The Colo(u)rful Story of English

How did magatogas become pedagogues? What’s glamorous about grammar? And why do Canadians love the letter “u”?

by Katherine Barber

illustrations by Sonia Roy,

Indulge yourself again in the never-ending and sometimes wacky tale of a most remarkable language, as Canada’s Word Lady continues the story of English right where she left off in our last issue.

By the 1400s, English spelling was already a mess, for many reasons. French clerks had tried to transcribe Anglo-Saxon sounds for which there was no letter in the French alphabet. That originally pronounced but now-silent “gh” in “taught,” for instance, which probably sounded to the French like a phlegmy cat with a hairball problem.

Other sounds that had been pronounced in Anglo-Saxon, like the “k” in “knight” and the “w” in “write,” became silent as people found the consonant clusters too hard to say. Some of our spellings were still reflecting Old French pronunciations that were no longer in use, as in “guarantee.”

To exacerbate the problem, all the vowels changed their sounds starting in about 1400, while the spelling remained stuck reflecting the old pronunciation.

But the Renaissance made things even worse. An upsurge in interest in classical Latin and Greek led to a realization that many English words had their ultimate origins in those languages. But people weren’t content with just noticing that. They thought it should be reflected in the spelling. (Surely they weren’t trying to show off their superior knowledge?)

“School” is a perfect example. The highly cultured ancient Greeks loved spending their leisure time (skhole) hanging out with Socrates and Plato discussing philosophy, so their word meaning “leisure” gradually came to apply to philosophical discussions and then to the places where they happened. By the time the word got to English via Latin (one of the very few words the Anglo-Saxons borrowed directly from Latin before the Norman Conquest), it was written scol.

In the Middle Ages it was pronounced “skole.” To reflect the long “o” sound, the scribes decided to double the letter “o” in the spelling. When the pronunciation changed to “skule,” the spelling didn’t keep step. Then some know-it-all busybody came along in the Renaissance and said, “Look, it’s got an ‘h’ in Latin and Greek, so it should have an ‘h’ in English!” There it (like many of our other silent letters) has been ever since, never pronounced, serving no good purpose but to make English learners’ lives miserable.

This mania went on for centuries. The most extreme example is the word “ptarmigan,” which you might think derives from some northern aboriginal language in Canada. But in fact it comes from a Scots Gaelic word, tarmachan, meaning basically “grumbler” or “croaker” because the bird makes a croaking sound.

Around 1700 some meddlesome person noticed that the Greeks had a word ptero (feather), and even more observantly that ptarmigan had feathers. Deciding that the two were connected (and conveniently overlooking the total absence of ptarmigans in Greece), he stuck a “p” at the beginning of the word to reflect its “Greek” origin. Thank goodness he didn’t get a hold of the Canada … pgoose.

Also very popular in the 1400s and 1500s was the wholesale borrowing of words from Latin and Greek, not least of all in education, because the study of these languages was the basis of education.

Just think how much more enticing a ‘French glamour’ class would be than a ‘French grammar’ class!

One of these words was “grammar,” which, jaw-droppingly improbable though it may seem, is the origin of the word “glamour.”  “Grammar” comes ultimately from the Greek word gramma (a letter of the alphabet or something written).

In theory, “grammar” in the Middle Ages could be the study of any written language, but in fact it was the study of the only language that was taught using the analysis of structures: Latin. People probably weren’t even aware that languages like English, French and German had something that could be called grammar (many students are probably wishing that we could go back to those innocent days). Since “grammar” meant the study of Latin, it (and its Scottish variant, “glamour”) also referred to the knowledge of those who belonged to the Latin-educated learned class, knowledge thought by most people to include magic, astrology and the occult.

Several hundred years later, thanks to the huge popularity of the 19th-century Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, “glamour” in its magical sense became widespread, soon taking on connotations of magical beauty and finally a kind of highly refined attractiveness. Just think how much more enticing a “French glamour” class would be than a “French grammar” class!

Another good example of a Greek borrowing from the 1380s is “pedagogue.” The ancient Greeks had slaves who were responsible for escorting the young scions of wealthy families to and from school. The Greek word for “boy” was paidos, and “lead” was agogos, so a “boy leader” was a “pedagogue.”

Remember that lovely Anglo-Saxon word for “schoolmaster”: magatoga? It was a literal translation of this term (magu = boy, toga = leader); no doubt prestige-conscious teachers felt that a Greek word was much more impressive than an Anglo-Saxon one. Teachers nowadays are of course less full of themselves.

Also borrowed from Greek in the late Renaissance was “gymnasium,” literally a place where you get naked (gymnos in Greek). If only those reluctant phys ed students knew. In German, a Gymnasium is a high school but even more lacking in titillation.

At about the same time, we borrowed the Latin word for a race course for chariots, derived from the word for “run,” currere. But the Scottish universities that adopted curriculum used it not for horse races but for a prescribed course of study. It is perhaps unfortunate (if telling) that they chose an image of running around in circles.


Another source of words in the Renaissance – many of them scientific and mathematical – was Arabic, because through the Dark Ages much of the mathematical learning of the ancient world survived only in Arabic civilization. Europe had to learn it from the Arabic mathematicians who were living in Spain at the time.

In Arabic, the definite article (“the”) is al, so al at the beginning of an English word is usually a sign that it comes from Arabic: for instance, “alcohol,” “alcove,” and “algebra.”

In Arabic, al-jabr means “the reunion of broken parts” or “bone-setting.” In fact, when the word “algebra” was first used in English in the 1500s, it meant the surgical treatment of broken bones.

How on earth did it come to designate a branch of mathematics?

The mathematical sense came from the title of a 9th-century Arabic mathematical treatise, Ilm al-jabr wa’l mukabal, which meant “the science of restoring what is missing and equating like with like.” And when you think about it, solving an algebraic equation is like taking something that’s broken into pieces and putting it back together again. The book was by a mathematician called Al-Kwarizmi, whose name has given us the word “algorithm.”

By the 18th century, English had pretty much settled down into the language we know today, especially the spelling. This was largely due to two great lexicographers: Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary was published in England in 1755, and Noah Webster, whose American Spelling Book was published in the US in 1783, followed by a dictionary in 1808.

The differences between British and American spelling stem from these publications. Take the famous “colour.” In Latin, the word was color. In medieval French, the pronunciation of the second syllable – sort of halfway between “lower” and “lure” – was reflected by spelling the word colur or colour (which covered all eventualities).

We could have just stuck with the Anglo-Saxon word “hue,” but true to the English mania for synonyms, and little knowing that several centuries later Canadians would be arguing bitterly about  its spelling as a reflection of our national identity, English-speakers borrowed “colour” from the French.

Then the Renaissance came along, and, as you well know by now, that meant we had to reflect the Latin spelling, so color came back. Both spellings co-existed until Johnson and Webster put their lexicographical feet down, each opting for a different spelling.

Samuel Johnson opted for ‘centre,’ almost guaranteeing that Webster would stick with ‘center.’

Webster may have been inspired by political motives to do the contrary of what the British were doing, but he was also interested in consistency: Why “colour” but “director,” “honour” but “honorary” (yes, even the British spell “honorary” that way), “centre” but “enter”? “Centre” had been the medieval French spelling (and is still the French spelling), but from the 1500s to the 1700s “center” was more common in Britain. Nonetheless, Samuel Johnson opted for “centre,” almost guaranteeing that Webster would stick with “center.”

The roots of Canadian English (other than Newfoundland English, which derives from the dialects of southwest England and Ireland) are in the speech of the United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States during and after the Revolution, about the time of Webster’s spelling book.

At its origins, then, Canadian English was American English. This common origin explains why American spelling persists in Canada. In the 19th century, vast numbers of people from the British Isles were encouraged to settle in British North America to ward off any lurking nefarious American influence. As British English was the prestige version of the language, British spellings started to be imposed. But they have never completely supplanted the American ones.

Canadians feel strongly about “-our” words as a handy and inexpensive way of proving to the world that we are not American, but are less zealous about the double-l British versions of “traveller,” “dialling” and so on, which in the last 20 years have pretty much lost out to the American single-l “traveler” and “dialing.”

Our American-British dual personality also shows up in our pronunciation. Canadians sound more like Americans than like the British, but there are some words where some of us opt for the British pronunciation over the American one. Take the word “herb.” From about 1200, when it was adopted from French, till about 1500, the word for parsley and suchlike was “erb,” with no “h” to pronounce. The Renaissance busybodies added the “h” to the spelling because the original Latin word had been herba.

Why did the British start pronouncing it? It was the fault of people like you: teachers. In the late 19th century the introduction of compulsory education meant that everyone became literate, realized there was an “h” on “herb” and started to pronounce it. But Americans retained the older “h”-less pronunciation (as we all did, after all, with words like “honour” and “hour”).

As with spelling, so with pronunciation: Many Canadians remained true to their American lin guistic heritage, while others adopted the prestigious British version, so that Canadians are now split down the middle on the pronunciation of “herb” (as they are on “lieutenant” and “schedule” as well).

There is much more to distinguish Canadian English than a few spelling and pronunciation variants, and the language has continued to evolve since the 18th century. But we have no room to explore any further. Up to you now to dig into the fascinating stories behind our words and see what they reveal about our past and to encourage your students (remember, the word “student” means “eager, zealous and diligent person”) to do the same.

Katherine Barber, known from media appearances and speaking engagements as Canada’s Word Lady, was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Visit her at