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, December 27, 2013

Guess who's coming to....

You're probably still digesting that mountainous meal you tucked into two days ago. But what meal was it? Dinner? Supper?

A Saskatchewanian once recounted to me how, as a young woman, she made a date for dinner with an Ontarian she had her eye on. She arrived at the restaurant promptly at midday, and he, equally punctual, arrived... 6 hours later. 

This linguistic contretemps highlights an intriguing phenomenon: what we call our midday and evening meals. Many Canadians, on first encountering someone from another province referring to lunch as dinner, make sweeping generalizations of the type “In Ontario we all say lunch and in the Maritimes they all say dinner”, but it is not really a regional distinction. If the object of Saskatchewanian desire had been from rural Ontario, he probably would have turned up at the restaurant at noon too. 

By far the majority of Canadians call their midday meal “lunch”. Their evening meal is “dinner” or “supper”, which words can be used interchangeably. I myself might say, “I have to make dinner” and then announce its arrival on the table half an hour later with a cheery “Supper's ready!” 

However, we do make some distinctions. For instance, we usually call it only “dinner” when we go out to a restaurant, are feeling formal, or invite people over. The only circumstances in which we would use “dinner” for an earlier meal is for very large meals eaten in the middle of the afternoon like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Meanwhile, some say, “supper” is a lighter evening meal. Try telling that to someone who has just consumed one of those epitomes of epicurism, the community “lobster supper” of the Maritimes and “fall supper” or “fowl supper” of the West, which prove that no matter what we call the meal, we are united in our belief that the object is to stuff ourselves with as much food as possible. 

Speaking of that pre-eminent Prairie poultry pigout, people sometimes ask me which is “correct”: fall or fowl? Both are correct, and both are appropriate, since these events happen in the autumn and turkey is usually the pièce de résistance.


For some, especially older Canadians or those from rural areas, the midday meal is always “dinner” and the evening meal always “supper”. But then, just to confuse matters further, “lunch” may mean a late evening snack, or indeed afternoon refreshments. I have fond memories of my great-aunts in southwestern Manitoba offering a “lunch” (at what I would call teatime), said “lunch” turning out to be an enormous repast featuring the best farmwife's home baking and preserving.


There is even a uniquely Canadian idiom involving dinner: “done like dinner”, meaning “completely defeated or over with”. Oddly, the Australians have a similar, but not identical, expression, “done like a dinner”, which to them means “outwitted”.


As for those Ontarian and Saskatchewanian lovebirds, well, in spite of the rocky start to their romance, they've been together for many years, but they keep their “mixed marriage” on an even keel only by agreeing to use “supper” for meals at home and “dinner” for meals out. A typically Canadian compromise, thankfully; what a shame it would have been for their relationship to be done like ... lunch?

What do you call your midday, evening, and festive meals? Let me know in the comments (along with some info about where you are from, age, urban/rural, whatever you think pertinent)!


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beware the dreaded Foosh

What is the most common cause of broken wrists? 
Thrusting out your hands to protect yourself when you fall. 
So common is this that emergency doctors have even invented a snappy acronym for "Fall On OutStretched Hand": FOOSH. It's been around since the early 90s, and I certainly hope you have no cause to hear it after venturing out on Ontario's icy sidewalks today. 
I don't know if there are any recommendations of what to do instead of sticking out your hands; it seems to me that if you don't do that you will end up with a Fall On OutStretched Nose.

Of silver thaws and glitter storms

I'm looking out my window at the trees encased in ice and thinking "Well that's pretty" (and then thinking, "How am I going to get to choir tonight?" 
Perhaps it would make all of us southern Ontarians trapped by an ice storm happier if we adopt the word they use for this phenomenon down in the Maritimes and Newfoundland: silver thaw. Poetic, eh? 
This word is not unique to Eastern Canada; apparently it is also used in the Pacific Northwest. Neither does it seem to be a North American invention, as Thomas Hardy (among others) used it.
But Newfoundlanders up the poetic ante with another word for freezing rain and its effects that is unique to them: glitter storm.
How prosaic are we with our "freezing rain" and "ice storm"!


Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.   

Cool interactive dialect questionnaire

What does the way you speak say about where you’re from? The New York Times has developed a cool interactive quiz. This is based on American English, but for Canadians it may reveal how unlike Americans you are. Also, who knew that there was a word for "drive-through liquor store", let alone more than one?

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/12/20/sunday-review/dialect-quiz-map.html?_r=0


Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.   

Friday, December 20, 2013

What's that smell?

An avid Wordlady reader has written to inquire why the French word odeur has different connotations than the English word odour. This question arose because she, a singer like me, is rehearsing the lovely 17th-century French Christmas carol "Quelle est cette odeur agréable?". Clearly we cannot translate this into English as "What's that agreeable odour?", since "odour" has come to mean "unpleasant smell". As you will see below, English translators have opted instead for "fragrance".

The classical Latin word odor covered quite an olfactory range: smell, pleasant scent, unpleasant smell, perfume, spice.  In Old French, odeur tended to be used of a pleasant scent, and we took on the same positive connotations when we borrowed the word in the 14th century (we already had "stink" and "smell" for noisome smells). Gradually, though, "odour" became more and more associated with assaults on the nostrils, so that by the beginning of the 20th century, only negative connotations were left (in French, odeur is still used of both pleasant and unpleasant smells). 

But back to 17th-century France. Isn't it weird that a Christmas carol would be talking about odours at all, pleasant or otherwise? There was a belief that the bodies of saints near or after death exhaled a sweet balsamic odour, which was proof of their saintliness. In French this was called the odeur de sainteté. Imagine, then, what streams of aromatic exhalations would come from the newborn Jesus.

Not at all the type of odour you would normally associate with a baby.

My choir won't be singing this one this year, but we will be singing a lot of other lovely carols on Sunday the 22nd at St Thomas's Anglican Church, 383 Huron Street, Toronto ON:
7:00 p.m. Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols

  • Sussex Carol, English trad., ar. Willcocks
  • Adam lay ybounden, Boris Ord 
  • God rest you merry
  • The Holly and the Ivy, Eng., ar. H.W. Davies 74 (vv. 1-4)
  • Angelus ad Virginem, Basque, ar. Andrew Carter
  • In dulci jubilo, ar. Pearsall
  • Noël nouvelet, French trad., ar. Stephen Jackson
  • A Babe is born in Bethlehem, William Mathias
Organ: Variations sur un Noël Bourguignon, André Fleury; In dulci jubilo, BWV 729, 608 and 751, J.S. Bach
Do drop by

Here's "Quelle est cette odeur agréable?", and with it may I wish all Wordlady readers a very happy Christmas.
http://youtu.be/pbTSK3eEPaI 

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French text


Quelle est cette odeur agréable,
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?
S’exhale-t-il rien de semblable
Au milieu des fleurs du printemps?
Quelle est cette odeur agréable
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?

Mais quelle éclatante lumière
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux
L’astre de jour, dans sa carrière,
Fût-il jamais si radieux!
Mais quelle éclatante lumière
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux.

A Bethléem, dans une crèche
Il vient de vous naître un Sauveur
Allons, que rien ne vous empeche
D’adorer votre redémpteur
A Bethléem, dans une crèche,
Il vient de vous naître un Sauveur.

Dieu tout puissant, gloire éternelle
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux.
Que la paix soit universelle
Que la grace abonde en tous lieux.
Dieu tout puissant, gloire éternelle
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux

English translation
by Rod Mather

Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?
adorns the air, and nothing like it
the shepherds sensed in fields in May?
Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?

A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.
The light of Christ, it is so radiant,
the beam it casts to be our way.
A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.

Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.
Adore your God and your redeemer;
Saviour of all to win the day
Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.

All pow'rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord.
Grace, peace and truth give to all nations
Spring forth from Jesus Christ our Lord.
All pow’rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Your birthday word: Wordlady's is... hydroflumethiazide?



The Oxford English Dictionary has a cool "birthday word" generator which lets you find out what word shares your year of birth (and sometimes your actual birthday).

How to search for a personal birthday word

If you don't have subscriber access to the OED, 
1) Complain to your public library that they should get it!
2) go to the Oxford Words blog, where you can find out a word first attested in the year of your birth.


If you have access to the online OED (for instance through your public library, such as Toronto Public Library for those of you who have a TPL card, and most university libraries), you can find out what word is first attested in the month of your birth, sometimes even on your birthday itself. 

Subscriber only Advanced Search

Step 1: Choose Advanced Search (under the "Quick Search" window at the top of the OED homepage)

Step 2: Enter the abbreviation for your month of birth in the advanced search box.

Month Abbreviation
January Jan
February Feb
March Mar
April Apr
May May
June June
July July
August Aug
September Sept
October Oct
November Nov
December Dec
Step 3: Select the  ‘-First Quotation’ option from the drop down menu  
Step 4: Enter your year of birth in the ‘Date of entry’ field  
Step 5: Click Search and discover if you have a personal OED birthday word.

You can imagine how excited I was to discover that the word closest to my birthday designates

A white crystalline compound, C8H8F3N3O4S2, analogous to hydrochlorothiazide and having similar effects and uses (given orally in the treatment of œdema and as an adjuvant in the treatment of hypertension).


and how mortified to discover that I almost share a birthday with... Barbie!

Share YOUR birthday word in the comments!

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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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

It's beginning to look a lot like Xmas: another newfangled abbreviation?


Photo by Tom Rickhuss on Unsplash

Clearly we can't blame Twitter and text messaging for the abbreviation Xmas, as it was around before they were, but I would be willing to bet that most people think that it is a fairly recent innovation attributable to nasty (and probably heathen) commercial interests for whom the word Christmas takes up too much room on their flyers and advertisements.

The truth is quite amazing.

In Greek, the word for "Christ" was Χρῑστός (khristos, literally "the anointed one"). The early clerics abbreviated this, not by using the Latin transliteration of the Greek sounds, which gave "Cr", but by using the Latin letters that looked like the first two Greek letters Χρ (chi and rho), so Xp. Way back in about 1022 (yes, you read that right), the person who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referred to early Christmas morning 1021 as "Xp̄es mæsse uhtan" ("uhtan" was an Anglo-Saxon word for the time just before sunrise, which we have managed to live without since about 1400).

Obviously, the desire to abbreviate frequently-used words is not a new invention of texters and tweeters; in fact if I were a monk spending my whole day in a cold monastery writing manuscripts, I'd want to abbreviate as much as possible! Throughout the Middle Ages, this Xp abbreviation for Christ was popular, and by the Renaissance it was shortened even more to X. By the same time, the older form "Christes mass" had become conflated to "Christmas", and logically, Xmas took over from "Xpes mass". Far from being informal or commercial, it was used in government and legal documents, and has been with us in its current form since the 1600s.


For the story of "Yule", see this post

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January. More info here.   
 

 


Friday, December 13, 2013

Do you make these 5 common language errors?

In last month's post, I gave you a list of 10 language naughtinesses. Here are five more (just click on the link to take you to the explanation):

1) Westminister

2) sing-a-long

3) just desserts

4) Brussel sprouts

5) faulty hyphenation

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.   

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Some of my friends are clergy; the rest are lewd

Well, Rob Ford continues to provide grist for Wordlady's mill, not least by, notoriously, making lewd remarks. You, dear readers, were no doubt not concentrating on the content of those remarks but rather were thinking, "Lewd, now that's an interesting word, where does it come from?"

Surprisingly, the original meaning of "lewd", way back in Anglo-Saxon, was "lay".

Not THAT "lay"!!

"Lay" as in, "not a member of the clergy". Because most non-clerics were illiterate, by the 13th century "lewd" had taken on the meaning of "unlearned", and with that the rot set in. "Lewd" went on a downward spiral through "vulgar", "ill-bred", and "evil, wicked" before finally coming to rest at " lustful, lecherous, wanton" and " indecent, offensive in a sexual way".

This may be a good example of word evolution to keep in mind the next time you need to argue with someone who insists that "decimate" has to mean literally "kill one in ten" because it comes from the Latin word for ten. By this logic, clergy could not possibly be lewd. NOT, of course, that I am suggesting anything, my clergy friends!

Now you'll be wondering why non-clerics are called laypeople. This "lay" has its origin in the Greek word laos (the people).

Can I tempt you with a ballet trip to Paris and Amsterdam in the springtime? For info, please click here: 
http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2013/11/tutus-and-tulips-paris-amsterdam-ballet.html

Don't forget to nominate Wordlady for a "Best English language blog" award: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/11/nominate-wordlady-for-best-english.html 





Thursday, December 5, 2013

For a laugh: Linguistic Prescriptivism in the workplace



http://youtu.be/RJ0l_vPyUmg

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.  



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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Of Pilgrims and Peregrines

This is Thanksgiving weekend in the US, so an appropriate time to look at the word "pilgrim". Did you know that it and "peregrine" (as in the falcon) were originally the same word? As, you can see, the resemblance is striking.

http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/006/cache/peregrine-falcon_659_600x450.jpg


The Latin adjective peregrīnus meant "coming from foreign parts" and is perhaps derived from  per- (through) + ager (field, territory, land, country). By the 5th century this word was also being used to specifically describe people who travelled to visit religious sites. The Norman French squished this word down and changed the r to an l, resulting in
pilegrin, and ultimately pilgrim. (In Central France, they squished it even further into pèlerin.)

Meanwhile, however, Latin was still a living language throughout the Middle Ages, so the original form also survived, particularly in reference to the falcons which were most highly prized for hunting because of their speed and accuracy.  Why were they called falco peregrinus? Since peregrine falcons build their nests on high, inaccessible crags (more latterly on high-rise buildings!), falconers could not get at them in order to steal the young ones. They had to wait and catch them during the bird's migration -- its "pilgrimage", in effect.

"Peregrination" also originally had this sense of "pilgrimage", but by the 1500s it was already being used in its current sense of "travelling or wandering about; coming and going."

Wherever your peregrinations may take you on this holiday weekend, I wish all my American readers a happy Thanksgiving.


Why is a turkey called a turkey? Click here.
For the story on "Black Friday", click here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Condensed" History of the English Language Course

I will be offering a two-week, four-session, condensed version of my popular History of the English Language course through University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies next spring. It is a rare opportunity for those of you who cannot attend daytime courses. Classes will be offered at the St. George (downtown) campus of the U of T.


2414 History of the English Language

 Email this information to yourself or a friend
 Remind me of this course at a later date


To register, follow this link:
http://2learn.utoronto.ca/uoft/search/publicCourseSearchDetails.do?method=load&cms=true&courseId=10855407

Course Details

Did you know that the word "travel" is derived from an instrument of torture? That "tragedy" originally had something to do with goats? That hotels and hospitals have something in common? The fascinating history of the English language is full of such surprises. This course is a survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years, covering the Anglo-Saxon and Viking origins, the influx of Norman French and Central French, later Latin and Greek borrowings, standardization and French borrowing in the 18th century, and international borrowing since the 18th century. We will tie linguistic developments in with the social and political events with which they coincided. Topics will include why English spelling is so difficult, and why we have such a large wordstock,

Learner Outcomes

"See course details"

Prerequisites

None




Sections

2414 - 005 History of the English Language  
Winter - 14
Section Schedule(s):   Mon, Wed 6:30PM - 8:30PM
24 Mar 2014 to 2 Apr 2014
Number of Sessions: : 4
Tuition Option(s):   Flat Fee non-credit    $160.00




Nominate Wordlady for a "Best English language blog" award!

Share the love with the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards 2013

Posted by on November 19, 2013 Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards 2013There are lots of things to look forward to in November: Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving, the turning on of the Christmas lights, and the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards of course!
These awards, hosted by Macmillan Dictionary, give you a chance to tell us which is your favourite blog and website about the English language. We know there are lots of excellent English language resource sites out there (in many languages too) – this is the time to show your love and appreciation for the blogs/websites that feed your craving for English language knowledge!
To learn more about the Love English Awards, including previous years’ winners, visit our Love English Awards page.
Nominations are now open – why not nominate your favourites:
  • Nominate your favourite English language blog here.
  • Nominate your favourite English language website here.
Nominate now and be in in with a chance of winning a Nexus 7 Tablet!
Find out how you can win a Nexus 7 Tablet.
Important dates to remember:
  • Nominations end on 12 January 2014
  • Voting starts on 21 January 2014
  • Voting ends on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2014
  • Winners and runners-up of the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards 2013 and the lucky winner of the Google Nexus 7 tablet will be announced on 18 February 2014.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cat word of the month: Puss

My puss's puss

Cats rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, but apparently English, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Irish, and even Lithuanian cats agree that when they hear someone calling "Puss!" they should head on over to see whether tasty treats might be on offer. How all these languages settled on this string of sounds to call a cat is unclear, but it has been thus since the Renaissance. I don't know how people addressed their cats before then. Maybe they were sensible enough to realize that calling a cat to come is often a waste of one's breath.

In light of recent events, I cannot alas gloss over the more racy sense of "puss" and "pussy", which dates from the late 1600s. 

The use of "puss" for another part of the anatomy, the face or mouth ("punched him in the puss") is unrelated. It comes from
Irish pus (lip, mouth) and has been used in English since the mid-1800s.

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.  


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Sunday, November 17, 2013

A "mountainously incontinent" (?) mayor

The National Post's Andrew Coyne recently weighed in on the Rob Ford scandal, the opening words of his article being the following:

"No one seems to know how to get Toronto out of its mayoral mess. It is the product of a flawed civic architecture that, in all fairness, never contemplated the existence of a mayor so mountainously incontinent, yet so impervious to shame."

This use of "incontinent" was dismissed by many as an unintentionally hilarious typo or malapropism that would surely be corrected to "incompetent" in short order, but in fact Coyne, who has a better-than-average grasp of English vocabulary, was using the word in its original sense, dating from the 1300s, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary:

 "1. Not continent; wanting in self-restraint: chiefly with reference to sexual appetite."

 

Now, I wouldn't put it past Coyne to indulge in some double entendre, but nonetheless, "incontinent" is a very good word to describe Rob Ford's shenanigans.

 

The currently more common meaning of "incontinent" is much more recent, attested since the early 1800s.  It is likely to bump the "lacking in self-restraint" sense out of the language, but has not done so yet, as we can still find examples like Coyne's and this one, quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of English: "the incontinent hysteria of the massed pop fans."

 "Incontinent" is, obviously, the opposite of "continent". How did the same English word come to mean "large land mass" on the one hand and both "controlled, restrained" and "able to control urination and defecation" on the other?

 

"Continent" comes from the Latin continēnt-em,the present participle of continēre (literally "contain, hold together"). Since large land masses are "held together", continēnt-em came to mean "contiguous, connected, continuous" while at the same time also  meaning ‘holding oneself in, self-restraining, restraining one's passions’. The latter was the sense in which the word was first adopted into modern languages.  So in 1382 an English translation of the Bible had the following: " It bihoueth a bischop forto be..iust, hooly, contynent", whereas the "large landmass" sense did not start being used till the 1600s.


Those who do not let their ignorance of the history of the English language get in the way of being rude to Andrew Coyne on twitter might well consider subscribing to Wordlady to broaden their lexical horizons.

 For my related discussion of how to spell "drunken stupor", please see this post.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

10 language errors that you really shouldn't make

Last month we looked at ten usages which started off being criticized as wrong but have since become standard. This month, I offer you a list of usages that you really should avoid, with links to my articles about them. It actually amazes me that I can find this many linguistic issues that I have condemned as "wrong", but I even have enough left over to make another list next month!

1) Casting dispersions

2) Misplaced modifiers

3) Pronounciation

4) have went

5) Confusing whose and who's

6) enervate

7) synonomous, autonomous, etc.

8) sneak peak

9) In memorium, rememberance, momento

10 forebearer

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.   

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Friday, November 8, 2013

The British: a nation of schemers?

Something that always takes me aback when I am in England is how British and North American usage of the word "scheme" differs.

Here in North America, a "scheme" usually has negative connotations of something underhanded or conniving -- or at the very least somewhat suspect. It has this sense in British English as well. But in England, there are also laudable "schemes" everywhere: building schemes, funding schemes, training schemes, pension schemes, and so on. In Scotland, public housing is called "housing schemes". In all these cases, we North Americans would use "plan" or "project" or "program" (why we have a fondness for words starting in "p" I don't know).

You can even see that the word "scheme" is more common in British English than in American English by looking at this frequency chart based on Google Books (admittedly a rather clumsy tool, but nonetheless I think this is significant):


Here are some examples, in none of which would a North American use the word "scheme":













and, from Birmingham Royal Ballet's website:

"A longer version of this article originally appeared in Entrechat, the magazine of the BRB Friends. To find out more about the scheme [i.e. the Friends of BRB], click here."
and
"I have also worked there as a Regional Representative within Merseyside for their Young Dance Ambassador Scheme".

"Scheme" comes ultimately from the Greek schema (form, figure). Its first use in English, in the Renaissance, was for a rhetorical device, but it was also used to mean a diagram. From the literal "plan" of something, it soon came to designate a plan of action or a project. The idea of an underhanded plot came to be attached to the word in the 18th century,  and the negativity seems to have clung more tenaciously on this side of the Atlantic than on the other. There are of course neutral expressions like "colour scheme" and "in the great scheme of things" in all varieties of English.

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.  


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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Stupor or stupour?

Much to the cringing dismay of us Torontonians, the entire world now seems to know that our buffoon of a mayor admitted to smoking crack cocaine "in one of [his] drunken stupors". 

Of course, the burning question that occurs to Wordlady and her many followers is: 

"How is stupor spelled? If Rob Ford is Canadian, shouldn't he be in a drunken stupour rather than a drunken stupor?"

Apparently that is what the publisher of the Toronto Star, John Cruickshank, thinks in an article published November 6, How do you cover a deceiver without reporting mistruth?: "Ford says he tried crack once while in a drunken stupour."

But "stupor" is one of those words that is never spelled with an -our. Unlike the words we do spell with an -our ending (colour, labour, etc.), which stopped off in French before they landed in English, "stupor" came into English directly from its Latin origin, stupor (the etymology for which in the OED is "see stupid", and I bet the OED lexicographers don't even know Rob Ford). Both words come from the verb stupere (be stunned or benumbed).

We Canadians tend to hypercorrect such words, changing -or to -our just in case someone might -- shock, horror, or do I mean horrour -- mistake us for Americans. But our hypercorrection is incorrect. Stupor is the correct spelling (as is horror).

For the full story on why the British and most Canadians use -our endings while Americans use -or, see this post.


Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.  



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Friday, November 1, 2013

Can you buckle a swash?

English National Ballet has just premiered a new production of Le Corsaire, a rip-roaring 19th-century classic featuring pirates, slave traders, abductions, opium-smoking, women in bare-midriffed tutus, lots of leaping about, and much derring-do. Inevitably, the word "swashbuckling" is much in evidence in publicity and reviews.

But what is swashbuckling exactly?

The word, which dates from the late 1600s, is not, as you might think, a combination of a noun "swash" (whatever that might be!) and the progressive form of the verb "buckle". Rather, the word was created by a phenomenon called "back-formation", derived from the century-older "swashbuckler", defined delightfully in the OED as "A swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio". But swashbucklers were not buckling swashes (as the creators of "swashbuckling" apparently thought); they were swashing bucklers. 

The verb "swash" arose in the Renaissance, imitating the sound made when something is thrown or moved with great energy, like "swish" but more forceful. In particular, swords were swashed about, and often what they were swashed against was a buckler, not someone who buckles, but a small round shield with a knob-like protuberance in the middle.

Elizabeathan gentlemen engaging in sword and buckler play

Although we already had the Germanic word "shield" since Anglo-Saxon times, we English have always liked a synonym, so we borrowed "buckler" from the French boucler in the Middle Ages (in Modern French the word for "shield" is still bouclier). The French had got it from the Latin adjective bucculārius, describing objects having a boss like the knob in the centre of this shield. This in turn came from buccula (a diminutive of bucca cheek) which designated either the cheek strap of a helmet or the boss of a shield. 


You will have guessed that the word "buckle" is from the same source. In French, the boucle was first the boss in the centre of the boucler, and then the loop or ring serving as a handle, which was affixed behind it, before finally settling down as the device used for fastening such a strap.  Interestingly, whereas in English "buckle" focuses on the metal fastening, French has also retained the "loop" sense.  So a loop-like itinerary is a boucle and so are earrings and big round curls in the hair.

For other examples of back-formation, see my posts about "mentee" and "peddle".



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Friday, October 25, 2013

Cat word of the month: tuxedo

A very apt name for a black or charcoal grey cat with a white "shirt front" is "tuxedo cat". Aquinas always used to park himself on a chair at the dining room table as soon as I set the table, and he looked for all the world as if he had changed into formal attire for dinner, so I have always found this term particularly appropriate.

I don't think it has yet caught on in Britain, where they call the garment a "dinner jacket". Somehow "dinner jacket cat" doesn't seem right. But clearly the same idea was in T.S. Eliot's mind when he created "Bustopher Jones: Cat about town (in white spats)" for Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. (We'll forgive Eliot his curmudgeonliness about the word "television" for his obvious love of felines.)   

http://www.brainpickings.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/oldpossumgorey9.jpg
Illustrations by Edward Gorey, 1982


http://www.brainpickings.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/oldpossumgorey8.jpg 

Perhaps "Bustopher Jones cat" should be the term adopted by the British (if you are British, please let me know if you do have a name for this kind of cat).

The earliest evidence I have been able to find for the term "tuxedo cat" is from 1979:
"She works on a seven-year-old black-and-white tuxedo cat named Marcel."
New York Magazine, 10 Dec. 1979, p. 126,
but the word "tuxedo" goes further back. 

It is said that a young scion of the wealthy with the improbable name Griswald Lorillard showed up in a tailless jacket in 1886 at the annual debutante ball at the posh Tuxedo Park country club about an hour north of New York City. The fashion, however, possibly dated from as early as 1865, when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) apparently favoured it at Sandringham. Whatever the origins of the garment, by 1889 it was being called a "tuxedo coat" or "tuxedo jacket", shortened a couple of decades later to "tuxedo". Of course, this more informal way of dressing did not meet with everyone's approval:





I'm happy to announce that another tuxedo cat is now in residence at Chateau Wordlady, having adopted me at the end of the summer.
Here he is:




At first I thought of naming him "Balanchine" to reflect his resemblance to the male dancers' costumes in some of George Balanchine's ballets:


Robert Tewsley and Nao Sakuma in Symphony in Three Movements

He is now officially "Minkus", but perhaps "Balanchine cat" would be another appropriate name (at least among balletomanes) for this colour pattern. (If you love Balanchine, you might want to check out my upcoming ballet trips to Paris and Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, and Saratoga Springs).

Finally, we cannot leave this topic without mentioning the most famous tuxedo cat of all: Sylvester.  Sufferin' succotash!
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/8/82/Sylvester_the_Cat.svg/180px-Sylvester_the_Cat.svg.png


For the origins of the word "tabby", click here.
For "marmalade", click here.
For "ginger", click here.
For "Tom", click here.
For "calico", click 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.