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.
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Thursday, August 18, 2016

It ain't what it used to be


"Hey, Mildred! Remember the good old days?"
As is often the way with political campaigns, those we have endured in 2016 have promised voters a return to a supposed previous idyllic state. Yes, where would politicians be without ... nostalgia?

The surprising thing about the word "nostalgia", however, is that its current meaning, "A sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past"  is really quite recent. Here is the earliest example the OED could find:
1900   Amer. Jrnl. Sociol. 5 606   It is reason and convenience that lure him [sc. man] from the time-hallowed; it is nostalgia that draws him back.
Before then, nostalgia existed, but the word designated very specifically a kind of homesickness so intense that doctors considered it to be a mental illness.

The word had been invented by an Alsatian doctor, Johannes Hofer, in 1688, to  describe the particularly acute neurotic symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries longing for home. Often the clinking of a cowbell would set them off.  But it was not just a hankering for their daily Toblerone bar; they suffered the usual shell shock symptoms of lack of concentration, palpitations, depression, and loss of appetite, with some of them starving themselves to death. In German, the word for this  "home pain" was Heimweh, which Hofer translated into Modern Latin using the Greek elements nostos (return home) and algia (pain). 

Surprisingly, the very word "homesick" did not enter English till fifty years later, in the mid-1700s, once again as a translation from the German Heimweh. It is odd to think we did not have a word for this concept before then.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, acute homesickness was considered very seriously by the medical establishment, and "nostalgia" had this specifically medical meaning. More than 5,000 cases of nostalgia were diagnosed during the American Civil War.  Gradually, however, it ceased to be used in medicine, and its current sense took off.

Considering the foaming-at-the-mouth rhetoric of some politicians determined to make us believe that everything was better in the past, perhaps it is time to treat nostalgia once again as a pathological condition.



COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. 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 my trip to Bordeaux and Toulouse in July 2017. Unlike most of my Tours en l'air trips, this is more about food, wine, and sightseeing than about ballet (though there is some of that too). More info here:
http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2016/08/food-wine-sightseeingand-ballet-trip.html
Booking will open in the next couple of weeks.  

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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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Love it or hate it

 http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01906/marmite_1906152b.jpg


Today I was reading a ballet review that referred to the Bolshoi's Taming of the Shrew as a "marmite production". 

This puzzled me.

What was that disgusting black sludge that the British inexplicably like to eat on toast doing in a ballet?

But it turns out that "marmite" has become an adjective in British English, meaning "eliciting extremely opposite opinions; designating something that people will either love or hate".  (Apparently some people do indeed love Marmite). 

The sludge's voyage from tradename to adjective has been quite an interesting one. In 1996, Marmite launched a very successful ad campaign "Love it or hate it", the tagline of which is still going strong. 

By the early 2000s, describing someone or something as "like Marmite -- love it or hate it"  or "the marmite of X" had become something of a cliché. 

2kg of Parma Violets - Lovehearts

shop.lovehearts.com/2kg-of-parma-violets
Jan 31, 2001 - 2kg of Parma Violets. The marmite of the sweet world - these little rolls are sure to stimulate debate!

It took less than a decade for the cliché to become an adjective, apparently first among sportswriters. The earliest I could find is this one:

pesstatsdatabase.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=8969 
Dec 9, 2008 - Possibly the most Marmite player there is, Bravo is speedy and determined, he is a fine all-round attacking force, able to penetrate on the flanks.

By 2010, "marmite" was being used in political  and entertainment contexts.


Country/date
IE 2010 (10-10-21)
Title
A chat with Mitzeee from 'Hollyoaks'
Source
http://www.digitalspy.com/soaps/hollyoaks/news/a283479/a-chat-with-mitzeee-from-hollyoaks/
  I've had such a positive reaction to the role, which I was a little bit shocked about! I wasn't quite sure how people would take her, because I thought she'd be a Marmite kind of character where you either love her or you hate her! But everyone's reactions have been so lovely, and people seem to like her!

.
Country/date
GB 2010 (10-06-14)
Title
Labour leadership: Ed Miliband picks up second preferences
Source
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/7827518/Labour-leadership-Ed-Miliband-picks-up-second-preferences.html


According to the poll, Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, is emerging as a compromise candidate, with the second highest number of first preferences, and the most second and third preferences. # In contrast, David Miliband is a " Marmite candidate " -- either liked strongly or disliked -- and is struggling to pick up second and third preferences. 

Clearly this is a useful concept, as the word has definitely caught on. Although it is often still glossed with "love it or hate it", and still often written in quotation marks, we are seeing more and more unglossed examples like the one on my ballet chat site and this one a few months ago in The Guardian:
Cannes gets its first marmite sensation with Olivier Assayas’s uncategorisable – yet undeniably terrifying – drama about a fashion PA trying to exorcise herself of her dead twin
I can't think of a North American equivalent. Can you? 


COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. 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 my trip to Bordeaux and Toulouse in July 2017. Unlike most of my Tours en l'air trips, this is more about food, wine, and sightseeing than about ballet (though there is some of that too). More info here:
http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2016/08/food-wine-sightseeingand-ballet-trip.html
Booking will open in the next couple of weeks.  

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  
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Dictionary: Coming Soon to a Movie Theatre Near You


Quiz: which of these two men edited the original Oxford English Dictionary?

 

News broke this week that Simon Winchester's book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary will indeed be made into a movie starring Mel Gibson as James Murray and Sean Penn as William Minor. Already  the media are getting the facts wrong, with The Guardian calling the two men "creators" of the dictionary and saying that Minor contributed "10,000 entries" (when he in fact supplied 10,000 quotations to support entries).

So, knowing that Hollywood will take even more liberties with the truth, I think it's time to reprint the review I wrote for The Globe and Mail when the book first came out in 1998.

The Professor and the Madman
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Simon Winchester

HarperCollins,  240 pp., illustrated,
ISBN 0-06-017596-6, $29.00 Cdn

Of all the fates that could befall a dictionary project, surely being "made into a major film by Luc Bresson, in probable association with Mel Gibson" is the most unlikely.  

Yet this destiny is said to await The Professor and the Madman, the "central figure" of which, claims its author, is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). But, as the lurid title suggests, the OED really takes only a secondary place to the sensational aspects of an admittedly unusual tale - the true story of William Minor, an American surgeon who, though confined to a British insane asylum for murdering a total stranger, was one of the army of volunteers across Victorian England who read their way through centuries of literature to supply the quotations on which the dictionary's editors based their historical analysis of English.

Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this book that it will, by its very sensationalism, attract and inform readers who might never normally lay down cold hard cash for what Winchester calls the "fascinating story of the history of English lexicography", which he surveys in a highly readable, entertaining and informative fashion, though he amazingly fails to mention Noah Webster altogether.

The story of the OED in particular, with its colourful characters and astounding achievements, is one that deserves retelling in a popularly accessible form, though sometimes Winchester's desire to be entertaining and to bring the characters to life creates distortions. Frederick Furnivall, a man of great scholarly accomplishments, comes across as a mere eccentric who spent all his time sculling with buxom teashop waitresses.  Henry Bradley, who edited over one-third of the OED's entries but perhaps had the misfortune to be boring, is mentioned only once in passing.  

In fact, Winchester is so lost in his (admittedly understandable) admiration of his principal subject, Minor, and James Murray, the dictionary's chief editor, that he calls the OED "the creation of [their] combined scholarship", a vast exaggeration.

Indeed, he lapses into hyperbole more than once, saying that Murray has achieved the status of a "mythic hero", for instance. In his assessment of Minor's contribution, he diminishes that of other readers (one of whom submitted an astounding 165,000 quotations) who would "simply read their assigned books, note down interesting quotations on their slips of paper as they came across them and send them off in bundles." This process, in fact - and there is nothing simple about it - is exactly what Murray asked for, but Winchester is overly laudatory in recounting that Minor chose not to do this, creating instead a kind of concordance to his books and sending off quotations only in response to editors' requests for more evidence for specific words.  But if the other readers had not completed the monumental task of writing out slips and sending them in before editing started, the lexicographers would not have known where to start, or which words required more evidence that Minor could perhaps supply.  If everyone had adopted Minor's method, the OED would never have been completed.

Winchester has clearly researched his  material thoroughly, so thoroughly in fact that he not infrequently succumbs to the temptation to recount every detail he has discovered whether or not it is relevant and necessary. Digressions are many, the most staggeringly irrelevant being a comment on Rex Harrison's "pig-headedness" in a sentence about the phonetician Henry Sweet.  

Because the author obviously (and commendably) wanted this to be a popular history  uncluttered by such minutiae as footnotes, it is difficult to know when his historical reconstructions (which are very vivid, as in the case of his description of gruesome Civil War battles and the branding of a deserter which was said to cause Minor's madness) are a matter of record, and when they tip over into the realm of imagination and speculation.  Some of his speculations, indeed, are a little difficult to stomach, such as his oft-repeated theory that the sight of young Ceylonese girls cavorting in the surf (described in rather too loving detail for my taste) and the fact that Minor did not satisfy his sexual impulses at the age of 14 were what really caused him to lose control of his reason.

To those who know little of lexicography, this book is an entertaining,though not wholly reliable, introduction to the subject, particularly enlightening for those who labour under the delusion that the OED's role is to prescribe what is "proper" and "improper" English.  It vividly evokes diverse aspects of 19th-century life that one would not expect to find united in one book: the seedy underbelly of Victorian London, the
horrors of the American Civil War, life in an asylum, and the mobilization of almost 1000 volunteers to contribute to a monumental description of the English language.  In its careful reconstruction of William Minor's life, it is a testament to the ability of a person with a severe mental illness to contribute meaningfully to society. 

And, as the lexicographers in Oxford grapple with a total revision and updating of the great dictionary, it renews our awe and admiration for the OED itself, for those who undertook the daunting task in the first place, and for those who carry on the work into the twenty-first century.

COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. 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 my trip to Bordeaux and Toulouse in July 2017. Unlike most of my Tours en l'air trips, this is more about food, wine, and sightseeing than about ballet (though there is some of that too). More info here:
http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2016/08/food-wine-sightseeingand-ballet-trip.html
Booking will open in the next couple of weeks.  

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  
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Implacable


Because I am always planning group ballet trips (more on those here), I spend a lot of time reading reviews on tripadvisor.com, and am often entertained by the spelling mistakes and malapropisms I find there.

My favourite so far has been "All we got for breakfast was ONE BEAGLE!!!"

 But I recently came across another one:

"The service is implacable while friendly (including when one travels with kids)"

What they meant (I hope!) was "impeccable."

"Impeccable" comes from the late Latin impeccābilis,  from the negative prefix im- + peccāre to sin. The word originally meant "incapable of sinning", but has been weakened to "faultless; in accordance with the highest standards". 

"Implacable", on the other hand, comes from the same word that gave us "placate" and means "Unable to be appeased or placated" or "Unable to be stopped; relentless". The words that are found most frequently with "implacable" are very rarely positive: enemy (overwhelmingly most frequent), foe, hatred, hostility, and so on. 

Of course, I suppose the service in a hotel COULD be described as implacable, but only if you have the misfortune to turn up at this hotel:


https://youtu.be/tcliR8kAbzc

You may be surprised to learn that the original pronunciation of "implacable" was "im PLAY ka bull". But this gradually shifted to "im PLACKA bull". Vestiges of these pronunciation shifts can be seen in the root word "placate".

In British English it is pronounced "pluh KATE"

In the US it is pronounced "PLAY kate" or "PLACK ate". 

In Canada, typically, we have all three pronunciations, in the following order of frequency, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

"pluh KATE",  "PLAY kate", "PLACK ate"

I am not aware of ever having heard "PLACK ate", but some people in our pronunciation surveys must have said it or it wouldn't be there.

What do you say? 


For another entertaining malapropism, see this post:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2016/06/a-mistake-you-really-dont-want-to-make.html
  Not a big ballet fan but like to travel? Why not check out my "Wine, food, sightseeing, and a bit of ballet trip to Bordeaux and Toulouse" in July 2017. I promise our hotels are not like Fawlty Towers! More info here:
 http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2016/06/food-wine-sightseeingand-ballet-trip.html

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

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  
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"Hockey mom" makes it into Oxford English Dictionary



I bet the Stonewall, Manitoba (pop. 4536) Interlake Spectator never expected it would be quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary! But there it is, in the new entry for "hockey mom" (part of the dictionary's latest quarterly update). 

Here's the earliest evidence the lexicographers found for this term:
1956 Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald 22 Feb. 7/5 (caption) Proud hockey mom... Mrs. Alice Richard beams as she holds a picture of her two famed sons, hockey stars Maurice and Henri.
followed by
1984 Stonewall (Manitoba) Interlake Spectator 9 May 22/3 To be a hockey mom..means you do everything moms do plus drive to the rink, work at the rink, and watch games and practices at the rink.
Of course, "hockey mom/hockey mother" has been in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for almost twenty years now, along with many other "hockey" compounds that the OED hasn't got around to yet: hockey bag, hockey gloves, hockey jacket, hockey socks, hockey tape, and so on.
 
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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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Friday, July 1, 2016

Do not mispronounce this!


It's Canada Day! Let us look at a Canadianism and how to pronounce it. 

This is "poutine":
Poutine. Do not pronounce like...
I will understand if you non-Canadians are mystified by the ingredients, which are french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. (Acadians in the Maritime Provinces have another kind of poutine, which is a dumpling made of grated and mashed potatoes with pork in the middle. Theirs is the older version of "poutine".)  Even my devotion to real-world research for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary could not persuade me to sample the Quebecois poutine, but it is quite popular with Canadians. 

The ultimate origin of this word beyond Canadian French is uncertain. It is probably derived from various similar words in many French dialects, and influenced by the English word "pudding" (which has a fairly disgusting etymology we'll get into some other time).

The story behind the concoction is that Fernand Lachance, a snack bar owner in Warwick, Quebec (pronounced WAR wick, by the way), when asked by a customer in 1957 to combine fries and cheese in a bag, told him it would be a "maudite poutine" (a hell of  a mess).  But the combination and the word stuck, and made its way into Canadian English starting in the 1980s. You can now buy poutine at Burger Kings across Canada.  Apparently a poutine stand has also just opened at Disney World. Here's the "nutrition" information for a serving of poutine, should you wish to be flabbergasted (not to mention flabby, if you actually eat it):
  • Calories 800
  • Protein  30g
  • Carbohydrates  68g
  • Sugar  2g
  • Fat  45g
  • Saturated Fat  17g
  • Trans Fat 1.5g
  • Cholesterol  95mg
  • Sodium 2860mg
Concerns about health aside, though, the really important thing is not to mispronounce this word. It is pronounced "pooTEEN". But many Canadians have vague memories from their school French lessons that consonants at the ends of French words are silent. (They are sometimes, but not when followed by an "e".) Armed with this little-learning-is-a-dangerous-thing, they bravely order "poo TANG" (with a nasal "a" vowel).

Unfortunately this sounds like the French word putain (whore), ultimately derived from the Latin putidus (stinking, rotten, fetid).


...Putain

Please do not order a putain when you are at Burger King!

Another entertaining thing about "poutine" is that in French, "Poutine" is also the spelling for Vladimir Putin's surname. It always cracks me up when I read headlines in Quebecois newspapers like "Le pari risqué de Poutine" (Putin's risky gamble).

Although maybe they were talking about the risky gamble of eating poutine!
un maudit Poutine

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Did you know you can hire Wordlady to enliven your meetings? I can talk entertainingly about the words related to almost any subject. See here for more.


COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. REGISTRATION NOW OPEN AND SPACE IS LIMITED. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html
 
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  
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(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

One funky plant



We who have gardens that are plunged in shade are ever grateful to the trusty hosta family. But did you know they have not always been called hostas?

Indeed, this plant used to go by the name funkia. I feel it is a pity that this cute word lost out, because I would like to be able to talk about my funkias.

Although the plant is originally from Asia, neither word is of Asian origin. Both are derived from the names of European scientists: "funkia" from H. C. Funck (1771–1839), a Bavarian pharmacist and botanist, and "hosta" from N. T. Host (1761–1834), an Austrian physician and botanist.

I have only ever heard "hosta" pronounced "HOSS ta", but American dictionaries tell me that in the US "HOE sta" is more common. How do you pronounce it?

Another name for the hosta is "plantain lily", because of its similarity to these plantains, which also grow in my garden but make me less happy than my hostas:
 
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/69/Plantago_major_Habito_2010-6-06_SierraMadrona.jpg/1280px-Plantago_major_Habito_2010-6-06_SierraMadrona.jpg

You would think a plantain is called this because, well, it's a plant. But the origin is a quite different "plant": Latin planta (sole of the) foot. Plantains, as you can see, have broad, flat, prostrate leaves looking not unlike a foot. Well, if you use your imagination.

Another pronunciation surprise awaited me when I looked up "plantain" and discovered that I should not be calling it a "plan TANE" as I have always thought, but a "PLAN t'n". The same holds true for the other "plantain", a starchy type of unsweet banana.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a4/Ghanaian_Fried_Plantains.jpg
fried plantains

Looking at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, I see that I wasn't allowing any of this "PLAN t'n" nonsense in it, no matter what all the other dictionaries say. To be so bold, we must have done a survey of Canadians about their pronunciation of this word. How do you pronounce it? (Please don't tell me I was wrong!)


For more gardening-related posts, please click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2016/06/gardening-related-wordlady-posts.html


SPOTS STILL AVAILABLE FOR TEA AND CANADIANISMS NEXT TUESDAY! More info here: 
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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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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.