Monday, March 11, 2019

A Celebration of Words for Women to Commemorate International Women's Day

                            Whence Cometh Woman?
                                        Howard Richler

March 8th designates International Women’s Day, which has been celebrated since 1975 and since the lady has been honoured for 54 years, it is now incumbent that we  turn our attention to the oft-misunderstood origin of the word “woman.” Discussions about this word’s origin inevitably entails someone becoming apoplectic that woman ends in “man.” (I mean, how controlling do men have to be?) This supposed outrage has led to other alleged affronts, such as feeling that the word history is sexist and should be accompanied by “herstory.” Truth be told, however, the word woman does not designate that a woman is a “wo” version of a male, nor does she represent a compound of womb and man.  Woman started out as wifman in Old English with man only designating “person” Hence, wifman, only meant “female person.” We find in Beowulf, written sometime between 975 and 1025, the designation woepnedman for the male of the species and woepned referrred not only to maleness but also  to “pertaining to weapons.” Another term for my bellicose gender was the term guma or gome which enjoys a half-life in the word “bridegroom.”
By the end of the Old English period the f of wifman was disappearing and thus emerged wiman and by the 13th century we see the form “woman” developing. Woman didn’t finally jettison the two more ancient words for female person wif and the more obsolete quean until the end of the Middle English period. By the way, the semantic restriction of wife to “married person” began in the Old English period and became more entrenched in subsequent centuries. Likewise, history doesn’t designate “his story” and derives from the classical Latin historia, “account of events” and even further back we find the Greek histor, “learned man.”
But the question remains, is the woman a lady?  Etymologically, the answer is settled. If she kneads bread, she’s a lady. The term derives from the Old English hlafdi which represents a sandwich comprised of hlaf (from whence we get “loaf”) “bread,” and the root -dig “knead” (related to the English “dough.”) The lady’s hubby, the lord, is the guardian of the bread, hlafweard, which was then rendered   as hlaford and in the 14th century this became shortened to the single syllable “lord.”
So while the lady’s provenance is crystal-clear, matters are fuzzier with the lady’s earlier state  — “girl.” We do know, however, that the term was originally gender-neutral and meant “child”; a male child was a “knave-girl.” Strangely, there is not a definitive term for a female child and the only recorded usages are “gay girl” and “little girl.” Through the process the semantic narrowing the word “girl” came to refer to only female children starting in the latter part of the 14th century. There are many theories of where the term came from originally, but all seem fairly conjectural in nature.
We do, however, know more about some of the familial terms for females. In fact, the word daughter can be traced back to the Indo-European dhughater and the Sanskrit duhitr. Originally, the word daughter was pronounced to rhyme with the words “rafter,” and “laughter,” not surprisingly because in English the “gh” sound is often pronounced as an “f” as in the words “rough” and “enough.” We see the spelling “dafter” during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and a century later in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812.
Aunt derives from the French tante. However, tante itself was a modification of the spelling of the original French word which was rendered as aunte.
In any case whether you are a woman, lady, girl, daughter or aunt, and possibly have enjoyed all these designations at one juncture in your life, enjoy this year’s International Women’s Day.
Howard’s latest book is Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit.

Thursday, February 7, 2019


                     Nuances of Black English
                                Howard Richler

It has been fifty years since linguists have studied Black English with an emphasis that it represents a variety of standard English rather than its degradation. However, they’re still many false assumptions about Black English and  as  this February marks Black History Month, I am taking the opportunity to present many of realities and nuances of Black English that linguist John McWhorter illuminates in his book Talking Back, Talking Black.
For example, McWhorter explains that a construction such as “She be passin’ by”  contains “much more than an unconjugated verb” and that the insertion of “be” is “very specific; it means that something happens on a regular basis, rather than something going on right now.”  An equivalent sense in standard English might be “She used to pass every Friday.”

McWhorter points out that counter to the idea that Black English is inherently a simplified form of the language, that in several instances it offers more complexities than standard English. For example, in Black English the word “up” plays a special role when paired with a location. So, in the Black English sentence  “We was sittin’ up at Tony,” we know that Tony is a friend as the usage of “up” is  a marker of  familiarity or intimacy, just as adding ed to a verb is a marker of past action. McWhorter points out that unless the speaker is a masochist he is unlikely to utter “We was waitin’ up at the dentist.”  Another nuance occurs with the word “done,” and in a sentence such as “I done drunk it,” you might think that this refers to the time frame of your imbibing but McWhorter explains that you’re expressing something far more subtle – counterexpectation.  He says “whether it’s in a sentence about 1973 or last week, a sentence with done is always about something the speaker finds somewhat surprising…”  So if a man tells a woman “I done had a crush on you since you was thirteen,” the presumption is that the woman had no idea that the guy held the flame for so long. And if someone said “You done drunk it,”  he may be expressing his belief that you were going to share the beer with him but when he got back from the bathroom you  had selfishly drained the bottle.  

We see other verb nuances in Black English.  McWhorter explains the following:
He been seen it!    (He saw it a long time ago.)
She done seen seen it.  (She saw it recently.)
He be  seein’ it.  (He sees it regularly.)
She steady seein’ it. (She is right now in the process of seeing it.)

Another way that Black English is distinct from Standard English is in the narrative purpose the verb “had” fulfills. McWhorter tells us that some languages, such as Swahili and other Bantu languages have narrative tenses.  Similarly, Black English employs a narrative tense marker in its use of the verb “had.” He gives this example from a ten-year old boy describing a scuffle:  “Cause when he hit me like this, he had upper-cut me like that, and then he had hit me like that. He had kicked me, it was half-wrestling and then, one, I was tired, then he just beat me and push me  own, that’s when he had push me down.” Rather than signalling a coming finale, the verb had is integral in telling the story.

On the other hand, in many ways Black English is less complicated than standard English. McWhorter provides this sentence as an example: “Why she ain’t call me  when she know dis de best time. ” Here, “Why she ain’t” replaces the more elaborate “Why didn’t she,” and “know” and “dis” replace “knows” and “this” respectively. A sentence such as this has led some commentators to issue some rather pejorative, if not outright racist, views. For example in the 1980s, pop grammarian John Simon ordained that “the constructions of Black English are the product not of a language with roots in tradition but of ignorance of how language works.”  More recently, political commentator Tucker Carlson said that Black English is “a language where nobody knows how to conjugate verbs.” These opinions are consistent with what is often called the linguistic inferiority principle which posits that the speech patterns of a socially subordinate group will always be interpreted as improper when compared with the socially dominant group.

However, McWhorter explains  that complexity in grammar doesn’t in any manner connote language superiority  He points out that Old English possessed far more complex grammar than modern English. For example, it  had  far more ways than merely adding an s to make a noun plural and whereas modern English has relatively few irregular plurals such as men, women, mice  and feet,  Old English was inundated with these irregularities,  But nobody claims that modern English represents an inferior form of Old English because it is less complex and
thus, the cases where Black English simplifies standard English doesn’t represent a diminishment of the language. 

Written in an erudite, yet folksy, manner, Talking Back, Talking Black examines the intricacies of Black English, and in the process undermines the stereotypes about this rich flavour of English.

Talking Back, Talking Black by John McWhorter. Bellevue, 190pp, $25.76

Saturday, January 26, 2019



2301-Split Definitive    fire, accomplished, consumed  (9)      (d) candidate These “split definitives” are now featured in my most recent book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit.     
2302-Anagram         Stories about inventor Nikola
2303-Discern     lucky-damage-gone    pimple-egg-Canada    harbour-her-hole
2304-Split Definitive    Argentine Marxist revolutionary fog   (7)    (m)     

2305-Anagram         Steal an object that can take fingerprints
2306-Discern       pickled-skin-green      grass-oil-zest   soup-field-string
2307-Split Definitive    diatribe of a Russian aircraft   (7)   (m)
2308-Anagram         Perceptive memorial 
2309-Discern    drum-mast-loo       saw-orbital-headed      life-line-kin
2310-Split Definitive      woodland everyone  (9)  (a)      
2311-Commonality               boring-lever-garlic    
2312-Discern        boat-wood-odd      ate-ding-bar-     us-enter-complain
2313-Split Definitive    Big Apple pace    (5)  (m)      
2314-Commonality      pedigree-jeopardy-dandelion
2315-Discern     flatten-rice-mix     box-mine-ern       porridge-instant-cookies
2316-Split Definitive         spy’s family (8)   (m)     
These “split definitives” are now featured in my most recent book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit.     
2317-Anagram           dormant ability
2318-Discern    function-sweet-by      hammer-iron-bump      so-tip-to
2319-Split Definitive- formerly ordinary  (7)   (p)   
2320-Anagram         very abnormal charlatan
2321-Discern     log-dice-up   candy-condition-green     aha-boiled-candied
2322-Split Definitive      bury,yield   (9)    (i).     
2323-Commonality      leukemia-albatross-blanch
2324-Discern    on-cave-old    whip-wood-woolly    army-colony-medic
2325-Split Definitive     test of an Asian river   (10)    (t)  
2326-Commonality      taco-recipe-ache-amen-rent   
2327-Discern        tomato-pick-don   extract-French-ice   walk-ash-Johnny
2328-Split Definitive     belt out a small skin aperture  (9)   (s)   
2329-Anagram         Split thespian  
2330-Discern     bud-plug-app   connective-paper-deep    cheese-fat-star
2331-Split Definitive      dog chant    (7)  (s)       
2332-Commonality     boycott-dunce-titchy pilates
2333-Discern     wet-head-fool    juice-led-red           word-oil-taco
2334-Split Definitive      taurine alien (6)   ( e)     
2335-Commonality                rubric-riboflavin-livid   
2336-Discern     paper-off-open       chop-kin-stones     film-horn-hound
2337-Split Definitive     arbitrate precipitation (7)  (r)     
2338-Commonality           cretin-gossip juggernaut 
2339-Discern     check-rot-less    double-up-wag          slack-breaker-line
2340-Split Definitive     iota she  (7)   (w)     
2341-Commonality    daisy-window-inoculate-atrocious
2342-Discern    Boston-sea-Indian     Boston-delivery-oven      land-corn-cane
2343-Split Definitive     experienced waterfront   (7)  (h)
2344-Anagram         Cats that can be described  as both the coldest and the hottest   
2345-Discern     dead-deep-alive   god-tax-thunder       bath-a-loose
2346-Split Definitive     glib gasp    (8)   (f)
2347-Commonality      lord-companion-lady
2348-Discern      moo-bar-bug    dog-tea-ship      passion-bowl-bearing
2349-Split Definitive      brazen large jar (8)   (o)
2350-Commonality       luxury-nice-shrewd  
2351-Discern   stuffed-tee-red     rod-up-coo    up-wooden-hamper
2352-Split Definitive      authoritative pronouncements rocky peak of a hill  (8)   (d)
2353-Commonality     What do these fabrics have in common: muslin-calico-denim
2354-Discern   roll-stuffed-caterpillar      hole-American-meat    kisses-chip-dip
2355-Split Definitive         incurring ringer  (9)  (o)
2356-Commonality    knave-silly-villain
2357-Discern        head-berry-jaw    cat-willow-riot   pineal-en-sweat
2358-Split Definitive      male escort    (7)  (d) 
2359-Commonality   backside-defied-harem 
2360-Discern     shot-hole-wear     shoe-leg-fog      over-plate-office
2361-Split Definitive        rent out again    (7)   (l)
2362-Commonality        debt-prism-gradation
2363-Discern      ball-bat-wicket    rock-skin-tears      ate-bar-boast
2364-Split Definitive      everyone due  (8)     (a)   
2365-Anagram      Starbucks most recent coffee selection
2366-Discern snow-raccoon-rice    bottoms-game-party   bible-utility-way
2367-Split Definitive         concept tabulation   (8)   (l)    
2368-Anagram    not appropriate wall coverer 
2369-Discern    marsh-old-ern    silicon-thin-board   brown-fin-wife
2370-Split Definitive      snake stop   (7)  (h)
2371-Commonality     inane-unreal-alone-aimless-bare-great-hurt
2372-Discern     space-a-long    biter-bracelet-deep    life-work-young
2373-Split Definitive      mistake plus  (6)  (a)  
2374-Commonality   ornate-invisible-carnal   
2375-Discern     corner-hawk-pot   pup-navy-conclude   mill-fat-farm
2376-Split Definitive      restrain printed record of bank account  (13)   (r)
2377-Anagram       Captivating pomegranate syrup        
2378-Discern   flying-urine-mental     house-waver-iron      black-root-tree
2379-Split Definitive         records attempt  (8)  (t)
2380-Commonality      egregious-daft-lewd-villain 
2381-Discern     cooler-small-can      free-germ-gold      black-horse-oil  
2382-Split Definitive      remote phenomenon    (8)  (t) 
2383-Commonality   species-misled-conned 
2384-Discern     legs-complain-grass      brick-her-at     shiner-tit-church
2385-Split Definitive      following era    (7)  
2386-Anagram     take French existentialist into custody  
2387-Discern     long-lounge-executive     leather-bed-yellow     on-stone-hub
2388-Split Definitive      Average level cut    (7)   (s)
2389-Anagram   Short and tattered knife
2390-Discern     amber-imp-tap      pass-age-able       balloon-white-pitcher
2391-Split Definitive      slice girl  (7)   (h)  
2392-Anagram        confer with competitor
2393-Discern pickaxe-northern-turn
2394-Split Definitive        manufacturing standard chits    (8)  (s)
2395-Anagram        Characteristics of painter  
2396-Discern      pot-doctor-sprout        old-ern-away         sprout-jelly-old
2397-Split Definitive      urgent request definitely     (8)  (p)
2398-Anagram Temporary places where transportation routes end 
2399-Discern     spur-tar-cad      orange-ring-gazing       opener-glad-public
2400-Split Definitive      wildly irrational purpose  (10)    (m) 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

English Spelling

          English spelling is atrochüss
                           Howard Richler

Some writers have shown a hyperbolic penchant, if not ourtright chauvinism, in their advocacy of  the English language. Typical of these comments, is the following encomium by British novelist Michael Arlen: “English is the great Wurlitzer of language, the most perfect all-purpose instrument.” On this side of the Atlantic, language writer Richard Lederer wrote in The Miracle of Language that “English is easy to learn because it has a familiar look to speakers of other languages” due to its myriad borrowings from other languages.

English may be relatively easy to learn but its spelling is irrational and a bane to people learning it as a second language. In his 1982 book, The REALReason Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, Stanley L.Sharp related “there are at least 50 million adults in the United States who do not spell well.”

Why is English spelling such tuff stough?

Many factors account for our largely non-phonetic orthography. Between the seventh and eleventh centuries, England was invaded repeatedly by sea-faring marauders who brought with them diverse spelling practices. To complicate matters, when English spelling was evolving in the seventh century, there were four distinct dialects in England and they often developed different spelling for the same word. For example, heaven could be rendered as heofon,  heofen or heofne.

Because the ruling class of England was dominated for centuries by the monolingual Norman French, there was even a tendency to Frenchify some words. Hence the word cwén (the Old English form of queen) was spelled in the Middle English period  quene  and hús turned into house. By the beginning of the 15th century, English spelling was a mixture of two systems, Old English and French.

Until writers such as Shakespeare proved that English could be as lyrical as any language, many an Englishman believed his mother tongue to be second rate. When Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, he wrote not in English, but in Latin. This tendency to regard Latin as superior extended into the realm of spelling as many felt that Latin’s fixed spelling was an improvement over the instability of English orthography. For example, the OED shows for the word  “never” in  the Middle English twenty-three spelling variations; even  the name Shakespeare was rendered in at least twenty different manners. And still today, logic doesn’t always prevail in spelling. For example, the sh sound has nineteen spellings, including the ce in ocean, ch in chute, sc in crescendo, ss in issue and a single t in negotiate.

Many an idiosyncratic English spelling bears a Latin imprimatur. The word debt” was originally spelled phonetically (dett or dette) until the 16th century when it was replaced by the spelling debt” because it was influenced by the Latin spelling debere to owe.”  Also, receite was replaced  by receipt” influenced by the Latin  recepta, the feminine past participle of the verb recipere.  At least in these instances, we retain the original phonetic pronunciation; in other cases we have acquired a new pronunciation, such as the word “cors” which decayed into “corpse.”

The disparagement of English led to other false etymologies. In his book, Spelling Dearest, Niall McLeod Waldman informs us that word “island” was originally spelled phonetically as iland or yland.  In the 16th century, however, scholars incorrectly interpreted it as deriving from the Latin word insula and therefore inserted an “s,” making “island” the standard form by 1700. Similarly, the Middle English delit was rendered as delight in the mistaken belief that the word was connected to “light.”

Another factor that affected spelling was the Great Vowel Shift. When it commenced in the 15th century, English speakers started to alter the way vowels were pronounced and this sound change was heightened by inconsistencies. Although they have the same oo- spelling, “flood” and “blood” are not pronounced in a similar fashion to “food,” which itself is pronounced differently than “good.”  Waldman relates that during the Great Vowel Shift, “our spelling not only moved away from the sounds of words, as often was the case in the past, but the sounds of words also moved away from our spelling.”

Around the same time as the Great Vowel Shift, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. Before printing, spelling tended to be more phonetic, was meant to be read aloud and was not standardized. Everyone spelled words in the manner they deemed they should be pronounced. Caxton and fellow printers, seeking some regular manner of spelling words decided on a fairly standardized way of spelling which corresponded to the sound system of Middle English, not Modern English.

By contrast, spelling in most other European languages tends to be more phonetic. In these languages, there were not large sound changes between the medieval and modern versions, possibly because language academies were established that were able to monitor this process.  The English language, on the other hand, has never had any such monitoring body. And although some language, such as German and Russian, reformed their spelling in the 20th century, and there are many people who’d like to see English spellling reformed, this is unlikely to happen. Those who have mastered traditional spelling would be unwilling to learn a new system. Also, there is no agreement among advocates of spelling reform about any optimun system.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay : Arranged and Deranged Wit.