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, September 12, 2014

Eager, zealous, diligent, and addicted to study, yup

http://www.old-print.com/mas_assets/full/D5011905259.jpgWith school and university terms now underway, a Wordlady reader has asked about the words "pupil" and "student".

Both "pupil" the student in school and the pupil of the eye derive from the same Latin word, but took quite diverging paths. The Latin word was pupillus which meant "child", but specifically an orphan child, one who was under the care of a guardian. This is what the word meant when it first entered English. In Wycliffe's translation of the Bible in 1382, for instance, people are adjured to "visit pupils and widows in their tribulacioun". Two hundred years later, in Shakespeare's time, the word was being used to mean a university student; by the 19th century it came to be restricted to schoolchildren. 

Meanwhile, the original Latin word was also developing along other lines. The feminine form was pupilla, which, as well as meaning "female child", also meant "doll". The Romans used this word for the opening in the iris becasue if you look into the pupils, tiny reflected images can be seen. The word didn'tgbet borrowed into English in this sense till the 1500s; before that the pupil was called the "black of the eye", or the "sight" or "sight-hole", or, way back in Old English, "the apple of the eye". .The figurative use of "the apple of someone's eye" dates all the way back to King Alfred the Great's time.

Teachers will no doubt be entertained to learn that the word "student", defined in its first sense in the Oxford English Dictionary as "A person who is engaged in or addicted to study" ("addicted"??), is derived from the Latin word stud─ôre (to be eager, zealous, or diligent at studying; to seek to be helpful). Although the language distinguished between students at university and pupils in lower education, starting in about 1900 in the US, the word "student" came to be used of all levels of instruction.

For the origin of the word "truant", see this post:

For the origin of the word "school", see this post:

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If you find the English language fascinating, you should check out my entertaining history of the English language courses. More info here


Friday, September 5, 2014

Pining for the fjords

http://laughingsquid.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/14627986986_957cbabae2_z.jpg
A Wordlady reader is intrigued by the word "pine" in the sense "long for something, usually unhappily".   Odd, really, when you think about it. Does it have anything to do with the tree?

Not surprisingly, when you think how iconic the pines of Rome are, the name for the tree came from Latin, in which the word was pinus. This was borrowed very early into English, when it was still Anglo-Saxon.

The verb "pine" started out as a noun (one of THOSE!) and also came from Latin, but from a different word, poena (a penalty or punishment). Those cheery monks who converted England to Christianity introduced this word so that they could talk about the nasty fate in  hell which awaited the Anglo-Saxons if they continued their heathen ways.

By the 1200s and 1300s, "pine" had taken on the meaning of any kind of physical or mental suffering, in some cases caused by severe lack of food, so it also came to mean "intense hunger".

The verb senses of "pine" paralleled its noun senses, starting off as "inflict or feel suffering", then "exhaust or become exhausted with physical suffering, especially from hunger, disease, or grief", and finally "long or hunger for, especially in a painful way". 

Along the way, "pine" lost its association with physical affliction, for which purpose it was replaced by the word "pain". Why was this? It was because of the English tendency to want to get its money's worth out of Latin words. One derivative is never enough.

This same Latin word poena had also made its way into French, where it became peine.  Ultimately, thanks to the Norman Conquest, it ended up in English towards the end of the Middle Ages as "pain" and took over that chunk of the semantic coverage of "pine".

And while we were on the "buy two Latin words, get the third free" plan, heck, why not take good old poena straight into English in its Latin form as well, which we did in the 1400s with the word "subpoena".  Sub poena were the first words, literally meaning "under pain [of a penalty for non-compliance]", of the summons requiring someone's presence at court. We were quite happy to spell it "sub pena" until the Renaissance mania for "authentic" Latin spellings complicated it.

This is a very good example of a common phenomenon in the history of English, where the same original word came into English at different times and by different routes and therefore ended up being pronounced differently.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: as well

#Canadianism of the day: as well = furthermore, moreover: Only Canadians use "as well" in a sentence-initial position

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: go to the washroom

#Canadianism of the day: go to the washroom = esp. Cdn euphemism defecate or urinate.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: make strange

#Canadianism of the day: make strange = Cdn & Irish (of a baby or child) fuss or be shy in company.

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All well and good

Well! 

I was just rather flabbergasted to read this advice in a Forbes magazine piece about appropriate language for customer service: 
Subtly insulting: In an informal business, if a customer asks, ‘‘How are you?’’ the response ‘‘I’m well’’ may make you feel like you’re using proper-sounding grammar—but may not be the best choice. Hearing this Victorian-sounding response may make your customers momentarily self-conscious about whether their own grammar is less than perfect. It may be better to have your employees choose from more familiar alternatives like, ‘‘I’m doing great!’’ or "Super!’’
Victorian???  Hey, buddy, I learned to reply "well (thank you!)" to this question, and that was in the 1960s. A lot of people are still outraged by the new, and previously highly censured, custom of replying "good", which seems to have started its remarkable upward trajectory in the mid-1990s, though it has been around longer than that. 

"Well", meanwhile, has been used to mean "in good health" since the late 1400s. Before that we were "isound" or "hale" or even "whole". I wonder if any customer service gurus in Shakespeare's time were warning businesses to have their staff avoid saying, "I'm hale, thank you!" as being "so Plantagenet!"


"He said he was "hale". That seems so last century to me. Is it ok if I say I'm well?"


The "good" option has probably become the more common one, and I do use it myself, since there is no reason not to. "Good" is an adjective (as is "well" in this usage), and has multitudinous meanings, so there's no reason why "in acceptable health" shouldn't be one of them. But that doesn't mean that we should start condemning "well" as Victorian (not to mention "subtly insulting").

However, this comment is quite amazing as an indicator of the rapidity of language change: a usage which was drummed into children a mere 30 or so years ago as being the only correct one is now itself being criticized. 

How do you react to "well" and "good" as answers to the question "How are you?"? Do you think "well" is stuffy? If someone in a customer service position said, "I'm well, thanks, and you?", would it make you "momentarily self-conscious about whether [your] own grammar is less than perfect"?

Or do you feel that "good" is a solecism and "ungrammatical"? It isn't ungrammatical, by the way; it's perfectly grammatical. But it still may irritate you if it's not the convention you grew up with -- and this type of linguistic interaction is all about convention. 

What advice would YOU give to someone in the service industry? "I'm doing great!"?

Let me know in the comments!

Media preview 


P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! Sign up here.

If you find the English language fascinating, you should check out my entertaining history of the English language courses. More info here



Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


Thursday, August 28, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: stoop & scoop

#Canadianism of the day: stoop & scoop= (law requiring owners to) pick up after their pets in parks, sidewalks, etc.

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If you find the English language fascinating, you should check out my entertaining history of the English language courses. More info here