Saturday, August 31, 2013

Labour Day

Making language work for workers


Howard Richler

September 2nd marks Labour Day and if your labour is solely laborious, take solace that this was the original connotation of the word. When the word first surfaces in English in the 14th century, its only sense was as “arduous toil” and by the late 16th century the word was used to refer to the rigours of childbirth. It was only in 1776 that it that its main sense today of work done in order to obtain material wants and needs surfaced in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: “The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life, which it annually consumes.

More than a century after the first Labour Day observance, there remains some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records indicate that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honour those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold." Many people however, credit a machinist named Matthew Maguire as the holiday’s founder.

In any case, the first Labour Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a
workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many American industrial centers.

In Canada, on April 15, 1872, the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first North American workingman's demonstration. Some 10,000 Torontonians turned out to watch a parade and to listen to speeches calling for abolition of the law which decreed that trade unions were criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade. On July 23, 1894, the Canadian Government enacted legislation making Labour Day, the first Monday of September of each year into a national holiday.

The labour movement appropriated some common English words and gave them specific work-related senses. The use of “strike” to mean “withdraw labour, ” developed in the mid 18th century and is first recorded in The Annual Register in 1768: “A body of Sunderland.., and at the cross there read a paper, setting forth their grievances... After this they went on board the several ships in that harbour, and struck (lowered down) their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea.

The word “scab” is first noted in the 13th century and referred to a “disease of the skin” and the OED relates that by the end of the 16th century it acquired a slang sense as a term of abuse or depreciation applied to persons: A mean, low, ‘scurvy’ fellow; a rascal, scoundrel, occasionally applied to a woman. By the end of the 18th century this negative sense was extended to refer to a person who refuses to join a strike or who takes over the work of a striker.

“Picket” also has been extended in meaning. and comes from the military sense of a small detached body of troops, sent out to watch for the approach of the enemy or its scouts . Ultimately, the word comes from the French piquet which referred to a wooden stake driven into the ground.

To paraphase Paul Simon, There must be fifty ways to lose your job such as rightsize, deselect, rif (short for reduction in force) and being a victim of “involuntary attrition.” If you bemoan these 21th century euphemisms for job dismisssal, you can take small comfort that the euphemistic process started even earlier. In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers a character states I wonder what old Fogg ‘ud say if he knew it, I should get the sack, I s’pose- eh?   This expression goes back to the days when workmen had to provide their own tools that were kept in a bag at the employer’s workshop. When you were given back your sack it meant you were dismissed. Even the seemingly non-euphemistic fire came into American English in the late 19th century as a punning alternate to discharge. 

Enjoy a non-laborious Labour Day

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Words from law

(This article appeared in the Sept Lexpert and is an excerpt from my book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.)

Law terms have transcended the legal arena


Howard Richler

Some laypeople find the specialized vocabulary of law inaccessible, yet it has bequeathed everyday words to the hoi polloi. While one might not be surprised that a term such as entrust originated in the field of law where it means to “invest with a trust,” other terms that have transcended their legal confines are not so apparent. For example, the first OED definition of “devise” is “the act of devising, apportioning, or assigning, by will; a testamentary disposition of real property; the clause in a will conveying this.” The OED adds this quote from Sir F. Pollock's Land Laws (1887): “A gift by will of freehold land, or of such rights arising out of or connected with land as are by English law classed with it as real property, is called a devise. A gift by will of personal property is called a bequest.” The verb sense of devise meaning to contrive derived from its sense as a verb “to assign or give by will.”

There are many other words that escaped the legal matrix. Here are a few:


The first OED definition stemming from the 16th century is “Expectation or contemplation of law; the position of waiting for or being without a claimant or owner.” In the subsequent century it acquired a general sense of a state of temporary or permanent disuse.


We see this word used in the 14th century in the legal community to refer to an orphan who is a minor and therefore a ward of the state. The first citation of such is found in John Wycliffe's 1382 translation of the Bible where James 1:27 mentions this Christian duty: “To visite pupilles, that is, fadirles or modirles, or bothe, and widewes in her tribulacioun.” The current sense of a student being taught by a teacher developed in the 16th century.


If you establish a curfew for a teenager, you may be doing so to protect the young hellion from metaphorical burns. A curfew, however, was established originally not to avoid metaphorical fires but actual ones. In medieval Europe, many communities enacted a regulation whereby a bell was rung at a fixed hour in the evening signalling that street fires be extinguished, sometimes by covering the fire. This applied also to lights and was termed couvre feu, French for “cover fire.” This morphed almost immediately in English to “curfew,” and by the 13th century “curfew” merely designated the time the evening bell was rung. There were a myriad of spellings for the word including “curpheue,” and “corfu.” Only in the 20th century was the sense of curfew extended to refer to other restricted outdoor nocturnal activities. Punch magazine in 1939 stated, “The get a nine o'clock curfew imposed on members of the Women's Land Army in prevent them going out with soldiers.” How ironic that a French word should dampen passion!


This originated as a term in law to destroy or annihilate the force of evidence, and to quash, annul, and rebut. This sense was generalized in the 19th century to mean to pass over in silence or strike out. The word's most common sense nowadays is grammatical, i.e., to omit a vowel or syllable in pronunciations (e.g., pronouncing family, fam-lee) and this sense dates back to the late 18th century.


In the 14th century, “entail” meant to settle an estate into a “fee tail” (feudum talliatum in Latin) so that it passed on to the owner’s heirs, lest the possessor wanted to bequeath it to someone else. In the 16th century the sense was extended to include bestowing an estate and to something being attached. This was the meaning John Bunyan had in mind in The Holy City (circa 1665) when he writes, “His name was always so entailed to that doctrine.” It wasn't until the 19th century that it acquired its most common sense nowadays of involving or resulting in something inevitably.


This word originated as a legal term that meant belonging to compulsory feudal service, and derived from the 13th century word “ban,” meaning authoritative proclamation. Obviously, compulsory feudal service wasn't held in high regard because before long it acquired its modern senses of trite, commonplace and trivial.


This word was borrowed from the field of law. Its first definition from the early 16th in the OED is “Conveyance or transfer of an estate by will or lease.” The key to the change of meaning is the word “transfer.” Later in the century the transfer in question became the devolution of sovereignty that occurred with the death of a king. Hence by the 18th century demise became just another of the many euphemisms for “death.” Since the 20th century the word is often used to connote a failure of a business.

In the next issue, we will look yet more words that moved from a legal sphere to a general domain. This article is adapted from Howard Richler's recently released How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts published by Ronsdale Press. It is available both as a print and as an ebook.

Monday, August 26, 2013

facebook puzzles-351-450

351-What do these words & terms have in common? : occupy-plutoed-app-y2k-wmd

352-Discern the convergent words: melon-break-soda    ice-cellar-white     

353-What do these words have in common? oral—paper-sentient

354-Discern the convergent words: dud-chicken-tea    cancer-cell-high

355-Name a nine letter word with only one vowel?

356-Discern the convergent words: joke-nap-comeback              sky-spree-meadow sea-gang-medal

357-What do these words have in common? jerky-quinoa-puma

358-Discern the convergent words : Spanish-mushroom-western    bean-cake-table salad-basket-grape

359-What do these words have in common? wound-defect-console

360-Discern the convergent words : bone-milk-stroke    dry-collar-back             singing-sore-cut

361-What do these words have in common? loot-jungle thug

362- Discern the convergent words: copy-great-can     tears-rock-skin                   boast-Indian-scare

363-What do these words have in common? useless-eroding-pampered

364- Discern the convergent words: horn-sitting -pit                  honey-harass-state story-flat-shell

365-What do these words have in common? plaza-barracuda-canyon

366- Discern the convergent words: grease-nudge-guard                pay-pedal-play beach-tree-ate

367-Name 2 words that are anagrams& antonyms

368- Discern the convergent words: amen-guard-music                      in-app-ring attack-open-felt

369-What do these words have in common? congenial-hideous-immoral

370- Discern the convergent words: boy-black-fishing                    desert-trot -out black-dive-song

371-What do these words have in common? appeasement,arpeggio,bedchamber, fortunately

372- Discern the convergent words:shoe-be-tree                              cake-tree-drop plum-bread-blood

373- Name a country that is an anagram to a world capital.

374- Discern the convergent words:dirty-fink-catcher           computer-earth-heart collar-feathers-hobby

375-What do these words have in common? compete-daring-pubic

376- Discern the convergent words: ball-dis-place                             flint-deep-red ache-endure-acid

377-Name a city whose last five letters are an anagram to its first fivee letters.

378- Discern the convergent words: loaf-head-core                      water-winter-ball maid-teeth-breast

379-Name a US city of 100,000 where both city & state comprised of 1 pointers in Scrabble.

380- Discern the convergent words: fall-fire-flood               sailor-smelling-table brown-corn-crumbs

381-What do these words have in common? adjudicant-microbeer-briefly

382- Discern the convergent words: ash-short-marble                   cane-sugar-store pool-chicken -spot

383-What do these words have in common? islander-Islam-Gentile

384- Discern the convergent words: pot-up-pork                          hind-lame-less disease-stone-donor

385-What do these words have in common? bran-bone-taco-recipe

386-got-up-bucking       orange-roasted-lame      famine-hot-salad

387-Name an American city that is an angram to verb that might apply to a doctor.

388- Discern the convergent words: kick-laid-nickel                      polish-gun-toe fondle-tie-lace

389-Name a 4 letter city in Italy that is an anagram to word that is a homophone for a family designation.

390- Discern the convergent words: ping-queen-honey                   early-brain-black up-dips-off

391-What do these words have in common? avid-flaming-roster

392- Discern the convergent words: car-sore-stiff                        hang-art-finger sausage-shed-shot

393-Name a country that is an anagram to a dance

394- Discern the convergent words: lack-spray-red                       hole-counter-crust hut-parlor-dough

395-Name a US placenames of at least 10 letters where the only vowel is an i.

396- Discern the convergent words: colony-defend-hem         bill-plains-wings cigarette-hair-dung

397-What do these words have in common? gung-ho-ketchup

398- Discern the convergent words: master-scout-by                              ate-tail-con rein-skin-red

399-What do these words have in common? cider-cabal-behemoth

400- Discern the convergent words: cheese-stray-nanny                    sly-egg-Canada lip-brain-times

401-What do these words have in common? moth-paper-prism

402- Discern the convergent words: call-food-bob        spring-yellow-fingers practitioner-only-owner

403-What do these words have in common? presto-duet-trombone

404- Discern the convergent words: smart-fat-donkey                 claw-rock-spiny flying-grey-night

405-Name a Middle East city that is an anagram to a resident of a certain MiddleEast country.

406- Discern the convergent words: safe-animal-fire                    face-thrash-soda favor-paste-powder

407- What do these words have in common? sallow-eighty-layer

408- Discern the convergent words: ale-bay-black                     raisin-ding-muffin apple-raspberry-peach

409-What do these words have in common? shibboleth-leviathan-cider

410- Discern the convergent words: led-shot-skin                         ick-crossing-lodge sea-shoe-whip

411-Aside from starting with a K what do these surnames have in common: Kovacs, Kowalski, Kuznetsov.

412- Discern the convergent words: coat-high-band               harness-soft-blade reading-stick-fat

413-Aside from starting with an S what do these surnames have in common?: Seaver-Stalin-Stabler- Streep.

414- Discern the convergent words: water-wet-woods                barrel-dance-lead hawk-level-lid

415-What do these words have in common? caucus-pone-squash

416- Discern the convergent words: stock-sword- white              first-passion-cake cake-burger-goat

417-What do these words have in common? reward-diaper-straw

418- Discern the convergent words: boat-spiny-electric              white-good-whisk dark-bar-chip

419-What do these words have in common? treat-brand-inventor

420- Discern the convergent words: paper-shark-woods      golden-bumps -grey sandwich-salad melt-

421-Name a European city of at lesat 8 letters where all letters are 1 point in Scrabble

422- Discern the convergent words: kid-tease-steak                        strap-cold-pad paper-connective-face

423-Name a word of at least 9 letters where every letter is “odd.” e.g a=1 c=3

424- Discern the convergent words: draw-drop-full                         sore-stiff-pony deep-clearing-cut

425-What do these words and phrases have in common? Gone with the wind-scapegoat- sour grapes

426- Discern the convergent words: brain-snow-soup                  farmer-oil-salted cutter-monster-jar

427-What do these words have in common? service-prison-curfew

428- Discern the convergent words: true-type-work               structure-whale-wish strain-wall-wear

429-What do these words have in common? vanilla-exuberant-hysterical

430- Discern the convergent words: water-winter-ball                 maid-teeth-breast stud-raga-bran

431-Name a country whose currency can be obtained by changing a letter in the country and scrambling the new word.

432-Discern the convergent words: beef-moose-cheese              up-chicken-peanut crab-juice-computer

433-What do these words have in common? perpetuity-proprietor-repertoire

434-Discern the convergent words: steak-doctor-black                   barrel-belly-root blue-straw-chuck

435-What do these words have in common? costumier-endears-semolina

436-Discern the convergent words: dollar-pearl-led                       ball-eaten-gypsy grey-mighty-pad

437-What do these words have in common? hominal-streamingly-grainery

438-Discern the convergent words: recognition-save-whit     butter-ring-nail-
drain- food-fart

439-What do these words have in common? pumpernickel-feisty-fizzle

440-Discern the convergent words: run-sea-star                           turtle-plunged-tail hum-shutter-super

441-What do these words have in common? ours-pain-pays-chat-fort

442-Discern the convergent words: holy-boy-girl    king-complain-salad                    tag-watch-leg

443-Name a city in Italy that is an anagram to a city in France.

444-Discern the convergent words: cotton-be-rummy   berry-wild-mother                bag-ball-head

445-What do these words have in common? slogan, tor, Tory

446-Discern the convergent words: king-gang-mountain    cocktail-roll-red          black-ranch-dog

447-What state has 2 prof sports teams whose nicknames are colors.

448-Discern the convergent words: hold-pigeon-big                        beat-low-sing space-spin-stage

449-What do these words have in common?

450-Discern the convergent words: ham-head-herring                     barrel-nut-deep dive-job-spray

Thursday, August 22, 2013

(This articled first appeared in the June 2013 The Senior Times with the title Pronoun envy and the singularization of they.)

        The singularization of they
          Howard Richler

Although the English language offers its speaker a large vocabulary, it is missing some useful words particularly in the realm of referencing other people. For example, many people are not comfortable with referencing their in-laws as Mom and Dad, yet are not comfortable with calling them by their first names. Some term of endearment more accurate than Mom or Dad would fill this void.

The English language also lacks a name for unmarried persons who share a

domestic and romantic relationship. Terms like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” sound adolescent, “lover” is too blatant, “lady friend” and “gentlemen” are euphemistic and “significant other” is meaningless. Ironically, Quebecois French has solved this problem by importing the English word “chum” to fulfill this vocabulary need. Many other words are used in English to refer to this relationship, such as “partner,” “companion,” and “cohabitor” but all of them are either euphemistic-sounding or inaccurate.

Seeing that Quebecois French has solved this problem by usurping the English word “chum,” I suggest we exact retribution by appropriating a French word. My suggestion is the word “co-vivant.” English already uses the French term “bon vivant” to refer to someone who enjoys the “good life,” and putting the prefix “co” in front of “vivant” highlights the idea that one’s pleasures should be shared the essence of a relationship.

English also lacks a neutral third person singular pronoun. Thus in the sentence “If anyone wants a cheeseburger ___ can have one,” we have a choice of using either the words “he” or “she” in which case we may be making an incorrect statement as to gender; or we can use the word “they” in which case “they” is seemingly not in agreement with its singular antecedent “anyone.” Saying “he or she” solves this problem but its usage is somewhat cumbersome.

Contrary to popular opinion, the generic “he” is not a long-established usage in the English language. It was not until the 18th century that this rule appeared in English grammar books and it was not until the 19th century that the rule became entrenched. In fact, in 1850 an Act of Parliament in England gave official sanction to this recently established concept of the generic “he.” Parliament ordained that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”

As language is primarily a tool to communicate, the generic “he” is clearly faulty because it provides false or misleading information about the sex of the referents. For example, if one says “Everyone on the choir raised his voice in song,” one is giving the impression that it is an all male ensemble.

Many languages avoid sex designation in pronouns by having a word such as the Turkish o which can refer to “he or “she.” Similarly in Finnish hän can refer to a man or a woman. In English, over eighty words have been suggested to cover this situation such as “te,” “ter,” “tem,” “hesh,” “co,” “shem,” and “thon,” but none of them has acquired much currency. In fact, when Webster's International Dictionary , Second Edition was published in 1934 the word “thon” was listed but when the Third Edition was released in 1962 this entry was not included because hardly anyone had used this new pronoun in the interim. Languages are resistant to accepting new words that are central to their grammar.

What to do? For me, the issue is clear. Pronoun envy aside, the intent of language is to communicate, and by using “he” or “his” we may be imparting incorrect or misleading information about the sex of the participants. John McWhorter, in The Word on the Street, says that “they” is “singular as well as plural for the simple reason that the language has changed and made it so. The idea that ‘they’ is only a plural pronoun is an illusion based on treating the English of one thousand years ago as if it was somehow hallowed, rather than just one arbitrary stage of an endless evolution over time.” After all, centuries ago a distinction was made between “thou and “you,” with the former referring to a second person singular pronoun and the latter to a second person plural pronoun, but by the 17th century “thou” fell into disuse in standard English.

I don’t expect everyone is going to agree with me on this issue. To each their own.

Howard's book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts was published in May 2013.