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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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Who knew you could go whaling at Costco?




In an incident that gives the lie to Canadians' smug belief that we are always the epitome of politeness, a brawl broke out over a parking spot at a Costco in a Toronto suburb on the weekend. You can see the edifying spectacle here:
https://youtu.be/58spiamEcfY


The person who filmed it was quoted by CBC as follows:
"I was just doing some shopping," the real estate agent told CBC News, "and all of a sudden there was a lot of screaming and yelling." The participants moved their cars, he said, and then "they came back to the middle of the parking lot and started again. It wasn't long before they started wailing on each other."
Now, although the high-pitched screeching of one of the participants could put one in mind of wailing, the correct word in this instance is, perhaps surprisingly, "whaling". But this whaling, meaning "beat, strike, thrash" has nothing to do with Moby Dick, or possibly only tangentially. It is a word of obscure origin that cropped up in the late 18th century. One theory is that it derives from the practice of beating someone with a whalebone riding whip. These did indeed exist, but the first mention of them is later than the first mention of whaling on someone. 

The whale which is the source of whalebone was originally in Anglo-Saxon a hwal, one of many English words where the hw- got switched around to a bizarre wh- in the spelling. Although the hw- pronunciation still survives in some varieties of English (Scots, Irish, American), in Canada the hw- pronunciation of these words is now almost dead, making "whale" and "wail" homophones and resulting in the kind of spelling confusion we have in this article. 

(By the way, the noun "whale" became a verb meaning "hunt for whales" in the late 1600s. Just thought I'd mention that.)

"Wail" seems to be from an Old Norse word related to the word "woe". 

One thing is for sure: Saturday shoppers whaling on one another over a parking spot is definitely a decline in civility worth bewailing.

COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

More than one capybara



Capybara soaks up the sun at High Park zoo. Capybara are the world’s largest rodents. They live around wetlands and swampy areas in South America. They’re herbivores, and can weigh as much as 140 pounds. 

In one of this week's weirder news stories, the Toronto Police tweeted this:


ADVISORY High Park Zoo - 2 Capybara have escaped their pens and are in the park. If seen please call @TPS11Div 4168081100 ^cb
 
Yes, police departments in other cities are preoccupied with chasing bad guys, but here they're after giant rodents. Last year a peregrinating peacock was on the lam from the same zoo; I tell  you life is thrilling in Toronto's criminal underworld. 

What intrigued me about this, though, was the fact that the police alert and subsequent news stories used "capybara" rather than "capybaras" as the plural of "capybara". I know, I know, the story is exciting enough already without the added fillip of variant plurals, but I can't help myself. (In its tweet, the Toronto Zoo used the plural "capybara's", but the less said about that the better.)

The name comes from Tupi kapiʔiwara, from kapíʔi (grass, brush) + -wara (eater). Tupi is a language family of South America, from south of the Amazon.
 
Although some dictionaries mention the invariable plural "capybara" before "capybaras", corpus evidence, and searches on sites such as the Smithsonian and various zoos suggest that "capybaras" is more common.  I don't know why we would choose to make the plural the same as the singular, as we don't do this for other rodents except, sometimes, beaver(s) (unlike members of the deer family, see this post about "moose"). I don't know what the plural is in Tupi but it really doesn't matter. 

Personally, I like "capybaras". If any of you know of any reason why the plural should be "capybara" instead, speak now.

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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Monday, May 23, 2016

Calling a spade a spade (or should that be a trowel?)



This weekend is traditionally when Canadians plant their gardens, and as a result we are once again asking the age-old question: 
Does TROWEL come from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "small garden tool that mysteriously vanishes as soon as you set it down after planting something"?
Alas it does not (but it should). It came to us from French in the 1300s, a derivative of the Latin truella / trulla (stirring-spoon, skimmer, ladle). Most gardening terms are indeed Anglo-Saxon, but this one is not, because it didn't start out as a gardening tool but as a masonry tool for spreading mortar and cement. 

It wasn't until the 18th century that we started using "trowel" for the small spade it is today.

Since my garden seems to swallow up trowels, I have to buy a new one every spring, and I was quite surprised to see that my 2016 model bore a label calling it a "shovel".  Admittedly, the trowel came from China, so this may account for the linguistic oddity. Would any of you call a trowel a shovel? Can you imagine if you sent someone out after a snowstorm with instructions to buy a shovel and they came back with a trowel?

"Shovel" is a very old Anglo-Saxon word, related to the word "shove", since moving something is involved in both cases. 

"Spade" in the garden tool sense is also of Anglo-Saxon origin, but in the "suit of cards" sense it comes from Italian spade, plural of spada (sword) via Latin from Greek spathē (blade, paddle).

How did spades come to be the epitome of plain, forthright speaking? Surprisingly, the expression "to call a spade a spade" has its origins in ancient Greece, but the Greeks didn't use their word for "spade"; they said essentially, "call a bowl a bowl". In the Renaissance, Erasmus mistook σκάϕην (skáphēn>, bowl, trough) in this expression in a passage from Plutarch for σκαϕεῖον  (skapheîon, spade) and mistranslated it into Latin. Subsequently Erasmus's mistake was translated into English and perpetuated. I think we need to correct this mistake by adopting the equivalent French expression:
appeler un chat un chat (call a cat a cat).




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Monday, May 16, 2016

HEBREW & YIDDISH IN ENGLISH: ONE SPOT AVAILABLE

I have had a cancellation and have one spot available for my Tea and Wordlady this Thursday. Please email me asap at wordlady.barber@gmail.com




Next up in my popular "Tea and Wordlady" series:

Canada's Word Lady

presents

Hebrew and Yiddish:
Alive and Well and Living in English 
An entertaining talk about how
Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched English
for over 1200 years and continue to do so.
From messiah to maven, sabbath to schnook, 
English wouldn't be the same
without its Jewish heritage.


Full afternoon tea (sandwiches, mini-quiche, scones, cream, and jam, fruit and petits fours, pot of tea) including tax and tip, and
illustrated talk by Katherine Barber

Thursday 19 May 


2:30 pm

$50

T-Buds Tea Lounge
2nd floor (17 steps)
3343 Yonge St, Toronto
At the corner of Yonge and Snowdon/Fairlawn
3 blocks north (about 5 minutes walk) of the north (Ranleigh) exit of Lawrence subway station

Space is limited to only 24 for each event.
To buy your ticket, please contact
Katherine Barber at 
416-693-4496 or 
wordlady.barber@gmail.com 
before March 25


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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Friday, May 6, 2016

No, you're NOT "quoting Shakespeare"

This video has been doing the rounds for Shakespeare's birthday:
https://youtu.be/Ig6f5fT0Xho


Fantastic, isn't it, all those phrases that we use that were invented by Shakespeare?

EXCEPT THEY WEREN'T!!! Sorry for shouting, but this really bugs me, not least because it takes hours to check all these things in the OED, whereas it takes milliseconds to share this video. And no, this blog post won't get the 45,000+ shares that the original Telegraph posting of this video did. But for you, dear readers, I did the work, and here are the words and phrases which this video claims were created by Shakespeare THAT AREN'T!! (sorry, shouting again, I know it's rude). 

Below is all pre-Shakespeare evidence for these words. Please make it stop.

For more on this problem see this post and this one.  

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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Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady
 


Greek to me
1603   T. Dekker et al. Patient Grissill sig. C,   Far... Asking for some greeke Poet, to him he falles..but Ile be sworne he knowes not so much as one Character of the tongue. Ric. Why then its greeke to him.

Play fast and loose
1557   Earl of Surrey et al. Songes & Sonettes (new ed.) f. 64 (heading)    Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or lose.

tongue-tied
1529   T. More Dialogue Heresyes i, in Wks. 107/2   He is of nature nothing tonge tayed.

1571   A. Golding tr. J. Calvin Psalmes of Dauid with Comm. (iii. 5)   He himselfe was not tungtyde, but rather lifted up his voyce

tower of strength
1549   Bk. Common Prayer (STC 16267) Matrimonie f. xv*v,   O lorde..Bee vnto them a tower of strength.

hoodwink

 1. trans. To cover the eyes with a hood or other covering so as to prevent vision; to blindfold.


1562   Apol. Priv. Masse (1850) 10   Will you enforce women to hoodwink themselves in the church?

 2. fig. To cover up from sight.


a1600   R. Hooker Of Lawes Eccl. Politie (1648) vi. 99   Had it pleased him not to hud-winck his own knowledge, I nothing doubt but hee fully saw how to answer himselfe.

 3. fig. To blindfold mentally; to prevent (any one) from seeing the truth or fact; to ‘throw dust in the eyes’ of, deceive, humbug.


1610   J. Healey tr. St. Augustine Citie of God xxi. viii. 848   Let not the faithlesse therefore hood-winck them-selues in the knowledge of nature.

1585   J. Foxe Serm. 2 Cor. v. 21   In this pickle lyeth man by nature, that is, all wee that be Adams children.

Make a virtue of necessity
c1405  (▸c1395)    Chaucer Squire's Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 585   That I made vertu of necessitee And took it wel syn þt it moste be.

Fair play
?a1500   R. Henryson tr. Æsop Fables: Wolf & Wether l. 2564 in Poems (1981) 95   Quhether call ȝe this fair play or nocht.

Not sleep a wink
1542   N. Udall tr. Erasmus Apophthegmes f. 316,   A good vigilaunt Consul..whiche never slept one wynke duryng..his Consulship.

Cold comfort
1571   A. Golding tr. J. Calvin Psalmes of Dauid with Comm. (x. 14)   We receive but cold comfort of whatsoever the Scripture speaketh.

fool`s paradise
1462   W. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 167,   I wold nat be in a folis paradyce.

Have seen better days
c1590   Sir T. More iv. v. 86   But we..Hauing seene better dayes, now know the lack Of glorie that once rearde eche high-fed back.

Early days
a1535   T. More Dialoge of Comfort (1553) i. xiv. sig. C.viiv,   She telleth hym then that it is but early dayes, and he shall come tyme ynough.

Bag and baggage
1525   Ld. Berners tr. J. Froissart Chron. I. cccxx. 497   So all the men of warre within departed with bag and baggage.

High time
c1400  (▸?a1387)    Langland Piers Plowman (Huntington HM 137) (1873) C. xix. l. 139   Til plenitudo temporis hih tyme a-prochede.
a1450  (▸c1412)    T. Hoccleve De Regimine Principum (Harl. 4866) l. 1990 (MED),   Go home to þi mete, It is hy tyme.
1518   H. Watson tr. Hystorye Olyuer of Castylle xxx. sig. G. iijv,   It was hyghe tyme to goo in to the courte.

The long and the short
a1500   Merchant & Son l. 46 in W. C. Hazlitt Remains Early Pop. Poetry Eng. (1864) I. 135   Thys ys the schorte and longe.

The game is up
1599   ‘T. Cutwode’ Caltha Poetarum sig. E7,   The scantlin won, the winners must cry whup, The goale is got, and now the game is vp.

Foul play
a1500  (▸?a1450)    Gesta Romanorum (Harl. 7333) 248   The lion wolde have I-made a foule pleye withe þe lorde & withe þe lady.
Set someone`s teeth on edge
1535   Bible (Coverdale) Jer. xxxi. 29   Ye fathers haue eaten a sower grape, and the childrens teth are set on edge.

Without rhyme or reason
1531   Tyndale Answere Mores Dialoge f. lvii,   For appose her now of christ, as scripture testifieth of him, and thou shalt finde her clene without ryme or reason.

Good riddance
c1525   J. Rastell Away Mourning (single sheet)    I haue her lost, For all my cost, yet for all that I trowe I haue perchaunce, A fayre ryddaunce, And am quyt of a shrew.

Send someone packing
c1580   tr. Bugbears v. vii. 28 in Archiv f. das Studium der Neueren Sprachen (1897) 99 50,   I sent the knaves packinge.

Dead as a doornail
1362   Langland Piers Plowman A. i. 161   Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl.

eyesore
1530   J. Rastell New Bk. Purgatory iii. viii. sig. g,   Ye spottes..be..a great deformyte & eye sore. 

laughing stock 
?1518   A. Barclay tr. D. Mancinus Myrrour Good Maners sig. Aiv,   Thynge nat lesse vyler, is to be ignorant Of maners vncomly: ageynst all honeste As fable or laughyng stocke, of lewdest commonte.

Devil incarnate
1395   J. Purvey Remonstr. (1851) 53   A sone of perdicioun, and a devil incarnat othir in flesh.

bloody-minded
?1545   J. Bale 2nd Pt. Image Both Churches ii. xvi. sig. P.ij,   As cruellye harted and as bloudye mynded are they yet as euer they were afore.

1935   J. Agate in Sunday Times 17 Mar. 6/2   A man says to a presumed lady, ‘What a bloody-minded woman you are!’(earliest for the common figurative sense)

by Jove
1575   R. B. Apius & Virginia sig. Biijv,   By Ioue master Marchant..Would get but smale argent, if I did not stand, His very good master.

Tut tut
1536   in J. Strype Eccl. Mem. (1721) I. xxxvi. 282   [He said, to what she had spoken, as it seems, in her own defence] Tut, tut, tut [and shaking his head three or four times].

What the dickens
1599   T. Heywood 1st Pt. King Edward IV sig. E3,   What the dickens is it loue that makes ye prate to me so fondly. 







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.