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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Friday, March 30, 2012

Roster

The Major League Baseball regular season starts next week, and no doubt most players would like to be on the starting roster. They would be less eager, perhaps, to be on the original “roster”, which was a gridiron for roasting meat. The Dutch word rooster was pronounced like – and was indeed the same thing as – our “roaster”. Because a gridiron-shaped roasting rack looks like a list drawn up in tabular form, the word gradually came to have its current meaning.

Friday, March 23, 2012

When Skates were Skateses

 

With our fabulous skaters competing at the World Figure Skating Championships next week, let's look at the word “skate”. 

The English borrowed it in the late 1600s from the Dutch, who had been skating recreationally on their canals since the Middle Ages. The Dutch word schaats had been adapted from the Old French word eschasse (stilt), which came from a Frankish word for a wooden leg (definitely not a helpful attribute in figure skating). In Dutch, you had one schaats and two schaatsen

So in English, it should be one skates and two skateses. But the English, naturally thinking the s was the plural ending, used “skates” for the pair, and lopped off the s to form the singular “skate”. 

It took very little time at all for this noun to become a verb (yes, another one of those!). The current earliest evidence for the noun in the OED dates from 1684, with the verb dating from 1696.

And those jumps that seem, to the uninitiated, as indistinguishable as they are impossible? They are named after the three skaters who invented them: the Norwegian Axel Paulsen, the Austrian Alois Lutz, and the Swedish Ulrich Salchow, who in addition to being a good jumper was a model of sportsmanship, famous for offering his 1902 Worlds gold medal to the second-place finisher Madge Syers, who he thought deserved it more. 

For another word that experienced the same phenomenon, click here to learn about "cherry". 

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Travel



Here in Ontario, it's one of the busiest days for travel in the year, as the school March break gives many the opportunity to flee our beloved country for somewhere warm.

The word “travel” comes from a Latin instrument of torture (this may come as no surprise if you have squabbling kids in the back seat): the trepalium, from tres (three) and palus (a stake or pointed stick). It doesn't bear thinking about how they used these three-pointed sticks. The French squished the Latin word down a bit into travail, then and now the French word for work (torture to many people, I'm sure).

The English borrowed it from the French in the Middle Ages, also to mean “work”, pronouncing it traVALE. It could also mean “be in labour” (which fits with the idea of torture) as well as “go on a trip”, presumably because that was such an arduous undertaking back then. Eventually, the other meanings of “travail” dropped out of the language, and the word came to be pronounced TRAV'll, and spelled “travel”.

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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Friday, March 2, 2012

Invest

If you're Canadian, you may have been rushing madly to the bank yesterday to beat the Registered Retirement Savings Plan contribution deadline, and now you're just on tenterhooks thinking about your investments. And your most burning question is no doubt: "Just where does the word "invest" come from anyway?" Surprisingly, from the same source as “vestment”: the Latin word for clothing, vestis. How did clothing come to be connected with mutual funds? Blame the Italians, and not necessarily because of their reputation for being snappy dressers. In about the 1300s Italy started to be very wealthy. A lot of economic activity was going on that people could provide money for. If you took your money and used it, say, to buy a textile mill, it was as if you were giving it a new suit of clothes, dressing it up (investire in Italian). You were transforming it into something else, hopefully more money in the long run. In the last few years, unfortunately, far from being like dressing up, investing has been more like losing one's shirt! I sincerely hope your RRSP does better.

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.