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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, May 18, 2018

The wine guy

On the streetcar the other day, I was unavoidably overhearing someone on her cellphone discussing her party planning when I was puzzled by her statement, "So I booked a Somali, eh."

When did East Africans become the latest hip party accessory, I wondered.

Then the penny dropped. 



A sommelier is a wine waiter, one specially trained in the pairing of food and wine. More recently, there are tea sommeliers, beer sommeliers and honey sommeliers. I have even read about water sommeliers, but I hope this concept has died under the weight of its own pretentiousness.

If you're trying to impress your friends with your highfalutin party plans, I suggest you learn how to pronounce the words properly.

In French, sommelier is pronounced
somm 'll YAY
And I believe that is true for Canadian English as well, though apparently not for my fellow traveller on the streetcar. Some Canadians may stress the first syllable rather than the last.

I was surprised to see that Merriam-Webster lists the only American pronunciation as
suh m'll  YAY
and Oxford UK dictionaries as
somm ELL yay
but the British have a long history of stressing the wrong syllable in words borrowed from French.

How do YOU pronounce "sommelier"?
Back in the Middle Ages, the person in charge of the wine in a great French household was called a bouteiller, literally the guy in charge of the bottles. We merrily borrowed this as with so many French words designating the high life after the Norman Conquest, and it became our word "butler". But while "butler" survived in English, bouteiller did not survive in French.

The word sommelier at this point had been around for a while in French. It started out with the Latin word sagma (a packsaddle). This morphed, by way of saugmarius (a pack animal), into somerier (a driver of pack animals), and then into sommelier (person in charge of the baggage). 

But a sommelier wasn't just any old mule driver cum baggage handler. At about the time bouteiller was dying out, the sommelier was the officer in charge of the baggage when the royal court was travelling. Inevitably every wealthy household wanted a sommelier in charge of their household goods. Wine, as always in France, was considered particularly important, so soon a sommelier was the guy in charge of the wine. We borrowed it from the French in the 19th century.

I would say that the word has been in English long enough, and has become frequent enough, especially since the 70s, that it does not need to be italicized.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Nine words that deserve a revival

Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash

glimflashy, adj.

Etymology: < glim n. (a candle) + flashy adj.



flamfew, n.

Etymology: Corruption of French fanfelue < medieval Latin famfalūca bubble, lie, apparently < Greek πομϕόλυξ bubble. Compare modern French fanfreluche.

  A gewgaw, trifle, fantastic thing. Also Sc. ‘Any gaudy trapping in female dress,’ ‘a gaudily dressed female’ (Jamieson).


gumfiate, v.

Etymology: < Italian gonfiat-o, past participle of gonfiare = French gonfler, < Latin conflāre, < con- together + flāre to blow.

  trans. To puff up, cause to swell.


misdeemful, adj.

Etymology: < misdeem n. + -ful suffix.

  Having a false judgement of. Also: suspicious 


queemful, adj.


  Pleasing, agreeable. Also: kind, gracious.


ramfeezled, adj. 

Etymology: Apparently < Scots ram-, intensifying prefix (see note and compare earlier ramgunshoch adj.) + a second element of uncertain origin (perhaps feeze v.2) + -le suffix 3 + -ed suffix1

  Worn out, exhausted; confused, muddled.


rumfustian, n. (and adj.)

Etymology: < rum n.2 + fustian n.
Now hist.

  A hot, spiced drink made of strong beer, white wine, gin, egg yolks, lemon juice, and sugar, popular during the 19th cent., originally among university students.


septemfluous, adj.

Etymology: < Latin septemfluus ( < septem seven + fluĕre to flow) + -ous suffix.

  Flowing in seven streams.


wamfle, v.

Etymology: ?

  intr. To go about with flapping garments. Of garments, etc., to flap, flutter (in the wind).

Monday, May 7, 2018

English Schminglish! Wordlady talks about Hebrew and Yiddish words in Kitchener

Tickets must be ordered in advance, not on sale at the door

CHW Kitchener-Waterloo Centre Invites you to join us for our
Annual Campaign Event

Get Farpitzsed
and join us for an evening of
Fressing & Freilach


Farpitzsed = To get all dressed up to the "nines"
Fressing = Gourmandizing
Freilach = Joyous

Opening remarks by CHW National President Debbie Eisenberg
Our Guest Speaker,
Katherine Barber, Canada's Word Lady, will speak on the topic:
English Schminglish
An entertaining look at how Hebrew and Yiddish Words have enriched the English language for centuries.

Musical entertainment by The Notbadniks
Monday May 14, 2018, 6-10pm
Borealis Grille & Bar
4336 King Street East, Kitchener
Early Bird Tickets: $36.00 (until April 30th)
Regular Tickets: $40.00 (after April 30th)
As seating is limited, tickets must be ordered in advance
Dairy Dinner will include Entree, Dessert, and Tea or Coffee.
Food allergies can be accommodated if you contact us at least a week in advance
*Please note, Couvert only covers our expenses for this event.  Please give generously to the CHW Annual Campaign, for which a full tax receipt will be issued.
CLICK HERE to purchase your tickets
More Information: Marcia Glick at 226-647-5182 or glick.marcia@gmail.com
Copyright © 2018 CHW Kitchener Waterloo - Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (CHW), All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 3, 2018


I was just at a ballet symposium in San Francisco, and was brought up short by hearing speakers pronounce "ancillary" as

ANsill airy

I only say (and thought I had only ever heard)

an SILL uh ree


Once I got over my "These Yanks talk weird" reaction, I thought I'd better check it out. Yes, American dictionaries give 

ANsill airy

whereas British dictionaries and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary give only

an SILL uh ree  

As is so often the case, the American pronunciation is the older one (see also clamber, process, lieutenant, height, primer, herb). It would seem that the British switchover started in the 19th century and was not firmly established till the 20th.

I'm always rather surprised when I find Canadians opting overwhelmingly for a British pronunciation; usually we are split 50/50 or 75/25. If you are Canadian, please let me know how you pronounce this word!


Where does the word "ancillary" come from? The Latin word ancilla meant "slave girl", and will be recognized by anyone familiar with the Magnificat: 
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden: For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
I cannot of course omit to mention that this line was given a particularly beautiful setting by Bach:



It appears that many people misspell this word "ancilliary" as if it were like "auxiliary", and as a result (or perhaps the cause of the misspelling) pronounce it

an SILLY airy 
an SILL yuh ree

Do not do this. 


When "ancillary" was first borrowed from Latin in the 1600s, it meant "additional, but less important than". Some people in the 19th century used it to mean "of or pertaining to a maidservant", but the Oxford English Dictionary (uncharacteristically, it must be said) minces no words about its opinion of THAT:
rare and affected.
Take THAT, Thackeray! 

It acquired a new meaning, 
Providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, system, etc.
in the early 20th century, and as you can see, enjoyed a  quite rapid increase in popularity, although now it seems to be waning:

Friday, February 23, 2018

Just stop thinking and praying already

This week on Wordlady's Empty Pious Platitudes Watch....

No, you're not imagining it. The use of that annoying phrase "thoughts and prayers" really has increased exponentially in the last couple of decades, especially in North America. Here's the Google Books chart for American English, 1850-2008:

The British are not so guilty, but they have also increased their use of this cliché

The evidence on the corpus of Contemporary American English for "thoughts and prayers are with" is even more striking (the third column of numbers is occurrences per million words):

1990-1994 5 104.0 0.05
1995-1999 6 103.4 0.06
2000-2004 13 102.9 0.13
2005-2009 23 102.0 0.23
2010-2014 20 102.9 0.19
2015-2017 42 62.3 0.67

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Friday, February 16, 2018

Oo! Wales!

I am currently researching a course about varieties of English worldwide, one of these being Welsh English. I had read that a distinctive characteristic of Welsh English speakers is the way they pronounce some words which for the rest of us have an "oo" sound, as in "boot".

First, they pronounce "blew" and "blue" differently, the former having a slight short "i" sound before the "oo" and the latter not.

I felt that my research would not be complete without looking at (oh yeah, and listening to) YouTube videos of the actor Ioan Gruffudd being interviewed. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. The sacrifices I make for my students.

Imagine how thrilled I was when he spontaneously uttered "blew" in this interview. You can hear it at the 4:53 mark. It (and also his vowel in "withdrew" a bit later) is definitely different than the vowel he uses in "two" and "roommate" later in the clip. https://youtu.be/8tubh_QYZ8E?t=4m6s

Another "oo" word that has a distinctively Welsh pronunciation is "tooth", where Welsh English speakers use the vowel of "book" rather than the vowel of "boot". A particularly grisly scene from the Welsh detective series Hinterland fortuitously delivered up confirmation of this. 

OK, so I may be the only person who watches TV and gets excited like this: "She said tooth!!! He said blew!!!"

Friday, February 9, 2018

Empty vessels

Some empty vessels (and one that isn't)

Goodness knows why, considering the current political situation, but I came to reflect on the proverbial phrase "empty vessels make the most noise" and got to wondering how long that bit of folk wisdom has been around.

Turns out that people were already onto blowhards in the 1500s:
1547   W. Baldwin A treatise of morall phylosophie contaynyng the sayinges of the wyse   As emptye vesselles make the lowdest sounde: so they that haue leaste wyt, are the greatest babblers. 
1589   R. Greene Menaphon: Camillas alarum to slumbering Euphues   Emptie vessells haue the highest sounds..and pratling gloriosers, the smallest performaunce of courage.
I definitely think it is well past time for the revival of the term "prattling glorioser".

While looking into this, I discovered three other folksy sayings that I was not familiar with:
an empty sack (bag) cannot stand (upright)  [after Italian sacco vuoto non puo star in piedi]: great hunger or need renders a person weak, weary, or desperate.
he could start a fight in an empty room

better are small fish than an empty dish

The "p" in "empty" has not always been there. Back in Old English (when the word could mean "at leisure" or even "unmarried" in addition to its current sense), it was æmetteg. But the middle "e" got squished out of it, leaving "m" and "t" bumped up against one another. In this phonetic situation, a "p" inserted itself to make the transition from one consonant to the other easier. By the 1600s, a new spelling reflecting this, "empty", had ousted the old spelling "emty". 

But I'm pretty sure I don't pronounce the "p" myself, even when speaking very carefully (I don't pronounce it in "temptation" either). Do you pronounce it?

Photo by Paul on Unsplash

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.