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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, November 27, 2015

Tailing off or trailing off

A Wordlady correspondent writes as follows:
A student in my copy editing class was browsing the second edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and came across "tail off." Its meaning is very similar to that of "trail off," and she's asked me if one is essentially a bastardization of the other--and which is "more correct."
It warms the cockles of my heart to hear that someone is browsing my dictionary! 
https://forevergum.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/unnamed-9.jpg
Browsing a dictionary: the best people do it

But indeed the dictionary is not as helpful as it might be:

trail, v.
  • 5. [intransitive] [usu. foll. by away, off] peter out; tail off.

tail off (or away) diminish gradually; decrease in intensity, output, production, etc

These two phrasal verbs seem to have arisen at about the same time in the 1850s. They are simply based on words that are very similar in form (tail, trail) and, coincidentally, both evoke images of something that gradually diminishes in size. One is not a corruption of, or less correct than, the other. 

(By the way, I can't help pointing out in passing that the verb "tail" started out as a NOUN). All right, off my hobbyhorse now...

Despite their similarities, these words are not used interchangeably, of the same types of activity. If you consult Oxford Dictionaries online, which is a free resource (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com)
and, being online, has more room for examples from the real world than a paper dictionary like the Canadian Oxford, you immediately notice the difference:
  • The discussion gradually tails off as the wiki entry now represents the shared knowledge of the community represented by the discussion participants.
  • For normal papers, the rate of citation peaks in the second to fourth years after publication and gradually tails off thereafter.
  • But if the upper speed limit tails off more gradually, then other factors are more likely responsible.
     
  • He felt the magic start to fade and the voices trailed off.
  • Her voice trailed off as she disappeared around the corner, headed for the children's bedrooms.
  • ‘My God, it could happen to any of us,’ and her voice trailed off.
This very close association of "trail off" with the sound of a voice is something most native speakers of English would understand intuitively, if given some time to think about what sorts of things "trail off". Dictionaries intended for native speakers often don't make these things explicit.

But even native speakers sometimes lose their intuition temporarily, especially if they are editors, confronted day in and day out with English that sounds not quite right (or even terribly not right), or translators, suffering from interference from their second language.

If you are one of those and need a "native speaker intuition" boost, I can recommend the following tools:
1) Oxford Dictionaries online, which will give you three sample sentences, taken from a corpus of authentic English, for each meaning
2) A dictionary for ESL users (even if you aren't an ESL speaker). These also give more information about typical collocates (what words/concepts are likely to associate with the word you are looking up, and the circumstances in which it is used) than native speaker dictionaries do. Oxford Learner's Dictionaries also have a free online version: http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/ Here, for instance, is its entry for "trail off/away"

trail off  trail away

(of somebody’s speech) to become gradually quieter and then stop His voice trailed away to nothing.
+ speech ‘I only hope…’, she trailed off
 This dictionary also suggests that "tail off" is especially British, but I am not sure it is right. Also bear in mind that learner's dictionaries focus only on the most typical usages in the language.
3) Online corpora. If your word isn't in either of the dictionaries listed above (ESL dictionaries tend to have much smaller word lists than native speaker dictionaries), you can also use a free online corpus. Here's a huge collection of corpora: http://corpus.byu.edu/ If you use the KWIC search function (keyword in context) you will see the patterns of language use emerge in brilliant colour.
 Time for me to trail off now...

If you are interested in a new session of my History of the English Language course starting in January, please let me know.


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Saturday, November 21, 2015

No bull

If I were to ask you to name a sport or activity that is highly suitable for participation by amateurs, the first thing that would no doubt spring to mind would be...

bullfighting.

No?

And yet, when "aficionado" was first borrowed into English from Spanish just after 1800, "amateur bullfighter" was what it meant. It had had this meaning in Spanish since the mid 1600s, although the Spanish word had been around since the 1400s in a more general sense of "partisan, fan". 

Soon, this more general sense also came into English, and we promptly forgot about amateur bullfighters, no doubt because we have little need to speak of them in the English-speaking world (or maybe because the activity had a built-in obsolescence factor).

ORIGIN

I was caused to investigate this word because this week I heard someone pronounce it "affectionado" (or maybe it was "afictionado"). The former pronunciation in fact has some etymological justification, because the word is derived from the Spanish verb aficionar (to become fond of), which in turn comes from the noun afición, which means, and is derived from the same Latin source as, "affection". 

SPELLING AND PLURAL

There is a spelling issue with this word. It is commonly misspelled "afficionado" (indeed, I often have to look it up myself to double-check), but it has only one F, as in Spanish. The plural is "aficionados".

PRONUNCIATION

This brings us to the thorny question of its pronunciation. I am talking about its pronunciation IN ENGLISH, not in Spanish (even if you're a Spanish speaker). Once a word is borrowed from another language, the adoptive language can have its phonetic way with it. Thus, when we say "manoeuvre" as "muh NOO vur", no one takes it upon themselves to say, "That's not how it's pronounced in French!!! It should be 'man UH vruh'." Likewise, we English speakers have no right to tell Germans that they should stop pronouncing "fan" like "fen".

Having said that, here are the results from an informal Facebook survey I just did. As you can see, the permutations and combinations are almost infinite, but the clear "winner" in Canada is A fish yun AHD oh (that doesn't mean the others are "wrong"). 

My main interest was whether the penultimate syllable sounded like ADD or more like ODD (the way Canadians say "odd", which is like "AHD"). 

It would appear that only Canadians have ever used the "ADD" pronunciation in "aficionado". But it is a trend in Canadian English that we are shifting from the ADD vowel to the ODD vowel in words borrowed from other languages, and this was confirmed by this survey, where only older people (including me) said ADD, and younger people said AHD.  I was, however, surprised to see that the pronunciations with yods ("yun") or even full-fledged syllables ("fishy", "feesee", "fissy" etc.) were more common than the "fishun" option. It is nonetheless likely that the yod-less pronunciation will take over. 

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the survey!





Canada US UK
A-fith-ee-on-AHD-oh 2

1
A-fish-ee-on-AHD oh 2



A fish yun AHD oh 14 3

a-fee-see-on-AH-do 1



A fissy oh nAHD o 1



A fissy uh NAHD oh 1



a FISS yuhn AHD oh 3



A fish un AHD oh 4



a fish ee un AHD oh 2 1

A fee shee on ADD oh 1



A fish yuhn ADD oh 5



A fish un ADD oh 3



a fish ee un ADD oh 4



A fix see o NADD oh 1





 
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Friday, November 6, 2015

The Queen and her hairs

If you were watching the swearing-in of the new Canadian prime minister, you may have noticed that he pronounced "heirs" like "hairs" rather than "airs" (starting at 1:28)

https://youtu.be/gVmZQk1_RMw?t=1m28s


I am not bringing this up to deride or disparage Justin Trudeau's command of English, since he possesses a high level of bilingualism that most of us can only envy. 

Rather, I find it an interesting question: why DO we say "air" and not "hair" for "heir", especially considering that the etymologically related "heritage" and "inherit" are both pronounced with "hair"? One can never accuse English of being consistent!

"Heir" is in fact one of only four words in standard English (along with their derivatives) starting with a silent "h:. The other three are "honest", "honour", and "hour" (in some varieties of English, "herb", "human", "huge", and "humour" are also on the list). These prove particularly tricky for francophones, who never pronounce "h" in their own language and work very hard to do so in English...only to discover that we've stuck some into our language that aren't pronounced. It must seem like a wily trap, especially for those making solemn oaths in front of millions of people.

All these words share the same history, tracing back to Latin words written and pronounced with an "h". In the case of "heir", the Latin word was hēres. By the end of the Latin era, though, the initial "h" was no longer pronounced, so when Latin evolved into Old French, the word became eir. Legal terms were one of the big categories of words we borrowed from the Normans, so English acquired "eir". No "h" in the pronunciation or the spelling. 

But in the Renaissance, there was a move in English to reflect the Latin origins of our words by re-inserting letters into the spelling that had been there in Latin but had long since been lost. This phenomenon accounts for many of our silent letters (for links to other examples see the end of this post). "Eir" became "heir", but we still didn't pronounce the "h". 

"Inherit" and "heritage" travelled the same path, starting out in Middle English as "inerit" (ultimately from Latin hērēditāre) and "eritage" (ultimately from Latin hereditagium). Under the combined influence of mass literacy and the social opprobrium reserved for English speakers who "drop their aitches", we started pronouncing the re-inserted "h" in "inherit" and "heritage" (as well as in many other words like "humble", "history", "habit" and so on). But we never did so, oddly, with "heir". How long can "heir" keep up this rearguard action before it succumbs to the pressure of analogy, which in its case is threefold:
all the other words in English starting with "h"
all the other words that have reacquired the Latin "h" in their pronunciation
 its etymological cousins "inherit" and "heritage".
Perhaps Justin Trudeau is just a man ahead of his time.



Other silent letters in English (click on the links)
"h" in "school" and "schedule"
"h" in "Katherine" and "Anthony" 
"g" in "reign"
"p" in "ptarmigan"
"c" in "muscle"

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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Monday, November 2, 2015

Due process



There was a very overblown media brouhaha last week about the health risks involved in eating processed meats.

But there's a much more burning question than "Is bacon going to kill me?", to wit: 
Is "processed" pronounced PROSSessed or PROsessed?"
This is another North America/Rest of the World divide:

British, Australian, New Zealand, and South African English dictionaries: PRO sess
American dictionaries: PROSS ess, PROsess
Canadian Oxford Dictionary: PRO sess, PROSS ess

Is this another example of American pronunciation corrupting the pure unsullied English speech? Quite the contrary. As with so many examples we have seen of North American/British differences, it would seem that "PROSSess" is older and "PROsess" a newer development.

The word has been in the language since the 1300s. John Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language from 1795 gave only the PROSS pronunciation. Indeed, for the word "progress", subject to the same dual pronunciation, Walker (a prescriptivist whose dictionary's title page famously included the description "Rules to be observed by the Natives of Scotland, Ireland, and London, for avoiding their respective Peculiarities") had this to say: 
"This word is frequently, but improperly, pronounced with the first syllable long, as if written pro-gress. But the analogy of pronunciation evidently tends to shorten the vowel in the inseparable preposition when the accent is upon it, and therefore the nouns produce, progress, project &c. have very properly the o in the first syllable short."
So much for Walker's prescriptions, the English went their merry way saying "PRO-gress" and "PRO-cess", influenced no doubt by free-standing "pro".  PROSSess was still listed as an alternative British pronunciation when the first OED published its entry for the word in 1908, but by 1917 was described as "rare" in Daniel Jones's Pronouncing Dictionary, which finally dropped the pronunciation for its 1989 edition.

But meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic we kept the older pronunciation alive.

Another oddity about the word "process" is how people pronounce its plural. Here in North America, in addition to "PROSS/PROsess iz", some people say "PROSS/PROsess eez". This is a bit of a mystery, the best explanation being that people use the "eez" ending by analogy with words like "analyses" and "theses". Whatever the reason, this pronunciation is common enough to be in major North American dictionaries. 

How do YOU pronounce "process"? And "processes"? Do you have any feelings about the pronunciations that differ from your own?

 
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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Sunday, November 1, 2015

No, Aussie accent is not due to drunkenness

A ridiculous statement (I won't dignify it with the name of "theory") has been circulating on the internet this week about the origins of the Australian accent. 

Read this instead:
http://david-crystal.blogspot.ie/2015/10/on-one-word-reaction-to-reports-about.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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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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.