Word Lady dissects the ‘crazy’ English language

Published September 1, 2008

Katherine Barber, right, known to CBC Radio listeners as The Word Lady, signs one of her books. She presented a light-hearted talk at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto, a fundraiser for Out of the Heat.

WHO HASN’T struggled with the irregular and irrational spellings of the English language? Even the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary admits the pitfalls are numerous. “Some of our spelling still reflects old French pronunciation, even though French itself moved on – how crazy is that?” says Katherine Barber of Oxford University Press, still known to many as the Word Lady, the moniker she earned doing guest spots on CBC Radio.

On June 9 at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto, Ms. Barber (also a chorister at the church) presented a light-hearted talk entitled Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs, which is also the name of her 2006 book. Subtitled “A History of the English Language in 35 Minutes,” the event raised funds for St. Thomas’ Out of the Heat program, which provides a sandwich meal and basic supplies to about 100 homeless and marginally housed each Friday from May to November. Ms. Barber led a fascinating and fast-paced etymological excursion through the centuries of conquest – by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and Norman French – that produced our hybrid language.

Many of the words we use every day, like “house,” “eat,” “live” and “father” still mean the same thing they did to the Anglo-Saxons, explains Ms. Barber. The Vikings arrived about 790, and we have them to thank for words that start with “sk,” like skirt and sky, whereas a lot of Anglo-Saxon words started with “sh.” Originally skirt and shirt meant the same thing. One might think we would have kept one and discarded the other, but, as Ms. Barber said, our forebears were linguistic pack rats. “Why throw out a perfectly good word?” joked Ms. Barber. “If we keep both skirt and shirt, we can have matching separates!”

Wonder why we have so many synonyms? One of the reasons is that some of the words we got from French were pronounced differently in Norman French and Central French. The Normans could pronounce words starting with a “w” (of which there were many in Frankish), but the Central French had to stick a “g” in front of the word to get a running leap at the sound “w.” Thus, we English first borrowed warranty and then borrowed guarantee as well. “We were good at recycling and reusing, but not so good at reducing,” said Ms. Barber.

And then there was what Ms. Barber called the French Squishing Syndrome. The French started condensing long Latin words. For example, debitum (meaning “debt”) was squished to det, but during the Renaissance, some high-minded fellows decided to show off their knowledge of Latin and said it wouldn’t do – we must reflect the original Latin word. That’s how we ended up with debt – and Grade 4 pupils wondering why there’s a “b” if it isn’t pronounced.

As for words to do with pigs, it might be a surprise to learn that porpoise is one. Old French porpeis was a “squished” version of the Latin porcus piscis, which literally meant “pig fish.” “At least 40 spellings of the word have been recorded since it entered English in about 1300!” said Ms. Barber. The great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the first to standardize English with his 1755 dictionary, settled on porpoise.

For champion and bad spellers alike, Ms. Barber and the team at Oxford University Press are about to release a new book: the Canadian Spelling Bee Dictionary (September 2008).

As Ms. Barber explained, “We cut down the full Canadian Oxford Dictionary to compile a reference book containing just the words that are hard to spell. But English spelling is so crazy that we still ended up with over 36,000!”


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