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!

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Monday, November 29, 2010

More than one Brussel

I am currently organizing a great "Ballet and chocolate" trip to Paris and Belgium over Eastertime (if you're tempted, please email me at toursenlair@gmail.com for more info!), so I've been thinking a lot about the capital of Belgium, and more specifically about its famous mini-cabbages. Don't forget: Brussels has an s on the end of it (except in Flemish, but we're not speaking Flemish) so those little brassicas are Brussels sprouts, not Brussel sprouts (a very common spelling mistake).

A grey (gray?) area

Yesterday in Canada was our annual football championship, the Grey Cup. The trophy is named after one of our Governors General, but for those of us who are more interested in language than in football, the burning question is: why do we have two spellings for the colour grey? The Anglo-Saxon word, graeg, diverged into some forms with “a”, parallel to the evolution of the word “clay”, and some with “e”, parallel to the evolution of the words “whey”, “fey”, and … “key” (how annoying English spelling is!). Blithely ignoring both the lexicographers who favoured “gray” and also, more justifiably, the pundits who maintained that “gray” and “grey” were two different shades (!), the British public finally opted for “grey”. Americans prefer “gray”. Canadians use both, but “grey” more often. The family name, which can also be spelled both ways, was originally a nickname for someone with grey hair.
I'm curious to know which spelling you use. Post it in the comments!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Desert vs desert

Further to my previous posting about desserts and deserts, I should point out that the "desert" in "just deserts" is not the dry, sandy place. These are two different words; they just happen to be spelled the same way. The Sahara is a desert (pronounced DEZZert); the word comes from the Latin desertus (abandoned, left waste) and is related to the verb "desert", which is (confusingly) pronounced duhZERT.

The "desert" in "just deserts" is pronounced duhZERT, but is related to the word "deserve".

So, to summarize:
desert 1. noun. dry sandy place, like the Sahara. Pronounced DEZZert
desert 2. verb. abandon. Pronounced duhZERT.
desert 3. noun. what you deserve. Now only used in the phrase "just deserts". Pronounced duhZERT
dessert. noun. sweet thing served at the end of a meal. Pronounced duhZERT.

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, November 19, 2010

A cheery thought

Cheers! The Beaujolais nouveau has just been released. “Cheer” has its origins in an ancient Greek word for “head”, kara, which, by the time the Normans arrived in England, had become chere and meant the face or facial expression. Back then, it could be either a sad or happy expression, or even the emotion revealed by the expression. Gradually the association with happiness won out; so it was no longer possible to have a “sorry cheer”. By the 1700s a “cheer” was a shout of encouragement. The drinking toast did not crop up until the early 20th century.

Monday, November 15, 2010

No such thing as "just desserts"

I LOVE desserts. Cake, cookies, ice cream, pumpkin pie... love 'em all. So never would I dismiss these wonderful treats as "just" desserts (unless of course I was saying "Let's eat just dessert and forget about the main course"...).
Neither should you use the phrase "just desserts". Because what you probably mean is "just deserts". When someone gets what is coming to them, it is what they deserve. "Desert" in this case is spelled with only one "s".
Whatever way you think about it, there is no such thing as "just desserts"!
See also my desert vs. desert post.

Long-a-go and far-a-way?

In a similar vein to the mistake that people make with "sing-along" I have also noticed "look-a-like". There is even a TV show called this, mistaken hyphen and all. What is so hard to understand? One person looks like another. They look alike. You can even call them "lookalikes". Look-alike or lookalike. NOT look-a-like!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Word of the Week: Wallop

With the Royal Horse Show in full swing here in Toronto, there's a lot of galloping going on. “Gallop” comes from two Frankish words, wala (well) and hlaupan (run), which the Norman French brought to England as “wallop”. For centuries, horses walloped. Meanwhile, in Central France people couldn't say “wallop”; they changed it to “gwallop” and then to “gallop”. Being greedy, the English wanted that word too, and our horses started galloping instead of walloping. But we kept “wallop” for things making the sound of a hoofbeat – like thwacking someone upside the head!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sing a long what?

A spelling mistake I see very often is "Sing-a-long", as in "Sing-a-long Messiah". As opposed to "Sing-a-short Messiah"?

Ok, so Messiah is a long sing, but that's not what they meant! It mystifies me why people don't recognize the adverb "along" when they write this phrase. "Along" is hardly an obscure word! The audience is singing along with the performers. In fact, you can even write "singalong" as one word (although admittedly it does look vaguely Malaysian), thus saving you the question of where to include hyphens at all. So your choices are:
Singalong Messiah or Sing-along Messiah.

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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A dog will have his day

A popular attraction at Toronto's Royal Winter Fair, which opens today, is the performing dogs. Where did some of our favourite dogs get their names? A dachshund is literally a “badger dog” in German, as they were used to draw badgers from their dens. Another German dog, the poodle was originally a Pudelhund or “puddle dug” as they were developed as water retrievers, their clipped coats making it easier for them to manoeuvre in water. The spaniel was originally a Spanish dog: its name derives from the Old French espaignol (Spanish).

French or English?

Just found this wonderful example of franglais about a Paris hotel:

Relooké en 2009 par la styliste Marina Bessé, l’hôtel Edouard VII est élégant. Le bar rond apporte une touche très cosy.

Le charmant Ludovic et toute l’équipe servent une clientèle trendy. Les adeptes des cocktails ont suivi ici l’ancienne chef barmaid Sandrine Houdré-Grégoire, devenue responsable food & beverage de l’hôtel. le bar manager a élaboré la carte des cocktails. On peut également apprécier un snacking de luxe.

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:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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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.