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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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Out, damned apostrophe!

 

 There has been a mini-flutter among some of my facebook friends who seem to feel for some reason that it is important to write "Hallowe'en" rather than "Halloween". 

Halloween has been written without an apostrophe since at least 1773, according to the OED, and among the people using that spelling were Robbie Burns and Queen Victoria. There is no more reason to spell it with an apostrophe than there is to write "fan'cy" (contracted from "fantasy"), "gam'ut" (contracted from "gamma ut"), "lau'nder" (contracted from "lavender"), or "goodb'ye" (contracted from "God be with ye"). I think you can let it go!
For more on why the apostrophe is doomed, visit this post.
For more on the pronunciation of "Halloween", see this post.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Not to be confused with politebeckia


My newspaper, ever a rich source of spelling mistakes, today had an article about a flower the writer called a "rudebeckia". That would be "rudbeckia", named after a Swedish botanist, Olaf Rudbeck, the botanical name for the plant more commonly called a "black-eyed Susan".

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's a cutthroat world out there

Just saw the following in a job posting:

"This will include working closely with the Marketing Department on marketing and signage deliverables, and the Production Department on artist involvement and some execution deliverables, and with other Sponsorship team members on sales and activation planning."

Execution deliverables, eh? Sounds more like they're hiring for the mob than for an arts organization!

Spelling mistakes: Piqued by peeking at a peak

An extraordinarily common spelling mistake is "sneak peak". Since a peak is a mountain, it would be pretty difficult to sneak one anywhere. What people mean is "sneak peek". I know they are being influenced by the -ea- in "sneak" (and truly English spelling is sadistic in cases like this), but that's no excuse. Whenever you find yourself using this phrase, STOP! and think about the spelling.

What is the difference between peak, peek, and pique?

A mountain or something that looks like one (whipped egg whites, for instance) or a metaphorical high point is a peak. It can also be used as an adjective, as in "peak condition", and a verb, as in "athletes train to peak for the Olympic Games".

A quick look is a peek. This can also be used as a verb, as in "he peeked around the corner". If you have a hard time remembering that it's spelled with a double e, think of other words that have to do with seeing things: see, seek, peer, even leer if that helps (hey, whatever it takes...)

If you're angry or resentful, you're having a fit of pique. If something makes you interested, it piques your interest. This is a fairly old word in English, coming from Middle French pique a quarrel, resentment, which in turn came from piquer to prick, pierce, sting.

It is apparently quite common for people to misspell "pique" too, writing "it peaked my interest", possibly thinking that the phrase means "bring one's interest to a high point". But it doesn't mean that. Perhaps thinking of the etymologically related word "piquant" will help. Food that is piquant stimulates your appetite for more, just as something that piques your interest makes you want more.

So if taking a quick look at a mountain makes you want to know more, you could say your curiosity was piqued by peeking at a peak!

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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Happy....Holloween?



Why do some people pronounce the first part of "Halloween" like the word "hollow"?

In Old English, the word we know today as "holy" was halig, pronounced HALLY. In the Middle Ages, the pronunciation started to shift from HALLY to HOLLY. We see this phenomenon in the word "holiday" (literally a "holy day"), where the original Old English pronunciation survives in the family name "Halliday", originally given to people born on a holy day. 

Subsequently HOLLY shifted even further to HOLEY. But in the word "hallow" (originally meaning "saint"), the final shift to HOLE never happened, leaving us with the two older pronunciations: HALLOW and HOLLOW.

The great pumpkin

“Pumpkin” started out in ancient Greek as pepon (a large melon). Migrating through Latin and French, it ended up in English as "pumpion". Squashes are related to melons, and English settlers used the word to designate the big orange squash they found in America, adding the suffix “-kin”. The change is a bit mysterious, because this suffix usually implies something small. The very first recorded usage refers intriguingly to someone's “pumpkin-blasted brains”, while the second, from 1648, is about someone being sued for letting his pigs destroy his neighbours' pumpkin vines. Pumpkins and lawsuits: pillars of American culture.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Don't make this common spelling mistake

Today I saw this surprising spelling mistake in the newspaper:
"Research shows owners who spoil their pets do not complain about behaviour problems more than ridged ones".
After puzzling a bit over what kind of a ridge the pet owners might have, I realized that the writer meant "rigid".
This made me think about a much more common spelling mistake; "priviledge(d)" for "privilege(d)".
How can you remember not to put a "d" in these words?
They both come from French, so if you remember that the consonant combo "dg" does not exist in French, that may help you. But only, of course, if you know French!
"Rigid" comes from the same Latin word meaning "be stiff" that gave us "rigor" (as in "rigor mortis") and "rigour" (strictness), and as you see, they have no "d". Perhaps a good mnemonic for "rigid" would be "oil rigs are rigid" -- we certainly hope they are!
"Privilege" comes from two Latin words: privus (private) and legis (law). A privilege is a "private law" -- one that applies to an individual only. Legis also turns up in "legislature" and "legislation" etc., which may help you, but only if you don't also spell those words with a "d"!
Personally, whenever I go to my ballet class or ride my bicycle or go for a walk, I think how privileged I am to have legs; I certainly never think it a privilege to have ledges!


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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Friday, October 22, 2010

Vote for Mr. Big(ger)

The race is down to the wire for candidates for mayor in the Ontario municipal elections. The word is derived from the Latin word for “bigger”: maior. (“Big” was magnus and “biggest” was maximus – all in all, a pretty irregular adjective!) This same word has also given us the word “major”. In ancient Rome, people standing for office wore a white toga (try not to think of how the current batch would look). The Latin word for “white” was candidus, and candidatus meant “dressed in white”; this is why we call them candidates.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Caius pronounced Keys

Visitors to Cambridge, England are often flummoxed to discover that the college called Gonville and Caius is pronounced "Gonville and Keys". The explanation (from the college's website):
After a period of some decline, the College was refounded and extended in 1557 by former student and Fellow, Dr John Caius. Dr Caius had been living in Padua in Italy, where he studied and practiced medicine and made a fortune. Whilst in Italy, he Latinised the spelling of his original surname Keys, to Caius (although it has always been pronounced "keys"). His most visible legacy to the College remains the very beautiful Caius Court and the College's three famous gates.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Days of the Week

Tuesday's child is full of grace. I was born on a Tuesday. Despite years of ballet classes, my experience does not bear this maxim out!
Perhaps because, etymologically speaking, Tuesday is the day, not of the Muse Terpsichore, but of the war god.

Unlike the month and the year, which were based on the cycles of the moon and the sun, the seven-day week was not based on any natural or astronomical phenomenon. It was devised by the Sumerians and Babylonians, and borrowed from them by the ancient Jews, who adapted it to the Biblical account of Creation, in which God laboured for six days and rested on the seventh. For the Jews, the day of rest was (and still is) what we call Saturday, and the following days were called simply "first day, second day," and so on. The early Christians moved the Sabbath to Sunday, in honour of the resurrection, but they maintained the ordinal numbering for the remaining days of the week, so Monday was "second day", Tuesday was "third day" and so on. Remarkably, this system survives in modern Portuguese, where Monday is segunda-feira, Wednesday terca-feira, and so on. Lithuanian and Latvian also name the days of the week with ordinal numbers.

But the spread of Christianity throughout Europe coincided with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The Romans named the days of the week after the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets that they knew at the time: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter (also called Jove), Venus, and Saturn, a habit that they borrowed from either the Egyptians or the
Babylonians. So what we know as "Tuesday" was "Mars Day". The long-term impact of the Roman Empire is still felt to this day throughout western Europe, where almost all the languages (except Portuguese as we have seen) retain these non-Christian names for the days of the week in some form. So the Roman "Mars Day" became the French "mardi".

The Romans were in Britain for 400 years, and their names for the days imposed themselves on the inhabitants (who didn't seem to have days of the week, or even seven-day weeks, at the time). Indeed, to this day the Welsh – the descendants of the people living in Britain when the Romans were there – have names for the days which reflect Latin origins, Sunday being dydd Sull, Monday being dydd Llun, Tuesday being dydd Mawrth, and so on.

But after the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons arrived from northern Germany. They and other Germanic peoples had encountered the Roman names for the days, and they translated them using the names of their Norse gods who were equivalent to the Roman gods after whom the planets were named. The closest Norse equivalent to the Roman god
Mars, the god of war, was the Norse warrior god Tiw, so Mars Day became Tiw's Day. The Norse equivalent of the trickster god Mercury, who also accompanied the dead to Hades, was Odin, or in Anglo-Saxon, Woden, so Mercury's Day became Wodnesday, our Wednesday. Like the Roman Jove, the Norse god Thor was in charge of thunder, so Jove's Day became Thor's Day. Venus was equated with the Norse goddess Frija, so
Venus's day became Frija's day. Saturn was not equated with any Norse gods, and this is why Saturday still bears its Roman name.

In Scandinavian languages, Saturday is lordag, literally "wash day" or "bath day". Maybe we should name our days like this: Friday = party day, Thursday = church choir practice day, etc. For me, Tuesday would be "Ballet class day" - still working on that "full of grace" thing!

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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Friday, October 15, 2010

Use your head: eat cabbage

Cabbage – the ornamental kind in our gardens or the edible kind on our plates – is a sign that fall is upon us. Medieval English-speakers called it “cole” or, in the North of England, “kale”, since restricted to a particular curly-leaved type. But the ruling Norman French and their cooks used for this bulbous brassica a slang word for “head”: caboche, derived from the Latin caput (head). As French words were more prestigious, it won out, but “cole” can still be seen in “coleslaw” derived from the kool-salade (literally “cabbage salad”) brought by 17th-century Dutch immigrants to America.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Remember "post offices" and "mailboxes"?

I just finished using Canada Post's online tool to ship a parcel. I was expecting that once I printed out the shipping label I would be told to drop my parcel in the nearest mailbox. But no. Apparently I have to take it to a "Canada Post induction site". Really, that just means a post office or mailbox. But maybe my parcel will have to learn a secret handshake...

Friday, October 8, 2010

A real turkey



Turkeys don't come from Turkey. Why are they called that? In the 1500s, a West African bird with wattles and a featherless neck and head was imported into Europe via North Africa, which, being part of the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire, was thought of as Turkey. Thus the bird was called a “turkey cock”. When English settlers first saw a tasty but unrelated native American bird which had the same features, they called it a “turkey cock” as well.

And the original turkey cock? We now call it a “guineafowl”, as Guinea was formerly the name for West Africa.
 

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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Friday, October 1, 2010

Word of the week: quarry

Moose, deer, bear – for those gearing up for the hunting season, they can all be summed up by one word: quarry. After medieval hunters had killed their deer, they would place its heart and liver on a piece of its hide and let the dogs eat it as a reward (I hope you're not eating breakfast as you read this). The French word for an animal's hide was cuirĂ©e, which in turn came from the Latin word corium (skin). In English this became “quarry”, which, by the 1600s, came to designate the whole animal – or anything else – being pursued.
This has nothing to do with the stone quarry, which comes ultimately from the Latin quadrum (square) since stone is cut into square pieces.

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.