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 books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Why is there a toe in mistletoe?

Are you hoping to smooch with someone under "A yellowish-green, dichotomously branched, hemiparasitic Eurasian shrub, Viscum album" (as the OED so unromantically defines it) this Christmas?

Back in Old English, this plant with reputed magical properties was called mistiltan. Tān was the Old English word for "twig". But coincidentally tān was also the plural of (toe). This led to a very early confusion of the two words, especially as tān lost the battle to "twig" and died out of the language. 

As for the possible etymology of the "mistle" part, it may make you less inclined to hang out under a sprig of this plant. The OED tells us this:
etymology uncertain: perhaps < the Germanic base of mix (the now obsolete Old English word for "dung"), from the fact that the plant is propagated in the excrement of birds
You will have noticed that the botanical name for mistletoe is Viscum album (album meaning "white").  Being smart word lovers, you will have instantly recognized the source of our word "viscous". Viscum was what the Romans called not only mistletoe, but the slimy, sticky substance made from its berries that was spread on tree branches to catch birds.

Having now filled your brain with associations like "excrement" and "slime" for this innocent word, may I express my wish for you that any relationship that starts (or continues) for you under the mistletoe this Christmas is one that... sticks.

I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! More info here:

Friday, December 8, 2017

Rollicking Story of English course January - March 2018

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

Wednesday, 1:00-3:00 pm, January 17 - March 8, 
Goethe Institute
100 University Ave., North Tower,
Suite 201
on the west side of University a few steps south of King
1 minute walk from St Andrew subway station

10 minutes or less walk from Union Station GO, fully covered via the PATH.
This venue is fully accessible.
For nearby parking see here:


Price: 8 2-hour classes for $240 including HST
Enrollment limited to 20 people.

Subject to space, you may attend one or more individual lectures at $35 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 either
1) arranging an Interac e-transfer
2) sending a cheque made out to
Katherine Barber
201 Hanson Street
Toronto ON
M4C 1A7
Please write "English course" on the cheque

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.

  1. Week 1 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. Week 2  Using the Oxford English Dictionary.

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

  1. Week 3 The Vikings:

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

  1. Week 4 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. Week 5 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. Week 6 The 18th Century:

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

  1. Week 7 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". 

Week 8 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. 

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! Sign up here.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

12 Days of Wordlady

In case you missed this in previous years, my series  starts here (links to the subsequent days are listed in each post).

Farting is involved.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What is destroying the English language?

I was most entertained to read Jonathan Swift's 1712 rant about the decline of English:

Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining
English Tongue"

in which he takes aim at a particularly evil band of corrupters of the language:
There is another Sett of Men who have contributed very much to the spoiling of the English Tongue; 
Who are these people?
I mean the Poets, 
Well, it makes a change from blaming These Young People Today for destroying  the language!

What are these nefarious POETS doing?
These Gentlemen, although they could not be insensible how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables;
What an odd notion, that there are too darn many monosyllabic words in English. Cat? Dog? Milk? Away with them, I say!
yet, to save Time and Pains, introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses;
Aha! Abbreviating words!
and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure:
Yep, while we're at it, let's slag off people from Yorkshire and other points north.
They have joined the most obdurate Consonants without one intervening Vowel, only to shorten a Syllable: And their Taste in time became so depraved, that what was a first a Poetical Licence, not to be justified, they made their Choice, alledging, that the Words pronounced at length, sounded faint and languid. This was a Pretence to take up the same Custom in Prose; so that most of the Books we see now a-days, are full of those Manglings and Abbreviations.
By now, you're wondering if Alexander Pope and his ilk were LOLing in their poems, but no. Here is their dastardly innovation:
Instances of this Abuse are innumerable: Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.
As everyone knows, those words should be pronounced "drudgèd", "disturbèd","rebukèd", and so on. As indeed they were, until the 17th century. I'm pretty sure poets weren't to blame for the switch to the "disturb'd" pronunciation.

I happen to sing in a church choir where we use these old-fashioned pronunciations so often that we have to be reminded, when performing modern settings of the Magnificat, NOT to sing "he has fillèd the hungry with good things"! One of my fellow choristers even reports that when her daughters were children, they had spent so much time in church that they were convinced that the right way to form the English past tense was to pronounce the -ed ending.

Three hundred years from now, what pet peeves of ours will English speakers be laughing at? 

Monday, October 30, 2017


OK, what's that ridiculous C doing in the word "indict"? Or, conversely, why don't we pronounce it "in DICKT"? Which, come to think of it, might be appropriate. It could mean "to accuse someone of being a dick". (How full our prisons would be!)

But no, it's pronounced "in DITE". And back in the 1300s when we borrowed the word from French, it was sensibly spelled "indite" (sometimes "endite"). The French had done their usual consonant-dropping thing on the Latin original indictāre (to declare), in turn derived from indicere (proclaim, appoint) from in- (towards) + dicere (pronounce, utter).

As with so many other words, the Latinomania of the Renaissance put paid to the sensible spelling: "It had a C in Latin so it should have a C in English!!!!". And there we are.

You may have been puzzled by the apparent use of this word in Handel's beautiful Coronation Anthem, "My heart is inditing", a setting of Psalm 45. This started out as the same word as "indict", but branched out to mean "express in words" rather than "accuse".  The King James Version is
My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.
As this sense is now obsolete, modern translations have
My heart is stirred by a noble theme
    as I recite my verses for the king;
    my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer.
My heart is overflowing with a good thought;
    I am speaking my works for the king;
    my tongue is the pen of a skilled scribe.

"Stirred by a noble theme" indeed.
To have fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox, click here to subscribe by email. 
Looking for an entertaining speaker? Here are some of my topics:
Why is English so wacky?
A fun-filled and light-hearted but informative look at the weirdness of the English language and how it got to be the way it is. Includes things you never suspected about husbands, ptarmigan, porcelain, and much more. Laughs guaranteed...even when you find out why "guarantee" has such an odd spelling.

Bachelor for Rent: Things You Never Suspected About Canadian English”
A hilarious look at what is distinctive about Canadians and their language
English Schminglish: How Jews have Enriched our Language
An entertaining look at how Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched the English language for thousands of years

Thursday, October 19, 2017


We'll be seeing and hearing the unusual word "emolument" (almost always used in the plural) a lot more in the next little while, as the question whether Donald Trump has violated the "emoluments clause" in Article I, Section 9 of the American constitution comes before the courts: 
"No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State."
I've always associated this word with the sesquipedalian Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, who spoke of his (inevitably inadequate) income as his "pecuniary emoluments". 

The word, which entered English from Latin in the late 15th century, has an interesting etymology: originally probably meaning ‘payment to a miller for grinding corn’, from emolere ‘grind up’, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out, thoroughly’ + molere ‘grind’.

In case you're unsure about the pronunciation, here you go: ee MOLL ya m'ent.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Sexual harassment is very much in the news. 

Not, of course, that the phenomenon is new. I am sure it has existed since the dawn of time, but we apparently only came to have a specific word for it in the 1970s. This was no doubt a consequence of both increased numbers of women in the workforce and  feminist raised consciousness at the time. Here is the earliest example the Oxford English Dictionary has found:
1971   Yale Daily News 19 Apr. 1/5   ‘We insist,’ said one of the women, ‘that sex harassment is an integral component of sex discrimination.’ ‘Men perceive women in sexual categories and not in professional categories,’ she continued. The complaint of sexual harassment was apparently a ‘new idea’ to the H.E.W. team.
 Here is a telling quotation from four years later:
Time Magazine
Date (1975/10/27)
Title Male and Female
Source http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,913585,00.html
 In Washington, D.C., Officer Peggy A. Jackson, 27, charges that it is practically a rule of the force that " you've got to make love to get a day off or make love to get a good beat. " Washington's 4,200-member police department includes 333 women, about half of whom are assigned to patrol duty with men. No formal complaints have been filed, but D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy is investigating several verbal charges of sexual harassment. Though the U.S. Attorney's office has dropped the case for lack of evidence, the police department is investigating the alleged rape of a woman cop by a sergeant during a stakeout of an office building. 
The word "harass" has been around much longer than this, though.  We borrowed it from the French harasser in the 1600s, in several senses: 
  1. to tire out; to exhaust with care or trouble
  2. to make repeated small-scale attacks on (an enemy)
  3. to trouble with annoyances, importunity, misfortune
In the twentieth century, a new sense, "to subject to aggressive pressure or intimidation", came to dominate.

There is some discussion as to the pronunciation of "harass". Is the accent on the first or the second syllable? In Canada, it is more commonly on the second syllable, although those who accent the first syllable (as most British English speakers also do) tend to be convinced that only they are right, and write indignant letters to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about it.

The French word which we borrowed back in the 1600s derived from harer ‘set a dog on’, which in turn came from a Germanic word hare, a cry urging a dog to attack. 

I would say that an etymological connection between sexual predators and dogs is appropriate.

Except that it's an insult to dogs.

Looking for an entertaining speaker? Here are some of my topics:
Why is English so wacky?
A fun-filled and light-hearted but informative look at the weirdness of the English language and how it got to be the way it is. Includes things you never suspected about husbands, ptarmigan, porcelain, and much more. Laughs guaranteed...even when you find out why "guarantee" has such an odd spelling.

Bachelor for Rent: Things You Never Suspected About Canadian English”
A hilarious look at what is distinctive about Canadians and their language
English Schminglish: How Jews have Enriched our Language
An entertaining look at how Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched the English language for thousands of years

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.