Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mean Ol' Schoolmarm

Mean Ol' Schoolmarm

The Mean Ol' Schoolmarm has her switch in hand and is ready to point out common grammatical errors she hears every day. Beware her wrath.

My wife follows a website called The Pioneer Woman  mostly for the photo-illustrated recipes. The author Ree homeschools her 4 kids and has a section of the website dedicated to homeschooling. One of the features in this section is the Mean Ol' Schoolmarm where she gets after people for common grammatical errors, usually words that are confused like "your" and "you're". It's wonderful -  except that the model in the photo doesn't look very "Ol'" nor near stern enough. Anyway if you have a pet grammatical peeve, the Mean Ol' Schoolmarm may have already addressed it.

One of my favorite peeves that is addressed by the Mean Ol' Schoolmarm is complimentary vs complementary [18 January 2011]. I own a health food store and a common name for natural medicine like vitamins and herbs is "Complementary Medicine". This term is used in reaction to an older term "Alternative Medicine", to suggest that both natural and conventional medicine can work together. Whenever I see all too frequent references to "Complimentary Medicine", I imagine a doctor making his/her hospital rounds saying things like "My you are looking good this morning, Mr. Jones" or "That green hospital gown really suits your auburn hair, Miss Smith." I suppose such compliments might make the patients feel a little better and to some extent actually improve their health. Perhaps Complimentary Medicine 101 should be a required course in all medical schools.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Canada is Unofficially Bimetric

 I wrote the following 2 years ago in response to a question from my 3rd cousin who was raised in South Africa and is now living in Western Australia. His wife had purchased some patterns made in Canada and was surprised to find them measured in inches. So he asked me if we still used the old inches, feet and yards system. He also asked if we used Fahrenheit or Celsius for temperature. This was my reply:

Just as Canada is officially bilingual (English and French) though few outside Quebec are fluent in both, we are unofficially bimetric (I just made up that word).

Canada half-heartedly made the official switch to metric about 30 years ago but we never completely let go of the old system. I think they even still use inches and pounds in grade school. For decades we have had both systems overlapping. The intention was for the confusion to last for just 1 generation but we haven't been disciplined enough to learn the new system well enough to let go of the old, which just prolongs the agony.

We think of distance in either miles or kilometers. Both work efficiently for different distances -- for short distances miles approximates minutes of travel at 60 miles per hour (e.g. 35 miles will take 35 minutes) while for longer distances 100 km approximates hours and fractions thereof at 100 km per hour (e.g. 250 km is 2.5 hours). Metric fuel consumption never caught on at all - only in auto ads do you hear liters per 100km; everyone on the street still thinks in miles per gallon (20 used to be standard, newer efficient cars can brag 35-40 mpg). Gasoline pumps did switch to litres years ago just as the price reached $1 per gallon, so they could list it as $.22 (or whatever it was then) instead. However over the years the price of gas has climbed until it surpassed the $1.00 per L mark (and was heading for $2 before the recession brought it back below $1 again).

Grocers sell produce with the price listed "per 100g" but also list in small print the "per pound" price; fabric stores will measure centimeters or inches, whatever the customer asks for, and calculate the price accordingly. Older patterns would be in inches; more recent ones (unless from the USA) in cm. Grain is sold officially by the tonne (1000kg) but the price of grain is still discussed among farmers as $/bushel, or yield as bushels per acre instead of the official tonnes per hectare. Few farmers here could tell you how big a hectare is but they all know what an acre is. For one thing the land in western Canada was surveyed into 160 acre Quarter Sections (a Section is 1 mile x 1 mile so a Quarter Section is 1/2 mile x 1/2 mile), so for that reason it still makes some sense to work land area in acres and sections.

The other reason for the resistance to change is our biggest trading partner and neighbor to the south - the USA. They do not have a strong enough government to enforce a switch - the people wouldn't stand for it. Besides they think they are important enough that everyone else who wants to do business with them can speak their language including their measurement system. Products imported into Canada from the USA  have some interesting measurements like 946ml (USA 32 oz or 1 quart) or 454g (USA 1 pound). It's easier to just use the American bottle and change the label.

To return to your first question, temperature is a little better than half converted. The weather reports all use C but some people still talk in F. Thermostats can be set to read either and most thermometers have both, one on each side of the red line. Everyone knows the significant temps in both systems - water freezes at 32F or 0C; comfortable room temperatures is 70F or 20C; and -40 is just as cold in both!

There, ended up writing an essay to answer a simple question.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Canadian English – Eh?

My Oxford Canadian Dictionary has a fascinating 2 page article (in fine print) called “Canadian English: 250 Years in the Making” by J.K. Chambers, 1998. The book The Oxford Companion to the English Language has a 4 page entry on Canadian English. From these two sources I synthesized a brief history of Canadian English to show how and why we differ from British and American English.

The first recorded reference to “Canadian English” was by Rev. A. Constable Geikie in 1857 (10 years before Confederation) who disparaged it as “a corrupt dialect.” Mr. Geikie was a new Canadian, having emigrated with his family from Britain in 1843. To him, proper English was how he and his family spoke (a universal bias!) whereas the English spoken by those already settled in Canada was some form of “low English”.

Most of these established settlers were descendants of refugees from the American Revolution (1776-1783) – which Canadians like to call “United Empire Loyalists” – who brought with them their Northern American dialect. There were some 50,000 Loyalists who came to Canada during this time – to the Maritimes (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I.), Lower Canada (Quebec), and Upper Canada (southern Ontario). Another 80,000 followed after 1791. By the start of the War of 1812, 80% of Upper Canada’s population was of American background. Much to the surprise of the American invaders, these transplanted Americans by and large fought alongside the British soldiers rather than join the American “liberators”. [As an aside, some years ago I gained insight into how this war is perceived differently south of the border by a reference made by my 3rd cousin-once-removed in Michigan to the “Continental Army” (vs. the British Army, I presume).]

Following the War of 1812 there was a large wave of British immigration into Upper Canada, of which the Geikie family was a part, which more than doubled the population. This was a deliberate recruitment of British settlers by the Canadian governors, with support of British government, to consolidate the loyalty to Britain of Canadian inhabitants in order to ward off possible future American expansionism. The linguistic effect was to overlay the Loyalists’ English with a layer of more modern British English. Unfortunately for the likes of Mr. Geikie, the lasting effects of this influence was minimized by the tendency of children to conform to their peers – they grew up speaking not like their British parents but like their Canadian schoolmates.

This British English overlay provided at most an alternative way of speaking and spelling, and Canadians, being the tolerant bunch we are, tolerated both. Examples given by Chambers include variations in the pronunciation of leisure and either, and in the spelling of color/colour and neighbor/neighbour. Both versions persist to this day with the British version, until recently, considered to be somewhat superior.

Canadians still hold different but firm opinions on these variations. Until I read these articles I thought that the British English was the “original” Canadian English and the American a later “corruption”, so believed it patriotic, for example, to add the extra ‘u’ in spelling colour. On the other hand, my wife, who can boast Loyalist ancestry on her father’s side and has added practicality from her mother’s Scottish genes, omits the “useless u”. I now see that the American spellings and pronunciations are at least as Canadian, and perhaps more so, than the later imported British ones. It depends on how strongly you define “Canadian” as “not American”.  It should be no surprise then to learn that while most Ontarians prefer colour, more Albertans prefer color.

Of course there are other unique characteristics of Canadian English. In addition to the British and American influences, Canadian English borrows many words from French and from the many languages of our indigenous peoples. There is also some influence from French on Canadian English grammar. The only example I can think of is the naming of federal government institutions like Immigration Canada, Revenue Canada and Air Canada where the modifying word Canada follows the noun in the same pattern as adjectives follow the noun in French (la balle rouge / the red ball). These names are all recent (defined as “within my lifetime”) changes from the more traditional English “Canadian Department of Immigration” etc. The changes saved a lot of ink while at the same time appealing to the French Canadian population.

There are also minor pronunciation differences between Canadian and American English which I won’t go into because I don’t understand them well and they are probably more a result of drift than of history. Canadians pronounce house, out and about differently than Americans, and pronounce certain pairs of words like cot & caught and caller & collar as homonyms while most American pronunciation distinguishes between them.

Of course the most famous difference is the unique Canadian word Eh. My American friends find our use of this word amusing. I just think of it as a more polite word for the American Huh – at least when it’s used to mean “pardon me?” or “what did you say?” Eh though has so many more uses – like “don’t you agree?” as in “it’s cold out, eh?” or as a replacement for the hesitating um or uhh as in “it was storming so bad, eh, we got stuck in a snowdrift, eh, and had to build an igloo, eh…”. This last usage of eh is considered stereotypically Canadian (not unlike my example). So there, eh?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cockney Rhyming Slang

Cockney Rhyming Slang developed in East London in the first half of the 19th century by the working class people. If not invented by, it was certainly used and contributed to, by the underworld as a code to confuse police and eavesdroppers. A word, name, or phrase is used to substitute for a word with which it rhymes. Simple examples would be pride and joy for boy and ribbons and curl for girl.

Sometimes the words they represent are themselves slang terms. For example Ben Hur for stir (prison). Longer phrases are often shortened to the first word, adding to the confusion: blowing raspberries comes from raspberry tart for fart. Both these principles are found in the phrase put up your dukes as a challenge to a fist fight. Dukes is short for Duke of York for fork which is a slang term for hand and by extension fist.

Some words have several slang terms to choose from. Depending on the situation, you can refer to your wife variously as light of my life, carving knife, or trouble and strife. Again usually shortened as in "I'll see if my trouble is home". Money can be bees and honey, bread and honey, or  Bugs Bunny. The shortened form bread was adopted by the hippies in the 1960s, so was one of only three in the book that I recognized (but had no idea of the origins).

Names are commonly used as slang terms. Most are real people, well-known (at the time anyway), and may or may not have any connection to the word they represent.  Richard Burton for curtain makes sense. Captain Scott (who froze to death in his 1912 South Pole expedition) ironically represents the word hotTom Sawyer (a well-known fictional character) replaces lawyer, with no obvious connection other than the rhyme. Other names are simply made up to rhyme such as Mrs. Duckett for bucket and Harry Huggins for muggins (slang for idiot).

These slang terms changed considerably over the years, with modern versions replacing outdated ones. There is also great regional variation, as you would expect when anyone at any time could make up their own.

To test how readily a new rhyming slang phrase could be understood by its context, I'll make one up just for you: I hope you enjoyed this hog roast!

Source: Cockney Rabbit - A Dick'n'Arry of Rhyming Slang by Ray Puxley, 1992.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Names for family relationships

The variation of languages is fascinating.

My brother sent me this link to a blog-post on The Economist website. The blog is named Johnson for Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame and focuses on language issues. This post deals with words for family relationships.
My Maiden Aunt's second cousin's sister-in-law (2 Sept 2010)

The writer compares the more general terms in English to the often more complex terminology in other languages and wonders what they tell us about their respective societies. For example, the English word cousin refers to any child of your parents' sibling. In other languages the terms may indicate whether the cousin is male or female, on your mother or father's side, and the child of your parent's brother or sister. In some languages the complexity of these relationship terms is mind-boggling.

The 53 comments that follow the post provide even more information and insight.

Litter - 3 meanings, 1 origin

The word litter has three seemingly unrelated meanings: a stretcher used to carry a person lying down; debris lying on the ground like hamburger wrappers and paper cups; and a group of baby animals (think kittens or puppies) born to the same mother at the same time. Surprisingly these all ultimately come from the same Latin word lectus meaning bed via Old French litiere. The "stretcher" meaning has a more obvious connection to "bed"; at one time a litter was a bed or seat carried on the shoulders of four men. The "garbage" meaning came from the practice of spreading straw on the floor for bedding for people or animals to sleep on. The "baby animals" meaning makes sense if you think of them as litter-mates - sharing the same birthing bed.

There are also pairs of similar words with similar meanings, but having very different origins. When I remember or find some I will do a post on them. Any suggestions?

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Euphemism Treadmill - replacing the "R-Word"

Stephen Pinker in his 2003 book “The Blank Slate” coined the name euphemism treadmill for the process whereby words introduced to replace an offensive word, over time become offensive themselves. A current example of this is mental retardation.

The word itself comes from the Latin retardare meaning “to make slow, delay or hinder”.

Retardation was first used in the psychiatric sense in 1895, and eventually replaced older terms – once neutral themselves – like moron, imbecile, idiot, feeble-minded and cretin. Each of these terms had a specific meaning as to severity and age of development (cretinism for example referred to severe congenital hypothyroidism) but these meanings often differed between countries. The new term was subdivided into degrees of mild, moderate and severe mental retardation. These new technical terms were no doubt welcomed by those affected, as the previous names were being used as derogatory insults (as indeed they still are).

By the 1960s when I was in grade school, the same process had occurred with retardation. “Retard” was a common playground insult, as in “Look where yer goin’, ya retard!”  To us at the time it was considered harmless fun (although I now recognize the potential to really hurt someone who did have an intellectual disability). In Grade 7 my buddy Doug and I did impersonations of “retarded chipmunks” in which we tucked our lower lip inside our upper front teeth and crossed our eyes.

Since that time retardation has been gradually replaced by a variety of more acceptable (at least for now) terms including mentally handicapped, mentally impaired, mentally challenged, intellectually challenged, intellectually disabled, learning disabled, and developmentally disabled. The last two of course are broader terms that include other conditions not covered by the meaning of mental retardation.

The term retardation is also associated in the minds of many with the period of time in which people with intellectual disabilities (the term I will use) were abused, discriminated against and locked away from society. While this is not the fault of the word, a change in terminology will help us put that period of history behind us.

These changes are still taking place. It wasn’t until 2006 that the American Association on Mental Retardation changed their name to American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. There is currently a bill before the Saskatchewan Legislature to expunge the “R-word” from provincial government statutes; the passing of Bill 625 will make Saskatchewan the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

The trend is to increasingly distance the names from the conditions. The Saskatchewan Council for Crippled Children and Adults, formed in 1950, became, in 1984, the Saskatchewan Abilities Council  – a perfect example of looking at the full half of the glass. The Canadian Association for Community Living is an organization dedicated to advancing human rights of people with intellectual disabilities, and is a member of the international organization Inclusion International. These names go even further  – focusing on the goal rather than the disabilities (but don’t tell you much about them when you come across them in the phone book). Their websites didn't say so, but I suspect these are also recent name changes.

Will these new terms, like intellectually disabled or intellectually challenged, also be deemed offensive at some later date and require yet another euphemistic replacement? Perhaps, following the trend noted in the previous paragraph, “disabilities” will give way to “challenges”. But one thing in their favor is they don’t lend themselves as readily to insults. I can’t quite imagine children taunting each other with “Look where yer goin’, ya challenge!”

My Language Library

Here is a list of my books on words and languages, sorted by categories. I will dip into each of them eventually and give you a sample of what I have learned from it. If there are books that you have enjoyed, please post them in a comment. I update this page regularly with recent purchases.

Reference Books
  • The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2001 edition.
  • Canadian Thesaurus, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010.
  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 1985 edition.
History and Development of Language
  • The Origin of Language – Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue, Merritt Ruhlen, 1994. Attempts to trace all extant languages back to a common ancestral language.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Calvert Watkins, 2000. Has a good 29 page introduction to Indo-European.
  • The Horse, the Wheel and Language - how Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W. Anthony, 2007. Makes a good case for the southern Russian steppes as the homeland of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European.
  • The First Word – the Search for the Origins of Language, Christine Kenneally, 2007.
  • The Power of Babel – a Natural History of Language, John McWhorter, 2001
  • The Unfolding of Language – an evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention, Guy Deutscher, 2005.
  • How Language Works, David Crystal, 2005.
  • The Story of Human Language, John McWhorter, The Great Courses DVD, 2004
  • You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, Robert Lane Greene, 2011.
  • Through the Language Glass - Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Guy Deutscher, 2011.
  • Languages of the World - an Introduction, Asya Pereltsvaig, 2012
  • Myths, Lies, and Half-truths of Language Usage, John McWhorter, The Great Courses DVD, 2011
History of the English Language
  • The Mother Tongue – English & how it got that way, Bill Bryson, 1990. An entertaining but not particularly accurate history of English.
  • The Stories of English, David Crystal, 2004. Recognizes that there are many histories of English, not just that of Standard English.
  • By Hook or by Crook - a Journey in Search of English, David Crystal, 2007
  • The Secret Life of Words – How English Became English, Henry Hitchings, 2008.
  • The History of the English Language, 2nd Ed., Seth Lerer, The Great Courses DVD, 2008
  • The Story of English – How the English Language Conquered the World, Philip Gooden, 2009.
  • The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins, Anne Curzan, The Great Courses DVD, 2012. This course is more a history of English than just word origins.
Punctuation, Grammar & Spelling
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss, 2003. A humorous reference to punctuation.
  • The Grouchy Grammarian, Thomas Parrish, 2002. Does for grammar what Truss did for punctuation (and did it first).
  • Comma Sense – A Fundamental Guide to Punctuation, Richard Lederer & John Shore, 2005.
  • Dictionary of Disagreeable English - a Curmudgeon's Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar, Robert Hartwell Fiske (the "Grumbling Grammarian"), 2006. A dictionary of commonly misused words.
  • Righting the Mother Tongue – from Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, David Wolman, 2008. Explains why all attempts over the centuries to standardize English spelling have failed.
Word & Phrase References
  • NTC’s English Idioms Dictionary, Richard A. Spears & Betty Kirkpatrick, 1993. Explains meaning but not origin.
  • A Concise Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, Brian A. Pythian, 1993. Includes some history as well as definitions.
  • A Guide to Familiar Latin Quotes and Phrases, Robin Langley Somer, 1995.
  • Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, 1997. 
Word Origins
  • Word Origins…and how we know them, Anatoly Liberman, 2005. Subtitled “Etymology for Everyone”, this is a laypersons guide to the study of word origins, explaining the science behind the many dictionaries of word origins.
  • Why Do We Say It? The stories behind the words, expressions and clich├ęs we use, 1985, Castle Books.
  • Dictionary of Word Origins, John Ayto, 1990.
  • QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson, 1997.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Glynnis Chantrell, 2002.
  • Word Myths – Debunking Linguistic Urban Lengends, David Wilton, 2004.
  • 500 Years of New Words, Bill Sherk, 2004. One new word every year from 1504-2004 (uh, Bill, that would be 501 years).
  • POSH and other language myths, Michael Quinion, 2004
  • Native Tongues – a book of captivating language facts…, Charles Berlitz, 2005.
  • The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two – the Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-so-Common Words, Anu Garg, 2007.
Specialty Language books
  • Cockney Rabbit – A Dick’n’arry of Rhyming Slang, Ray Puxley, 1992.
  • Born to Kvetch – Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods, Michael Wex, 2005. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


If you love words and haven't already discovered this wonderful daily newsletter, you must subscribe today. I've been getting it for several years and always learn something new. In addition to the word of the day, you also get "a thought for today" which is where I found the wonderful quote on my title bar. The host Anu Garg has an amazing knowledge of the English language and loves to share it with all of us - for free. Sign up here


My older brother, a blogger of several years, encouraged me to share some of my observations and comments on the history and evolution of English, and languages in general, in a blog. I took the title from my favorite quote on language by E. B. White (author of Charlotte's Web), which I found on A.Word.A.Day ( several years ago. The photo for the header was taken at the dugout in my pasture south of Wilkie Saskatchewan last Sunday. It was exactly what I had in mind for the title bar and was the impetus to get this thing actually started.

I have no formal education in linguistics, just a love of history and of words, and a library of books on these subjects which I've collected over the years. I'll provide an annotated list in a near future post.