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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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Waiter! There's a gun in my salad!









 

















Just reading a newspaper article about edible flowers which has the following flower-prep recommendation: "Remove the stamens and pistols from most flowers". Always good advice! I agree it's not that appetizing to find a gun in your salad, but really what they meant was "pistil".

Pistil is derived from a diminutive of the Latin word pilum (a pestle; one of those small club-shaped implements used to crush things in a bowl).
Above is a picture of a pestle and one of a pistil. You can see how one was named after the other.

Pistol (a handgun) is derived, unusually for English, from Czech. In Czech, the word píst'ala (a whistle, pipe, flute) was apparently first applied during the Hussite wars to a weapon with a barrel and a clear-sounding shot.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Hurtling over hurdles

I just read a posting for a job which required candidates who could "find creative solutions to hurtles that arise". What they meant was "hurdles". These two words are pronounced the same in North American English.

"Hurtle" is a verb meaning "move wildly at a dangerous speed". A car can hurtle down a street. Something can hurtle through the air.

"Hurdle" is first of all a noun, one of those fence-like objects that runners leap over. The word is also used figuratively, as in the sentence in question.

Originally hurdles were portable rectangular frames of woven wicker, used on farms as temporary gates or walls of sheep pens. As is typical with English nouns, a verb developed out of this meaning "jump over a hurdle".

Perhaps a way to remember that hurtle is spelled with a t is that if your car is hurtling down the street you are likely to get hurt.


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Word of the week: Hustling on the hustings

Toronto's mayoral candidates are out on the hustings drumming up support. What are hustings, exactly? And why can you never have only one of them? In Old Norse (the language spoken by the Vikings who invaded England in the 10th century), a husthing (literally “house assembly”) was a type of royal council. Eventually it came to designate a court presided over by the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London, and more specifically the platform on which they sat. Mysteriously, only the plural was used. By the 18th century the hustings were a platform from which candidates were officially announced, and from which they made campaign speeches.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Usage issue: Anniversary

I was reading a grocery flyer this morning (my life is so exciting...) and came across a very common, but redundant, expression: the store was celebrating its "One-year anniversary". Since an anniversary is by definition "the yearly return of a date on which an event took place in a previous year" (Canadian Oxford Dictionary), using the word "year" in connection with "anniversary" is superfluous. "First anniversary" (or "second", "third", etc.) is all that is needed.

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Butterflies and pavilions

Visiting the International Pavilion at the Canadian National Exhibition, which opens today. 
Butterflies. 
Two of the joys of summer. But did you know they’re etymologically related? The Latin word papilio (butterfly) was used in Roman army slang to mean “tent”, possibly because the folded-back flaps of the entrance to a tent looked like a butterfly’s wings. This migrated into Old French and thence into medieval English as pavillon, used for large, stately, highly ornamented round tents on military campaigns or at jousts. The word then came to apply to buildings with temporary uses, providing, for instance, shelter in a park or display space at an exhibition.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Word of the Week: palace

All this month the Horse Palace at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds is hosting a horse show. An equine exhibition hall is a long way from sumptuous residences like Versailles, for which the word “palace” is more commonly used, and even further from the word's origins in ancient Rome. One of Rome's famous seven hills is the Palatine, in ancient times the site of the grandiose imperial residence, the palatium.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A racket of racquets

Thwock. With the opening of the Rogers Cup tennis championship tomorrow, there will be a racket of racquets at York University. The implement used by tennis players got its name from an Arabic word, rahet (the palm of the hand), the ball originally being batted around with the hand. No doubt having one's hands bruised to a pulp quickly lost its charm, so the stringed bat was invented. The other racket, designating a din or uproar, or also a scam, is, alas, of undetermined origin.

Usage issue: Go Missing

Today a correspondent wrote to me about what she considers "poor usage": the phrase "go missing" (which she felt was Canadian).

"Go missing" is not a uniquely Canadian usage; it is also very common in British English (and indeed I suspect originated there). It seems to have taken a while to catch on in American English, however. For this reason objections to it have cropped up in American and some Canadian sources (people often object to new or unfamiliar usages simply because they are new or unfamiliar). Nonetheless, I think it is catching on in the US, as I have heard it used quite naturally on Law and Order and other American TV shows.

We have evidence of it being used for at least the last 50 years, and it is on the same syntactic pattern as "go astray", which has been in the language since the Middle Ages. The specific use of "missing" to mean "unaccounted for, not yet confirmed as alive, dead, or captured" arose in the 19th century. Its use increased greatly with the two world wars of the 20th century,and I suspect that this is why the phrase "go missing" arose during or shortly after the Second World War.

I suspect that "disappear" may have connotations of finality, and vanishing in a puff of smoke, and that is why "go missing" fills a useful purpose when indeed we do not know where someone is, or whether they are alive or dead. I cannot conceive of announcing to concerned relatives that their loved one had "disappeared" in a battle, for instance, and for the same reason in cases of abduction I don't actually think that "disappear" is better than "go missing". For that reason I cannot concur that "go missing" is "poor usage".

In any case, English is a language that has always loved synonymy, so just because "disappear" exists, that doesn't mean we should use it and only 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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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Florist on a bike: a pedalling petal peddler

I was just up at a resort on Georgian Bay where I got some exercise with a pedal boat -- or, as the spelling-challenged resort called it, a peddle boat. Pedal and peddle are two different words. Where feet are involved with pushing a lever (as in a bicycle, or an organ, piano, sewing machine, etc.) the spelling is "pedal". It derives from a Latin word meaning "foot", pes, which became ped- when it combined with a suffix. It also turns up in "pedestrian".

When you're talking about selling something, possibly door-to-door, often drugs, or even more notionally when you are trying to promote an idea, the word and spelling you want is peddle. This seems to be what we call a "back-formation" from the noun "pedlar" (usually spelled "peddler" in North America). Unfortunately we don't know the origin of this word for sure.

For speakers of North American English, there is a third word in this series of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently): petal, the part of a flower (which comes quite boringly from the Latin petalum meaning the same thing).

So, how to keep these straight if you keep mixing them up?

Here are a couple of mnemonics (memory devices) I have thought up. Do let me know if they help!

Pedal (foot thing). Think bicycles (the thing that comes first to most people's minds when they think about pedals). Have a really vivid image in your brain of Albert Einstein riding a bicycle (or if you know someone called Al, you can put him on the bike in your mental image). Slap a T-shirt on Einstein with his name, AL, in big letters on the back. Those of you who like acronyms can try the following Tour de France-inspired one: Practically Every Day Armstrong Leads: P.E.D.A.L.
With either of these mnemonics you associate "-al" with bicycles, and thus with other foot-controlled things.

Peddle (sell). We don't really have old-fashioned peddlers with their vans full of assorted goods anymore. When we use the verb "peddle", we're more likely to be speaking of someone peddling heroin. Who peddles? Drug dealers. Perhaps this alliterative compound with a double D will help you remember that "peddle" is not for bikes, but it is for selling (although it probably won't be an approved mnemonic for use in Ontario schools).

Petal (flower). Think of other flower-related words: stem, plant, leaf, flower, (if you're really into botany or want to show off, you'll know stamen and pistil, anther, calyx and styles as well, but if you can spell them already you're probably not having difficulty with "petal"). Do you see a letter D anywhere? Nope! And in fact, what letter does turn up in a lot of these flower words? Yes! T! So, if we're talking flowers, it's petal with a T!

Now, what about that word "soft-pedal" (or is it "soft-peddle"?) meaning "tone down, go easy on"? It is in fact "soft-pedal", the image being of a pianist using the pedal that reduces the volume of the note being played.

As for the resort, a further complication in the case of those boats that you propel with pedals is that they are also called "paddle boats" (presumably because you paddle about in them). In most North American pronunciations, short e's and short a's are very close together, so that "paddle" is a very close homophone of pedal, peddle, and petal.

But whatever they are, they aren't "peddle boats"!

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.