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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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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English: TALK!

Come to this entertaining talk and help raise funds for a worthy cause. Whether or not you are familiar with Hebrew and Yiddish, you will be surprised to learn how those languages have enriched everyday English -- and for how long. From messiah to maven, sabbath to schnook, and many more words, English wouldn't be the same without its Jewish heritage.

Click here to order tickets.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Of gaggles and scrums


I wish the US administration would stop doing unconscionable and reprehensible things, but, as with Rob Ford, it seems that with every new outrage I have another word to talk about.

With the banning of some of the most-respected American news outlets from a recent briefing, I became aware of the word "gaggle" used to mean a kind of informal press conference where reporters can ask questions but not make video recordings.

Like the very similar "cackle" applied to hens, "gaggle" started life in the 1300s as a verb, designating the sound made by geese, and almost certainly originating in an imitation of that sound. 

About 100 years later, it started to be used as a noun to mean a "flock of geese". This was one of those fanciful collective nouns for animals that were made up at the time (a parliament of owls, a murmuration of starlings..) and which for the most part have never caught on in general parlance.

But "gaggle" was  a hit. In the mid-20th century it started to be used for disorderly groups of people, especially if they made a lot of noise. This was particularly appropriate for groups of reporters all asking questions at once:
Date (1999/08/23)
Title Is Nothing Private?
Source http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,991797,00.html
When it was reported that Senate minority Leader Tom Daschle told a gaggle of Washington reporters he thought George W. Bush had the right to refuse to answer questions about his long-past personal behavior
By 2004, we see it being applied specifically to the mini press conference:

Title Bush's Iraq: A Powerful Fantasy
Source http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,995237,00.html
FLYING TO MINNESOTA ON AIR FORCE ONE LAST WEEK, WHITE House press secretary Scott McClellan held a " gaggle " -- that is, a mini-press conference -- with reporters in the back of the plane.
 The analogous word in Canadian English is "scrum", taken from rugby. "Scrum" is a shortening of "scrummage", a variant of "scrimmage", which is ultimately related to "skirmish". 

For why the plural of "goose" is "geese", click here

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

This post has been thoroughly vetted

There is much talk in the news these days of the "vetting" of refugee claimants.

Does this have anything to do with that friendly medical professional that Minkus and Papagena so love to visit?

Surprisingly, yes. The word "veterinarian" (derived from Latin veterīnus: belonging or pertaining to cattle) came into English in the 1600s, when we LOVED borrowing Latin words. Admittedly it's a mouthful, and by the mid-1800s it was shortened to "vet". 

A few decades later, the inevitable had happened: the noun became a verb, "To submit (an animal) to examination or treatment by a veterinary surgeon":
Of the 73 stallions..only 39 came back for a second inspection after they had been ‘vetted’
Almost at the same time, in slang, the verb took on an extended sense: "make a careful and critical examination of (a plan, work, candidate, etc.)." By the 1950s, this sense had moved from slang to the neutral register of the language.

The other "vet" was shortened from "veteran", also in the mid-1800s. "Veteran", which we borrowed from French in the early 1500s, ultimately comes from the Latin word vetus (old).

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

The dossier on "dossier"

A thick dossier

This week, according to Merriam-Webster dictionaries,
Lookups for 'dossier' spiked after the news that U.S. investigators had confirmed portions of a dossier on Trump's ties to Russia
Why do we call a collection of documents about a person or event this? 

The French dossier comes from the word for "back" (dos); a bundle of documents on a particular subject was called this because it had a label on the back. We borrowed "dossier" in the mid-19th century, although we had the perfectly good "file" already (more about that later). Of course English has never been reluctant to acquire more synonyms for words it already has. 

The early quotation that Merriam-Webster gives is
I may, however, mention from high legal authority, that the President laboured under a mistake when he demanded the displacement or even communication of the “dossiers” (legal papers) of the Boulogne and Strasburg affairs.
Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 11 Jan. 1849
Various criminal cases in French-speaking jurisdictions were reported on in English newspapers, and the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century gave the word a bit of a bump in English as journalists reported on the scandal. Perhaps the fact that French was the language of diplomacy contributed to the word being borrowed in government circles.

DOSSY-ay or DOSSY-ur?

It seems that "dossier" first entered English through print rather than speech, because the OED's entry, written in 1897, gives as its first pronunciation not the French "doe SYAY", but rather the anglicized "DOSSY uh". But, while a very few people still do say this (or its r-ful North American variant, "DOSSY ur"), with English speakers becoming more familiar with French, we have, over time, ended up with a hybrid English/French pronunciation: "DOSSY ay" is now overwhelmingly most common in all varieties of English.  A very small number of anglophones do, however, pronounce this word "DOE see ay".


Now, what about file? (Thank GOD everyone pronounces it the same!)

In Latin, the word fīlum meant "thread". This came into Old French as fil (pronounced "FEEL"), and it means "thread" to this day in French (as well as "wire" and other extensions of meaning). 

But English went a different way with "fil" after we borrowed it from French in about 1500, using it for a very specific kind of thread: a string or wire on which papers and documents were strung for safekeeping and reference. From there it was just a short step for "file" to refer to the papers themselves, and then to other methods of keeping and organizing them, until in the 21st century our "files" are made of electrons.


Here in Canada we have our very own extension of the word "file":
  • 4. Cdn issues and responsibilities in a specified area, considered collectively: what progress has the prime minister made on the unity file?
Oddly enough, this is a context where other varieties of the language might use the word ... "dossier"! In fact, I suspect that this is a usage that arose as a loan translation of the French dossier in Canada's bilingual federal public service.


The "single file" sense of "file" is also ultimately derived from the same Latin word meaning "thread". The file we use on our fingernails is a different word, dating all the way back to Anglo-Saxon.  

And of course, all of these "files" have, quite naturally, generated verbs. Yes, more of those. No sign of "dossier" being used as a verb yet, but it's a fairly new word in English so it may be only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, please do not consign this blog post to the "circular file" (a term celebrating its 50th birthday this year)!

Want to check out some more French words? Come to Montreal with me in April to see the National Ballet of Ukraine and a fabulous Chagall exhibit. More info here.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Impeachment: When things ain't peachy

Image result for impeach

"Impeach" comes to us ultimately from the Latin word for foot, pes, of which pedam was one of the forms. From this the Romans derived their word for "fetter", (one of those chains you put on a prisoner's feet), pedica, and a verb impedicare (to catch by the feet or entangle). 

In French, as usually happened, a few syllables were lost from the Latin, and they ended up with empecher, which is the Modern French word for "prevent." And "prevent" or "impede" was what "impeach" first meant when we borrowed it into English in the late 1300s. 

But even as early as that it was also used to mean "accuse" by people who thought it derived from another Latin word impetere (which was the Latin for "accuse"). A sense of accusing of treason or another high crime dates from the 1500s, and from there the verb came to apply specifically to charging someone in public office of misconduct. It was an easy step from there to the meaning "remove someone from public office for misconduct". 

Perhaps surprisingly, PEACH (in the usage "to peach on someone" = to be an informer) is connected to "impeach", and to a synonym "appeach" that existed in the Middle Ages. Just like "impeach", "peach" in the 1400s meant "accuse" or "bring to trial." By Shakespeare's time it meant "inform against an accomplice" - in effect, accuse one's accomplice of the crime. 

For peach (the fruit), see this post:

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Why teachers are literally slaves

A Greek pedagogue
 I was listening to a podcast the other day by an American academic talking about ballet teaching methods, or as she pronounced it, "PEDDA go gee", with a long "o" vowel. 

Being my sweet-tempered, tolerant self, I thought, "What the hell is wrong with her? Why doesn't she know how to pronounce pedagogy?" I myself say "PEDDA godge ee" with a short "o", and could not recall ever having heard anything else. 

Once again I was too quick to judge. Oxford dictionaries give only "my" pronunciation, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives "PEDDA go gee" as the more frequent US pronunciation.

So I ran a little survey amongst my editor friends.

Americans were split, but not in the way the Merriam-Webster suggests:  23 used the long vowel, but 34 used the short vowel.

In Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world, the short vowel was definitely predominant, although 8 of 23 UK speakers opted for the "go gee" variant.
Usually, when we have a US/British pronunciation divide like this, Canadians split about 50/50. But not in this case. 
64 out of 64 Canadian respondents used the "short" o. So it's not surprising that I was unaware of the "go gee" variant and thought it was "wrong".

I have no explanation for this difference in pronunciation. The question of whether the second "g" is a soft or hard one will have to wait for another day. 

How do you pronounce this word?

Where does the word "pedagogy" come from?

The ancient Greeks had slaves who were responsible for escorting the young scions of wealthy families to and from school. The Greek word for “boy” was paidos, and “lead” was agogos, so a “boy leader” was a “pedagogue”. 

The Anglo-Saxons had a literal translation of this which they used to mean “schoolmaster”: Anglo-Saxon magu (boy) + toga (leader) produced the delightul magatoga No doubt prestige-conscious teachers felt that a Greek word was much more impressive than an Anglo-Saxon one so adopted pedagogue starting in the 1400s. Teachers nowadays are of course less full of themselves, though they may often feel that they are slaves!

Any word lovers out there who are also ballet lovers? Come on my great ballet trip to London in May! You could visit Samuel Johnson's house! More info here: 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Sounding the tocsin about toxins

 Image result for juicer

It being that time of year when various charlatans seek to separate us from our money by convincing us that our bodies are chock-full of "toxins" that we need to "cleanse", let us look at the origins of the word "toxin".

In ancient Greek, the word toxikon had nothing to do with poison: it meant "arrow". The Greeks had another word (actually they had many other words): pharmakon, which meant "drug" and "medicine", but also... "poison". (A pharmacist friend of mine says this makes perfect sense, because if you take enough of anything, it will kill you. Good to know.)

Clearly, the Greeks were not using archery to deliver doses of medication; a toxikon pharmakon was an arrow imbued with poison. But when this term was borrowed into Latin, confusion arose as to which of the two words designated the arrow and which the poison, and thus in Latin toxicum came to mean "poison" rather than "arrow" as it should have done.

For those who believe in the etymological fallacy (the idea that a word's origin conveys its true meaning) a "detox" would therefore have to be the removal of arrows from the body, which would indeed be a good thing but certainly not achievable with a diet of wheat grass juice.

"Toxin" has a much less frequent homophone, "tocsin" (an alarm bell or signal). This comes from Provençal tocasenh, from tocar to touch + senh signal bell, and is now used mostly figuratively:
A sharply shrieked "Tom!" coming from the kitchen is a definite sounding of the tocsin, a warning to head out the back door as quietly as possible because you are obviously in serious trouble and the only safe sanctuary is the most obscure bar you can find.
A Happy New Year to all Wordlady readers, and may 2017 subject you to neither toxins nor tocsins!
Want to know more about why the English language is the (weird) way it is? Let me know if you would be interested in taking my very popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course in Toronto on a weekday afternoon (or possibly a Saturday or Sunday morning) in January, February, or March. Email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

ALSO! "Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English" on a weekday afternoon.

To search the archives of this blog,

click here, then replace the word "search" in the search window with the term you are looking for.

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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.