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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, 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.


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/

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.