Oddly English


I was rummaging through my books when I stumbled upon two favourites I’d purchased when I attended one of TESL’s AGMs in London,Ontario. The main speaker that day was Katherine Barber, who captivated us with her wit and in-depth knowledge of the English language.

Barber was the editor-in-chief of the dictionary department at Oxford University Press in Toronto — I know, pretty cool stuff! She is one of Canada’s best authorities on the English language, so when she says that English is “crazy”, I believe it!

We all know that English is a borrowed language, in that the majority of its words come from different languages. But, have you ever wondered where certain words you use actually come from, or what their root word means? It’s always been a curiosity of mine as to how a language is assembled into what we know and use today.

One of Barber’s books, titled: “Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs”, debunks the above questions in such a clever and entertaining way.

I constantly tell my students that learning English is somewhat challenging because there is no real clear structure between verbs and nouns, which leaves anyone new to it puzzled; especially someone who’s trying to make sense out of a word by relating it to their language of origin.

Many English words are spelled one way but pronounced another. Words like: school, crumb, castle, break/brake, sea/see, and soul/sole come to mind. Not to mention the countless expressions and idioms used in everyday conversations. It’s not hard to see that it’s a confusing language to learn, especially at first.

This is a fun random tidbit I got from Barber’s book: Did you know the expression “You’re toast” came from the movie Ghostbusters? Someone learning English would have no clue what you just said to them!

Here are a few other words I’ve randomly picked out from Barber’s book for your reading pleasure, and something you can share with your students as fun facts. Enjoy!


You know when like, after every few words a teen slips in a ‘like’ to try and make his or her point come across? Well this “valley” way of talking has been traced as far back as 1778 in a novel by an English novelist! The word ‘like’ was used to emphasize the word after it.


Not to be confused with a single guy (also a bachelor), this post-secondary piece of paper many seek to obtain in their lifetime is actually a word that’s derived from the Latin ‘vacca’ which means cow. Ha!


This word, which is typically associated with relaxation, (not if you ask my husband) or a vacation, comes from the Latin word that means “an instrument of torture.” It was later changed by the French to ‘travail’ which means “to work”, which as Barber describes, could very well be a valid description of work for many people — depending on who you ask. (None of us ESL teachers feel this way I’m sure.) 😉


This word literally means “no leisure,” and if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. When you negotiate a deal of some sort, you have to bend and compromise in order to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.


When people played a game without keeping score, it was known as playing “for love” and this dates back to the 1600’s. So when you think of tennis, the word ‘love’ means “no score”.


One of this continent’s favourite condiments is actually derived from the Chinese dialect ‘k’e-chap’ which means “brine of pickled fish.” No thanks, I’ll pass! Interestingly enough, ketchup back then actually contained no tomatoes at all because tomatoes were expensive and were also seen as a suspicious American import. But once the fruit became popular and there was no shortage of it, it had to be preserved. So, the sweet pickled tomato we know as “Ketchup” was born.

There are literally hundreds of other words with their origin explained in detail and how they came to be the words we know and use today. It’s a fun book to have and a good reference to help your students better understand the English language.

Do you know any fun facts about the origin of English words that I can add to my collection?

References: Barber, K. (2006). Six words you never knew had something to do with pigs (1st ed).Don Mills:Oxford University Press Canada

Hi! I’m Laila and I’m a mom to two little ones who keep me very busy throughout the day (and night)! I earned a double major in Philosophy and Psychology from Western University, which basically means I can talk a lot and analyze anything! I earned my TESL accreditation and have taught in both school and workplace settings; but I especially enjoy teaching at different work places. I have a passion for cooking, baking vegan desserts, and DIY projects. I enjoy reading and learning about new things, but mostly, I’m excited to be sharing my thoughts and any information I may learn about with all of you. Happy reading!

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