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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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

It drives me mad

With the recent release of a new film version of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, many people once again have the opportunity to get the title wrong and call it Far from the Maddening Crowd.

Hardy's title is an ironic allusion to Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751, in which the  poet refers to those buried there and their humble rural life:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Although Hardy's novel does take place in rural Dorset, the passions which tear the characters apart make their life anything but a cool sequestered vale.

But why did Gray use "madding" rather than "maddening" in the first place? 

"Madding" is in fact an earlier word than "maddening". It meant both "becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied" and "driving mad", though it is the first sense that Gray was using in his poem.  "Madding" was derived quite regularly from a verb that used to exist, "to mad", meaning "to be or to become mad; to act like a madman, rage, behave furiously." This in turn was quite normally derived from the adjective "mad" (yes, really, it's ok to turn an adjective into a noun, see this post: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/whats-wrong-with-this-verb/)

This verb had its day from the mid 1300s to the early 1800s, and then was replaced in both senses by its much younger (dating from the mid 1700s) offspring, "madden". For some reason, "madden" ceased to be used in the "go mad" sense early in the 20th century, leaving us, surprisingly, without a handy one-word verb for this sense. 

I have fond memories of being taken to see the 1967 movie of Far From the Madding Crowd starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, which I just recently learned comes in at just under 3 hours in length.  I am amazed that my parents thought, "Hey let's take the kids to a 3-hour-long adaptation of a Victorian novel about the destructive nature of passion; they'll love it!" But we did love it, and I went home and read the book! I was 9 years old. (Much later, I called one of my cats "Bathsheba".) The moral of the story is: don't expose your children to Thomas Hardy at an early age.

They may become lexicographers.

https://youtu.be/DGgqRsXm73U




On a completely unrelated topic, if you are interested in Jewish contributions to ballet, please check out my lecture series starting June 1: 
http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2015/05/new-lecture-series-jewish-contributions.html


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! You can either:

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

In (a) shambles

Well, I'd better post something before you all get concerned about what has happened to me. I know you have probably been spending every waking moment thinking, "Where's Wordlady? I'm worried! Maybe her life is in a shambles, and that's why she's not posting anymore."

Or would you say, "Her life is in shambles"?

And anyway, where does the word "shamble(s)" come from, and what is/are it/they?

I had cause to think about this on reading something described as being "in shambles", the same sort of construction as "in ruins" or "in tatters". Being the dispassionate descriptivist that I am, my immediate reaction was, "Well, that's just WRONG! It should be 'in A shambles'."

But then, being the dispassionate descriptivist that I am, I thought I'd better look into it before making any intemperate pronouncements.

"Shambles" has a long history, dating all the way back to the Latin word scamellum, a diminutive of scamnum (bench). This was borrowed into the Germanic languages even before the Anglo-Saxons set sail for Britain in the 5th century. A "scammel" (pronounced "shammle") was a stool, and subsequently a shop counter. 

By the 14th century, now spelled "shammel" to reflect its pronunciation, the word was being applied specifically to a market stall for selling meat or fish.  Since markets usually have several of these in one place, the plural form started to refer to a meat market: "a shammels". 

The shambles in the city of York
About the same time, the intrusive "b" found its way into the word, to make the phonetic transition from "m" to "l" easier. This phenomenon also happened with the words "crumble", "nimble", "thimble", "bramble", "mumble", and others.

By the 1500s, a "shambles" was a slaughterhouse, and not long after that, we see the word being used figuratively to mean "a place of carnage":  

The First World War, creating a pressing need for synonyms for "bloodbath", gave new life to the figurative use of the word. Descriptions of battle scenes inevitably included connotations of general disorder, and by the early twenties, "shambles" started to be used of scenes of chaos and devastation, whether or not carnage was involved. There was some criticism of this weakening of the word at the time, but as always, usage wins out, so that "disorder" is now the dominant, and perhaps only sense of the word.

Since, as we have seen before, English speakers just don't like singular words ending in -s, "in shambles" has also overtaken "in a shambles", as you can see (keep scrolling after the chart):
https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=was+in+shambles%2Cwas+in+a+shambles&year_start=1920&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cwas%20in%20shambles%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwas%20in%20a%20shambles%3B%2Cc0




So I should just get over my objection, and accept that saying "in shambles" is just as legitimate as "in a shambles", which is, in fact, the loser in this competition. What do YOU say? Please let me know.

Although the "disorder" sense of "shambles" was a North American development, the British have taken things one step further, creating the adjective "shambolic" sometime in the sixties. It surprises me that this has not yet really caught on this side of the Atlantic.

By the way, no need to worry about the state of my life. I've just been off escorting ballet lovers to Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and New York.

My life is not in a shambles. (There, you see, I just cannot bring myself to say "in shambles".)

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the state of my housekeeping.


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! You can either:

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Find Out What Your Name Would be if You Were Born Today

As you know by now, I really like onomastics, and so I'm sharing this fun quiz for you. Apparently I just missed being "Paulette".

http://time.com/3856405/baby-name-popularity/?xid=fbshare

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! 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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Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


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.