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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, August 24, 2020

An issue with "issue"

 A Wordlady reader has written to complain about the word "issue", to wit

 What about "issues" which in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic has replaced all possible synonyms and more to the further impoverishment of our language. What is its origin and has it always been abused as it is these days?

Whew.  Abuse, impoverishment (nay, FURTHER impoverishment), replacing all possible synonyms, that's a lot to pack into two sentences. Hyperbole is not uncommon when people take against new usages. 

"Issue" has been around since 1325 and has 19 meanings, plus more sub-meanings, in the OED, so it's definitely a polysemous word. When it entered English from French (ultimately from Latin exīre to go out, < ex out + īre to go) it had the meanings "a flowing out" and "offspring". If you object to all other usages than those being "abuse", well... good luck with that.

It certainly has not replaced all its possible synonyms. Let's look at some of them, from the Oxford Paperback Thesaurus:

  • 1. the committee discussed the issue: matter (in question), question, point (at issue), affair, case, subject, topic; problem, bone of contention.
  • 2. the issue of a special stamp: issuing, publication, publishing; circulation, distribution, supplying, appearance.
  • 3. the latest issue of our magazine: edition, number, instalment, copy.
  • 4. (Law) she died without issue: offspring, descendants, heirs, successors, children, progeny, family; informal kids;
  • 5. an issue of blood: discharge, emission, release, outflow, outflowing, outflux; secretion, emanation, exudation, effluence; technical efflux.
  • 6. (dated) a favourable issue: (end) result, outcome, consequence, upshot, conclusion, end. 

Last time I checked, all these words are alive and well. 

I think what this reader is objecting to is the use of "issue" to mean "problem". This usage has been around since the 70s and has certainly taken off since the 80s. Its origins were in psychology in the US, most likely, I suspect, to avoid the negative judgemental connotation of "problem". Personally I don't see anything wrong with avoiding negative judgemental connotations. I like to give the example of a ballet teacher of mine who would give us an exercise and when we were done making a hash of it would say,  "Three issues:..." This made me feel much better than if he had said "Three problems".  And in the great scheme of things, was I going to turn out as a better ballet dancer if he'd crushed me with a word with demeaning connotations?

This is a perfectly normal outgrowth of the sense of "issue" meaning "point of contention, difficulty to be resolved" which has been around since, oh, 1400.

I really do not understand why people claim that some change in the language is an "impoverishment". English has a history dating back to the arrival of the Normans of loving synonyms. When a word acquires another meaning, surely that is an enrichment. "Problem" is not going anywhere, but now we can reserve it for really negative difficulties, while we also have "issue" for the kind of difficulty that is discussed on the psychiatrist's couch (or is susceptible to correction by a patient ballet teacher). I have to admit to having a chuckle on hearing a 6-year-old whose backpack strap had got caught between the seats on the subway saying, "Mum, I have an issue with my backpack"!

I have to wonder if, in the late 1500s, people objected to the newfangled meaning  of  "problem" usurping, or adding to previous words.  "What is wrong with ye "hardnesse" or ye "dyffycultie"? This word "problem" is being abused! It should only mean "riddle"," they might have said.

Another issue with "issue" is its pronunciation. Judging by the medieval spellings, it has been pronounced ISHoo since it first came into English. Probably under the influence of the spelling, British English dictionaries started recommending ISSyoo in the early 20th century, but ISHoo is making a comeback. In North America ISHoo has always been the preferred pronunciation.  I can't help it, but ISSyoo sounds precious to me. 

There you go, I can be negative and judgemental by moments too.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Normalcy or normality?

This picture is relevant. Keep reading to find out how.

A Canadian Wordlady reader has inquired about the word normalcy, which she feels is taking over from normality.

The fact of the matter is that these words are pretty much of the same vintage: normality dates from 1839, normalcy from 1857, along with another but much less successful contender, normalness from 1854.  

Normalcy has in fact been the more frequent form in North America and, interestingly, in South Asian English. It is not overwhelmingly more common, however: the proportion is about two-thirds in favour of normalcy vs. one-third in favour of normality.

In Britain, however, the numbers are very much more skewed, and in the other direction: over 90% in favour of normality. Normalcy is seen with some hatred and much opprobrium as an evil Americanism. Indeed, British usage pundits have been withering about normalcy: H.W. Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage said it "seems to have nothing to recommend it" and Robert Burchfield in his update said, "In BrE normality is the customary term, and normalcy is widely scorned." The 1969 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary labelled normalcy "irregular".

In Canada, a dramatic shift happened between the 80s and the 90s. I certainly remember being taught in the 70s that normalcy was WRONG and normality was RIGHT. In the 1980s, possibly under British (or more likely WE'RE NOT AMERICAN) influence, Canadian writers were 94% in favour of normality, but by the 90s had shifted to only 37% in favour of normality, and since then to only about 25%.

Normalcy was given a boost in the US by the 1920 election campaign of President Warren J Harding, who promised a return to normalcy after the First World War. Harding's political opponents seized on this as an example of Harding's shaky grip on the language, saying that normalcy was not a real word. They were successful in besmirching his vocabulary, if not in defeating his presidential ambitions, to the extent that decades later people were claiming that normalcy was a malapropism invented by Harding, though it wasn't. But certainly his use of it popularized the word so that it started on its upward trajectory against normality. It must be remembered that normality wasn't a terribly common word at the time either, hard though that may be to imagine.

This was because the adjective normal itself didn't start to become common until the 1840s. Surprising, eh?

It is derived from classical Latin normālis (right-angled), also in the 4th–5th centuries "conforming to or governed by a rule", ultimately from norma (a carpenter's square). It was borrowed into English in the 1500s but remained quite rare until the 1800s. Even then, such little use as it had was restricted to scientific usage.

It may have been given a boost by the French, starting in 1794. Wishing to centralize teaching, establish "norms" (a word which also did not exist in English until the early 1800s) and wrest the education of children from the clergy, who were in any case in disarray after the revolution, the French government established the "Ecole Normale" for teacher training, based on Austrian and German 18th-century model "Normalschulen" which aimed to instil pedagogical norms or standards into teachers. 

By 1839, teacher training colleges in North America were also being called normal schools. Not familiar with this usage, I remember hearing as a child that my grandmother and great aunt had been to "normal school" and wondered why anyone needed to make a point they hadn't gone to "abnormal school"! In English, the term "normal school" is now mostly historical.

If you are wondering about the name Norma, it was apparently invented by Felice Romani in his libretto for Bellini's opera of that name (first performed in 1832) and seems to have nothing to do with the Latin word norma. It would indeed be odd to name a baby after a carpenter's square. The name soared to popularity in the 1930s, reaching the rank of 25th most popular baby name in the US, before precipitously declining after 1950, until there were no baby Normas in British Columbia, for instance, in 1975 or any year since. By clicking here you can see the name's "witch's hat" curve typical of names that experience a surge in popularity and then become unfashionable. While you're there you can check out some other names. It's fun!

Would you call a baby "Norma" or do you know any young Normas? (Not that there's anything wrong with the name Norma!)

What do you say? Normality or normalcy?  Either is fine in North America. Whatever we call it, we all fervently wish for a return to it as soon as possible.

For more about baby names, see this post. https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2015/03/thats-lady-grantham-to-you-downton.html

Have you missed out on previous Wordlady posts? You can click here and just keep scrolling to your heart's content. 

 

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Patience on a monument

Titanic memorial in Belfast

Yesterday a nice young man knocked on my door and asked if he might look for a monument in my back yard. Since my garden is quite bereft of statuary, I thought, "Good luck with that!" but let him through.

And lo! After some digging and waving around of a metal detector (I was so hoping he would find some hidden treasure), he found the monument! But it was a very unprepossessing square iron peg buried under my fence.

I learned a meaning of "monument" that I didn't know before. The young man was a surveyor, and it has a specific meaning in surveying of "a marker of a property boundary".  It has had that meaning since the 1650s!

At least my surveyor didn't find in my garden a monument in the Scottish sense of  "A ridiculous or objectionable person or thing; a laughing-stock, a fool, a rogue."

"Monument", which came into English in the 1300s, is derived from classical Latin monumentum, monimentum commemorative statue or building, tomb, from monēre to remind, which is also the root of "admonish", "monitor" and even "summon".





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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.