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!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

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 √¶metteg. 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

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A fun noun-verb/verb-noun conversion quiz

MacMillan Dictionaries has created this fun quiz on my favourite subject, functional shifts, better known as "Is it OK to use a noun as a verb or a verb as a noun?" The answer is YES, by the way. You can read my thoughts about it here:
For many other examples that I've written about, you can click on the "nouns as verbs" tag.

Here's the quiz:

I don't think the point of the quiz is to see how many you get "right", actually. I think it is to show how very embedded these conversions have become in English, so we no longer have any notion that "Well, that's really a NOUN; it shouldn't be used as a verb". Or vice versa.

Oh, and by the way, if you're tempted to quote Calvin and Hobbes "Verbing weirds language" as someone always does when this topic comes up, please don't. Verbing enriches the language, and it's perfectly normal. Not weird at all. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hebrew and Yiddish Words Talk in Ottawa

"English Schminglish: Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English" with Katherine Barber

Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched the English language for much longer than you may think, and continue to do so. From messiah to maven, sabbath to schnook, English wouldn’t be the same without its Jewish heritage. Whether you are familiar with Hebrew and Yiddish or not, this fun lecture will open your ears to an important source of English vocabulary.
Lecture, discussion, and visual presentation 
  • Day: Thursday, May 24th, 2018
  • Time: 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
  • Location: Room 124, Leeds House Building, Carleton University, Ottawa
  • Fee: $30.00 (HST included)
  • Enrollment capacity: 55 participants
Carleton University parking passes are available for purchase at the time of registration. The parking pass fees (including HST) are $6.00 for each one time evening lecture held on campus.

Registration begins on Tuesday, January 30th, at 9:00 a.m.

Online registration form will be available on Tuesday, January 30th at 9:00 a.m., and can be accessed using the following link: carleton.ca/linr/online-registration/. You can also send your registration via e-mail or leave a telephone message at or after 9:00 a.m. Please note that any registrations received prior to 9:00 a.m. on January 30th will not be considered.
Additional registration details can be found on the website: carleton.ca/linr/registration/.

Friday, January 12, 2018

I'm fed up

It's hard to imagine life without  the phrase "fed up", isn't it?

So I was quite surprised to learn that is only a bit more than a hundred years old. 

According to the OED, it originated in military slang:
  fed up adj. colloq. (orig. Mil.) having had enough of a person or situation; annoyed, unhappy, or bored, esp. with a state of affairs that has persisted for a long time; also in intensifying phrases, as fed up to the back teeth
[1879   F. Arnold in London Society June 567/2   He himself essentially belongs to ‘the sty of Epicurus’... Fed up to the eyelids himself, it is no care to him that there are other people all otherwise than so well off.]
1900   B. Burleigh in Daily Tel. 20 Oct. 7/1   'Oh, I'm about fed up with it', is the current slang of the camps when officers and men speak of the war.
1914   Evening News 19 Sept. 4/1   We have also seen hundreds of German prisoners, mostly looking ‘fed up’.
1919   C. Dawson Test of Scarlet iii. iv. 208   The infantry are fed up to the back-teeth with the way in which the guns have failed to keep in touch with them.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Of Charlatans, Mountebanks, and Cheap Jacks

This time last year, Wordlady investigated the word "toxin" and had a few choice words to say about "various charlatans seeking to separate us from our money by convincing us that our bodies are chock-full of 'toxins' that we need to 'cleanse'."

This got me wondering about the word "charlatan".  I am so happy it did, because I was led to the Oxford English Dictionary's delightfully Victorian entry for this word:
A mountebank or Cheap Jack who descants volubly to a crowd in the street; esp. an itinerant vendor of medicines who thus puffs his ‘science’ and drugs.
The etymology section of the entry is even more entertaining:
< French charlatan ‘a mountebanke, a cousening drug-seller, a pratling quack-salver, a tatler, babler’ (Cotgrave) [a French-English dictionary published in 1611],
< Italian ciarlatano = ciarlatore babbler, patterer, mountebank, < ciarlare to babble, patter, act the mountebank, < ciarla, chat, prattle

The entry does have this note: 

This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1889).

Who'da guessed?  Wouldn't every 21st-century lexicographer use "mountebank" and "Cheap Jack" as defining terms? (Fear not, the OED lexicographers will get around to revising this in the fullness of time.)

Of course, the meaning of "charlatan" has since broadened to include

An assuming empty pretender to knowledge or skill; a pretentious impostor.

No shortage of THEM around at the moment.

What about "mountebank"?
An itinerant charlatan who sold supposed medicines and remedies, frequently using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers. Later also (more generally): an itinerant entertainer. Now chiefly hist.
Etymology: < Italian montambanco, montimbanco (late 17th cent.), contracted form of monta in banco (1598 in Florio [an Italian-English dictionary), lit. ‘mount on bench’, with reference to the raised platform used by itinerant salesmen

I don't know what it says about Italy that both of these words originated there.

"Cheap Jack" seems to have originated in mid-19th- century Britain and gone through a vogue for about 75 years, but has been petering away more recently.

Here's wishing you robust good health in 2018 so that you can avoid all "pratling quack-salvers"! 

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again starting January 17! You can sign up for the whole 8-week course or just drop in for the lecture(s) of your choice (so long as you book in advance). More info here:

About Me

My photo
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.