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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, April 29, 2011

Paying the Piper (and not calling the tune)

Here in Canada, it's time to pay the taxman, as the deadline for filing our tax returns is April 30. And when you send off your cheque to the nice people at Revenue Canada, you are literally appeasing them, for the word “pay” derives ultimately (and surprisingly) from the Latin word pax, meaning “peace”. This is how it happened. A Latin verb derived from pax, pacare, meant “pacify”. Specifically it was applied, not to sticking a soother in a baby's mouth, or to pacifying warlike tribes, but to placating people to whom you owed money, the only way to do that being to give them the money! So pacare came to mean “give money to” – “pay”, in fact. As the Latin word evolved in Old French, the middle “c” was dropped, and, like most of our words having to do with money (including “money” itself), this one came into English after the Norman French conquered England.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Royal Nupt*als

Even Wordlady is hopping aboard the Royal Wedding bandwagon. My homage to Prince William and Kate (with whom I share a pet name) is to warn you against misspelling and mispronouncing "nuptial". Yes you read that right, it's nuptial, not nuptual. It comes from the Latin word nuptiae (wedding). As happened with nuclear, people have been perhaps influenced by words with similar, but not exactly the same, endings (as in "conceptual" and "voluptuous"). Although there are many fairly common words in English ending in -tial (circumstantial, preferential, confidential, credential, partial, etc.), with which no one has any problems, "nuptial" is the only one ending in -ptial, other than the word "preceptial", which I bet you don't use a lot. So what we would like to wish the happy couple is all the best on the occasion of their "NUPsh'lls".

Friday, April 22, 2011


Happy Easter! Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. The early Christians had a habit of blending Christian with non-Christian practices; for instance, the date of Christmas coincides roughly with the Roman feast of Saturnalia (seven days of merrymaking starting December 17th) and the festival of the birth of the sun god Mithra (December 25th). In this case, the Christian missionaries to Britain co-opted an Anglo-Saxon religious festival and even the goddess's name. Other languages, in contrast, derive their word for Easter from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover): French, for instance, has Pâques, Italian has Pasqua, and Russian has Paska.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Born or hatched?

At some point in my distant past I must have been taught to make a distinction between "born" (of mammals) and "hatched" (of birds, reptiles, etc. that emerge from eggs). I say this because, upon watching an item on TV about a pair of peregrine falcons that have set up housekeeping in Toronto, I had a kneejerk schoolmarm reaction when I heard the announcer talking about the birds being born. You will know that Wordlady doesn't often have these!

I find some exercises for schoolchildren on the Web where they have to categorize animals as "born or hatched", so perhaps this is where my objection comes from. It doesn't seem to be a hot issue amongst usage commentators, and far be it from me to quibble with John Keats, who in his "Ode to a Nightingale" has the following line: "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" (mind you, perhaps one should not take Romantic poets as experts on ornithology, since Shelley famously produced the line in "To a Skylark": "HAIL to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert").

I see from birdwatching websites that birders talk of birds being born. Please do let me know if you have this "born/hatched" usage issue or not. Perhaps it's time for me to let it go.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Are you pseudisodomous?

One of the reasons English spelling is so difficult is that vowels in unstressed syllables often get reduced in speech to an indeterminate sound (called a schwa). There is nothing wrong with this; it is just the way English is pronounced. But it means that, for instance, the last two syllables in "autonomous" sound exactly the same as the last two in "synonymous", despite their different spelling. Be wary! Don't make the mistake of spelling "synonomous" or "anonomous", etc.

"Synonymous", like "anonymous", "pseudonymous", "eponymous", and a few other words you probably don't use daily (like "pseudeponymous" - falsely named or attributed), includes the Greek word onuma (name), which acquired a y instead of the u in Latin. "Autonomous", on the other hand, comes from the Greek nomos (law).

And then there's the euonymus, a type of bush whose name literally means "well-named" or "lucky" in Greek.

Note that just to make our lives miserable on the spelling front, there is no o in the final syllable for this one, as it is not an adjective but a Latin noun. According to Pliny, the flowering of the euonymus presaged pestilence, and thus its name was either euphemistic or ironic.

As a special treat for you word lovers looking for something with which to impress your friends or win spelling bees, here's that fancy word I used in the title of this post: pseudisodomous. Are you thinking it's something titillating? I bet you are, but don't get too excited: it describes a method of building or type of masonry in ancient Greek architecture in which the courses of blocks were of unequal height, length, or thickness, but the blocks in each course were alike. Riveting, I know. Sorry!

Supervised consumption facilities

Well, what do you think a "supervised consumption facility" might be? A fat farm? Apparently not. This is the latest jargon/euphemism for what is also known as a "safe injection site", where drug addicts can come and shoot up with clean needles and under medical attention. I wonder what name the addicts have for it; I bet they don't say, "I'm going down to the supervised consumption facility now for my fix"!

Although I haven't studied the issue in any depth, I think these are probably more socially desirable than having the drug addicts shooting up in the street with dirty needles, but I am amused by the polysyllabic, sanitizing name for something which, viewed with other eyes, might be called a "drug den"! Surprisingly, "drug den" is not in the Oxford English Dictionary, though they certainly existed back when the letter D was being edited in 1893-97 (OED does have entries for "opium den" and "opium-cellar"). Usage of this word really took off, though, only in the 1980s. GoogleBooks reveals an early 1892 quote from The Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal published by the American Presbyterian Mission Press. I don't think the Presbyterian missionaries were the ones consuming the dope, and I am sure they would never have dreamed of a day when such a thing would be provided by the government!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Don't fret

My choir recently sang a quite lovely motet, "Lord, let me know mine end" by C.H.H. Parry, set to the words of the 39th Psalm. I found this simile, in the translation dating from the 1500s, particularly striking: "When thou with rebukes dost chasten man for sin, thou makest his beauty to consume away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment", which got me thinking about the word "fret" (I should probably have been thinking about whether I was singing the right note!) You can hear the whole piece here:

with the "fretting" at 6:06, where Parry very cleverly conveys musically the image of a moth's wings fluttering while it gnaws on the garment.

But what about the word "fret"? Old English had two words for "eat": etan for people and fretan for animals (Modern German still makes this distinction between essen and fressen). We English speakers stopped making the distinction, so that by the 1600s people, animals, birds, worms, and moths were all eating rather than "fretting".

But back in the 1200s we had started using "fret" figuratively, of the "gnawing" or "consuming" effect of what one author called "vexatious passions" (love, anger, etc.) on the mind. "Rage frets her bones," wrote one Renaissance author. One could also "fret oneself" with such feelings, or with worry. From there it was a short step to the current intransitive use, where we fret about something.

The guitarists among you will be wondering about the noun "fret", but this is unrelated, coming from an Old French word meaning "ring".

If you want to hear my choir, you can check out the podcasts here:
where eventually the recent service will turn up. That'll be me singing the wrong note on "fretting"! (Actually I did sing the right note, so do pay attention to the exquisite altos.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Don't have a meltdown

The indignation aroused by the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan is as nothing compared to the outrage caused by people using the pronunciation “nucular”.

This pronunciation for “nuclear” may drive of you nuts, which reaction is at least etymologically consistent, for “nucleus” comes from the nuc- form of the Latin word nux (nut) plus the diminutive ending -leus. Latin had another word for “little nut”, nucula, which was borrowed into English as a botanical term not long after “nucleus”. The adjective derived from it was indeed “nucular”. However, it is unlikely that confusion of these two related words is at the root of this issue.

Those of you for whom the "nucular" pronunciation is a shibboleth that distinguishes the illiterate from the blessed will no doubt have a meltdown of your own when you learn that the Oxford English Dictionary now has an entry for "nucular" in the "nuclear" sense. I was pretty surprised myself that they gave it an entry, but the OED doesn't do things lightly (and certainly not in haste), and has the following note: "The colloquial pronunciation .... rendered in written form as nucular... has been criticized in usage guides since at least the mid 20th cent., although it is now commonly given as a variant in modern dictionaries."

That last part is true at least of the ardently descriptivist Merriam-Webster dictionaries, which give the disputed pronunciation with the following comment: "Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-kyə-lər\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president.” Indeed, many blame President Eisenhower for this pronunciation, but according to the OED he was not the first to use it.

There is a phonological reason for this development: there are no common two-syllable words in English ending in \klee-ər\ (unless you happen to use the word "cochlear" a lot!). But there are many ending in \-kyə-lər\: particular, spectacular, ocular, etc. Often alternate pronunciations arise by analogy with more common strings of sounds.

Likewise, rearranging the order of pronunciation of the vowels and consonants in a word is not uncommon in the history of English. Indeed, that is why we have "third" and "thirteen" instead of the original and more logical "thrid" and "thriteen" ("three" originally having been written "thri"). No doubt many in Tudor times were getting their doublets and hose in a twist over ignorant people mispronouncing "thrid".

Nonetheless, I do not recommend adopting “nucular” as your pronunciation, as it is so very stigmatized. I cannot tell how common it really is; when we did a survey on the question for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, none of our correspondents admitted using it. But try not to go nuclear if you hear it; there are more important things to get upset about. Those pesky people who insist on saying “thirteen” instead of “threeteen”, for instance.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Getting the rough end of the ananas

My ever-alert nephew, journalist Mike Barber, drew my attention to a tumblr page which listed the names in 27 languages for my favourite tropical fruit.
26 of these languages, from Arabic to Turkish, had some variant of "ananas". And then there's English, with ... "pineapple". Why?

The word "ananas" did indeed exist in English from about 1600 to 1850. According to the OED, the word comes "apparently from Nanas, its name in a South American Indian language of Peru [Guarani], it having been first seen by Europeans in Peru, and described under the name Nanas by André Thevenet, a monk, in 1555." But in English it had an unfortunate and career-limiting pronunciation, sounding exactly like "an anus" (honestly, I don't make these things up, although how the OED knows this I don't know).

Probably desperate not to shock any more dinner guests, and seeing a similarity between the fruit and what falls off pine trees, English speakers started calling it a "pineapple". This had been the name for a pine cone since the 1300s (Latin, French, Dutch, and German also called pine cones pine "apples".) Then, of course, we needed a new word for the thing on pine trees, and since we had borrowed the word "cone" in the 1500s, "pine cone" was ready to take over from the early 1700s.

There are two quite delightful slang uses of "pineapple": the evocative Australian "get the rough end of the pineapple" (get a raw deal) and a now dated British "on the pineapple" (unemployed or on welfare). On the pineapple, on the dole... dole ... pineapple... geddit?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New words: Of Pickles and Patent Trolls

Google..has been pressing Washington for legal reform to dissuade so-called "patent trolls", companies that exist only to sue others over intellectual property claims.
Toronto Star 5 Apr. 2011, B1/4

The earliest use of this seems to be about 2004.

Pickleball is a scaled-down combination of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. With its smaller court, low net, paddle and holey plastic ball, it's particularly appealing to older, slower bodies. Picklers pay the township $1 each to play and provide their own equipment...Pickleball..got its name from Pickles, a co-inventor's dog who chased whiffleballs during family games.
Toronto Star 5 Apr. 2011, GT1/4

Google Books has the following quotation from 1975:
Susan Frohnmayer, women's program coordinator ..leads an exercise class beside the pickleball court.
Fortune Mag. vol. 92

Sunday, April 3, 2011

How we use to use use

The verb "use" used to be, well, used (maybe I should start this post over...).

Nowadays I can't say "I use to go to ballet classes 4 times a week", meaning "I do this habitually", although I could have said that from about 1400-1700 (not that I was dancing back then, though some mornings it feels like it). (The title of this post is not a mistake, but me being intentionally -- all right, you can say pretentiously -- archaic.)
This sense of "use" now occurs only in the past tense: "I used to go to ballet classes". In speech, this sounds exactly like the noun "use" plus "to" (YOOSS too). From this arise two problems:
1) Do not write "I use to", even though it sounds like that. Remember, "used" is in the past tense.
2) When you put this in the negative, you DON'T write "used". "I didn't use to go to ballet classes" is correct. It looks weird, but that's the correct version. Just as you wouldn't say "I didn't wanted to go", you can't say "I didn't used to go". "Didn't used to" is an extraordinarily common mistake, but it is a mistake nonetheless.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fools rush in...

It's April Fool's Day. “Fool” has a delightful history. It came into English from the French fol (a stupid or silly person) in the Middle Ages. Back then it was not as contemptuous a word as it is now, more a designation of someone who was simple-minded or lacking in judgement. Indeed, it was even used as a term of endearment (I do not recommend trying this now). Its ultimate origin is the Latin follis (bellows used to pump air into a fire), used in Latin slang to mean a windbag or what we would now call an airhead.

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.