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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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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.

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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

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.