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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, 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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Monday, October 21, 2013

This week's Murdoch Mysteries anachronisms

malarkey: first recorded use 1924
traumatize (in the mental sense): first recorded use 1949.
For others, see this post.

How do you pronounce "congratulate/congratulations"?

I am conducting a survey about the pronunciation of the end of the second syllable of the words "congratulate" and "congratulations". If you feel like joining in, please let me know what variety of English you speak (which may be different from where you live, for instance if you are essentially a speaker of British English but living in Canada, you would identify yourself as a British English speaker) and which of the following best describes what you say :

1) GRATCH

2) GRADGE

3) GRAT yuh
(if you think you say this, could you please say the word out loud as you would in normal conversation and pay close attention to the actual consonant you produce, to be sure you are not being overly influenced by the spelling).

Thank you!

Friday, October 18, 2013

11 surprising "language errors" that have become standard usage

If you're a regular reader of Wordlady, you know that a common theme is that many of our now standard usages (word choice, pronunciation, spelling) were once criticized as being "wrong" or "barbarous" or "infelicitous" or "uncouth" by self-appointed guardians of the language.  Here's a list of eleven (there are many, many more, but we'll start with eleven -- ten would be so predictable) which are particularly surprising:


 1) alphabet: a "vulgar error"
One famous lexicographer, Cotgrave, sniffily dismissed the word "alphabet" as vulgar in 1611: "Touching the French abece, for alphabet I will not call it, according to the vulgar error, that word being peculiar only to the Greek tongue." 

2) announce: "affected, harsh-sounding, and uncouth"
1638   D. Featley Stricturæ in Lyndomastygem i. 207 in H. Lynde Case for Spectacles,   The Jesuits and Seminarie Priests at Doway and Rhemes..have fraught their English translation of the Bible, with so many affected, harsh-sounding, and uncouth words to English eares, as announce...
(For more on words ending in -nounce, see "Wordlady makes a pronouncement")

3) anthem: "inappropriate"
1866   C. Engel Introd. Study National Music i. 2 (Note to ‘National Anthem’)   Anthem is musically an inappropriate title for this tune. 


4) contact = get in touch with: banned
1927   Spectator 6 Aug. 212/2   Dreiser should not be allowed to corrupt his language by writing ‘anything that Clyde had personally contacted here’.

1935   A. P. Herbert What a Word! 100   A charming lady in the publicity business shocked me when we parted by saying ‘It has been such fun contacting you.’

In 1931, a highly ranked employee of the Western Union tried to have the use of the verb "contact" banned in his company.

5) couple 
Usage commentators in the late 19th and early 20th century, undaunted by five 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. 
(For more on "couple", see A couple (of) issues with "couple")


6) jeopardize: "useless"
1828   Noah Webster Amer. Dict. Eng. Lang.,   Jeopardize..(This is a modern word ... synonymous with jeopard, and therefore useless.)

7)  one: "barbarous"
In 1685, Christopher Cooper, writing a grammar of English, described the pronunciation wun for ‘one’ as ‘barbarous speaking’.

(For more on "one", see Atonement)

8) sound: "condemned"
In the sense of "something heard", this is derived from the Norman French soun, which in turn comes from the Latin sonum. In the 1300s, when we first borrowed the word, there was no -d, but the OED tells us that "The form with excrescent -d finally established itself in the 16th cent., but is condemned by Stanyhurst as late as 1582 (Æneid To Reader, p. 11)."

9) television: "ugly"
1942   T. S. Eliot Mus. Poetry 18   There are words which are ugly because of foreignness or ill~breeding (e.g. television



10) width: "a low word"
In his 1755 Dictionary, Samuel Johnson called it "a low word", preferring "wideness". 
(For more on width, length, and height, see The long and the short of it)

 


11) yolk: "mistake"
Walton Burgess’s Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing, and Writing the English Language, Corrected (1856) No. 23. “I prefer the yolk of an egg to the white:” the more common word is yelk, with the l sounded  

Many more current accepted usages did start out as mistakes of one sort or another (mistaking one word for another, understanding a singular as a plural, etc.). 

The moral is: language changes, and prescriptive pronouncements rarely succeed in stopping it. 


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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Saturday, October 12, 2013

I wish I may, I wish I might...

The problem
Today's Toronto Star had the following headline:

Good Samaritan law may have saved son, mom says


There is only one way to interpret this:
A Good Samaritan law exists
The mother's son is still alive
It is possible that it is thanks to this law that the son is still alive

In fact, on reading the article, it became clear that:
No such law exists (in this case protecting those who call emergency services about a drug overdose from themselves being charged with drug possession)
The son died

If such a law had existed, the son might have lived.

The headline made it sound like it was a good-news story when in fact it was anything but. 

Do not confuse "may have" and "might have"
  People often use "may have" when what they mean is "might have". If a condition (an "if-clause") is either implicit or stated, what you need is "might have".

If you say
"These people may have survived", 
it means
"It is possible these people have survived (but we don't know for sure)".

If you say
"With better care, these people might have survived", 
it means
"They didn't survive. If they had had better care maybe they would have."

The solution
  If you are unsure whether to use "may" or "might", try recasting the sentence with "will" or "would".

If "would" conveys the meaning you want if you are expressing something certain, then "might" is the appropriate form for something less certain ("might" essentially means "would maybe").

So, to try this with the original headline:

"Good Samaritan law will have saved son" is clearly wrong
"Good Samaritan law would have saved son" makes more sense, but since we can't know for sure that it would have, "might" is the appropriate word to use.

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, October 11, 2013

Furlough Friday

The US government shutdown has put many workers on enforced leave, or, as Americans call it, furlough. It is a word little used outside the US, and strikes the rest of us, I think, as somewhat odd. Where does it come from?

We borrowed the Dutch word verlof (a leave of absence) in the 1600s. The Dutch seem to have based the word on the German Verlaub (permission). For the first century or so, we pronounced the final "f", like the Dutch, but by the end of the 1800s it had dropped off, and the word was respelled "furlow" or, in imitation of words like "though",  "furlough" (because English has never liked a simple spelling when we could have a difficult one instead). Originally, the word was used only in military contexts, but was soon extended to other fields of endeavour.

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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Monday, October 7, 2013

Linguistic anachronism in Murdoch Mysteries

I was watching Murdoch Mysteries on TV tonight. This is set in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century (last week Queen Victoria died). Tonight's episode referred to someone's bicycle being "sabotaged". According to the OED, the noun sabotage was not borrowed into English until 1910, and the first recorded usage of the verb is from 1918. In fact "sabotage" was not even used in the original French in this sense of intentionally damaging the operation of something until 1909.

This is not as egregious as some of the anachronisms I've noticed in Downton Abbey. Mostly I just like to play the "I wonder if that word really existed then?" game and then go and check in the OED. Perhaps, as in so many things, Detective Murdoch is ahead of his time (though I think it was Inspector Brackenread who used the word "sabotage").

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Friday, October 4, 2013

Two biceps, one...?

A particularly indignant correspondent once wrote to me complaining about people using "bicep" instead of "biceps", and asserted that "bicep" would never be the correct term for the large muscle in the upper arm which flexes the arm and forearm.

Oh what the heck, lets look at a nice biceps before we proceed:

Well now, thus fortified, let us consider the question. Lexicographers know that "never" is a very long time in usage change, and that perhaps someone in the Middle Ages was harumphing that "pea" would never be correct for "pease", or "cherry" for "cherise", "skate" for "skates", "hero" for "heros", and so on.

"Biceps" is indeed technically the correct name for the muscle. One biceps, two biceps.  It comes from Latin bi- (two) + -ceps, a form of caput (head), and the muscle in the arm (as well as a similar one in the leg) is called this because it has two "heads" or parts, attaching it to the shoulder blade.

http://img.webmd.com/dtmcms/live/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/articles/image_article_collections/anatomy_pages/493x335_bicep.jpg 

But, as we saw with "Premises, premises", English doesn't like singular nouns ending in -s. Notice how weird "a nice biceps" sounded in the sentence above (oh, all right, go and have a look at the picture again). Ever since the 1850s, people have been using the word "bicep" instead of "biceps":

The United Service Magazine - Volume 1; Volume 65 - Page 271

books.google.com/books?id=DtwRAAAAYAAJ
"Many years have passed since I stretched myself under a wigwam in the far west ; but while I write this page, acute pains are shooting through the bicep muscles of my arms and shoulders."

As you can see from this chart, the usage has been accelerating in the last 60 years, doubtless concurrently with the rise in people going to the gym to flex those very muscles. If you are writing a medical treatise, I would recommend using "biceps", but it looks as though "bicep" is here to stay. 

For the fascinating story of the word "muscle", please click here.

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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About Me

My photo
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.