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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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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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Monday, May 25, 2020

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Object lesson

A Wordlady reader has inquired whether 

a striking practical example of a principle or ideal

is an 
object lesson 

or an 
abject lesson.

One can see how these two words can be confused in some varieties of North American English where a "short O" and a "short A" can be pronounced very similarly.

Also "object lesson" is hardly transparent.

But "object lesson" it is. 

Originally, an object lesson was a lesson in which a pupil's examination of a material object was the basis for teaching, to help understanding of an abstract notion. For instance, students would hold in their hand a familiar object (a seashell, a thimble...) and describe it in depth.

This type of lesson was promoted by the late 18th century Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in contrast to the then current practice of rote learning, memorization, and recitation. Object lessons became very popular in Victorian times. The object being described would have been considered a typical example of its kind.

By the late 1800s, "object lesson" had taken on its current figurative meaning of a striking example. 

In current practice, it is also used in religious education to mean a type of demonstration with real objects that illustrates a moral or religious principle.

"Abject" on the other hand is an adjective with a few meanings:
  • 1. (of something bad) experienced or present to the maximum degree: his letter plunged her into abject misery | abject poverty.
    • (of a situation or condition) extremely unpleasant and degrading: the abject condition of the peasants.
  • 2. (of a person or their behaviour) completely without pride or dignity; self-abasing: an abject apology. 
Now, some people may have very unhappy memories of school, and so they may consider those days as "extremely unpleasant and degrading", but all the same, they were not "abject lessons". 
Obviously, these words are etymologIcally related. Both came into English in about 1400 from Latin. "Object" is from objectum (thing presented to the mind) from ob- (in the way of) + jacere (to throw).  "Abject" came from Latin abjectus (rejected), from ab- (away) + jacere (to throw).

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Garnish and garnishee

A Canadian (this is significant) Wordlady fan has written with the following question:
The latest TIME magazine features ... One woman [who] had to contend with having her wages "garnished" by a collection agency after losing her job [i.e. she had some money taken off her wages and given to a collection agency before the money even landed in her bank account]. I thought the legal term was "garnisheed"? And is there any connection to the usual meaning of "to garnish," i.e. to enhance or improve by some adornment? How odd that the word can imply both subtraction and addition! Can you explain?
This is a very complicated word. Bear with me; I will get there eventually!

We borrowed "garnish" from French garnir in the 1400s. In Modern French, garnir means "to furnish or provide", and this is what it meant back in the 15th century too, but more specifically
To furnish (a place) with means of defence; to garrison; to supply with men, arms, and provisions.
The means of defending a place, and the soldiers who defended it, were called a "garnison". In time this morphed into "garrison" in English, but garnison is still the word in French.

The French word was probably derived from a Germanic word that had also given Anglo-Saxon the word "warn".  (There are quite a few g-/w-pairs like this between English and French, see also wallop). 

At this point the words "warn" and "garnish" shared the idea "prepare someone to defend themself, by providing either advance knowledge or arms, soldiers, etc."

At the same time, "garnish" was used less bellicosely to mean "provide with embellishments", and by 1600 this was being used particularly of decorating food.  By this time, the verb had long since also become a noun.

The early martial senses died out, and we were left with... parsley.

Meanwhile however, the connection of "garnish" with "warn" took on a life of its own. 

Starting in the 1500s, "garnish" was being used in legal circles to mean "warn a debtor to pay up"; the action of doing this was also called a "garnish". The person who was subject to such a court order was called the "garnishee".

By the late 1800s, things had gone beyond warning to action, and both "garnish" and "garnishee" were being used as verbs to mean "take a debtor's wages by court order".

Although both verbs exist in this sense in all varieties of English, it appears that  the verb "garnishee" is more popular in Canada than elsewhere, because Canadians are more likely to "garnishee" someone's wages than to "garnish" them (though both terms are used). 

In the US, the verb "garnish" is preferred, with "garnishee" being reserved for the noun designating the person being garnished. In British law, a "garnishee order" is now known more transparently as a "third party debt order".

The following, however, is definitely a mistake:
A few weeks later however a more organised rally garnished fifty-thousand protesters
The word they wanted was "garnered", which originally referred to grain being stored up and comes from the same root as "granary" and French grenier (attic).

Unless of course someone sprinkled parsley over the 50,000. Or took part of their wages.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Pretentious, moi?

A Wordlady fan inquired recently about the word "pretentious", and I was surprised to learn that it is much younger than I would have suspected.  Here's the OED's earliest quotation
1832   T. Carlyle in Fraser's Mag. May 382/2   [He] lived no day of his life without doing and saying more than one pretentious ineptitude.
But surely there were pretentious people and things before 1832? What did we call them?

There are many words in this semantic field that are still in common use today: 
But there are others that in my opinion deserve a revival for this sense:

1863   Notes & Queries 3rd Ser. 4 284   Much of the poetry is little more than very flatulent declamation.

hi cockalorum ("cockalorum" was a magician's incantation like "abracadabra" or "hocus pocus" and thus came to stand for meaningless speech)
1887   Hardwicke's Sci.-gossip Apr. 83/2   The dogmatic hi-cockalorum style of men absolutely certain of their own correctness.
The Scots and Irish apparently have at their disposal
long nebbed (literally, having a long beak; figuratively, inquisitive; of language, polysyllabic)

But I think my favourite is 
(roosters being notorious for being full of themselves).

Consider this fabulous stream of insults and see if you can think of anyone you would like to apply it to currently:
1879   Reynolds's Newspaper 21 Sept. 3/1   That feeble-minded, self-opinionated, coxcombic mixture of imbecility, assurance and inordinate self-esteem.


"Pretentious" and "pretension" constitute possibly one of the most annoying pairs of words in English. Why is "pretentious" spelled with a "t" whereas "pretension" is spelled with an "s"? 

As we have seen, "pretentious" is a fairly recent addition to English. We borrowed it from French prétentieux which in 1789 or thereabouts had acquired the meaning "making an exaggerated outward display, ostentatious, showy"

"Pretension" is much older in English; we borrowed it from Latin in the 1400s. The classical Latin form was   praetention (the act of pretending) but a post-classical form praetension had cropped up. In the early days we merrily spelled the word with a -tion ending, an -sion ending, or even a -cion ending. Quite frankly, I don't know why the -sion ending won out, but by the 1700s it was firmly established, and it is the only spelling listed in Samuel Johnson's dictionary.

So by the time "pretentious" came along, imitating the French spelling, it couldn't win against the entrenched spelling of "pretension".

If I were Queen of English, I would definitely do something about this. Since there are no current (and very few obsolete) words in English ending in -sious, I would decree that instead of changing pretentious to pretensious,  pretension should be changed to pretention. 

It is true that the following verbs ending in -d  form their derivative in -sion:
ascend ascension
apprehend apprehension
comprehend comprehension
extend extension
condescend condescension
suspend suspension
But on the other hand (God forbid that English should be consistent) we have
intend intention 
contend contention
French lives quite happily with prétention and prétentieux. Why do we have to make our lives complicated? 
Warning: I am not (alas) Queen of English, so you'll have to keep spelling pretension with an s.

Friday, May 15, 2020

You can help the Oxford English Dictionary

Can you help the OED and its readers by conducting some linguistic detective work?

Antedating appeal

In the 20 years since the full-scale revision of the OED started, the range of online resources available to the Dictionary’s editors has increased almost exponentially. This means that for the entries we worked on in the early years of the project, there’s a good chance of being able to improve upon the dates of our earliest quotations by searching in a number of now readily accessible databases that simply weren’t available then. Because we initially worked alphabetically, starting in the middle, this applies especially to entries between M and R.
For example:
  • mendacity: antedated from 1646 to 1540 using Early English Books Online; likewise moonbeam (to 1535 from 1600), multiplication table (1657 from 1662)
  • masonic: antedated from 1786 to 1761 using Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO); likewise moonlit (to 1783 from 1817)
  • menopause: antedated from 1872 to 1858 using Google Books; likewise melodramatically (to 1820 from 1836)
  • meanie: antedated from 1927 to 1902 using NewspaperArchive; likewise mellophone (to 1901 from 1913)
  • mom: antedated from 1894 to 1846 using newspaper databases on ProQuest
And this is where you come in. As editors are concentrating on updating the unrevised text of the OED, it is unlikely that they will be able to go back systematically over the revised ranges for some time. Carrying on the long tradition of crowdsourcing employed by the OED, we’d like to invite you to try your hand at antedating any sense that has been revised or added in the range M-R, and to submit your findings using this link: https://public.oed.com/appeals/oed-antedatings/

Useful sources of information include:
  • Early English Books Online (EEBO)
  • Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO)
  • Google Books
  • Any substantial historical newspaper database that features facsimiles of original pages (there are many suppliers of these, including Gale, NewspaperArchive, ProQuest, and Trove).
Some of these databases are freely available; others may be available to you through membership of an institution such as a library or university. Try the collection of corpora at BYU:

Monday, May 4, 2020

Flower and flour

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

For Mother's Day, get your mum some flowers

Or if she really likes baking, you could get her a variety of flours (which currently seem harder to come by).

The two words were in fact once the same. 

The Latin word for the prettiest part of a plant, floris, became flour in Old French (subsequently fleur). Very quickly it acquired another meaning: “the choicest part of a plant”. Applied to wheat, this was the part used for baking. 

For centuries, “flour” had both meanings in English, then we changed the spelling to “flower”. In the 18th century someone had the bright idea to use one spelling for the wheat meal and the other for blooms.

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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Floe or flow?

In my post about spring breakup, I referred to floating slabs of ice as

ice floes

One occasionally sees this misspelled 

ice flows

"Floe" is a surprisingly recent word in English, the first evidence dating only from 1817. It probably comes from Norse flo layer, level piece. I do not know what they were called before the 19th century.

In Newfoundland and the Canadian north, the term "ice pan" is also used. 

"Flow", on the other hand, dates back to Anglo-Saxon times as a verb and to the 15th century as a noun, and has not really changed in meaning over that time.

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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.