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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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Friday, December 30, 2011

You're toast

Tomorrow night many of us will be toasting the new year. Oddly enough, this does have something to do with what we eat for breakfast. “Toast” started out in the 1300s meaning, roughly, “suntan”, derived from a Latin word tostare. The “grilled bread” sense cropped up in the 1400s, but at the time “toast” was a piece of bread coated with sugar and spices, grilled, and then dropped into a glass of wine to flavour it. In about 1700, it became popular to mention a lady's name when inviting people to drink, the idea being that thinking of the lady added a special savour to the wine, just as the sweet spicy crouton did.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Of Sugarplums and Plum Pudding

One of the weird things about Christmas is that plums seem to be everywhere but are in fact nowhere. Many of us are preparing our plum puddings for Christmas dinner, and of course, on Christmas Eve visions of sugarplums will be dancing in our heads. Meanwhile, the Sugar Plum Fairy is literally dancing, as ballet companies perform endless Nutcrackers. But none of these things has anything to do with actual plums. What gives?

 


















The person who first recounted the deathless tale of Little Jack Horner and his Christmas (i.e. mincemeat) pie would still be trying to think of a body part rhyming with "raisin" were it not for a fortunate (for him) development in both English cuisine and usage in the 1600s. Certain dishes, for instance mincemeat and Christmas pudding, which had originally been made with prunes (dried plums), started to use raisins or currants instead, but the word "plum" continued to be used despite the change in the type of fruit. So what Little Jack's thumb encountered was actually a dried grape, just like the ingredients in your "plum" pudding.

Sugarplums, on the other hand, were never plums, not even candied ones. They were a kind of hard candy, about the size and shape of a plum, in various colours and flavours, often with wire "stems" attached.  An aniseed or caraway seed served as a "pit". Sugarplums were in vogue from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, just in time for Tchaikovsky and the choreographers Petipa and Ivanov to ensure their immortality by associating them with the reigning deity of the Land of the Sweets, performed here by the very lovely Miyako Yoshida of Birmingham Royal Ballet:



A very merry Christmas to all Wordlady readers; thank you for following. I hope you have many sugarplums over the holidays... and if you've never been to see Nutcracker... go! 
You can catch the Royal Ballet's beautiful classic version in cinemas around the world this week. Check out locations near you here: http://ca.rohcinema.com/tickets




If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips by clicking here and my
ballet appreciation courses by clicking here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rein, reign, go away

             Reindeer with reins

With visions of Donner and Blitzen and Co. harnessed up to Santa's sleigh in our heads, one might think that reindeer are so called because they wear reins. But the reins used for horses are from the Latin word retinere (hold back), whereas “reindeer” comes from the language of the Vikings (not surprisingly, since reindeer are found in the northern parts of the world). In Old Norse, rein was the word for what we would call a caribou. “Deer” back then was the general word for animals, only later being restricted to the antler-bearing ones. So, etymologically speaking, “reindeer” means “caribou animal”. "Caribou", by the way, has a very cute etymology, coming from a Mi'kmaq (native people of eastern Canada) word meaning "snow shoveller", from their habit of scraping away snow with their hooves to get at the food underneath.

Neither "rein" nor "reindeer" has anything to do with the other "reign". Or "rain", for that matter, but I doubt anyone makes that mistake. (Coincidentally, though, "rain" did also start out life with a "g"!)

"Reign" comes from the Latin regnum (government by a king) via Old French. Various pronunciations of the word seem to have existed throughout the Middle Ages -- rayn, ray-nye, rayng-nye -- but eventually "rayn" won out. Being English, though, we wouldn't waste the opportunity to bedevil people learning to spell when we could keep a good silent letter to show off that we know the Latin origins of a word. So we're stuck with the g. I guess we should just be grateful that no one felt compelled to reflect the Latin origins of "rein" by spelling it "reitn"!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sorry, I CAN'T get it for you wholesale

It is the busiest retail season of the year. “Retail” comes from the Old French verb retaillier (cut again). The literal idea was that the merchant would get a huge hunk of cheese or something else whole (hence “wholesale”), then cut smaller bits off it to sell retail. The root word in retaillier (from the Latin talea, a cut stick) is also found in the word “tailor”, literally a cutter of clothes, and in “tally”, originally a stick with notches cut into it to record the amount of a debt or payment.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Seasonal Spelling Slip-up

The word "poinsettia" is a spelling trap for the unwary, especially as most of us pronounce it "poinSETTA" (or in fact, in North America, "poinSEDDA"). But don't forget it has that -ia ending so common in plant names: dahlia, petunia, gardenia etc. 

Not to mention "fuchsia", where we don't pronounce the ending ee-ah either, though one irate correspondent to the dictionary berated me for giving the pronunciation as "FYOOSHA" instead of what she considered the "correct" pronunciation: FOOKseeah (FOOK rhyming with BOOK). I was sorely tempted to write back saying that I would never do anything that would lead some poor innocent to engage in a conversation at a garden centre starting with the statement, "I wanna FOOKSya"!
 
You might also be tempted to add a superfluous "t" to poinsettia: pointsettia, but the flower is named after J.R. Poinsett, the first US Minister to Mexico and an amateur botanist, who came across the flower while there in the 1830s. Poinsettias are pointless, you might say (I've never been a fan of them).

Wondering what to give your word-loving friends and relations? Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do with Pigs and Only in Canada, You Say  make great gifts, both available from amazon.ca. Click here to order.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bless you!

It's winter, and many of us are sneezing (especially if we didn't get our flu vaccine). But until the mid-1400s, people fnesed (this wonderfully evocative word was pronounced “fnayz”). While words starting with fn- became rare, there were many starting with sn-, especially nose-related ones like “snivel”, “sniff”, “snort”, and “snot”. Gradually the venerable “fnese”, which dated back to Anglo-Saxon times, was supplanted by “sneeze”.
For the history of the word "flu", click here, and if you're wondering how to make it plural, click here.
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Monday, December 5, 2011

An instance of homophone confusion

Do not confuse "incidence", "incidents"  and "instance".

Recently I saw the following sentence: " I, and I'm sure plenty of others have seen and heard first-hand incidences of eating disorders".

This person meant "instances".


Incidence is a fancy-schmancy word for "rate": the occurrence, rate, or frequency of a disease, crime, or other undesirable thing. So you could say, "There is a high incidence of anorexia in that group". If you have problems with this, you'd be well advised just to use "rate" instead, and banish "incidence" from your active vocabulary so that you don't confuse it with "instance".

An instance is an example. A single example of something occurring, not the relative rate of its prevalence in a group. "In the course of the year, there were four instances of students with eating disorders."

Another confusion is between "incidence" and "incidents".


An incident is a happening or occurrence, usually an isolated case when something else is going on. The word usually has negative connotations, so if you read, "There was an incident at the ballet last night," you expect it to be that an audience member got up in the middle of the White Swan pas de deux and shouted profanities, not that everyone cheered for 20 minutes of curtain calls.

Summary:
incidence = rate
instance = example
incidents = bad things happening

Friday, December 2, 2011

Don't have a cow...

Flu vaccine clinics are up and running again. Where does the word “vaccination” come from? In 1796, the British scientist Edward Jenner discovered that immunity to smallpox could be achieved by inoculating people with the milder virus of a disease called cowpox. But, being an 18th-century guy, Jenner gave the virus a Latin name: variolae vaccinae, from the Latin for “cow”, vacca. A cowpox shot was called a “vaccine inoculation”, quickly replaced by the snappier “vaccination”, which was subsequently applied to inoculations against any disease, not just smallpox.
For more on whether "flu" can be used in the plural, and if so, what that plural is, visit this post

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dr. Whose

Don't confuse who's and whose.

We are so conditioned to think that apostrophe s indicates a possessive that it is very easy to make this mistake, but who's is not a possessive. Rather, it's a contraction.

If you mean "who is" or "who has", use who's, as in "Who's Katherine's favourite dancer?" or "Who's seen Robert Tewsley dance?" or "Katherine, who's seen Robert Tewsley dance more times than she can count...."

Use whose when using "who is" or "who has" instead would sound wrong, as in statements like "Robert Tewsley, whose acting is as fabulous as his dancing..." or  "Whose version of Romeo and Juliet will he be dancing?"

(If you're wondering, "Who's Robert Tewsley?" you can find out more here and see pictures here.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Anthony and... Katherine?

I know it doesn't have the same ring as Cleopatra! In honour of my patron saint, whose feast day it is today, this post is not about ancient lovers, but about an etymological quirk found in my name and also in the name "Anthony". North Americans may notice that many British English speakers pronounce the name "Anthony" as if it were "Antony". And why is one of the short forms of "Katherine" Kate?
Both these names started out in the ancient world without any h's, the former from the ancient Roman family name Antonius and the latter from the Alexandrian saint referred to in Greek as Aikaterine. Here she is with her famous wheel:
But both these names were affected by people's tendency to folk-etymologize. People assumed that the saint's name had to be related to the Greek word for "pure", katharos, so they inserted an h into the spelling. But despite the "improved" spelling,  English speakers in the Middle Ages (like the French from whom they had borrowed the name) did not pronounce "Katherine" with a "th", but still with a "t". This gave rise to the short forms "Kat" and "Kate" (both of which Shakespeare uses punningly in The Taming of the Shrew). The vowel sound in "Kate" shifted from a short a to a long a under the influence of a phenomenon that affected many English vowels between 1400 and 1600 called the Great Vowel Shift.Vowels followed by two or more consonants were unaffected, though, so the vowel remained short in "Katherine" while it was lengthened in "Kate".
One can see why a saint could be associated with purity, but the folk etymology which affected "Antonius" was a bit weirder. For some reason, the English renaissance scholars who just loved lumbering English spelling with silent letters to reflect the words' classical origins were determined that the name "Antony" really had something to do with flowers (anthos in Greek). So they started spelling the name "Anthony". You will notice that the Antoines, Antons, Antonins, Antonios, and so on of the rest of Europe are not similarly afflicted. Unlike the case of Katherine, though, the "th" pronunciation in Anthony did not follow the "th" spelling, at least not in Britain. In North America we have let the (erroneous) spelling influence our pronunciation of this name.

For the etymology of the word "taffy", traditionally eaten by French-Canadians on St. Katherine's day, visit this post.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Excessive heroine consumption

I recently came across an article which referred to "heroine ingestion". This gave me pause.

A heroine is the principal female character in a story, or a woman who displays heroic characteristics. Heroin is a drug. There is, however, a connection between the two words. The Bayer company of Germany (the same people who gave us Aspirin, though originally a dye manufacturer rather than a pharmaceutical firm) thought they had found a dandy new painkiller and cough medication (!) when they made it commercially available in 1898 under the trademarked name "heroin", so-called because the now notorious instant euphoria it provides made people feel as if they were larger-than-life heroes. (Not for long, though).

The word "hero" also has an interesting history. It came from the Greek heros, but English speakers, so accustomed to words ending in -s being plurals, lopped the final -s off to create "hero". (For a similar story, see my post about the word "cherry".

In short, do not write "excessive heroine consumption", unless of course you are speaking of the trend in19th-century operas to bump off the leading lady with tuberculosis.











Heroin. Do not confuse with











Heroine

Friday, November 18, 2011

Kittens and Mittens

With winter upon us, it's time to get out your mittens. The origin of this word is uncertain, but one possibility, unfortunately for cat lovers like me, is that it comes from the Old French word mite (puss, kitty), which probably originated as an imitation of a cat mewing. Mittens were originally lined with fur, very possibly cat fur. 

You may wish to prevent the annual scourge of mitten loss by attaching them to what we Canadians call, with characteristic sensitivity, “idiot strings”, a long string running through the sleeves and across the inside of your coat, with a mitten attached at either end. The thing (though not the word) was a clever invention of the Inuit, for whom losing a mitten would be a serious problem indeed.

Monday, November 14, 2011

That sinking feeling...

Some people tell me they "shudder" when they hear Americans (as usual, people love to blame Americans!) use "sunk" as the simple past tense of "sink": "Yesterday they sunk three ships". But, although nowadays only North Americans do this (use this form for the past tense, I mean, not sink ships!), we can't "blame" them.

In Old English, there were three simple pasts of "sink": "sank" or "sonk" (!) if the subject was singular, and "sunk" if the subject was plural. Languages like to simplify things, and since "sunk" had always been the past participle of "sink", it's not surprising that by the 1500s it had beaten out "sank" as the past tense too. That great British authority on the English language, Samuel Johnson, stated in his dictionary in 1755 that the simple past was "sunk" and that "sank" was archaic (in fact the term he used was "anciently"!).  I'm not quite sure why "sank" was resurrected, but I suspect it might have been on analogy with the forms of "drink".

Like "sink", "drink" had more than one simple past in Old English: "drank" if the subject was singular and "drunk" if the subject was plural. But the language took the opposite tack from what it had done with "sink": from about the 13th century on, people used only "drank".  But then in the 16th century people started to use "drunk" for the simple past instead, just as they were using "sunk" as the simple past of "sink". So, as you can see, both were possible, but finally "drank" won out. 

If "sunk" was the standard past tense of "sink" at the time that North America was settled, as Johnson's dictionary suggests, this would explain why it has survived in North America. But the British obviously changed their minds about it and re-adopted "sank". I always like to say it's not the Americans that corrupt English, but the British! 

In Canada we tend to be caught between the two standards. In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we gave both "sank" and "sunk" as the simple past of "sink", with "sank" first, as it is more common. But "sunk" is not wrong. So, one less thing for you to shudder about.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Dust to dust

Today being Remembrance Day, let us look at the word "khaki", so associated with military uniforms. It comes from an Urdu word meaning "dust". The colour, probably achieved by washing the fabric in muddy water, was adopted for use in uniforms by the British army in India and Afghanistan in the 1840s, the first use of camouflage. If you think of the pictures we see on TV of Afghanistan, you can see why "dust colour" makes for good camouflage. Up till then, the British wore highly conspicuous red uniforms, but with improvements in the accuracy of firearms, the wisdom of camouflage became obvious.
A peculiarly Canadian pronunciation of this word exists (and I use the word "peculiar" not in its pejorative sense): CARkee. About fifty years ago it was probably the most common Canadian pronunciation. I recently conducted a facebook poll to see how it is faring, and the results from Canadian respondents were:
CACKee: 45
CAHkee:: 19
CARkee: 15

Not wanting to be indiscreet,  I did not ask how old the "CARkee" respondents are, but judging from their facebook profile pictures, they are not in the first flush of youth. So this Canadian pronunciation is certainly not dead yet, but on its way out. It is interesting, however, to see that CAHkee (the standard British pronunciation) has a stronger showing here than in the US, where my CACKee respondents outnumbered the CAHkee ones 11 to 1.
For another Remembrance Day-themed post, see In Flanders Fields the poppies... and Soldiering on.
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Monday, November 7, 2011

In Flanders fields the poppies...












I recently took a group of ballet lovers on a trip to Paris and Belgium that included a visit to the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp. Driving from Antwerp to Bruges, we noticed that, as Canadian John McCrae's  First World War poem immortalized, the poppies in Flanders do indeed.... Well, what exactly is it they do? If you filled in that line with "grow" you would be botanically correct, but in fact the famous line is "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row."
(There is some controversy about whether he did in fact use "blow" or "grow" in his original version, but the first published edition has "blow" in the first line. Later in the poem he does have " If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.)
"Blow" in this context means "bloom", the word which has for all intents and purposes taken over from it, but wouldn't have provided McCrae with a very good rhyme. It is not the same "blow" as the one we use when referring to strong winds or extinguishing birthday candles, but rather is derived from the Old English word blowan (to bloom, related to the modern German word for "bloom", bluehen). The windy "blow" came from another Old English word, blawan. As luck would have it, the past tense for these verbs was identical, so gradually blawan acquired the same spelling in all its forms as blowan.
In this week of Remembrance Day, whatever those poppies are doing in the fields of Belgium, spare a thought for all those who are buried beneath them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fans for fans

For the past few weeks, baseball fans have been worshipping at their chosen shrine with a fervour that verges on the religious. This is not surprising in view of the origins of the word “fan”. It was in reference to baseball, in fact, that the word was first used, in the 1880s, before being extended to other sports and then to the theatre and other activities. It is a shortening of “fanatic”, derived from the Latin word fanaticus meaning “pertaining to a temple” (the Latin word for “temple” being fanum). But fanaticus also had an extended meaning, “inspired by orgiastic rites, frantic with religious enthusiasm”. I don't know if a baseball game can be described as an orgiastic rite, but fans can certainly get frantic.
To cool their ardour, they might want the other kind of fan, but that is a different word entirely, from the Latin vannus, originally a type of basket for winnowing grain by tossing it in the air. This word came to be applied to a hand held device used for agitating the air.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The whys and wherefores

The subject of my ballet appreciation courses this week has been Romeo and Juliet, and we've been watching some pretty fabulous balcony scene pas de deux:




Of course, in ballet they don't have to use words at all, but in Shakespeare this scene includes the famous line "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

Wherefore does not mean "where".

It means "why". Juliet is lamenting the fact that Romeo is who he is, the son of the enemies of her family. WHY oh why does it have to be that way? Why are you Romeo Montague and not some Capulet guy my parents would be happy to marry me off to? 

Think of it as a twin of "therefore". "Therefore" makes a statement: "as a result, in consequence". "Wherefore" asks the question: "as a result OF WHAT?" Unlike "therefore", though, "wherefore" is pretty much dead in English except in the (redundant) phrase "whys and wherefores" and... in mistaken allusions to Romeo and Juliet!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Things that go bump in the night

Photo by Toa Heftiba on https://unsplash.com/photos/ZWKNDOjwito
 With Halloween on the horizon, there is much talk of ghosts.

Why is there an h in "ghost", when there is none in "go" or "god"? 
You might be tempted, looking at the word "ghoul", which we also see a lot at this time of year, to leap to the etymological conclusion that the words are connected. But you would be wrong. "Ghoul" comes from the Arabic ghūl , from a verbal root meaning ‘to seize’, and entered English only in the late 1700s.

"Ghost", on the other hand, dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, and was spelled without an H by them and for centuries afterward. For them, the word meant "soul", a usage which now survives only in the phrase "give up the ghost". It was also used for the Spirit of God, a usage that survives, but only barely, in some Christian denominations who still refer to the Holy Ghost. Most, however, have switched to "Holy Spirit", probably because generations of Sunday School students have been perplexed by what Casper is doing as part of the Holy Trinity. The now predominant "spectre" sense dates from the late 1300s.

We owe this particular orthographic annoyance to the printer Caxton, who set up the first printing press in England in 1476. He had discovered printing in Flanders, and was probably influenced by the Flemish spelling of the word, gheest.

Despite the influence of the printers in standardizing spellings, though, it is quite surprising that this quirky spelling established itself. Its ultimate success can perhaps be ascribed to the trend in the 1500s to insert silent letters into words to reflect their etymology. Not knowing any better, people perhaps thought that the new "h" in "ghost" was like the new "b" in "debt" or the new "p" in "receipt", which evoked the Latin origins of those words.

Caxton also tried to impose this (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) "capricious substitute for g" in ghoos , ghoot , gherle, which you will probably not recognize as "goose", "goat", and "girl". Obviously (and fortunately!) he did not succeed with these.


For the perennial question whether to spell Halloween with an apostrophe or not, see this post and for the pronunciation, see this post. For the etymology of "pumpkin", see this post.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Not like caucus

I was just reading my Toronto Star, ever a rich source of spelling mistakes, and noticed a headline "Rowdy and raucus". What they meant was "raucous", but when I did a search on google for the misspelling, I was surprised to find almost half a million instances, so the Star  headline editors are not alone. The Latin etymon (that's a fancy - but much shorter - word meaning "word from which another word is derived") of "raucous" is in fact raucus, meaning "harsh or hoarse", and this is indeed the meaning that "raucous" had when it was first borrowed into English in the 1600s (and is still the sense of the French word rauque). The "boisterous, noisy; rowdy, disorderly, uproarious" sense is really quite recent, dating from the mid-1800s.
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Friday, October 21, 2011

Shubh Diwali!

Diwali, the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain festival of lights, from the Sanskrit word dipavali (a row of lights), starts next Wednesday. A good opportunity to look at one of many words we have borrowed from Hindi: dinghy. A dingi was a small rowboat used on rivers in India. We originally spelled it “dingy” but then needed to distinguish it from the adjective, and to show that the “g” is hard, we added the “h”.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The piano is my forte

Today is the 152nd anniversary of Chopin's death, an appropriate day to look at the word "piano".  When pianos were first invented, around the beginning of the 1700s, the available keyboard instruments were the clavichord, which was very expressive but had the disadvantage that, well, you couldn't really hear it, and the harpsichord, which you could hear, but it had no mechanism for playing quieter or louder; the harpsichord had two volume levels: on or off.
Around 1700, one Bartolomeo Cristofori, who worked at the Medici court in Florence, invented a new instrument which created sound by a hammer striking a wire (whereas the harpsichord depends on a plucking mechanism). Because the volume could be varied by how hard the hammer hit, this new instrument was called a gravicembalo col piano e forte (‘harpsichord with soft and loud’). Not surprisingly, this got shortened to "piano e forte", then to "pianoforte" and within 70 years of its birth, to "piano".  No doubt Cristofori would have spluttered, "But, but, it plays forte TOO! That's the whole point!!"
The Italian musical terms piano (soft) and forte (loud) established themselves in English at about the same time. Piano literally means "plane" or "flat". It comes from the Latin word planus. Because the flat areas in Italy are in the lower coastal parts of the country, the word also came to mean "low", first in reference to height and then in reference to sound. Forte literally means "strong".
And here's my favourite bit of Chopin (both piano and forte) to enrich your day (starting at 0:30):

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The lady doth protest too much

A faithful Wordlady reader has inquired about the usage of the verb "protest": does one protest something or protest against something? She had been taught that adding "against" was redundant. In fact, the verb "protest" has been used with "against" since the verb first started being used in the "utter an objection" sense in the 1500s, and in Britain the usage is still always with "against". In the US, however, people started dropping the "against" in the late 1800s; some claim that the usage came about because newspapers wanted to save space. Whatever the facts of the matter, "protest something" is now firmly established in North American usage and is now as common as "protest against something". One cannot say that either is wrong.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Profiting from profiteroles

I was recently at a ballet performance in Japan (you can see pictures of it here) and was quite thrilled to discover that the New National Theatre in Tokyo serves chocolate-glazed cream puffs at the intermission. How very civilized. Because I felt that I ought to have the full Japanese theatre experience, I of course indulged. Way better than the cookies we get at the theatre in Toronto! This got me thinking about the word "profiterole": why are small cream puffs called this? In French, "profiterole" is a diminutive of the word "profit" which, in addition to having the monetary sense it has in English, also has a more general sense of "benefit". Apparently the Renaissance author Rabelais (who was as inventive with the French language as Shakespeare was a few decades later with English) invented the word "profiterole" to mean "a little benefit or gratification" and shortly thereafter it was being used for small dumplings. In the next century, such dumplings were made by hollowing out a small bread roll, stuffing it with a filling, and then simmering it in soup. The similarity with little cream puffs meant that by the 19th century they also came to be known as "profiteroles", and we English speakers quite happily borrowed both the dessert and the word from the French.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Crisscross

In my post on the etymology of the word "index", I mentioned that the alphabet had been called a "Christ cross row" because in schoolbooks it was often preceded by a mark in the shape of a cross, called a "Christ's cross". "Christ's cross" is, somewhat amazingly, also the origin of our word "crisscross". Just as "Christ's mass" became reduced to "Christmas" with its first syllable pronounced CRISS, the same thing happened to "Christ's cross". But, unlike "Christmas", the spelling started to reflect the new pronunciation, as early as the 1600s, first losing the "t", then losing the "h". By the 1800s, "criss-cross" was being used to mean a pattern of intersecting lines. with all sense of the ultimate allusion completely lost.
For another word that surprisingly has its origins in the symbol of the crucifixion, see this post.

Monday, September 26, 2011

When luxury and indolence were Bad Things...

Do not use "enervate" when what you mean is "energize". You could unwittingly insult someone if you get this wrong, for instance if you told them a talk they just gave or a class they just taught "enervated" you, for "enervate" means "sap of energy or strength", or, as the OED puts it (with a rather Victorian tone of disapproval of self-indulgence):

"To weaken physically (a person or animal); now only of agencies that impair nervous ‘tone’, as luxury, indolence, hot or malarious climates."

The word comes from the Latin ēnervāre (to extract the sinews of, weaken), from ē out + nervus sinew, and was originally used to mean "cut the hamstrings of a horse". Now, my hamstrings take a beating in my ballet classes, but for all that, I find my classes energizing rather than enervating (probably because of the lack of that character-sapping indolence!).

Friday, September 23, 2011

On the index

 

As I promised in my post about the plural of "index", here is the story of the word "index".

There were a lot of words competing for the honour of designating alphabetical lists in the Renaissance. I suspect that this is because indexes as a concept only really came into being at the Renaissance (before then “table” was used for such lists). In fact, apparently you couldn't index before the Renaissance, because before then we had no alphabet! 

Well, really we did, but the alphabet wasn't called that till the early 1500s (1513 being the OED's first quotation). The alphabet had been called a "cross row" or "Christ cross row" (more on this in another post) for a while, because a cross sign began it in schoolbooks. 

One famous lexicographer, Cotgrave, even sniffily dismissed the word "alphabet" as vulgar in 1611: "Touching the French abece, for alphabet I will not call it, according to the vulgar error, that word being peculiar only to the Greek tongue." (Yet more proof that lexicographers have less power than you might think, and that usage objections have a way of fading away with time.) 


But back to indexes. Some down-to -earth person wanted to call them “finders” but he was doomed to failure, because the Renaissance was a time of borrowing from Greek and Latin, especially for highbrow intellectual pursuits.The Greek-derived word in the race was "elench" from elenchos (cross-examination). There were three candidates from Latin:

  1. concordance, from con (together) and corde (heart)
  2. repertory, from reperire (to find)
  3. index,  from index (the forefinger, or “pointer” , from indicare to point out). 
In the Middle Ages the index finger had beeen called the “teacher”, because "teach" originally meant "point out", but once again the word of Anglo-Saxon origin had to lose out to a Latinate one. It could have been instead the delightful, and equally Latin, “insignitor”, another word that was popular for the index finger in the 1500s. But for fingers and finders, "index" was the ultimate winner.

For what magpies have to do with indexing, see this post

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Update on enrol vs enroll

Further to my post on the spelling of enrol(l), the results of my highly scientific facebook poll are now in, and "enroll" has taken a commanding lead amongst Canadians of 33-14 over enrol. Many of those who answered "enrol" only did so after checking a dictionary, which suggests to me that if left to their own devices they might have said "enroll". Which reminds me, when I conduct a survey like this, please tell me what you would do spontaneously, not what your dictionary says you should do.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Get, got, ....?

Just to make people's lives miserable, I suspect, usage pundits like to seize hold of common everyday words and make up "rules" about them which are the exact opposite of what Joe Language User would do if left to his or her own devices. After all, how would one get a power trip if one made rules only about words people rarely if ever use, or if one said, "Go ahead, what you say intuitively is ok"?

The past participle of "get" is such a case: there is a tradition among usage books maintaining that "gotten" is wrong or obsolete. It is indeed obsolete for the British, but it is alive and kicking in North America, so the question is: is it wrong?

Considering that it is one of the most frequent words in English, you might expect "get" to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, but in fact we owe it to the Vikings. For them, the infinitive was geta, the simple past gat, and the past participle getenn. But English verbs with an e vowel commonly changed that vowel to an o in the past participle, as in "steal" becoming "stolen". So when this Old Norse word was borrowed into English in the 1200s, people used the familiar conjugation pattern, and getenn became goten. The vowel in goten even migrated over to the simple past, so that "gat" became "got" by the 16th century (although you will still hear "gat" occasionally in quotations from the King James Bible, dating from 1611). As time went on, the English abandoned gotten in favour of got for both the simple past and the past participle (though they maintained the distinction with "forgot" and "forgotten").  But, like many older forms abandoned by the English, gotten has survived in North American English. So, if anyone tells you it's obsolete, ignore them!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why not hopwelsh?

Children are back in the schoolyards. Do they still play hopscotch, or has some Wii version taken over? You might think that there's some cute story about Scotch whisky involved with hopscotch, but in fact, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Scots. Back in the 1400s, the word "skoch" turned up in English meaning "cut a line in" or "make a gash in". Recipes recommended that fish to be grilled should be "skoched" first (today we would say "scored"). If you think of what a piece of steak that has been scored with a knife looks like, you can see the resemblance to a hopscotch drawing on a sidewalk. "Hopscotch" means "hop over the lines", more or less. The earliest references to the game, from 1688 (when they definitely didn't have a Wii version) called it "hop scotches", in fact.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Enrol(l)

It's the time of year when people are enrolling in all sorts of activities (I recommend taking up ballet classes if you haven't done so yet). A faithful Wordlady reader has written to inquire whether "enrol" or "enroll" is the correct spelling in Canada. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary gives "enrol" as the headword with "enroll" as the variant, so, as with many things, both are correct. Personally, I use "enroll" because I see no good reason to spell it differently from "roll"; English spelling is way too complicated already without adding even more complication!  Frankly, I think I was surprised to discover when we edited the dictionary that "enrol" won out over "enroll" (though the margin was probably slim). Both spellings have existed since the word was borrowed into English from French in the 1300s,  but "enrol" is now preferred by the British and "enroll" by Americans. Often these differences date back to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary on the one hand and Noah Webster's on the other, but in this case Johnson included only "enroll". It seems that the single-l spelling won out in Britain in the course of the 19th century. I've just started a facebook poll to see how usage is going currently, and I will keep you posted.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Cantaloupe

Image result for cantaloupe

Here in Ontario, the peaches are still in season, but now the equally luscious and slurpworthy Ontario cantaloupes are ready to be eaten. Some of you may be surprised to learn that it is warm enough to grow melons in Canada, but I assure you it is! 

The name "cantaloupe" comes from the Italian Cantalupo, the name of a former country seat of the Pope near Rome, where the fruit is said  to have been first cultivated when introduced from Armenia. Apparently what we call a cantaloupe in North America should actually be called a muskmelon, since a true cantaloupe is a different variety of melon, but I doubt that decades of usage will change on this. 

The Diner's Dictionary has this to say about the term "muskmelon":
by Elizabethan times native melons were being grown, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they became one of the most important products of the gentry's hothouses. They were usually known generically as musk melons (as distinct from water melons)—a not particularly appropriate term, probably adopted from an oriental variety of melon (in Dutch, the muscus-meloen) which really did have a scent reminiscent of musk.
According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the spelling "cantaloupe" is more common than "cantaloup" in Canada.

Continuing with the tradition of "Recipes from the Word Lady" that I started with my scone posting , here's a recipe for Cantaloupe Cake that I just tried for the first time this weekend when confronted with a very ripe 2.5kg melon. It was very yummy!

Cantaloupe Cake
Beat together
3 eggs
1/2 c. oil
1 1/2 c. sugar
Add
1 tbsp. vanilla
Mix together:
3 c (400 g) white or whole-wheat flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
Add dry ingredients alternately to egg mixture with
2 c. pureed ripe cantaloupe.
Pour into a large greased and floured tube pan or Bundt pan and bake at 325 degrees for about 50 minutes. Let cool till lukewarm. Turn out and dust with icing sugar.
* Since cantaloupes vary in juiciness you may want to start with 2 1/2 cups flour and add more if the batter looks too runny.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Status quo

Well, I'm not done with plurals of Latin words yet, but I promise I'll talk about a different usage issue next week. 

Back in my dictionary-writing days, one of our eager correspondents inquired why no plural form is given for the word "status" in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, he went on, gives the plural as "statuses" which, he said, "sounds ridiculous and would make it the only Latin derivative with an "es" ending. As far as I am concerned I consider the plural to be "stati" and I would like to know why this is not in the dictionary."

The word "status" is not given a plural because it is a regular noun (forming the plural in -s or -es if ending in a sibilant). This is something that English native speakers can intuitively do.

"Status" has been in the English language since the late 17th century. It has been consistently printed in roman rather than italic type, indicating that it is fully naturalized, since the mid-19th century. Fully naturalized words in English usually form their plurals according to English rules rather than according to the rules of the language from which they were borrowed (otherwise we would talk about the "stamina" of a flower rather than its stamens). The OED entry for the word, which would have been edited in about 1910-15, gave the plural "(rare) status", pronounced "stay tee us", since the plural in Latin is, surprisingly, status (with a long u) rather than the regular masculine plural in -i. I am not sure on what the OED editors based this pronouncement because there is in fact no  evidence of the word being used in the plural in the original OED text. The revision to the Supplement to the OED, edited between 1972 and 1986, states "now usu. statuses" for the plural. I think they could have said "now always statuses". Nowhere in the whole text of the OED or the huge databases of quotations that we consulted for the dictionary was there any evidence for the plural "stati" (which, as we have seen, was not the Latin plural anyway) being used in the English language. It must be said also that "status" is simply not used much in the plural.

Despite my correspondent's categorical assertion, there are a number of other Latin borrowings in English ending in -us that form their plural with -es. For example:

sinus
chorus
apparatus
solar plexus
rebus
abacus
bonus
arbutus
lotus
impetus
fetus
hiatus
census
consensus
virus
campus
crocus
circus
hibiscus
discus
exodus
genius
callus
isthmus
ignoramus
anus
and all the dinosaurs

When you get right down to it, even "bus" and "plus" are Latin words ending in -us, and yet no one says "Three bi drove past" (or writes to dictionary editors complaining that we should)!

There are many more such words where English speakers can choose between -es and -i but where -es is more common, such as thesaurus, focus, etc. (If you feel you "ought" to say "thesauri", get over it.)

English is English; Latin is Latin. Surprisingly, they are not the same language!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to ... leisure?

Unlikely as it may seem to those returning to classes next week, the word “school” originally meant “leisure”. The highly cultured ancient Greeks loved spending their leisure time (skhole) hanging out with Socrates and Plato discussing philosophy, so their word meaning “leisure” gradually came to apply to such discussions and then to the place where they happened. By the time the word got to English via Latin, it was written scol. The letter h was reintroduced in the Renaissance only because people wanted to show off that they knew the original Latin and Greek spelling.

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The death of dictionaries

how ironic is it that this article bemoaning the demise of print dictionaries is illustrated by a photo of the author holding an edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary that is at least 30 years out of date?? If he wants publishers to keep producing dictionaries, maybe he should buy them!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

One pizza, two...?

There's been quite a lot of response to my recent post about the plural of "antenna", some of it of the "shock, horror" variety. The prestige of Latin and Greek plurals has a strong hold on our psyches. Quick, now, what's the plural of "psyche" in ancient Greek? Can you imagine how complicated life would be if we had to know the plural in the original language of every word in English. WAY too complicated, especially when there's that handy English regular -(e)s ending just begging to be used. So we don't phone up the pizza place and order "two large pizze" or stop in our local coffee shop to ask for "two cappuccini". Other languages apply their own pluralization rules when they borrow foreign words, too; the plural of the French word "cameraman" is "cameramans".
Someone asked about "index". Was I in favour of "indexes" rather than "indices"? Well, yes, I am. Not that my being "in favour" of one thing or another has any importance; it's general usage that decides these things.
Here's the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

index

noun  ( pl. indexes or esp. in technical use indices   'IndIsi:z )


If you consult the OED, you will discover that "indexes" (or even, gasp, in the 1500s,"index's") has been around for centuries, and the OED too gives "indexes" as the first plural of the word, stating quite baldly that it is the usual plural for the alphabetical listing.  Now, usage has it that we prefer "indices" for the "sign or indication of something" sense, and when you think of it, that sense hardly exists in the singular anymore. Mathematical and scientific usage favours "indices", but that is just part of the phenomenon of Latin and Greek plurals being more resilient in those fields than in general usage.  I wonder how many mathematicians and scientists nowadays have ever studied Greek or Latin; I doubt that this trend will continue.
In the face of the overwhelming weight of regular English plurals, trying to maintain a foreign plural in English is an uphill battle with few if any benefits.
For more on the history of the word "index", see this post.






Friday, August 26, 2011

Beer

Any summer weekend in Canada is likely to be accompanied by copious consumption of beer. Hard though it may be to believe, “beer” was a word used rarely outside of poetry till the 1500s, the common term for the drink being “ale”. “Beer” had been around since the Anglo-Saxons, though, derived in their Germanic language from a monastic Latin word biber (drink)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

History of the English language courses

For the fall schedule, click here.

Thunderstruck

We had quite a spectacular thunderstorm in Toronto the other day, with lashing rain and lots of those flashes of light that come with a big boom. Yes, LIGHTNING. Notice the spelling. The noun is not "lightening". Lightening is something you do to your hair. They were originally the same word, but the noun for the electrical storm sense has had this special spelling since it first showed up in the language in the 14th century, just in case someone reading "a huge bolt of lightening" might get confused and think it meant a large amount of peroxide. Apparently the earlier, Old English word for the phenomenon had been "leye-rash" (literally, light move fast).
Just to be somewhat confusing, not to mention annoying (otherwise we would be talking about some logical language rather than English) there is a verb "to lighten" meaning "(of lightning) flash", as in "It rained, thundered, and lightened all night". If you put this in the progressive tense it would be "It was raining, thundering, and lightening".
Summary: LIGHTNING is the noun, LIGHTENING is the verb.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Typhoon

Typhoons (and super-typhoons) have been wreaking havoc recently in Japan, Korea, and The Philippines. A typhoon and a hurricane are technically the same meteorological phenomenon, just occurring in different parts of the world. The word "typhoon" is exceedingly cross-cultural. When English-speakers first encountered these storms in India in the 1500s, they naturally borrowed the Urdu word for the phenomonon, tufan. For about 300 years, the British in India called them "touffans". Meanwhile, however, there was also a Chinese word for the same thing, tai fung (big wind). People who had more contact with China than with India tended to use this word or something like it instead of the Urdu word. As luck would have it, the ancient Greek word for "whirlwind" was tuphon. For several centuries from the Renaissance onward, there was a tendency to believe that all words came from Latin or Greek (even if designating a Pacific Ocean phenomenon!), so people messed around with these Urdu and Chinese words  to make them look more like the Greek word, until we finally ended up with "typhoon" in the mid-19th century.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Or we could just say "famous"...

As you might guess, since I spent a large chunk of my life writing dictionaries, I'm a pretty good speller. But there's one fairly common word that I always have to think twice about and double-check in a dictionary before I write it: renown. Clearly I am not alone in this, as a Google search revealed the following hits:

renown: 2.4 million
reknown: 9 million
renoun: 406,000 (this spelling is my particular downfall)

renowned: 133 million (40 million of them in "world-renowned")
reknowned: 9 million (about 3.5 million of them in "world-reknowned")
renouned: 11 million (about 4.5 million of them in "world-renouned")

Probably lots of the "reknown" hits were in sources saying "this is a misspelling", but still the number is staggering. If the numbers for "renowned" weren't so decisive, lexicographers would have to start thinking about whether they should change the spelling of "renown" to "reknown".

What a quick Google search cannot reveal is how frequent another problem is: using "world-renown" as an adjective, as in "world-renown scientist", when it should be "world-renowned".


Bob Hanna, world-renowned philosopher
Just this morning I saw an article in The Australian referring, with wild disregard of spelling,  to a "world-reknown philosopher" (yes, there are such things, apparently).


   
Clearly I haven't come up with a good mnemonic for this one, as it's still a stumbling block for me. Somehow, "celebrity philosopher" doesn't seem like an option. I remind myself there is no "k" (which seems to be the biggest problem) by remembering that the word in French is renommée, but that will only help you if you speak French.  But I still want to spell it with a "u" rather than a "w". Thank goodness for dictionaries! Don't rely on your spellchecker, as, interestingly, the reproving red spellchecker squiggly did not show up in either my word-processing program or my email program for the misspelled words above.

I guess we can at least be thankful  that we are not lumbered with the spelling proposed by16th century pedants who loved sticking extra silent letters into English words to reflect their Latin origins (God knows where they got the "p", though): "renoumpn"!


Friday, August 12, 2011

Niagarum malum



In August, we in southern Ontario are spoiled by the plethora of peaches coming into season. There is nothing quite like biting into a peach from the Niagara peninsula, so juicy that one is advised to eat them over a sink!

Peaches were originally cultivated in China about 2000 BC. They migrated westward until they reached Greece in about 300 BC from Persia. Because of its perceived Persian origin, the Romans called the peach a “Persian apple” (persicum malum). In time this was shortened to persica, which the French subsequently squished down into persca, then pesca, and finally pêche, which is the word the English borrowed about Chaucer's time, before which there don't seem to have been peaches in England.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of etymology and entomology

At last, a post which really is about both etymology and entomology!
I recently saw an article in the Toronto Star stating that 8% of Canadians receive their TV signal by "antennae". Now, the Star is not one for pretentious Latin plurals (or any Latin plurals for that matter) so it rather surprised me that they hadn't used "antennas", which, as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary entry shows, is the standard plural for the broadcasting sense of "antenna", whereas "antennae" is used for insects, lobsters, etc.:
antenna

noun 
1. ( pl. antennas ) a metal rod, wire, or other structure by which signals are transmitted or received as part of a radio or television transmitting or receiving system.
2. ( pl. antennae) (Zool.) one of a pair of mobile appendages on the heads of insects, crustaceans, etc., sensitive to touch and taste; a feeler.
3. (antennae) the faculty of instinctively detecting and interpreting subtle signs (the dulling effect of the suburbs on a person's hipness antennae).
- DERIVATIVES antennal adjective  (in sense 2).
- ORIGIN Latin, = sail yard

What is a sail yard, you are no doubt wondering, and what can it possibly have to do with an insect's feelers? It's not the same word as the one you use for your garden. A yard is a horizontal (or diagonal) bar attached to the mast of a sailing ship, from which the sail is suspended.
You can see from the picture above the resemblance of  the bit of the yard jutting out beyond the end of the sail to the feelers on the head of an insect.  A fifteenth-century translator into Latin of a work about insects decided to use the word antennae instead of the word cornuae (horns). This caught on amongst the entomology set, and since it was snobbier to use Latin words for scientific subjects than  boring English words like "horn" or "feeler" which had served perfectly well until then, finally took over as the standard word in English. In 1894 Marconi, experimenting with radio transmission, patented an elevated antenna, and the word took on a new life. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Englishman on a bun

The first example of the word "barbecue" in English is someone saying “We lay all night on our barbecues”! That will give you something to think about as you fire up your propane beast. But the hapless English were not being slow-roasted with hickory sauce. The Arawak, a native people of the Caribbean, slept on raised wooden platforms of sticks, their name for which the invading Spanish adopted as barbacoa in the 1600s. A similar framework was also used for smoking and drying meat, which is clearly the origin of the current meaning of the word. There is no truth to the explanation that the word comes from the French “barbe à queue”, suggesting that an animal was roasted whole “from beard to tail”.

Friday, July 29, 2011

If you go down to the woods today...

Despite what you may have heard about “picnic” being a racist term having something to do with lynching, it is in fact a perfectly innocuous word derived from the French verb piquer (to peck at) and nique(something of little value). It came into English in the mid 1700s, referring to a European custom that is essentially what we would call a potluck dinner. The outdoor element came to be the defining factor only about a century later (and seems to have been an English invention).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot weather's a bitch

As you mop your brow and consume cooling libations, you may curse what are known as the dog days. 

The dog days of summer have their origins in astronomy. The brightest star in the night sky has the Greek name Sirius (“sparkling” or “scorching”). It is also known as the Dog Star, being the chief star in the constellation which the Greeks fancifully thought of as one of the hunter Orion's dogs. Sirius passes through a period when it is not visible because it rises and sets during daylight. But at a certain point during the summer, usually sometime in July, it is seen again just before dawn. This coincides with the hottest part of the year, so the Romans blamed the star for the weather, calling the forty days following its appearance the “dog days”.

The Dog Star suffered from a bad rap: the Egyptians believed that its rising caused the Nile to flood, and the Romans blamed it for all sorts of pernicious things as well as the unbearable heat. It was generally believed also that it drove dogs mad, and as late as the 16th century people were even advised not to have sex during the dog days! In English, this benighted time of year was first known, about 1400, as the "canicular days", from the Latin canicula (little dog). Even today in French the word for "heat wave" is la canicule. The simpler "dog days" doesn't show up until 1538.

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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.