Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
You can also order my best-selling book of over 500 intriguing word histories, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs. It's a fun read!

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Drinking with panache

Last week we looked at what the Germans and English call a mixture of beer and 7-Up, but I haven't exhausted this topic yet (and am still in need of summer beverages). Today it's the turn of the French, who call it a panaché.

Why do they use this word that we English associate with a kind of swaggering verve?

Originally, in the Renaissance, a panache was a decorative tuft of feathers on a helmet. Ultimately, the word derived from the Latin pinnaculum (wing). Often these tufts of feathers were of different colours, as in this 16th-century Spanish helmet:
I think I shall get a panache for my bicycle helmet.

As a result, by the mid-19th century, the French had created an adjective, panaché, designating something, especially food, made of a mixture of different elements. So you can have a glace panachée (ice cream with two or more flavours) or a salade panachée (tossed salad). An anisette panachée (mixed with absinthe, and no doubt something to be regretted) was quite popular. The diluted beer acquired the name panaché in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, however, because of its association with military attire, over the centuries the word panache had come to be associated with a chivalrous and manly disposition, a kind of heroic bravura exemplified by Cyrano de Bergerac:

http://chicagotheaterbeat.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Harry-Groener-and-Julie-Jesneck-in-Cyrano-de-Bergerac-at-Chicago-Shakespeare.jpg 

And indeed it was the first English translation of Edmond de Rostand's 1897 play about the swashbuckling lover that introduced "panache" in this sense to the English language. It is hard to imagine not having "panache" at our disposal. So let us all raise a panaché to Cyrano!


By the way, if you ever have a chance to see Birmingham Royal Ballet's Cyrano, seize it!
Birmingham Royal Ballet - Cyrano's Nose from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.

Carl Davis's score for David Bintley's Cyrano from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.


I will be offering my very popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course this fall. For more info, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2015/08/rollicking-story-of-english-language.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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Rollicking Story of the English Language course

I am once again offering this fun survey of the English language, described by one of my students as "the best course I've ever taken".

Tuesdays, 1:00-3:00 pm, September 22 - November 17 (no class November 10)
Goethe Institute
100 University Ave., North Tower,
Suite 201
on the west side of University a few steps south of King
St Andrew subway station
This venue is fully accessible.
Nathan Phillips Square parking garage is 9 minutes walk away.

Price: 10 2-hour classes for $250 including HST
Enrollment limited to 20 people.

Subject to space, you may attend one or more individual lectures at $30 each, but you must let me know which ones you will be attending at least a week in advance.


Please register in advance by 

emailing me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com or phoning me at 416-693-4496
and sending a cheque made out to
Katherine Barber
201 Hanson Street
Toronto ON
M4C 1A7
Please write "English course" on the cheque


  1. Sept 22 Celts and Anglo-Saxons:

Celtic and Latin relics from pre-5th century Britain. The Germanic origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar. Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use apostrophe s for the possessive.  Relics of Anglo-Saxon dialects in Modern English.



  1. Sept 29  Using the Oxford English Dictionary.

A primer in using this essential online and print tool to research the history of English words.



  1. Oct 6 The Vikings:

Old Norse borrowings into English. Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous.



  1. Oct 13 The Norman Invasion:

A brief history of French. Middle English. Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The origins of chaotic English spelling.





  1. Oct 20 The Renaissance: Early Modern English

Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. The Great Vowel Shift. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"? The effect of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on the vocabulary



  1. Oct 27 The 18th Century:

The prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century at the origin of our present grammar “rules”. The original dictionaries and Samuel Johnson. Re-examining our pet peeves. 

  1. Nov 3 The 19th Century to the Present :

The influence of Sir Walter Scott, the industrial revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire. Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags". 

Nov 10 American and Canadian English:

Have they corrupted the language? Noah Webster and his dictionary. Why are British and American spelling different? The history of Canadian English. Are we more British or more American? How we can be very confusing to other English speakers. 

Nov 24 Writing Dictionaries :  
How do new words enter the language? What do lexicographers do? 





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! If you are not already subscribed, 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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Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady

 


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Drinking a cyclist

When it comes to adopting words from English, German is as enthusiastic about borrowing as a teenage girl let loose on the clothes in her sister's closet. Not content with the numerous words they lift wholesale from English, Germans even make up pseudo-English words to be, well, cool (yes indeed, cool is now a German word). The classic is calling a cellphone a Handy (this was an invention of Deutsche Telekom), but my all-time favourite has to be "Das Baby-shooting" (check it out here).

There has been much less borrowing going on in the other direction, so I was quite surprised to discover that a trendy new drink in Toronto bars this summer is a "radler". Radler is the southern German and Austrian word for a mixture of beer and lemon-lime soft drink. "There's nothing radder than a good ol' radler" proclaimed a headline in the Toronto Metro this week. Radlers are now available with other citrus flavours, for instance blood orange and grapefruit.



The story behind this word is quite entertaining. In the late 19th century, shortly after bicycles were invented, Germans found that their favourite tipple (beer, naturally), downed in haste by a thirsty cyclist on an energetic outing, was a little too strong, and resulted in impaired cycling. 
https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/5d/b3/81/5db381507554e15da6ac835d692fe585.jpg

Diluted half and half, though, it was refreshing and not inebriating. Well, less inebriating anyway.  In German, a bicycle is a Fahrrad, literally a "travelling/riding wheel", and a cyclist is a Radler. The word for the person became the word for the drink.

If you wish to order one of these in Northern Germany, however, they have a different name: Alsterwasser. The Alster is the lake in the centre of Hamburg. 

I suspect that the water in the Alster was not drinkable, and that this name was originally a derogatory commentary on the adulteration of pure beer.

Of course, we have a perfectly good name in English for this drink: "shandy", derived from "shandygaff", unfortunately of unknown origin.
Do not be confused by British dictionaries which describe shandy as "beer and lemonade". They are using "lemonade" not to mean this stuff:




but in the British English sense of "lemonade", i.e. 7-Up or Sprite.

Tune in next week to find out what the French call this drink (oh, ok, yes I do drink shandies everywhere I go) and what it has to do with assertiveness.


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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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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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Friday, August 14, 2015

Be a pet


Your pet is watching you
A Wordlady correspondent has inquired whether the past tense of the verb "pet" is "petted" or "pet". This got me wondering about the origin of the word "pet", which is so unlike the word for our little furry or feathered darlings in other European languages:

French: animal de compagnie (companion animal)
German: Haustier (house animal, no companionship guaranteed!)
Italian: animale domestico (domestic animal)
Spanish: mascota (mascot)

But the Scandinavians have the best names:

Swedish: sällskapsdjur party animal  

with the all-time winner being the Danish  and Norwegian

kæledyr /
kjæledyr
literally, cuddle animal  or pamper animal (apparently, but I will have to check this with my Danish cousin)

So where on earth did English get its word from? 

In Medieval English we have some examples of "puppy" (derived from the French word for "doll") being used for a pet dog, and even the delightful "gentilhound". Cats, caged birds, squirrels, rabbits, and even badgers were also kept as pets, but there was no word in English to describe the relationship.

But in the 1500s, English acquired from Scots Gaelic and Irish the word peata which designated a tame animal, especially a lamb reared by hand (maternal sheep mortality probably being not uncommon on Scottish crags).  By the 1700s, the word was being used of other types of animals kept for pleasure:

1710   R. Steele Tatler No. 266. ⁋2   The other has transferred the amorous Passions of her first Years to the Love of Cronies, Petts and Favourites [a dog, monkey, squirrel, parrot].
And we find that animal lovers in the 18th century were as unable to resist a cute beastie as they are now:
1788   B. Sheridan Let. 22 Oct.  v. 127   He is..playing with a Dormouse he made me a present of... Tho' not desirous of keeping any more Pets I could not refuse him.
How many of us have uttered words like those! 

At the same time, still in Scotland, the word took on the meaning of "a person or child who is indulged, spoiled, or treated as a favourite", and also, less negatively, as a term of endearment (fans of the British TV series Vera, set in Newcastle, will notice how often the eponymous detective addresses suspects as "pet", usually before she throws them in the slammer).

Already by the early 1600s "pet" was being used as a verb (again, this was originally a Scottish usage). Yes, it's one of THOSE. I know I rant about this a lot, but I will keep ranting until the "you shouldn't use nouns as verbs" myth is eradicated from this earth. Like all other verbs derived from nouns, it is regular, so its past and past participle are "petted", not "pet". If anyone uses "pet" as the past tense, they are probably being led astray by the similar three-letter verbs "set", "bet", and "let", which are all irregular.
By now, some of you are thinking about the sexual sense of "petting" (I know you are). For that you can blame the Americans, the Oxford English Dictionary's first evidence of the term being from F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920. 



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! If you are not already subscribed, 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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Friday, August 7, 2015

Massacring the language

I've been binge-watching Mad Men to catch up on the seasons I missed.

While watching, most of my brain is naturally occupied in thinking:
"Geez, these people drink, smoke, and have sex a lot."
"How sexist is THAT???"
and
"Why can't I look like Christina Hendricks?"

But in spite of that, a teeny part of my Wordlady brain was still functioning enough to think "Well, that's an odd pronunciation!!" on hearing one of the minor characters pronouncing "massacre" as "massacree". I even rewound it to make sure I had heard aright. 

Once I got over my "Don't young actors today know how to pronounce words properly??" reaction, I thought I'd better check it out.

Turns out the OED has this to say about "massacree" (for which they have written evidence going back to the 16th century):
it is reported ... to have been widespread in England from Northumberland to Somerset in the 19th cent.; it is recorded in a few 20th-cent. regional glossaries. In the Dictionary of American Regional English it is reported to be chiefly U.S. Southern and South Midland, and old-fashioned.
The actress in question, however, (David Mamet's daughter Zosia Mamet) was born in Vermont, grew up in California, and is not yet thirty. I wonder where she got this pronunciation from and whether it caused any reaction on the set (if it did, she was obviously not asked to "correct" it). 

On the other hand, it might have been an intentional channelling of the famous Arlo Guthrie sixties protest song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree". Where Guthrie got the pronunciation from I don't know, because he was born in New York and was referring to Massachusetts.

Have you ever heard "massacree"? 

Friday, July 31, 2015

The great divide

A Wordlady correspondent has asked about the pronunciation of "divisive". He pronounces it "di VICE iv", and the "di VISS iv" pronunciation "drives him nuts".

Apparently he is not alone in this, as there is much chatter on the web (negative, naturally, because Lord knows we need to find more things to criticize him about) about Barack Obama using the latter pronunciation. 

First off, please don't let different pronunciations than your own drive you nuts. There are many different ways to pronounce many of the words in English, and getting upset about them is not worth the effort. Just as the other person's pronunciation is driving you nuts, yours is driving them nuts too, and that makes two of you getting upset for no good reason.

In this case, if you live in Canada and say "di VICE iv", and are driven nuts by "di VISS iv", you're going to spend a lot of time tearing your hair out. At the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we found that "di VISS iv" is in fact the most common pronunciation in Canada for this word.

This preference for "di VISS iv" seems to be unique to Canada. Dictionaries from other countries give their pronunciations of the middle syllable in order of frequency:

Britain: VICE
NZ and Australia: VICE , VIZZ

US: VICE, VISS, VIZE, VIZZ
Canada: VISS, VICE, VIZZ, VIZE

So you might wonder where these pronunciations come from. "Well, of course it should be di VICE iv, because after all it comes from di VIDE," you might say. Well, so do "division" and "divisible", don't they? Sigh, I wish English were like French, where the middle syllables of the words "diviser", "divisible", and "division" are all pronounced the same way.  

Actually none of these English words are derivatives of "divide"; they were borrowed separately from Latin.

"Divide" came first, in the 1300s, with "divisor" a little later. They would have been pronounced "diveed" and "diveezor" back then. But they arrived in English just in time to be subject to the Great Vowel Shift which happened not long afterwards, eventually causing them to be pronounced as they are today, with what we call a "long i". "Division" arrived at the same time as "divide" but, because many multisyllable words escaped the Great Vowel Shift, its "veez" became "viz" rather than "vize".

By the time "divisible" arrived in the 1550s and "divisive" in the early 1600s, we therefore had two pronunciation patterns for "divide" words in English.  "Divisible" went one way, "divisive" the other. I do not know why (if anyone does, I'd be fascinated to hear the explanation). We see the same pattern with "decide, decision, decisive" (unfortunately we have no word "decisible").  But obviously we COULD have chosen to pronounce "divisive" like "division" and "divisible". I do not know how long the "di VISS/VIZZ iv" pronunciation has been in the language, but perhaps it was kicking around when settlers moved from Britain to North America and Australia, and has survived since then. 

Having lamented that our pronunciations are not consistent as in French ("pronunciation" is in fact another example of this phenomenon), I should in fairness point out that there is no word "divisif" in French. To translate the idea, bilingual dictionaries have to resort to periphrasis like  
‹of a policy› qui sème la discorde; qui entraîne la division
to be socially divisive = créer des inégalités sociales
Maybe we should send French speakers "divisive" with our compliments. At least they wouldn't argue over its pronunciation.

How do YOU pronounce "divisive"? 



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! If you are not already subscribed, 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

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

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


Friday, July 24, 2015

What the F is an F doing in "lieutenant"?

As I mentioned last week, as a result of my CBC interview about Stuart McLean's pronunciations of "schedule" and "raspberry", I've had a number of queries about other pronunciations. 

First up: lieutenant and colonel. 

LIEUTENANT comes from the two French words lieu (place) and tenant (holding), because literally a lieutenant is the person who would be holding his superior's place in the superior's absence. 

Now the question is, why do some people say lootenant and others leftenant? 

Lootenant is closer to the Old French pronunciation, but right from our earliest evidence, in the 1300s and 1400s, we have spellings that indicate that both pronunciations existed. Probably the English had a hard time pronouncing French, or they may have confused lieu with the English word they already knew, "leave" Or they confused the written "u" with a "v." 

For whatever reason, the "loo-" version died out of British English but survived in American English, which tends to maintain older pronunciations, for example "herb". Since Americans were the founders of Canadian English when the Loyalists moved here, we also inherited "lootenant" But the Canadian Forces have always been strongly influenced by the British, so leftenant is the official pronunciation there. When we researched the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we discovered Canadians split about 50/50 over this pronunciation, with an edge for "lootenant", although people were likely to say "leftenant-governor" even if they otherwise said "lootenant"! Canadian English is not simple! What do YOU say?

COLONEL Why is it pronounced with an "r" even though there isn't one in the word?! English pronunciation must drive second-language learners mad! 

"Colonel" ultimately comes from Italian colonello meaning the commander of a company or "column" of infantry. When the French borrowed this word, they had a hard time saying "colonel" with two "l"'s (though they manage to do it now). So the first "l" got changed to an "r" and they ended up with coronel, which is what got borrowed into English in the 1500s and then scrunched down in the pronunciation to ker-nel. But then in the 1600s people looked at the origin of the word and changed the spelling back to "colonel" to reflect it, but the pronunciation stuck. 

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! If you are not already subscribed, 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

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

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady