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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, 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:

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Dictionary leaves out thousands of words!

Shock horror. The Oxford Junior Dictionary does not include the following words:
acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and pasture
This piece of news was the object of much indignation before Christmas as trigger-happy fingers clicked on a petition demanding their reinstatement.  Apparently their omission is contributing to species decline and childhood obesity (I'm not making that up, it was in the petition). Such luminaries as Margaret Atwood have complained about this failing in the dictionary, so clearly something needs to be done.

My eyes couldn't have rolled any more. 

I've got news for you. There are TENS OF THOUSANDS of words that the Oxford Junior Dictionary doesn't include.  It's a SMALL dictionary. Perhaps all those petitioners should have had a look at it before they got so righteously indignant. 

Here's a picture of one page (8x6"):

Some space-gobbling features to notice (all of them designed to be child-friendly):
  • the typeface is very large
  • parts of speech are written out in full 
  • plurals of every noun are given, written out in full (not, for instance as -s), and introduced by the word "plural", also written out in full
  • all verbs are conjugated and written out in full
  • a full blank line between one entry and the next
  • when a word has more than one part of speech (e.g. heat, noun and verb) each part of speech has its own entry instead of the two being run together
  • within each entry, each definition starts on a new line
  • the definitions are very chatty, and often include example sentences
  • very handy homophone-disambiguation boxes  (hear/here, heal/heel)
As a result, there are by my estimate only about 5,000 words in this dictionary (compared to about 120,000 in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary). Tell me now, which 5,000 words would YOU put in a dictionary for 7-9-year-olds? Go on, I dare you. I double-dare you. 

Do you really think "cowslip" should be one of them? What will you have to get rid of to make space for "newt"? Which one of those words in the page depicted above are you ready to axe in favour of "adder"? Do you really think that "beech" is one of the top 10 trees?  Speaking of which, where will you stop with the trees? Here's a short list of trees:


If you want to add "ash" and "beech", aren't all the others also deserving to be in? And you're not even out of the trees yet. Now holier-than-thou complainants want you to include all the flowers, birds, and animals as well. Not to mention that some other complainants also took against this dictionary because it didn't include "bishop" and other church-related words.  C'mon everyone, jump on your particular hobbyhorse and complain to the dictionary that your words aren't in!

Bear in mind that this is in a day and age when people aren't willing to spend any money on dictionaries. Lexicographers are hyper-conscious about producing dictionaries at a price that people are willing to pay. They can't just keep making the dictionary bigger to include everyone's favourite tree, flower, and amphibian. This one cost me $17.95+5% tax (yes, I actually BOUGHT it to have a look at it before I started making pronouncements about it). I recall when I worked in dictionaries, people thought $9.95 was about right for a dictionary. They would buy the Compact Oxford Canadian Dictionary, a small paperback at that price that we lexicographers called "The El Cheapo Oxford Canadian Dictionary" -- and then write to complain that there were words we had excluded! 

By the way, did you notice that the headwords are in blue in the Oxford Junior, to make them stand out better from the rest of the text and make it easier for the kids, who are just learning to use dictionaries? That costs more money too. I'm sure the lexicographers would have liked to add illustrations to the Oxford Junior but.... there goes more space... and more money. I can't imagine what people's reaction would be to a $25 price for a 280-page book. Well, actually I can.

When Margaret Atwood lets lexicographers tell her how to write novels, then she can start telling lexicographers how to write dictionaries.

Please don't sign this nonsensical petition.

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! 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:
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Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy 50th birthday to... these words

Some words turning (at least) 50 in 2018. A trip back in time to the late 1960s. Trudeaumania and uppers. Reggae, rip-offs, and rumpy-pumpy.  Some of these are older than you probably think, and some younger.

 As with all words, they may well have existed a little earlier than the OED could find earliest evidence for them.

aerobics, n.

Etymology: < aerobic adj.: see -ic suffix 2.
orig. U.S.

  With sing. or pl. concord. Physical exercise, typically of relatively low intensity and long duration, that increases the body's oxygen consumption in a sustainable manner and is aimed at improving cardiovascular fitness; any method of training involving such exercise, esp. vigorous callisthenics performed to music.

1968   K. H. Cooper Aerobics iii. 40   After five hours of that [sc. golf] you've walked well past the point where anaerobics leave off and aerobics begin.

alarmed, adj.2

Etymology: < alarm n. + -ed suffix2. Compare later alarm v. 8.

  Fitted or protected with an alarm or alarms, esp. a burglar alarm. Chiefly in predicative use.

1968   N.Y. Mag. 14 Oct. 46   Door is Alarmed.

cellulite, n.

Etymology: < French cellulite (1949 or earlier in this sense), transferred use (now only in non-technical language) of cellulite inflammation of cellular connective tissue (1833 or earlier) < cellule cellule n. + -ite -itis suffix. The fat deposits were so called because they were at one time supposed to be caused by inflammation of cellular connective tissue. Compare earlier cellulitis n.
Compare earlier occurrence of the French word in an English context:
1955   C. I. Gavin Liberated France i. 51   Women were plagued by a complaint shown by a puffy softness under the skin and called la cellulite, for which those who could afford it would undergo spa treatment.

  Deposits of subcutaneous fat causing dimpling of the overlying skin.Cellulite is often seen in the thighs of women, and various cosmetic treatments have been devised for its removal or dispersal.

1968   Vogue (U.S. ed.) 15 Apr. 110/2   In Europe treatments for cellulite vary from acupuncture..to sea baths.

cutesy, adj.

Etymology: < cute adj. + -sy suffix2.
colloq. (orig. and chiefly N. Amer.).

  Affectedly cute and clever, twee. Also with fanciful extension,   ˈcutesy-poo adj.

1968   N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 25 Feb. 10   Start with the cutesie title. Pursue the mysteriously jumbled chronology.

Nasdaq, n.

Etymology: Acronym < the initial letters of National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations.
Stock Market.

  In the United States: a computerized system supplying price quotations for over-the-counter securities trading, introduced in 1971. Also: the price index or stock market created by this system. Frequently attrib. in Nasdaq index. Cf. NASD n. at N n. Initialisms 1.

1968   Commerc. Financial Chron. 23 May ii. 13/3   The NASDAQ system will eliminate the necessity of separate requests for market makers quotations.

noogie, n.

Etymology: Origin unknown. Popularized by the U.S. television show Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s.
Chiefly U.S. School slang and College slang.

  In sing. and pl. A hard poke or grind with the knuckles, esp. on a person's head (see also quot. 1986). Frequently in to give a person noogies.J. E. Lighter Hist. Dict. Amer. Slang cites a New York University student in 1972 as saying that a ‘noogie is a kind of a punch or a jab you give someone with your third and middle finger. You do it on the forehead or on the shoulder.’

1968   I. Horovitz Indian wants Bronx 11   Now I'll give you twenty noogies, so we'll be even. (He raps Joey on the R. arm.)

out-of-body, adj.

  Characterized by the sensation that one's consciousness is located outside one's body. Chiefly in out-of-body experience.

1968   S. Smith (title)    Out-of-body experiences for the millions.

Parti Québécois, n.

Etymology: < French Parti Québécois (1968: see quot. 19682) < parti party n. + québécois , québecois Québécois adj.

  A French-Canadian political party which advocates independence or greater autonomy for the province of Quebec.

1968   Winnipeg Free Press 15 Oct. 42/3   The province's new political party, Le Parti Quebecois, is an embryonic coalition rallied around Rene Levesque and his idea of a ‘sovereign Quebec’.

perp, n.2

Etymology: Shortened < perpetrator n.
U.S. slang.

  The perpetrator of a crime.

1968   D. L. Pike Police Rep. 2 May in I. E. Robinson et al. Cases in Crisis (1972) xxxviii. 240   Perp was at back door of Apt 2 when he was shot in right thigh by victim.

power trip, n.


  An activity which confers a sense of power and authority on the person or people involved; the feeling of excitement or empowerment resulting from this. Cf. trip n.1 5c.

1968   Newsweek 8 Jan. 27/1   ‘He's an egocentric guy,’ says one acquaintance. ‘He's on a constant power trip.’

pulsar, n.

Etymology: < puls- (in pulsating adj.) + -ar (in star n.1), after quasar n.; compare -ar suffix4 (see quot. 1968 at sense 1). Compare pulsator n. 4.

 1. Astron. A celestial object which emits regular and rapid pulses of radiation, typically at radio frequencies but sometimes at X-ray or gamma frequencies, and is now recognized as a rapidly rotating neutron star.In quot. 1973 fig.

1968   A. Michaelis in Daily Tel. 5 Mar. 21/3   An entirely novel kind of star..came to light on Aug. 6 last year and..was referred to by astronomers as LGM (Little Green Men). Now..it is thought to be a novel type between a white dwarf and a neutron [sic]. The name Pulsar (Pulsating Star) is likely to be given to it... Dr. A. Hewish..told me yesterday: ‘..I am sure that today every radio telescope is looking at the Pulsars.’

reggae, n.

Etymology: Origin unknown. Perhaps related to Jamaican English rege-rege in the sense ‘rags, ragged clothing’ (see F. G. Cassidy & R. B. Le Page Dict. Jamaican Eng. (1967) 380/1, and compare note below); a connection with this word in its other sense ‘quarrel, row’ is perhaps also possible. Compare also ragga n., ragamuffin n. 4. Compare later reggaeton n.
For an explanation of the term given by the musician Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert (leader of the band Toots and the Maytals, who recorded the song cited in quot. 19681), see:
2004   Independent (Electronic ed.) 4 June 18   Hibbert says his naming of the genre on the 1968 single ‘Do The Reggay’ was pure accident. “There's a word we used to use in Jamaica called ‘streggae’,” he recalls. “If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say ‘Man, she's streggae’ it means she don't dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, ‘OK man, let's do the reggay.’ It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing ‘Do the reggay, do the reggay’ and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound its name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things.”
orig. Jamaican.

 1. A dance characterized by bent knees and swaying improvised movements of the upper body, originally performed to the shuffling, syncopated rhythm typical of the earliest reggae music (see sense 2). Cf. rocksteady n. 2.

1968   T. Hibbert Do Reggay (song, perf. The Maytals)   I want to do the reggay with you, Come on to me, do the dance, Is this the new dance going round the town? We can move you baby, Do the reggay, do the reggay.

ribbit, int. (and n.)

Etymology: Imitative.
O.E.D. Additions I. (1993) notes that David Carroll, the programme manager of the television programme cited in quot. c1968, stated in a letter of 1986: ‘I am some seventy-two years old, and I recollect hearing the expression as a child.’ Other sources associate early uses of the term with ‘Mel’ Blanc (1908–89, U.S. voice actor and comedian), but conclusive evidence has not been found.
orig. N. Amer.

  Representing the characteristic sound made by a frog, or an imitation of this. Also as n.

c1968   in Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (annotated T.V. script for rebroadcast programme) No. 8. 62   That's right. Ribit! I am. I am a frog.

rip-off, n.

slang (orig. U.S.).

 1. An act of stealing, a theft; (hence) a fraud, a swindle; (more generally) any instance of esp. financial exploitation.Earliest in rip-off artist n. at Compounds 2.

1968   B. W. Gilbert Ten Blocks from White House ix. 146   There were the ‘rip-off artists’ and other systematic looters, who went to a specific store and looked for items to use or sell.

router, n.6

Etymology: < route v. + -er suffix1.
Electronics and Computing.

  A device, circuit, algorithm, etc., which serves to determine the destinations of individual incoming signals; esp. a device which receives data packets and forwards them to the appropriate computer network or part of a network. Cf. gateway n.1 Additions.

1968   Nucl. Physics A. 116 549   A router circuit sent the coincidences from the first unit to be stored in the first 200 channels of the pulse-height analyser and those from the second to the last 200 channels.

rumpy-pumpy, n.

Etymology: Reduplication with variation of the initial consonant and suffixation (compare -y suffix6) of rump n.1 (with the sense compare ass n.2 2).
humorous or euphem. slang (orig. Brit.).

  Sexual intercourse. a bit of rumpy pumpy: a (prospective) sexual partner; a sexual encounter. Cf. bit n.2 4h.

1968   Sc. National Dict. at Rump   Rumpie-pumpie, a jocular term for copulation.

scuzzy, adj.

Etymology: Perhaps blend of scummy adj. + fuzzy adj.
N. Amer. colloq.

  Dirty, grimy; murky.

1969   Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc. li. 16   Scuzzy, groady, skoady, and grungy should probably be listed also under ‘Blends’... Scuzzy, for example, seems to imply fuzzy and scummy: ‘Your teeth are scuzzy.’

Special Olympics, n.

Etymology: < special adj. + the plural of Olympic n. Compare Paralympic n.

  With the. An athletic competition, modelled on the Olympic Games, for athletes with mental disabilities. First held in 1968 (originally called the Chicago Special Olympics) and now recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the Special Olympics include international competitions held at two-yearly intervals as well as competitions on local and national levels.

1968   Chicago Tribune 30 Mar. ii. 11/5   The Chicago park district..will co-sponsor special athletic events for mentally retarded children in a Chicago Special Olympics July 20 in Soldier Field.

T-bone, v.

colloq. (orig. and chiefly N. Amer.).

  trans. Of a motor vehicle or its driver: to crash head-on into the side of (another vehicle). Frequently in pass.Earliest in to T-bone it: to be involved in a collision in which the front of one vehicle hits the side of the other vehicle.

1968   Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Jrnl. 9 May c5/1   Two oncoming cars T-boned it for a total wipeout.

telemedicine, n.

Etymology: < tele- comb. form + medicine n.1
Compare French télé-médecine (1969 or earlier).

  Medicine practised with the assistance of telecommunications technology, often to provide care in remote locations or to reduce the need for hospital visits.

1968   Boston (Mass.) Sunday Globe Globe Mag. 9/1   While he [sc. Dr. K. T. Bird] strongly feels the field of tele-medicine is just beginning, even in its present state telediagnosis offers an important extension of the eyes and ears of the doctor.

touchy-feely, adj.

Origin: Formed within English, by derivation. Etymons: touch v., -y suffix1, feel v.
Etymology: < touch v. + -y suffix1 + feel v. + -y suffix1.
Compare later touchy adj. 6.
colloq. (orig. U.S.).

 1. Given to the open expression of affection or other emotions, esp. through hugging or other physical contact; characterized by this kind of open expression.Often implying a degree of disapproval or distaste on the part of the speaker or writer.

1968   N.Y. Times 20 Aug. 25/7   They have been dubbed the ‘touchy-feely’ groups, since their training involves touching and holding hands.

Trudeaumania, n.

Etymology: < the name of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919–2000), former Prime Minister of Canada + -mania comb. form.

  Enthusiastic or exaggerated admiration for Trudeau.

1968   Listener 4 July 5/1   With the phenomenal climb to power of Mr Trudeau a tremendous cult has developed among younger Canadians. It's known as Trudeaumania or Trudolatry.

upper, n.2

Etymology: < up v. + -er suffix1; compare up adj. 5.
slang (orig. U.S.).

 1. A drug (esp. an amphetamine), often in the form of a pill, which has a stimulant or euphoric effect.

1968   Current Slang (Univ. S. Dakota) 3 ii. 50   Upper, type of drug that makes you feel active. Amphetamine is a commonly used stimulant of this kind.

word processor, n.

Etymology: < word n. + processor n. Compare slightly earlier word processing n.

  Originally: a computer system used to produce, edit, and store text entered by means of a keyboard, equipped with a printer and frequently with a screen to display text. In later use chiefly: a computer program used to perform these functions.

1968   Office Oct. 70/1   Dura, Div. Intercontinental systems, Inc., 2600 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, Calif. 94306, introduces the Model 941 Word Processor designed for computerless text editing.

YOLO, int. and adj.

Etymology: Acronym < the initial letters of you only live once at live v.1 Phrases 19.
In recent use perhaps popularized by its use in the lyrics of the song The Motto, released in 2011 by the Canadian rapper Drake.
 A. int.

  ‘You only live once’; used to express the view that one should make the most of the present moment without worrying about the future (often as a rationale for impulsive or reckless behaviour).

1968   Florida Today (Cocoa, Florida) 30 June 42   Naming the vessels..is a chore that delights some owners. One fad is acronyms... Yolo is short for ‘You Only Live Once’.

za, n.

Etymology: Abbreviation of pizza n.
U.S. slang.

  = pizza n.

1968–70   Current Slang (Univ. S. Dakota) III–IV. 140   Za.., pizza.

911, n.

Etymology: < nine n. + one n. + one n. Usually written with numerical symbol.
N. Amer.

 1. In the United States and Canada: a telephone number used to contact the emergency services; the service provided when this number is dialled. Frequently attrib. Cf. 999 n.

1968   N.Y. Times 13 Jan. 62/2   A plan to establish a national emergency telephone number—911—with which police, fire and ambulance services could be summoned from any telephone in the United States was announced yesterday by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! 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:

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Photo credit: David Clode on Unsplash

Sunday, December 17, 2017

#ScienceNotSilence: Vulnerable

"Vulnerable" is one of the words that the US administration has reportedly told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention they may no longer use in budget reports.

It's an odd word, when you look at it. What can it literally mean? "Able to be vulnered"? It is in fact a 16th-century borrowing from Latin vulnerābilis wounding, from vulnerāre to wound. 

One of those many "inkhorn terms" we borrowed from Latin at the time, "vulnerable" did originally mean "able to wound", but very quickly it took on a passive sense, "able to be wounded". At first, this was literal, as in this quotation from Macbeth:
a1616   Shakespeare Macbeth (1623) v. x. 11   Let fall thy blade on vulnerable Crests, I beare a charmed Life. 
But very soon it came to be used figuratively:

b. fig. Open to attack or injury of a non-physical nature; esp., offering an opening to the attacks of raillery, criticism, calumny, etc.

1678   R. Cudworth The true intellectual system of the universe: the first part We had further Observed it, to have been the Method of our Modern Atheists, to make their First Assault against Christianity, as thinking that to be the most Vulnerable.
The most recent usage started in sociology in the 1940s. Consider the second quotation and contemplate how much wisdom is to be found in the quotations of the Oxford English Dictionary!
Designating a person in need of special care, support, or protection (esp. provided as a social service) because of age, disability, risk of abuse or neglect, etc.
1947  Journal of Educational Sociology  20 261   We have cited above the more dramatic ways in which children are hurt and neglected by their communities and their families. These are the ‘vulnerable’ children, those who need extra care, extra protection, and a background of careful planning for them.
1963  The Times Literary Supplement 15 Feb. 112/3   The care of vulnerable groups is one indication of a country's degree of civilization...
The other words reportedly banned are

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! 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:

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

How do you pronounce CLAMBER?

Hey Ma! I clamb the tree!!

Kittens love to clamber up trees (...and curtains). 

But... do they "CLAMburr" or do they "CLAMMER"?

First of all, let us look at the word from which "clamber" derives: "climb". Although the b was pronounced back in Anglo-Saxon times, it started being dropped by the time of the Norman Conquest, and by the 1500s it had become silent. As a result, we even sensibly spelled the word "clime" for about two centuries. But, as usual with English spelling, less sensible heads prevailed, we reinstated the silent b, and we ended up with our modern spelling.

When the past tense of "climb" was "clamb"

"Climb" has not always been the regular verb it is today: 
present: climb
simple past: climbed
past participle: has climbed
Instead, from the earliest times, the past tense was 
clamb, clumb, or clomb

and the past participle
  clumb or clomb

For some people, these forms survived into the 1800s, and according to the OED, in Scottish English this verb is to this day conjugated
 clim, clam, clum
I love it!

Starting in about 1300, though, a new regular past tense and past participle, "clim(b)ed", crept into the language, and was pretty well established by the Renaissance.

How "clamb" gave us "clamber"

But that old irregular past tense "clam(b)" is at the origin of "clamber", a word which cropped up in the 1400s.  By that time, the b was not being pronounced in "climb" (or the past tense "clamb"), so neither was it pronounced in "clamber",  which was in fact more likely to be spelled "clammer" well into the 17th century. 

But just as "climb" got its b back, so too "clamber" acquired a b in its spelling. But unlike "climb", "clamber" also acquired a b in the pronunciation, probably because almost all other English words ending in -mber have a pronounced b

Why some North Americans say CLAMMER

This introduction of a b into the pronunciation, however, happened after English colonists took the CLAMMER pronunciation with them to America. In North America, this older, b-less pronunciation of "clamber" survived. This survival of older vocabulary and pronunciation on this side of the pond frequently explains differences between North American and British English.

All the same, according to a survey I did, CLAMMER, though still healthy, especially in the US, is much less common than the b-full pronunciation. Here are the results:

US: CLAMburr: 113  CLAMMER: 46
Canada:  CLAMburr: 83  CLAMMER: 12

No one outside North America said CLAMMER. 

As you can see, although CLAMMER is the minority pronunciation in both countries, CLAMMER is more common in the US than in Canada.  For all that, a Montrealer told me she had never heard anyone saying CLAMburr. (Meanwhile a Vancouverite told me she had never heard CLAMMER!) 

All this has nothing to do with "clamour/clamor", which is a completely different word, borrowed from French in the 1400s and ultimately from Latin clāmōr (a call, shout, cry). As should be evident from the explanation above, people who pronounce "clamber" as a homophone of "clamour" are not simply confusing these very semantically different words. And those who suggest that it's wrong to pronounce it CLAMMER because then it and "clamour" would be homophones are simply ignoring the literally hundreds of homophones we have in English which rarely present an obstacle to understanding (great for punning, though).

When I worked on the entry for "clamber" in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a colleague and I were each convinced that the other's pronunciation was WRONG. Or at the very least RIDICULOUS. I said CLAMburr, he said CLAMMER. Both pronunciations ended up in the dictionary, and he and I still talk to one another. (But CLAMburr is listed first, ha!) 

All the same, one of the things you learn (or should learn) when working on a dictionary is that you have to be humble about variants other than your own (and that in fact you might not have even known about previously).  Because CLAMMER is the minority variant, some of my poll respondents who used it apologized for doing so, accusing themselves of "lazy" speech. Others who didn't use it dismissed it out of hand as "a mistake". But as you can see from the above, there are usually legitimate historical reasons for variants such as these. Just look at the fascinating facts about the English language you can unearth if your reaction is "I wonder WHY?" rather than "Well, that's just WRONG because I don't say it that way".

How do YOU pronounce "clamber" (and what variety of English do you speak)?

For the silent b in lamb, click here:

For the silent b in crumb, click here

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! 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:

Photo credit: Koen Eijkelenboom 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.