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From Part 1. Evolving English

THE BIRDS AND THE BEES: Where Do Words Come From?

Where do English words come from? The short answer is, everywhere! They can be created and developed from within the language, but that’s usually quite slow. An obvious way to acquire words in a hurry is to steal them—we call such liberated words loanwords. Foreign languages provide one of the greatest vocabulary banks for English. So, let’s amend the first question to: Where in the world do English words come from?

From Part 2. Expanding English

GROW YOUR OWN: Neologisms

Have you ever made up a word? Perhaps you’re playing Scrabble and wonder if a certain combination of letters is really a dictionary word. Maybe you have “family words,” those concocted and used only by family members. My family used tiplet to describe any tasty-looking stray bit of food.

The most common ways of making words are to take existing words and add pieces (affixation), change how a word functions (conversion), or combine words (compounding). Abbreviations yield words like flu (influenza) and cab (taxicab). Acronyms give us scuba and laser. Rhyming or playing with sounds produce walkie-talkie and wishy-washy. Sometimes we remove a piece; that’s called back-formation. Surprisingly, scavenge came from scavenger, not the other way around; peddle led to peddler (or pedlar), and aviation to aviate.

From Part 3. Employing English

BIG NEWS: Capitalization Part 1

Here’s a capital idea. Why, when, and how do we use capital or uppercase letters in written English? Their use with small or lowercase letters in a single system is called a dual alphabet. While it dates as far back as the time of Charlemagne it really developed during the Renaissance. Today we use the term “mixed case” for the systematic use of capitalized and uncapitalized words.


Old English did not distinguish between upper and lowercase. In Middle English, capitalization in manuscripts was rather haphazard, often done just for visual aesthetics, not for grammar. For example, in poetry, the first letter of each line of verse was often capitalized and still is, by most poets. As the printing press developed in Europe and England, capitalization of initial letters of sentences and proper nouns became more conventional. This helped distinguish new sentences in a time when punctuation was sparse and irregular. Check Shakespeare’s plays and you’ll see capitalization of new lines and sentences and proper nouns, as well as significant common nouns and verbs.

From Part 4. Expressive English

UM, WELL, LIKE, YOU KNOW: Discourse Markers


So, let’s talk about, um, the small words that, like, make speech and conversation, you know, flow smoothly.


There is a huge difference between spoken and written language. Some people think writing is just speech that is written down. And some people judge speech by how close it is to writing. Neither is correct. Writing and speech are independent methods of communication. Speech is interactive; writing is not. We speak spontaneously, in the moment, without the complex thought required by writing. Speech uses looser construction, informal expressions, and many small, seemingly useless, words that have big roles. You know them: um, uh, like, so, you know, and many more.

Part 5.
Explorations in English


Do you ever use dirty words? What makes a word “bad”? I spent a lot of time researching this and have concluded that we really don’t know the answer. Most linguists and lexicographers don’t want to tackle this subject.

Foul language has probably existed since the first humans stubbed their toes or encountered hostile prehistoric neighbours. But our knowledge is limited because we didn’t have written records until five thousand years ago. I’m going to find it an interesting challenge to write about cursing without including examples.

Part 6.
Entertaining English



What does “March” mean? With an uppercase M, it is the name of a month. With a lowercase m it has many meanings. As a verb, the most common definitions include “move in step.” The noun may be a musical composition, an act of marching, or an organized procession. That provides a lot of opportunity for misinterpretation.


Imagine writing a succinct newspaper headline about a protest action that has been rescheduled for a month later. March Rescheduled to April. Talk about procrastination. The month will be a whole month late! Try this one: Hershey Bars Protest. Hershey is both a city and a company that makes chocolate candy. Is “bars” used as a noun or a verb? Many words in English can form multiple parts of speech. Mixing them up can sometimes lead to contradictory, confounding, humorous, and frequently off-colour results.

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