). 

This was borrowed into Old French as goune, a word that has completely died out in French but survived in English after being borrowed in the 1300s. Originally it meant any flowing garment worn by either sex. This has survived in the scholar's gown worn as part of academic dress. 

Until the 18th century, "gown" was the ordinary name for a woman's garment, but it was then superseded by "dress", leaving "gown" to be used only for fancy dresses (or, as the OED inimitably puts it, "a dress with some pretension to elegance.")

It is somewhat ironic that "gown" is also used for that most un-fancy of attire, with no pretension to elegance whatsoever: the hospital gown. But, with news that fashion houses like Giorgio Armani have retooled their factories to make hospital attire (bravo them!), perhaps we will finally end up with elegant hospital gowns.

Copyright Katherine Barber 2012

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Donning and doffing

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

I remember about ten years ago having a good laugh when seeing a statement on a package of vinyl gloves to the effect that they were designed for easy doffing.

Haha, (said I), that's obviously one of those bad translations from Chinese! No one really says "I'm done washing the dishes and now I'm going to doff these gloves"! How very archaic/poetic. The only thing that people doff is their hat, and usually now that's only in a figurative sense of expressing acknowledgement of another's superiority, often with a connotation of subservience. I could only think of someone whipping off those vinyl gloves with a flourish.

Well, the laugh is on me because I was WRONG (again).

My instincts were not completely amiss, because this is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about "doff":
In ordinary colloquial use in north of England (not in Scotland). Elsewhere, since 16th century, a literary word with an archaic flavour. John Ray [17th century dialect lexicographer] noted it as a northern provincialism; Samuel Johnson [1755], as ‘in all its senses obsolete, and scarcely used except by rustics’. In 19th cent., from the time of Scott, very frequent in literary use.
Good old Sir Walter Scott, to whom we owe the revival of many archaisms.

But, as we have all come to know much more about the protective gear that hospital workers and others wear (how many of us had even heard the initialism PPE a mere month ago?), we have learned that in the medical field the word "doff", and its opposite "don" are very common indeed. 

What is the origin of these words? As soon as I tell you, you will think, "Well that's so obvious!" but it may not have occurred to you before.

They can both be traced back to Anglo-Saxon, where "do on" and "do off" were phrasal verbs meaning "put on" and "take off" (clothing). Over the years these phrasal verbs got smooshed together until we ended up with "don" and "doff". 

As to all those medical staff and  other essential workers who are busily donning and doffing all day long, I can only doff my hat to them.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

How to avoid bad language advice

Today we have a guest post from John McIntyre, who has worked as an editor at The Baltimore Sun for more than thirty years and has taught editing at Loyola University Maryland since 1995. John blogs about the language at http://johnemcintyre.blogspot.com/

John has a new book out, in which he "sets out to expose arrant nonsense, oversimplification, and crackpot edicts". Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing is available from amazon.com and amazon.ca. You can also  order from Barnes and Noble

In Britain the monarch is never wrong. Whenever the sovereign drops a brick in public, a functionary turns up at Buckingham Palace to explain that Her/His Majesty "was badly advised."

In the same way, many of the things that you are getting wrong in writing are not your fault: you have been badly advised. You have been taught superstitions about English that have no foundation in the language. You have been hobbled with oversimplifications. You have been subjected to bizarre diktats from supposed authorities.

Much of it was well-intentioned. Grammarians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lacking an established English grammar had to invent one. They turned to Latin, which had prestige and an established grammar they had been taught in schools, and they tried to adapt English to it. But Latin is a very different kind of language, and it was a bad fit.

Others have sought to tidy up the language by inventing and enforcing distinctions and prohibitions, seldom helpfully. (Look at the over/more than entry.)

We have wound up with what the linguist Arnold Zwicky has termed "zombie rules" absurd rules that have no foundation in the language and which have been repeatedly exploded by linguists and better-informed grammarians, but which roam classrooms and editorial offices like the undead.

As Henry Hitchings summed the situation up in The Language Wars, "The history of prescriptions about English ... is in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance."

Likewise, advice on writing in general is marred by oversimplifications, half-heard advice, and idiosyncratic preferences--sometimes bizarre--passed off as professionalism.

Your teachers, editors, mentors, and supervisors have a lot to answer for.

And you have much to unlearn. Look inside and see.
I have kept the advice succinct. If you need further explanation on any point, look me up. If you want to argue with me, you can try.


"This is charming and smart (one of my favorite combinations) and, to be sure, extraordinarily useful." --Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer's English

"A wise and helpful book." --Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl)

"The world of writing advice is riddled with bogus rules, misunderstanding, and pseudo-expertise. John McIntyre's concise and witty book sets the record straight using evidence, experience, and sound judgment." --Stan Carey, writer and blogger at Sentence first and Macmillan Dictionary Blog

"Grammar pedants confirm the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Happily for us, John McIntyre has a lot of knowledge about the English language and its uses. In Bad Advice, McIntyre excoriates the simplistic, outdated and just plain wrong "rules" that have long haunted English writing. Listen to him, rather than the ghosts of English teachers past, and your writing will be all the better for it." -- Lynne Murphy, author of The Prodigal Tongue

Monday, April 13, 2020

Whatever happened to ptomaine poisoning?

Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash
Whenever I write a post about pronunciation, it inevitably sets off a flurry of other pronunciation questions from readers, especially if silent letters are involved.

We have (unfortunately) an almost inexhaustible supply of silent letters in English.

Today's example is the old-fashioned word "ptomaine".  People used to refer to food poisoning as "ptomaine poisoning. The word is pronounced toe main (but keep reading for a surprise about that).
Any of a group of amines [organic compounds derived from ammonia] (e.g. cadaverine, putrescine, neurine) of unpleasant taste and odour, formed in putrefying animal and vegetable matter and formerly thought to cause food poisoning


Never say that Wordlady fails to introduce you to lovely words. Anyway, it has been determined that these charmingly named substances are not the actual cause of food poisoning; they just coexist with the toxic bacteria that are. The well-known food poisoning bacteria are Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism, and salmonella

Botulism, though no fun at all, does at least have an entertaining etymology:
Late 19th century from German Botulismus, originally ‘sausage poisoning’, from Latin botulus ‘sausage’, because first identified in badly preserved sausages.
Death by sausage, as it were. And how appropriate that it was Germans who first named it.

"Ptomaine" came into English in the 19th century from the French ptomaïne, from Italian ptomaina, formed irregularly from Greek ptōma ‘corpse’. Goodness this post is getting morbid.

As to the pronunciation, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1909, gave two possibilities:

toe may ine
ptoe may ine
Yes, with a pronounced p. This pronunciation was doomed to failure because English speakers are just not good at initial pt-.

The dictionary even got quite sniffy about the pronunciation that has since become standard:  
‘it is to be regretted that the full correction to ptomatine was not made at its reception into English, which would also have prevented the rise of the illiterate pronunciation toe MAIN, like domain’.
You know, it's unwise to make judgemental remarks about pronunciations you consider "illiterate", because, as we have seen before with words like "balcony" and "camellia",  in a hundred years you'll just look ridiculous.

Well, I'm sorry to inflict a post about food poisoning on you in these times, but at least I am pretty sure you're unlikely to get botulism or salmonella from your chocolate bunny.

Do you use the term "ptomaine poisoning", or have you done so in the past?

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Licorice or Liquorice? ISH or ISS?

I suspect that, like me, you are feeling a need for comfort food in these tumultuous times.

One of my comfort foods is licorice. Or wait, is it liquorice? And how is that last syllable pronounced?

The word came into English not long after the Norman Conquest, from Old French licoresse. The French had got it from late Latin liquiritia, from Greek glukurrhiza, from glukus ‘sweet’ + rhiza ‘root’.

There were many ways to spell it in the Middle English period (licoriz, licorys, lycorys, lycorice, etc.), but NONE of them had a -qu-. 

The origin of the -qu- spelling is one that avid Wordlady readers must by now be finding predictable, not to say boring. Yes, the Latinizing trends of the Renaissance! It's got a -qu- in Latin so it has to have a -qu- in English!  Actually the -qu- in Latin was probably also a mistake, caused by confusion with liquere (to be liquid). Good thing they didn't look at the Greek and go whole hog and change it to "gliquorice with a silent g" while they were at it!

The "licorice" spelling lingered on in Britain so that even in the mid-17th century Samuel Johnson gave it as the only spelling in his dictionary, although the learned authors he quoted spelled it "liquorice". 
Licorice. n.s. [γλυκύῤῥιζα; liquoricia, Italian; glycyrrhzza, Latin.] A root of sweet taste.
Liquorice hath a papilionaceous flower; the pointal which arises from the empalement becomes a short pod, containing several kidney-shaped seeds; the leaves are placed by parts joined to the mid-rib, and are terminated by an odd lobe. Miller.
By this time, pace Johnson, "liquorice" was definitely the much more common spelling in Britain.
But in American English it never supplanted the earlier "licorice", which is also the only spelling given in Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, although in Webster's 1783 spelling book he recommended "liquorice". The two spellings battled it out in American English throughout the 19th century, but, starting in 1900, "licorice" started its march to decisive victory. In the current Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is the only spelling given.

As usual, Canada straddles the divide between the US and the UK: the Canadian Oxford Dictionary  gives both spellings, with "licorice" being the more common one. Of course, because of our obsession with changing -or- spellings to -our-, there is some evidence from Canada (and other Commonwealth countries) of people attempting a licourice or liquourice spelling. But these are just plain wrong. 
For more on Canadian -our hypercorrection, see these posts:
Now, what about the pronunciation? Licker-iss or licker-ish? We don't really know how it came about, but the "ish" pronunciation seems to have cropped up in the 1600s. Despite being roundly criticized by usage pundits (and we've seen how effective that isn't), it is now the more common pronunciation in North America. In fact, when we did a survey on this word for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we could find no Canadians who said "lick(uh)riss".

What do you say, and how do you spell this word?

After all this I now have a craving for lic{qu}orice!

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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.