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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Monday, July 6, 2015

All is well in my cosmos

As is always the case at Chateau Wordlady at this time of year, all is well in my cosmos.

That is, the part of my cosmos represented by my patch of boulevard, which has exploded into a mass of feathery foliage and pink petals. Butterflies flit about in the flowers, and the cats lurk in the mini-jungle created by the stems, occasionally imitating the action of the tiger to hiss at passing dogs from the safety of their cat-cave.

Yes, my cosmos (these ones)
Wild Cosmos Seeds - Sensation Mix - Ounce
have come into bloom.

But why are these jolly flowers called by the same name as the universe? 

In ancient Greek, kosmos meant "order, ornament". The philosopher Pythagoras applied this word to the world and universe to reflect the perfect order and arrangement he perceived in them. The flower, being native to the tropics of the New World, was not discovered by English speakers till the late 1700s, and was baptized "cosmos" by a botanist to reflect its elegant ornamental appearance. 

As with "lilac",  there's a pronunciation issue with this word, whether it designates the universe or the flower.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it is pronounced KOZZ moss.
American dictionaries say KOZZ m'ss is the most common pronunciation, followed by  KOZZ moass and KOZZ moss
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says KOZZ moass first (and that's NOT just because its editor-in-chief says it that way!), followed by KOZZ m'ss, and does not even mention KOZZ moss. 

What do you say? Do you pronounce it the same for the universe as for the flower?

I always feel a bit of a cheat when passers-by say "I LOVE your garden", since I do NOTHING but watch the cosmos come up each year from the seeds they have shed the year before (and then toss the deadheads on the ground when they go to seed). Here's Wordlady's gardening tip: if you want a big gardening bang for no bucks and no effort, plant cosmos. (Virginia phlox are also good).

However, not everyone is a fan, apparently. One day when I was out deadheading, a passing pedestrian observed that if she had her way, she would pull out every last ... "cosmo"! Her hatred for the innocent flower was apparently as strong as that innate English aversion to singular nouns ending in "s".



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Friday, June 26, 2015

Eavesdropping about eavestroughs

A Wordlady correspondent has inquired about the word "eavesdrop", which has a quite entertaining history.

The eavesdrop (originally called an eavesdrip) was the area onto which water would run off the eaves, or overhang, of a house's roof. In Anglo-Saxon times, the law required that buildings be situated at least two feet from the property line so that rainwater running off the eaves would not damage the neighbour's yard. With my house in Toronto, the wall of which is 4 inches from the property line, I'd be in big trouble. 

The medieval English must have been an inquisitive lot, because by the 1400s we see reference to "eavesdroppers", i.e. people who lurk about in the eavesdrop so as to listen in on others' conversations. By the 1600s, this had been back-formed to a verb, "eavesdrop".

Now the question is, would that lurking person be standing under the eaves or, more logically, under one eave?

Unfortunately, we can't have a single eave in English. At least not any more. Originally, the Anglo-Saxon word efes WAS a singular noun. It just happened to end in -s (the plural was efesen). But, as we have seen before with skate, cherry, biceps and hero, apparently the English-speaking brain just cannot wrap itself around singulars ending in -s. So "eaves" came to be interpreted as a plural for which there is no corresponding singular.  

Now, here's an eavesdropping situation (related by my correspondent) that could only happen in Canada:
"On the weekend, a friend was telling me about her next-door neighbour eavesdropping on a conversation between my friend and an eavestrough installer, which I thought was a funny "eaves" coincidence."

"Eavestrough" is the word we Canadians use for what other English speakers call a (rain) gutter. It's one of those words that Canadians are usually astounded to learn are unique to us. It seems to be of American origin (below is the earliest Canadian and American evidence I could find of it), but whereas Americans seem to have stopped using it, it is going strong in Canada, and has even produced the derivatives "eavestrougher" and "eavestroughing".

1876 Toronto Globe 22 July p. 8

At about one p.m. to-day, during a thunder storm, one of the lightning rod spires on the house of H. Watson, of Clearville, was struck and melted. A portion of the fluid passed from the conductor and followed the eaves-trough into a rain barrel.

1845 The Farmer's Magazine p. 516
Similar tanks should be made to receive the water from the eavestroughs of all the buildings in the farm-yard.

If any of my non-Canadian readers use "eavestrough", I would be happy to hear about it.




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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mangia-cake and keener hit the OED

In its latest update, the Oxford English Dictionary  has included some Canadian words (thanks to the research done by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary team, which included them in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary seventeen years ago).
Here they are, with the first evidence the OED could find:

depanneur
1975   Winnipeg Free Press 12 May 4/5   There was evidence..that the following Montreal Metro establishments sold minced beef which may have contained tainted meat... Depanneur Laprairie, of Laprairie, Que.
1982   Globe & Mail (Toronto) (Nexis) 7 Sept.   Some bring very expensive wine. Others go to the depanneur (local grocery) and buy inexpensive bottles.
[Personally, I wouldn't consider the 1975 quotation as compelling evidence of the word being used in English]

inukshuk
1922   Youth's Compan. 15 June 342/4   In caribou hunting, nearly all Eskimos who hunt with bow and arrow use inuksuit.
[Bet you didn't know the plural of inukshuk was inuksuit!]
 
mangia-cake
1975   R. F. Harney & H. M. Troper Immigrants 84/2   Italo-Canadians to this day refer to some English Canadians as ‘mangia-cakes’, cake-eaters, to imply the limits of their diets compared to that of the Mediterranean countries.
 
keener
1973   Winnipeg Free Press 21 July 3/4   [When] the two playground supervisors arrive in the morning,..they usually find a number of keeners already working on various projects.
 
stagette

1988   Globe & Mail (Toronto) (Nexis) 21 Mar.   She was in the club with two friends after her niece's stagette party yesterday morning.
 
According to the OED's press release, "The word stagette was first used in U.S. English to refer to a woman attending a social function without a partner, but is now most commonly used in Canada, where it refers to a party given for a woman about to be married (known elsewhere as a bachelorette party or hen night)."

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Friday, June 19, 2015

What the heck is psephology?

In an opening sentence that I certainly wouldn't write in the hope that readers would stay with me for the rest of the article, a former Canadian Prime Minister's Office spokesman committed this on the CBC website:

"In a bid to avoid becoming an afterthought in the wake of Tom Mulcair's psephological onslaught, Justin Trudeau has thrown down a thick tranche of "transformational" measures to make politics more accountable."

Not surprisingly, this immediately caused a spike in lookups of "psephological" on the Merriam-Webster dictionary site.

"Psephological" (pronounced "seffa LOGICAL" or "seefa LOGICAL") means "concerning voting statistics and trends, or the analysis of these." and is derived from "psephology" ("sif OLLA gee" or "see FOLLA gee"), the prediction of electoral results based on analysis of sample polls, voting patterns, etc.

Where does this weird word come from?

In ancient Greek, a psephos was a pebble, and since pebbles were used in casting ballots, the prefix "psepho-" came to apply to voting. In ancient Greece, a "psephism" was a decree enacted by an elected assembly. 

The word "psephology" was coined in 1952.

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This one's got me beaten

I was brought up short by this sentence in a Toronto Star article:
"Kate Cayley has beat out established writers including Margaret Atwood to win the 2015 Trillium Book Award worth $20,000."

"That should be beaten!" I harumphed schoolmarmishly.

But then the thought occurred to me (this rarely happens) that I might be (gasp) WRONG.

It's always a good idea to check some dictionaries before making a pronouncement.  Most dictionaries give only "beaten" as the past participle of "beat", but Merriam-Webster's Collegiate and the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledge the existence of a past participle "beat". OED points out that, although "has beat" has been in use in all of the many senses of this verb since the Middle Ages, it most commonly occurs in the meaning "overcome, defeat, surpass".

Looking at some corpus databases of American English text, I discover that "has beaten" (in all senses) is now about 10 times as common as "has beat", but historically it was only about 5 times as common. So "has beat" may well be on its way out, but it's not quite dead yet. 

The participial "beat" is firmly established in colloquial phrases like "It can't be beat" or "you've got me beat", and in the adjective "beat-up".

What is the past participle of "beat" for you? If you saw a participial "beat", would you automatically "correct" it to "beaten"?  Would you call a dilapidated jalopy a "beat-up old car" or a "beaten-up old car"?



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Friday, June 5, 2015

How do you say "primer"?



A correspondent has inquired about the pronunciation of the word "primer" in the "introductory textbook" sense. 

He noticed that it is often pronounced (or, in his view, mispronounced) "primmer" on the CBC, and feels that this "new" pronunciation is an error introduced by American influence and mindlessly perpetuated by Canadians.

He will no doubt be surprised to learn that nothing could be further from the truth.

"Primmer" is the original pronunciation, and much older than "pry-mer", which seems to date only from the 19th century, likely under the influence of both the spelling, once mass literacy became established, and of the "paint" homonym. There are reasons having to do with the Great Vowel Shift which account for the difference in vowel between "prime" and "primer", but you're probably sick of the GVS by now so I will spare you the details.

As we have seen before with many British/North American differences, older pronunciations and usages brought over here when the first English settlers arrived have often survived on this side of the pond, whereas they have subsequently been corrupted by the British (see this post about herb/erb  and this one about height/heighth, for instance). I use the word "corrupt" in the dispassionate linguistic sense of "change" (but also because I like to provoke people!).

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that both pronunciations are in use on both sides of the Atlantic, though "pry-mer" is more common in Britain and "primmer" in the US. The Canadian Oxford also includes both pronunciations, with "pry-mer" first. But my father, for one, pronounced it "primmer".

"Primer" in this sense has quite an interesting history. It comes from a medieval Latin word primarium (a prayer book for lay people).  These were often used to teach children how to read, and these "primers" soon became so associated with children's learning that the "first reader" connotations took over from the "prayerbook" connotations of the word. Even after prayers were removed altogether, the word "primer" was still applied to elementary reading books.

I don't think we use "primer" anymore for first readers. It sounds very one-room-schoolhouse to me. But I was surprised to see the types of books that are called primers in this day and age:


A Programmer's Guide to Java SE 8 Certification: A Comprehensive Primer
 

Multivariate Statistical Methods: A Primer

Feminist Legal Theory (Second Edition): A Primer

Neuropsychological Evaluation of Medically Unexplained Symptoms: Assessment Primer


In fact, primers nowadays seem still to be introductory textbooks, but usually of very advanced, highly technical subject matter. We've come a long way from

http://www.wppl.org/wphistory/EulalieGrover/TheSunbonnetBabiesPrimerBookCover.jpg 

Would you use the word "primer"? And if so, how would you pronounce it?

 

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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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Thursday, June 4, 2015