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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, November 30, 2016

Whistling an unhappy tune

 Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by [Lopez, Ian Haney]

In the last couple of years, we have, alas, become very familiar with the use of "dog-whistle" (usually as an adjective), meaning, to quote the OED:
 2. Polit. A statement or expression which in addition to its ostensible meaning has a further interpretation or connotation intended to be understood only by a specific target audience.

In particular, it usually applies to words having a hidden meaning that only the bigoted hear. 

Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre also uses it in the following way: 
“Dog whistle editing” is attention to distinctions of usage that only other copy editors can hear.
Perhaps the most notorious of these wastes of time and attention is the over/more than distinction, observed only by American newspaper editors. Seriously. When I’ve mentioned this quibble to lexicographers, they’ve given me blank looks, over having been in use in the sense of more than since before the Normans corrupted Anglo-Saxon.
You can see below, in a graph tracking the use of "dog-whistle" in Canadian newspapers, how much the usage has exploded, especially as a result of the US election campaign. We have "dog-whistle rhetoric", "dog-whistle campaigns", "dog-whistle racism", and above all, "dog-whistle politics".

The inevitable has also happened: "dog-whistle" is now also used as a verb: 
"And I think that was a disturbing trend in American politics, that this man was dog-whistling to some pretty disturbing elements"

Where did it all start? 

A Canadian connection?

It seems, according to the OED, that there is a Canadian twist to this tale. The first evidence the dictionary has for it is from an article by Canadian journalist Jim Coyle about the then Conservative government in Ontario:
1995   Ottawa Citizen 15 Oct. a9/1   On the lips of Premier Mike Harris, the term ‘special interest’ has the tone of epithet. It's an all-purpose dog-whistle that those fed up with feminists, minorities, the undeserving poor hear loud and clear.
However, Mr Coyle tells me that he cannot claim credit for this coinage, as "blowing the dog whistle" was a term much in use amongst reporters at the Ontario legislature already in the early eighties, to designate slyly-worded statements from politicians aimed at fanning anti-francophone sentiment.

Be that as it may, I have been unable to find any earlier written evidence in several large databases, so Mr Coyle may still hold the title of being the first to have committed this to paper. It is entirely possible that the Queen's Park reporters were the first to use the phrase. This decade-long lag between a word or phrase appearing in speech and its first written evidence is not uncommon. It is a phenomenon that underscores the unlikelihood that Shakespeare actually "invented" all the words for which the first written evidence is in his works. 

Want to know more about why the English language is the (weird) way it is? Let me know if you would be interested in taking my very popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course in Toronto on a weekday afternoon (or possibly a Saturday or Sunday morning) in January, February, or March. Email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

ALSO! "Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English" on a weekday afternoon.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why are coasters called coasters?

You know, if you're going to use dictionary-style "entries" for Canadianisms as the concept for your product you should at least get your info right. No, our Canadian toque is not pronounced like toke. It rhymes with "spook". 
For more on toques, see this post: 

I saw these coasters, made by an Ontario company from upcycled beer bottles, on sale at the Royal Ontario Museum gift shop. You can also get matching beer glasses if you really want to spread the "toke" mistake around. 

Once I got over my "Why did we go to all the trouble of writing the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for these people?" shock at this, I started to wonder, "Why the heck do we call those things coasters, anyway?"

A "coaster" was originally a person or  a ship who sailed from port to port along a coast, or around the coast of an island.  In the late 1800s, some wit saw a similarity between this and the silver tray on which the after-dinner bottle of port (the other kind of port) circulated around a table, stopping at every welcoming "harbour" along the way. Coasters gradually became smaller and more stationary, until they designated the type of object above.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Wordlady of the Camellias

One of my all-time favourite ballets is John Neumeier's The Lady of the Camellias.

Quick now, how did you pronounce "camellia"? Was the middle syllable like "mell" or like "meal"? If you, like me, said "meal", you would probably be as surprised as I was to find this note in the Oxford English Dictionary
(Often mispronounced as caˈmēlia.)
Mispronounced? What are they talking about? I don't know anyone who says anything but "meal". (Maybe you do, and if so please let me know).

It turns out this is a holdover from the original entry, published in 1888, and not yet fully revised (you always have to be wary about this when consulting the OED), which gives the pronunciation as "ca mell eea". The rationale is that the flower was named (by Linnæus) after Kamel (latinized Camellus), a Moravian Jesuit who described the botany of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Once again, a usage condemned as "wrong" has become the standard usage. 

Of course, we English speakers also had to imitate the Latin spelling of Kamel's name, with its double l, unlike the French, who are quite happy with camélia, and the Germans, who like Kamelie.

Here for your viewing pleasure is one of the fabulous pas de deux from Neumeier's ballet. Sometimes it's just better not to have any damn words, and their associated spelling and pronunciation issues, getting in the way. 

(I know, did I just SAY that?? Who is writing this post, and what has she done with Wordlady?)


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:
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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... 

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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:
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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:

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.