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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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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More franglais

Just found this on the city of Antwerp's tourism site:

Voulez-vous savoir les dernières nouveautés et recevoir inside information? Devenez fan de nos facebook-pages.
Si vous aimez être bien informé de tout ce qui est en train de passer dans the Antwerp fashion scene, vous devez régulièrement regarder notre facebook-page

For another example, visit my other franglais post.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Led astray

The past tense and past participle of the verb "lead" is "led". Today I am leading you down the garden path; yesterday I led you down the garden path. It is almost more common to see it misspelled "lead" than to see it spelled correctly. The "lead" that sounds like LED is the heavy metal. Since it is so very easy to make this spelling mistake, you will have to stop yourself every time you use the past tense of the verb "lead" and check your spelling. YOUR SPELLCHECKER IS OF NO USE! Here's a little sentence to memorize that may help you: Ed fed Ted and led him to bed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hey, lady!

In some Christian denominations, March 25th commemorates the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary (referred to as “Our Lady”) to tell her she will be the mother of Jesus. In olden days, this was known as “Lady Day” and was until 1752 considered to be the beginning of the new year. Happy New Year! “Lady” has an interesting origin: the Anglo-Saxon word hlafdige, literally “loaf kneader”. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxons put great store by bread as a social classifier: the word “lord” comes from hlafweard (“loaf warden” or “loaf keeper”) and the word for servant (now dead) was “loaf eater”.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring has sprung!

Sunday marked the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. The season's name comes from the same “spring” which is the source of a river. From this original meaning, “spring” took on the sense of a beginning: dawn was “dayspring”, and the season marking the start of new life was “the spring of the leaf” or “the spring of the year”, quickly shortened to simply “spring”. “Equinox” comes from the Latin equi- (equal) and nox (night), as day and night are of equal length all over the globe. German is even more charmingly analytical, calling this phenomenon “Day-and-night-the-same”!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No ants!

It's a common mistake to use the word "tenant" when what is meant is "tenet". A tenant is someone who pays to occupy or use property but does not own it. A tenet is a basic belief. Both words ultimately come from the Latin word tenere (to hold). "Tenet" is in fact the form of the verb meaning "he/she/it holds". Perhaps a way to remember the correct spelling of "tenet" is this: while ants may occasionally turn up in your rented home or business, there's no way they can infiltrate your (or anyone's) religious, political, or philosophical beliefs.

Another common mistake is to double the n in "tenant". Goodness, n's are intrusive! "Tennant" is a surname (originally for someone who was a tenant farmer, just to be confusing), but not an acceptable variant spelling of the word "tenant".

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tripping the light fantastic

It's the March Break school holiday here in Ontario, and many Ontarians will be going on trips. The word “trip” originated in a Germanic word for a light, dainty dancing step. Although other languages have a similar word in the same sense, only in English did “trip” also come to mean “stumble over one's feet”, no doubt a reflection on how well the English danced! Sailors started to use “trip” as slang for a quick, short sea voyage, (rather as we might say “a hop, skip, and a jump”), and eventually the word took over from “voyage” and “journey” as our standard word for excursions of any length.
As for the phrase I used as the title of this post, we owe it to John Milton, of all people, who coined the usage in a line, "Trip it as ye go On the light fantastick toe." in his poem L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (now also a fabulous ballet by Mark Morris which delighted one of my ballet-tripping groups last year). Milton was using the word "fantastic" in its then current sense of " Having the appearance of being devised by extravagant fancy; eccentric, quaint, or grotesque in design, conception, construction, or adornment." (OED), so this is just a fancy way of saying "dancing". I'm off now, to trip a bit of the light fantastic myself at my ballet class.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Off with their heads!

Talking to a lawyer about a trademark dispute recently, I was taken aback when he started referring to the traitors who infringe trademarks. Goodness, I know he makes a living defending these suits (I mean that in the lawsuit sense, but I guess it also works in the "guy in a business suit" sense), but isn't that a rather strong word? Then I realized the word he had used was "traders". Yet another example of words that may not be homophones for other English speakers but are for us North Americans with our voiced intervocalic "t" (that's the fancy linguistic way of saying we make our t's into d's when they come between two vowels). I wouldn't have thought these words would be confused in writing, but sure enough, one can find anything on Google. I found 2000 examples of the phrase "accused of being a trader".

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Couple more Words about Couple

Further to yesterday's post, my German teacher points out that in German, the word for "pair", Paar, is also used to mean both exactly two and an unspecified small number. But because German capitalizes its nouns, it has a nifty solution for distinguishing between the two: ein Paar is two, and ein paar is a few. Not, of course, that this helps in speech, so a German hankering for jellybeans would be no further ahead with me than an English speaker. And, although the English Language did use to capitalize all Nouns, I don't think we English Speakers and Jellybean Eaters are likely to revive this Practice. Some American usages originating in the 19th century were in fact influenced by German, so it is entirely possible that the use of "couple" to mean "a few" can be attributed to this too.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A tram named Desire

Streetcars – or trams as they are known in Europe – are a hot topic in Toronto. “Tram”, derived from a Germanic word meaning “beam of wood”, started its English life in Scotland as one of the shafts on a wheelbarrow (who knew there was a specific word for that?). In the coalmines of northern England, the word started to be used for the wheeled carts themselves, which eventually were run on iron rails called “tramways”. When this light rail system was adapted for passengers in the coal-mining area of Wales, the coal-mining word migrated with it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A couple (of) issues with "couple"

When you read the title of this post, did you think I was going to talk about exactly two issues, no more or less? Or did you think I would be talking about an unspecified, but relatively small, number of issues, just a few?

This is one of the questions surrounding the word "couple", which derives from the Latin word copula (a bond or tie). (Yes, it is also the origin of the word "copulation"; please get your mind out of the gutter.) The word was first used in English (which borrowed it from French) in the 1300s, to designate a husband and wife, but it very quickly came to apply to two of anything.

You may be surprised to learn that some doughty "usage commentators" in the late 19th and early 20th century, undaunted by 5 centuries of usage, objected to "couple" being used to mean "two", saying that it originally meant the link between two things, not the things themselves. Not getting far with that objection and thus threatened with job loss, the commentators realized they had to think of other complaints, and latched onto the then new usage of "couple" to mean "a few" (although, usage commentators being what they are, some kept up the rearguard action against the "two" meaning" and thundered that "couple" should ONLY be used to mean "a few")! I personally use "couple" only to mean "exactly two" and am always a little perplexed by the "few" usage, but that doesn't mean that I think everyone should be like me. No doubt other people are equally perplexed when they tell me they'd like a couple of jellybeans and I dole out a measly two to them!

But is it "a couple of jellybeans" or "a couple jellybeans"?

In North America, "couple" underwent a development parallel to what happened with other words designating "more than one": "hundred" and "dozen". Way back in Anglo-Saxon times, we couldn't say, "He had a hundred sheep", because "hundred" is a noun. So the Anglo-Saxons had to say "He had a hundred of sheep" (or they had the option, which English no longer has, of using the genitive form of the noun "sheep", which amounts to the same thing). This carried on well into the 1600s. "Hundred"'s origin as a noun is still evident in the fact that we have to say "a hundred things" or "one hundred things" rather than just "hundred things" as we would with other cardinal numbers.

The same thing happened with "dozen" (which we borrowed from Old French dozeine, from the Latin for "twelve", duodecim). As in French today, where, if you want a dozen eggs, you have to say "une douzaine d'oeufs", not "une douzaine oeufs", originally we said "a dozen of eggs" (and indeed we still have to say "dozens of eggs"). This carried on well into the 1700s, but by the mid-19th century, the adjectival use of "dozen" took over from the noun usage, as this Google Books ngram comparing "a dozen eggs" and "a dozen of eggs" shows.

Not surprisingly, then, "couple" started along the same path, but a little later, apparently around the late 19th century. Being more recent, and, to make matters worse in the eyes of some people, originally North American to boot, this development is still raising hackles. "A couple things" is already very common in speech and quite common in informal prose. In view of this frequency (and the history of "hundred" and "dozen"), this usage will probably eventually take over. There are really no grounds for complaining about it, other than that it is relatively new, and different from what one might oneself say. But those are not objective grounds for complaint. For now, you probably want to include the "of" if you are writing formal prose, but bear in mind that a hundred years from now someone may look at your deathless prose and find it as quaint as we do now looking at 19th-century recipes that call for "a dozen of eggs".

PS: See an update to this post here.

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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.