One of the challenges of family history research is variations in the spellings of names, among and between family sources or official records (and some searchable databases are very badly transcribed). I couldn’t find my mother’s mother’s birth record, then thought to search for the equivalent of McArthur rather than Macarthur. Similarly, I was also able to find her grandparents’ marriage record in a province of Canada (her grandfather was serving in the British army at the time, and her father was born in Bermuda). 

For given names, there are Catherine/Katherine, Alexandr(i)a and Ann(i)(e)/Anna, Mary Ann(e)/Anna, Mary-Ann(e) and Marianne. One relative I didn’t know the existence of until very recently (a great-grandfather’s sister) is rendered as Matilda M A on her birth record, Matilda M on her marriage record and the birth records for three children, Matilda Marrianna on her death record and the Find a grave website, Matilda Mary A on one son’s death record and Marianne Matilda on the other’s. The name Marrianna exists, but is far less common than all those other variations.

I found her and three more siblings because my father’s family history notes refer to ‘the rest of the family’ (that is, not my great-grandfather or the brother we knew about, mainly because those two married sisters). My father had a lot of information about his mother’s mother’s side and a medium amount about his father’s father’s side. This family is his mother’s father’s side, and I’ve found his older sibling who died young, three younger siblings and 13 nieces and nephews. Any more research is limited by publicly searchable records being restricted to more than 100 years for births, 50 or 60 years for marriages and 30 years for deaths. I also had basically nothing about his father’s mother’s side, but was able to connect a few dots and find an extensive listing of her relatives in England and Canada. The compiler of that website didn’t know that she had come to Australia. There’s an intriguing story about her, which I’m still waiting for a reply from a historical organisation about, so won’t tell you now.

[PS 19 Sep: My searches of the Births, Deaths and Marriages records in Victoria and New South Wales failed to find a small number of distant relatives who I know exist(ed). I’ve started over on those ones, trying every combination of spelling that I can, and have found most of the missing ones. It is not uncommon for someone’s name to be spelled different on their birth, marriage and death record (which might be a transcription error).



Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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A document referred to a circumstance stymying someone.

Stymying looks wrong, but so does stymieing. Stymie is by far the preferred spelling, but stymy is attested. Stymies and stymied look reasonable. Although it is more often used as a verb (1850s), it was first used as a noun (1830s). Its origin is uncertain, but, given its connection with golf, it is possibly a Scottish dialectal word. 

damn it v damnit v dammit

While I was reviewing old files, I found this screen shot

of the relative occurrence of damnit and dammit. I have no idea why I investigated this. 

Damn is one of six common words ending with –mn: autumn, column, damn, condemn, hymn and solemn. (There is also the rare contemn and limn and the very rare dislimn.)

By themselves, they all have in common a silent /n/. They are all derived from longer Latin words: autumnus, columna, damnare/damnum, hymnus and solemnis (and contemnere and illuminare), in all of which the /n/ is pronounced. Although the -n is silent in the basic English words, it reappears (or re-sounds) in autumnal, columnar, damnation, condemnation, hymnal and solemnise. (If contemnation is a word, then it also has the /n/ pronounced.)

As two words, damn it has -n in the spelling but not in the pronunciation. As one word, damnit looks like the /n/ should be pronounced. To avoid this, people have dropped the -n from the spelling, resulting in dammit

The opposite effect is shown with goddamn, which is correspondingly more common than goddam.  


Taking a break from watching travel videos of South Korea, I was watching travel videos of Japan. One presenter for a professional series of videos said something formulaic before enough of his meals that I noticed it, but he said it so fast that I had no chance of catching it. The internet to the rescue. It’s itadakimasu, which is variously explained by various people on the internet, and I won’t attempt to get to the bottom of it. Clearly, it is very different from Korean 잘 먹겠습니다 (jal meok-kess-seum-ni-da, I will eat well). 

Before drinking, he said something which I caught as kampai or gampai, which the internet tells me is kanpai, which is clearly related to the Korean which I remembered and searched for as geombae, but which the internet tells me is geonbae. So who borrowed the expression from whom? Neither – they both borrowed it from the Chinese, who say ganbei. Either way, it means empty cup, but does not necessarily require that all the contents should be drunk immediately. First up in the meal, it probably has that result, but later, after some consumption, I for one would take a sip rather than down the lot. Koreans now also say 원샷! (one shot). It is also more associated with soju and beer rather than makgeolli or wine.

My hearing the Japanese word as kampai and remembering the Korean word as geombae is another example of assimilation. Once you are pronouncing /n/, then close your lips for the beginning of /b/, the /n/ turns into an /m/. If you say it fast enough, the /n/ disappears completely. The same process happens in Latin/English in + bibere > imbibe (seeing that we’re talking about drinking). But the Latin/English spelling changed to reflect the pronunciation, while the Korean spelling 건배 retains the original form.

While English-speaking cooks/hosts can say ‘Enjoy your meal’ (most formally – there are also a number of less formal things to say), there is nothing really for the rest of us to say. It would sound strange to say ‘I will enjoy my meal’ before a meal, while ’Thank you/Thanks for the meal’ is more usually said after the meal. Saying a prayer doesn’t overcome the problem, because praying is talking to God, not to the cook/host, even if we add thanks for the cook/host’s time and effort after our thanks for the food. 

jail/gaol and prison -er

A discussion on a linguistics forum involved the similarity or difference between between a jail/gaol and a prison (and also the difference in spelling between jail and gaol). In some parts of the English-speaking world in some part of history, those are the same thing; in others, they aren’t. I won’t go into that, but it suddenly occurred to me that a jailer/gaoler and a prisoner are very different people. 

I managed to type goal every time, which is a good reason to use jail.


I have seen the female given name Taylah enough times to notice it, but seeing it again this week set me to thinking about seriously. I’m not a fan of creative respellings of names, but there’s more to it than that.

The full story of Taylah goes back to the occupation tailor and the surname Taylor. The chain of Latin noun tālea, Late Latin verb tāliāre, Old French verb taillier and noun tailleor and Anglo-French noun tailour suggests that the spelling with ‘i’ was the original and the spelling with ‘y’ was a variation. But the latter spelling became the standard spelling for the surname. In general, surnames have more variations in spelling than common nouns.

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An amature mistake

I have seen the spelling amature on websites enough times to notice, but have never commented about it, either on those websites or here. I have just seen the spelling amuture.  

The correct spelling is amateur. Different dictionaries give its etymology as ama + teur and others as amat + eur, but the difference doesn’t matter. An amateur is a lover of what they do. Some amateurs are very, very good at what they do, but’s third definition is “an inexperienced or unskilled person”. It has just occurred to me that amature might be a (not) + mature, but that would be adding a Greek pronoun to a Latin root (which does happen). (By the way, the original Latin spelling amator seems not to be used.)

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Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

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preventive, preventative

A few days ago an article I was subediting had preventive and preventative in quick succession.’s main entry is preventive, but it adds “also preventative”. Its entry for preventative redirects to preventive. Google Ngrams shows that preventive is more common, but preventative is certainly an established alternative. So preventive it became.

I have been browsing through Jan Freeman’s discussion of Ambrose Bierce’s Write it right. He states: “No such word as preventative”. She adds: “There was and is such a word as preventative, of course; it arrived in English only a few decades after preventive, in the mid-17th century. Two hundred years later, Hurd 1847 [Seth Hurd, A Grammatical Corrector] decided that the longer spelling was “a common error”; it took another couple of decades for usage critics to declare it nonexistent. Preventative is longer and less common than preventive, and no doubt is a “needless variant,” but its enemies have not yet managed to drive it out of use, or out of our dictionaries.”

If you want to choose, or have to choose, use preventive: it’s (two letters) shorter and more common. Otherwise, be consistent.

So what is it about preventative which had usage commenters of earlier times foaming at the mouth? There is a long list of adjectives ending with –ive, –ative and –itive. Almost all words ending with –ative have corresponding noun ending with –ation. There is “no such word” as *preventation; it’s prevention. The most analogous word is invent > invention / *inventation > inventive /  *inventative.

So why did people start and continue to use preventative? I don’t know. But “no such word” or “not a word” is not an argument, certainly not by itself. If some people use a word, and everyone knows what it means (even as they are foaming at the mouth), then it’s a word.