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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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

Best Actress in a supporting gown

This Sunday is the Academy Awards. Who will be best actor/actress? Which film will be the best picture? Who cares? We know what people are really interested in: the gowns.

In Late Latin, the word gunna meant "fur", and by the 8th century this word was being used to mean a fur garment that elderly or sick monks were allowed to wear over their habits (it being pretty darn nippy getting up in the middle of the night in those chilly monasteries to sing one of the offices of the day). This was borrowed into Old French as goune, a word that has completely died out in French but survived in English after being borrowed in the 1300s. Originally it meant any flowing garment worn by either sex. This has survived in the scholar's gown worn as part of academic dress. Until the 18th century, "gown" was the ordinary name for a woman's garment, but it was then superseded by "dress", leaving "gown" to be used only for fancy dresses.

If you're interested in movies, check out this great film blog: http://roomoverthegarage.wordpress.com/

Copyright Katherine Barber 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Holy crêpe

Today is Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day from the tradition of eating pancakes to use up the remaining eggs before the beginning of Lent. A perfect time to look at the word "crêpe". Both "crêpe" and "crisp" come from the same Latin word, crispus. But before you leap to the conclusion that this is because crêpes are crispy around the edges, I have to tell you that it is a lot more convoluted (and interesting!) than that.

Back in Latin, crispus meant "curly-haired". Surprisingly, this word was borrowed into English very early, back in Anglo-Saxon times when English did not borrow heavily from Latin except for church terms. Intriguing. Why did the Anglo-Saxons need to borrow this word? Perhaps Anglo-Saxon hair didn't have the curly gene whereas Italian hair did? Whatever the reason, the word had been borrowed before 900, when Bede described someone as having "crisp locks".

Meanwhile, the French had also inherited crispus  from Latin but turned it into cresp. They also used it of hair, but also of other wavy things, and by 1285 they were using it of thin pancakes, not because they were crispy around the edges but because they were wrinkly around the edges (crêpe has never had in French the "crunchy" sense that "crisp" has in English). The French carried on eating cresps -- which became crêpe when the the s fell out of the word (memorialized only by that circumflex) -- while the more literally-minded English ate the culinarily identical "pancakes" for several centuries.

Auguste Escoffier of the Savoy Hotel, late Victorian and Edwardian England's version of a celebrity chef,  introduced the English to crêpes Suzette. 
No doubt Mrs Patmore would have served them to the Crawleys at the Downton Abbey dinner table. Drenched in a boozy orange sauce, these were the only crêpes the English knew about until the crêpe craze of the 1970s made crêpes ubiquitous as an all purpose wrapping for all kinds of fillings.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Halibut

Next Wednesday, February 22nd, marks the beginning of Lent, a time when many people eat fish rather than meat for religious reasons. This practice is at the origin of the word “halibut”. Various kinds of flatfish were called “butt” in the Middle Ages, possibly because their heads had a blunt shape like the butt end of something. At the time, the word “holy” was pronounced HALLY or HOLLY. A “hally butt” was, therefore, a flatfish eaten on holy days, a “holy flatfish”.
Holy flatfish, Batman!
















Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

Passion fruit or passion killers?

If you are planning on serving your sweetheart passion fruit this coming Valentine's Day as being particularly appropriate, you might want to think again. When the word “passion” first came into English from a Latin word meaning “suffering”, it was used in particular for the sufferings of Jesus (as it indeed still is). Only later did the sense of “affliction” morph into “extreme love”, which can, alas, be an affliction. But the original meaning survives in the passion fruit. It is the fruit of the passion flower, which was called that because its parts, people thought, recalled Christ's crucifixion: the blossoms look like the crown of thorns, the styles like nails, and the leaves and tendrils like scourges.

Kind of cuts your appetite, doesn't it? Chocolate is safer! (And for more on that, visit this post.)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pool

Have you got your fingers crossed that you'll win your office Super Bowl pool this Sunday? You may be thinking that this type of pool is the same as the one you swim in (after all, it's like a big container that stuff is put in), but in fact it's a totally different word. The gambling pool comes from the French word poule (chicken). One of its slang meanings was "plunder" -- images of soldiers carting off chickens after sacking a village spring to mind. This came to mean the collective stakes in a card game that the winner takes like the victor's spoils of war. Then all kinds of groupings came to be known as “pools”: for gambling, as in office pools, and not for gambling, as in car pools, although sometimes those might be a gamble, depending on the drivers involved!

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.