Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

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.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Swooning over transitive usages

Image result for swooning
Bring me my smelling salts! Don't they know it's supposed to be INTRANSITIVE??!!

I was quite surprised to see this on the Australian Ballet's facebook feed: 
It was a Brisbane builder who swooned Telstra Ballet Dancer Award nominee Nicola Curry from America to Australia.
"Swoon" used transitively (i.e. with a direct object, "to swoon someone")? How very biza... I mean interesting.

Is this just an Australian thing, I wondered.

Sure enough, I found more Australian evidence: .

Australia: General
The Idea of North: Ballads by Candle Light - Brisbane Powerhouse

Sat 29 Oct 2011 # Come and be swooned by the intoxicating harmonies of The Idea of North. This ARIA award winning group will sing a smooth blend of ballads including songs by The Beatles, Sting, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder all on a candlelit stage.

Australia: Blog
How to talk to the opposite sex - The Age Blogs: Ask Sam

2007 2:41 PM . # Afterall I bet a lot of women are feeling ripped off after being swooned by these guys who have done the course on becoming a pick up artist and find after a short time they have nothing to talk about. # Unless all you both want is a quick roll in the hay, you will want to be able to talk for a long time into the future.

Occasional, but very little, US evidence:

Country/genre United States: General
Title How It Works: Clinton's “Reality Distortion Field” Charisma
Source http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/11/21/bill-clinton-reality-distortion-field/

. # I have to say that I too have heard a story exactly like the one described above from my professor. Women doesn't like Clinton beforehand but when he meets her, she becomes swooned by him.
I surveyed my helpful international editors' group, and only three Canadians, two Australians, and two Americans were familiar with this usage (compared to hundreds who were not). One Australian opined that it must be the effect of a popular morning radio show called "Swoon".  She also mentioned "swoon-worthy", which, however, is not uniquely Australian. 

"Swoon"  in the literal "lose consciousness" sense comes from an Old English word. But we don't say to a doctor, “I haven't been feeling well, and I've been swooning a lot”. Why not? Because the Norman French arrived, and they fainted instead.  "Faint" is a fascinating word that originally meant “pretend to be sick” (it is related to "feign" and "feint"). 

But, as with many Anglo-Saxon words pushed aside by Norman French interlopers, we didn't get rid of swoon altogether. A very important thing about English over its history is that it LOVES synonyms. If you think of "Reduce Reuse Recycle", English has NEVER been into the "reduce" part, but, boy, does it love to reuse and recycle. We kept swoon because apparently at some point in our history we decided we needed a word that means specifically “faint in particularly romantic circumstances.” 

And now it seems to be taking on another meaning as well. We shall have to keep an eye on it. Let me know if you have ever encountered this usage!

 P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! SUBSCRIPTION IS FREE! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page  
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sprucing up the place

Image result for christmas trees in house
Sprucing up the house

Writing to a friend who was painting his flat this week, I referred to him "sprucing up" the place.

And then I thought, "Why do we say that? Does it have anything to do with conifers? Surely not! It must be just a coincidence, like pining for the fjords (click here for more on "pining")."

Well, I was WRONG. AGAIN! Sheesh!

Admittedly, though, the connection is very tenuous, but it led me to some interesting discoveries about the word "spruce" in all its usages.

Back in the 1300s and 1400s, the part of Europe bordering the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea, inhabited by an ancient Baltic people called "Prussi" by the Romans, went by the name "Pruce" in English. After the Renaissance, when we preferred Latin names, we came to call it "Prussia". 

But before that happened, "Pruce" had a variant name: "Spruce". Goods imported from or flora and fauna native to "Spruce" were naturally called "Spruce fish", "Spruce duck",  and so on.  A particularly valued commodity was the wood of a tall, straight coniferous tree that grew in the region and hence was called a "Spruce tree" or "Spruce fir". After a couple of centuries, we called it simply a "spruce".

But what does this have to do with sprucing oneself up

Another valued commodity from "Spruce" was leather. In the 1400s and 1500s a "spruce leather jerkin" seems to have been a hot fashion item. If you wore one, you were considered pretty natty. And so "spruce" came to be treated as an adjective meaning "well dressed, dapper" or "well maintained; having a tidy appearance".  At the same time, "spruce (up)" started to be used as a verb. (Find out whether it's ok to use an adjective as a verb here: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/whats-wrong-with-this-verb/)

Here in Canada we have, by a scientific estimate, bajillions of spruces. More spruces than any other kind of tree. I like to think that if history had been different, they would be called "canadians", and the expression meaning "improve one's appearance" would be "to canadian oneself up". Maybe it's not too late... 

PLEASE, if you liked this post, SHARE it.

Attention ballet lovers! I'm offering a new mini ballet appreciation course in November: More than the Hora: Jewish Contributions to Ballet. Of interest to all ballet lovers and all who are interested in Jewish culture and history. More info here: 

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! SUBSCRIPTION IS FREE! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page  
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The real source of stamina

When you talk about someone's stamina you are literally saying that he or she is at the mercy of the Fates.  

Stamina is the plural of the Latin word stamen (thread), which of course has given us the word for the threadlike part of a flower.
Image result for stamens
Image result for stamens

But stamen was also used to mean the thread spun by the three Fates in Greek and Roman mythology, the length of which determined one's life. 

Image result for three fates
Her stamina has definitely run out

When "stamina" first came into English around 1700, it was as the plural of this word "stamen". Maintaining the metaphor of the thread spun by the Fates, it meant all the bodily characteristics that could be expected to determine one's life expectancy. That sense died out, leaving us with the current meaning, the capacity to endure fatigue and exertion. 

The word ceased to be plural and became a singular. Knowing this may come in handy the next time someone berates you for using "media" or "data" with a singular verb. Would they say "Her stamina are extraordinary"?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

More English Masochism

Dear faithful Wordlady readers! As you can see, even when I am washing my hands I am thinking of what nifty info about the language I can share with you.

So this week's topic is the plant called chamomile. Or is it camomile? And if the former, what the heck is that silent h doing in there?  You will notice there is no h in the French version.

Like so many names for herbs and other foodstuffs, this is a word we borrowed from French after the Norman Conquest. Old French camomille came from late Latin chamomilla, which came from Greek khamaimēlon (literally "earth apple" from khamai earth + mēlon apple, because of its low-growing habit and the apple-like smell of its flowers). Old French did not believe in inserting unpronounced letters just because they happened to be in the Latin word.

So, in English too, from the 1200s to the 1500s, "camomile" was spelled as it was pronounced. But, as we have seen before, starting in the 1500s English had a mania for inserting silent letters in words to represent Latin etymology. "Camomile", like "debt" and "receipt" and so many other words, was influenced by this trend, but did not completely succumb to it. 

Or not yet. Traditionally, dictionaries will tell you, the United States prefers "chamomile" while everyone else prefers "camomile". However, a survey I did this week of an international group of editors revealed that a whopping 191 opted for "chamomile" versus only 23 for "camomile".  This trend crossed geographical boundaries, and is supported by various corpus searches, which show "camomile" beating a retreat. And this, despite the fact that non-American dictionaries list "camomile" first. Shows you how little influence dictionaries have when the users of the language get the bit in their teeth.

But WHY, when we had the choice between an easier-to-spell, more intuitive variant and a harder-to-spell, less intuitive one, did we have to opt for the latter? I can only conclude that we English speakers really are masochistic when it comes to spelling.

Another question about this word is: How is it pronounced? Does the last syllable sound like "mile" or like "meal"?

Here we have a quite stark North America / Rest of the World divide. My survey revealed the following:

US: Overwhelmingly "meal"
UK, Ireland, Australia: Overwhelmingly, almost exclusively "mile"

This meant, of course, that Canadians had to do their usual thing and be split more or less down the middle, with a slight preference for "mile".

Interestingly, a couple of Texans and a smattering of others had a pronunciation not listed in dictionaries: "mill". 

This pronunciation difference may be a result of the Great Vowel Shift. Before the 1500s, "camomile" (and "mile") were pronounced like modern "meal". Then the shift happened, but perhaps it didn't affect "camomile" as quickly as it affected "mile" and so the earlier version came over to North America. I used to think "camomeel" was an affectation but I should stop being so judgemental.

For just a few of our many other silent letters in English, please see this post:

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The times they are a-changing

I was recently reading a blurb for a book about 19th century prescriptivism  (Language Between Description and Prescription: Verbs and Verb Categories in Nineteenth-Century Grammars of English by Lieselotte Anderwald) which referred to "one of the most violently hated constructions of the time".

Grammarians of the time called it "a clumsy solecism", "an incongruous and ridiculous form of speech", "an awkward neologism, which neither convenience, intelligibility, nor syntactical congruity demands".

Can you guess what it was?

The progressive passive.  As in "the house is being built". 

Unobjectionable, you say? HA! Many teeth were being gnashed and much hair was being pulled out by grammarians who insisted that the good old "the house is building" or "the house is a-building" were perfectly fine, thank you very much.

As late as 1871, in A grammar of the English language: for the use of schools and academies. With copious parsing exercises, William Bingham held forth, blaming the usual suspects:
Out of this form ("The house is a building") has grown, by the omission of the preposition, what grammarians call "the passive voice of the participle in -ing" as, "The house is building.". This latter is, in turn, almost entirely superseded by a very objectionable form engrafted upon the language by the newspaper press: -- "The house is being built" which literally means, the house is existing in a built state.

By the end of the 19th century, when grammarian Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury admitted that the new progressive passive was here to stay, he still opined 
Double methods of expression, like "the house is building" and "the house is being built" will in some cases doubtless continue to exist side by side for a long time to come.
Time makes fools of us all.

For more usages formerly criticized as wrong see this post:

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Meekly kneeling upon your knees

Image result for kneeling
OK, so I had a LOT of sins to confess. Didn't realize it would take THIS long

I always tend to smile inwardly when I hear the following adjuration in church: "Make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees."

"What the hell, oops I mean heck (I am in church after all) else could you kneel on?" think I irreverently.

Kneeling made headlines recently when, as a sign of protest against social injustice, football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers dropped to their knees rather than standing during the pre-game singing of the American national anthem

But what would you say? "They kneeled"? or "They knelt"? 

I would only say "knelt", and I assumed that this irregular past tense was something we had inherited from Anglo-Saxon, like a lot of our irregular tenses. Indeed my kneejerk (emphasis on the jerk) reaction on seeing "kneeled" was that it was some recent upstart and probably INCORRECT.

Brace yourself, o reader. I was WRONG. (I hate when I have to say that). 

"Knelt" did not in fact crop up until the 17th century, before which time "kneeled" was the past tense. It followed in the footsteps of "feel", the past tense of which gradually shifted (or should I say "creeped"?) from "feeled" to "felt" between the Norman Conquest and Shakespeare's time. But the fact that "knelt" was later to the party than "felt" meant that "kneeled" came over to North America, where it has survived, whereas "feeled" died out of all varieties of English. 

Subsequently, "knelt" also migrated to North America, where it is now considerably more common than "kneeled".

Over time, some verbs that started out as irregular have become regular (see, for example, this post about "reach") and the reverse has also happened, as we have seen with "kneel". We grow to accept whatever catches on. Some people rant about "dove" rather than "dived" as a past tense of "dive" (see this post) and "snuck" rather than "sneaked" as a past tense of "sneak", but they are just further examples of this time-honoured tradition.

It's time for back to school and... back to Tea and Wordlady! Full afternoon tea plus talk $50, 230 pm. Please let me know if you would sign up for any of the following, and which day of the week suits you best: Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.
1) Hebrew and Yiddish words in English
2) Why the English language is so weird
3) Things you never suspected about Canadian English
4) NEW!! Irish English

STARTS SEPT 20! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. Downtown Toronto. REGISTRATION NOW OPEN AND SPACE IS LIMITED. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html

Would you enjoy talking about words with Wordlady over many, many glasses of wine? Why not check out the trip I'm organizing to Bordeaux and Toulouse in July 2017. SIGNUP DEADLINE SEPT 20. More info here:

About Me

My photo
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.