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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Friday, March 27, 2015

That's Lady Grantham to you: the Downton Abbey effect in baby names

 
Today at the ballet I served a customer whose name was Cora. "What's remarkable about that?" you're probably thinking. "Everyone knows that the ballet audience is made up of little old ladies." In fact, my customer (and indeed much of the ballet audience) was not a little old lady but a cute little... 3-year-old girl.

All the same, Cora is a name I would associate with my grandmother's generation, and indeed, in 1900, Cora was the 55th most popular name for female babies in the US. It hit a low of 878th in 1988. Last year Cora had climbed back up to 127th. I guess the Downton Abbey effect is hitting baby names now.

The name seems to have arisen in the late 1700s, possibly as a Latinized form of the Greek Kore (maiden). Oxford's A Dictionary of First Names tells us that "In classical mythology, this was a euphemistic name of the goddess of the underworld, Persephone, and would not have been a well-omened name to take".  

Another name derived from the same source (via French and Latin) is Corinne, a name which hit its peak of popularity in 1926, not long before an aunt of mine called that was born.

The most telling development? The name "Violet". It was one of the first of many flower names to enter the English language in the mid-19th century (note that Downton also houses a Daisy, an Ivy, and a Rose). "Violet" was a very popular name, but it fell out of favour, disappearing from the charts entirely between 1974 and 1998. Then it started a steady comeback, roaring back to 69th place in 2013, a higher ranking even than in the first years of the 20th century. Can this be a coincidence? I think not. This phenomenon also seems to be happening in the UK: http://www.babynames.co.uk/popular-baby-names#name0=Violet .Seriously though, as my mother would say, can you imagine looking at a baby and seeing this:



In contrast, what about poor hapless Edith? Derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ead (wealth) and gyd (strife) -- what an appropriate name for the second Crawley daughter -- it was steadily in the top 50 from 1900-1930, then started what seemed to be an irreversible slide. But even poor Edith must have some fans, because since 2009 the name has struggled up from 845th place to 719th. 

The story for all three names seems to be the same in Ontario:
http://globalnews.ca/news/262867/interactive-popular-baby-names-in-ontario-over-the-past-93-years/

Of course you are all wondering about ...

"Shrimpie". Not likely to stage a comeback, I'd say. More of a "never came".

https://youtu.be/bs5_E1J_9hY?t=16s 


For a discussion of linguistic anachronisms in Downton Abbey, please see this post:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/02/linguistic-anachronism-in-downton-abbey.html


Upcoming History of the English Language course (please tell your friends):
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2015/03/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! 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, March 20, 2015

It's gross: why do we call them groceries?

A friend of mine recently asked why we can only shop for groceries, not for a single grocery. She was inspired to ask this question by her three-year-old son, who had remarked, when she came out of a store bearing a single loaf of bread, that she had bought "a grocery". Children are so logical when they are learning language: they acquire a pattern, and apply it. Just wait till the poor kid learns he has to change the singular -y to an -ies for the plural, and that even though your shopping list has several groceries on it and the No Frills sells many groceries, we still speak of a "grocery" list and a "grocery" store. Sigh, English is so illogical.

For that matter, why do we even call food and household supplies "groceries"? 

It's interesting to see what other languages literally call their weekly visit to the supermarket:

French: épicerie (spices)
Dutch: krudenierswaren (herb/spice seller's wares)
Spanish: comestibles (edibles)
Italian: generi alimentari (food types)
German: Lebensmittel (means of life)

and for the Danes, apparently, a weekly shop is not enough, because they buy
daglig varer (daily goods)

But we English speakers like to buy in bulk, it would seem, for this is the origin of the word "grocery", which ultimately derives from the French word gros (big) and the Latin word grossus (thick).  Here are the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions for "grocer":
  
One who buys and sells in the gross, i.e. in large quantities, a wholesale dealer or merchant [in contrast to a retailer, for which see this post]; also with mention of the article dealt in, e.g. fish. (The company of Grocers, said to have been incorporated in 1344, consisted of wholesale dealers in spices and foreign produce),

thus...
A trader who deals in spices [you see now where the French and Dutch got their word from], dried fruits, sugar, and, in general, all articles of domestic consumption except those that are considered the distinctive wares of some other class of tradesmen. In 18–19th c. tea, coffee, and cocoa became characteristic articles of the grocer's trade. After 1860 many grocers held licences to sell beer, wines, and spirits, in bottles.

"Grocery" was originally a collective noun for all such wares (as épicerie still is in French): 
1660   F. Brooke tr. V. Le Blanc World Surveyed 47   Confections, and preserves, of all sorts, spices, and all sorts of grocery come from China.
But because (unlike my single-loaf-buying friend) one usually  buys more than one such item at a time, the plural "groceries" also started to be used, and finally won out.   

The shop where you buy your "means of life" started to be called a "grocery (store)" in the early 19th century in North America, and this usage is still more common here than in the UK, where they are more likely to say "(green)grocer's".  Beware, though, if reading older texts from the southern US, that "grocery"  often meant "liquor store"!

Another interesting point about these words is the pronunciation. Some people in North America (including my friend who initiated this post) say "grow-sher(ee)" rather than "grow-sser(ee)". This is a natural phonetic phenomenon caused by the proximity of the "r" to the "s". I was quite surprised to hear it when I first moved to Ontario, but we did a survey for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and found it was quite common. Our dictionary and some American dictionaries include it. What do you say?

Upcoming History of the English Language course (please tell your friends):
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2015/03/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! 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



Saturday, March 14, 2015

Did you miss me? Recent posts update

It seems that my automatic feed to subscribers was not working properly last week, so about half of my subscribers may have missed my latest posts:
1) How do you pronounce "bison"?
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2015/03/shuffle-off-to.html
2) Upcoming History of the English Language course (please tell your friends):
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2015/03/rollicking-story-of-english-language.html


Friday, March 6, 2015

Shuffle off to ...

I was just watching an item on the news about the reintroduction of humped, shaggy-coated bovids to Banff National Park. 

Yup. 

Buffalo. 


At least that is what I would call them. But zoologists don't like this, saying that buffalo are a different animal (literally) and that the impressive monarch of the Canadian prairies is a "bison". Just to drive the point home, the animal's taxonomic name is Bison bison ("Didn't you hear me the first time???"). 

What interested me in this report, though, was the varying pronunciations. The reporter and the wildlife guys said "BIZE 'n", whereas someone else said "BICE 'n" (mind you, that person also invented the word "habitated", so perhaps his speech practices are suspect). 

Both  pronunciations are in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, with BIZE being the more frequent one. British and Australian dictionaries give only BICE, while American dictionaries give both BICE and BIZE, but in that order. Is saying "BIZE 'n", therefore, a more Canadian trait, perhaps influenced by the French pronunciation bee-ZON?

Entertainingly, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry edited in 1887, also gives "BISS'n" and "BIZZ'n", saying "Etymologically, BISS'n is most correct". So much for etymology!

What do you say?  

In this TV segment, someone also weighed in about the sacred significance of this animal for his people, the aboriginal peoples of the Prairies. How did he pronounce it?

Buffalo.

For several years now, the Manitoba Telephone System has been featuring bison in a clever series of ads. My father, a prairie boy at heart, loved these ads, which are very entertaining, so here is one for you to enjoy. Make sure you watch right to the end.
http://youtu.be/qoSRKVb2oQE

For information on my spring "Rollicking Story of the English language" course, please click here.


P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! 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


Rollicking Story of the English Language Course


I am looking at offering my hugely popular (attended by 650 people in Kitchener Waterloo!!) History of English course this spring in downtown Toronto, but I need to determine what would be the optimum dates and times. These are the options:

8 Tuesday afternoons 1:30-3:30, May 5- June 23
8 Wednesday mornings 10-12 May 6 - June 24
8 Wednesday afternoons 1-3

Cost would be $200 incl. HST for the 8 weeks.
Students who have taken the course previously but missed a couple of weeks could catch up at a cost of $30 per class, subject to space availability. 

Please let me know (email: wordlady.barber@gmail.com) if you are interested, and which day(s) and time(s) would suit you. Also, since many of you have already taken the course, could you please forward this to your friends, share on facebook, etc. and tell them just how amazingly fabulous a course it is!



Why is English spelling so chaotic? Why do we have so many synonyms? What might your name tell you about the history of the language? What is the history behind your favourite language pet peeve? This course is a highly informative and entertaining survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years. We will tie linguistic developments with the social and political events with which they coincided. Forget your dull high school English classes as Katherine Barber takes you on a surprisingly hilarious trip through a crazy language.

Week 1 - Celts and Anglo-Saxons
Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use the apostrophe for the possessive. German origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar. 


 Week 2 - Vikings
Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous. Blame the Vikings. 


Week 3 - The Norman Invasion
Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The Norman Conquest, Medieval England and the origins of chaotic English spelling. 


Week 4 - Renaissance English
Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"?

Week 5 - The 18th Century
Re-examining our pet peeves. British spelling and American spelling are different. Why?

Week 6 - The 19th Century to the Present
Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags".

Week 7 - Canadian and American English
Have Americans corrupted the language? How we Canadians can be very confusing to other English speakers.

Week 8 - Writing Dictionaries
Not as dull as you might think: How do new words enter the language? What do lexicographers do?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Condensed" History of the English Language course

I am once again offering my very popular course which explains why English is so weird, Tuesdays and Thursdays starting next week at the University of Toronto. If you have taken this course and enjoyed it, please pass the word on to your friends!

http://learn.utoronto.ca/interactive-course-search#/profile/2414

Friday, February 27, 2015

10 common usages once criticized as wrong

Quick now, what's wrong with saying "the prestigious Nobel Prize"? Nothing, you say? A mere 30 or so years ago, someone would have found fault with you for saying it. 

Wordlady readers know I get a kick out of looking at bygone prescriptive comments about the language which now seem ludicrous. Here's another bundle, gleaned from the Oxford English Dictionary.

1) agenda
O.E.D. Supplement (1972) : ‘[Treating agenda as a singular rather than a plural noun is] A use now increasingly found but avoided by careful writers.’


2) contrast
Introduced c1600 in the sense "contention, opposition", it was adversely criticized in 1644 as a new-fangled term. The word soon became obsolete in the literal sense but was reintroduced with the verb as a term of art c1700.


3) forth, adv., prep., and n.

Criticized as obsolete in 1771.

4) iron
The current standard pronunciation ("I earn" rather than "I ruhn")  was still criticized by some commentators in the 18th century.

5) microbe
This word was coined by the French military doctor Charles Sédillot in March 1878 from micro- (small) + ancient Greek βίος (life). It was coined expressly to provide a suitable alternative to a group of words (such as microzoaire, microphyte, animalcule) which had been used with greater or lesser precision to denote various types of microorganism. This formation has frequently been criticized on the grounds that, had an adjective *μικρόβιος existed in ancient Greek, it would have had the meaning ‘short-lived’.


6) narrate
1813   Quarterly Review  The style [of McCrie's Knox] is..free from all modern affectation, excepting the abominable verb ‘narrate’.


7) perfunctory
The first recorded use of the word, derived from Latin perfunctorius (done in a careless or superficial manner, slight, careless, negligent) in a book by Gabriel Harvey in 1592, was almost instantly criticized as an "inkhorn term" by Thomas Nashe. Borrowing from Latin and Greek was very popular in the Renaissance, resulting in many  polysyllabic words entering English. Since they soaked up a lot of ink, they were derided as "inkhorn (ie inkpot) terms". Some of these didn't survive, but many did to become part of our standard vocabulary.  Here's another one:  

8) neophyte
1583   W. Fulke A defense of the sincere and true translations of the holie scriptures into the English tong. Except you would coin such ridiculous inkhorn terms, as you do in the New Testament, azymes, prepuce, neophyte..and such like.


9) prestigious
On the grounds that the Latin (and original English) meaning of the word was "Of the nature of or characterized by sleight of hand, juggling, conjuring or trickery; deceptive, illusory; (of a person) that cheats or deceives, deluding.", use in the sense "Having, showing, or conferring prestige or high status; inspiring respect and admiration" was frequently criticized in the 20th century, and the  O.E.D. Supplement (1982) at that entry comments ‘in this sense many prefer to use prestigeful a. or some other adjective’.

10) raise, n.
Use in the sense "pay increase" was sometimes criticized by U.S. usage guides until as late as the 1980s, "rise" being preferred. Although "rise" is the standard UK term, "raise" is standard in North America.




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! 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