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Jennifer Glossop

Following Katherine Barber

A blue ballet shoe guides tourists at the Reichstag, Berlin

Last week, the editing community lost one of its finest contributors: Katherine Barber died on April 24. Katherine’s works and words were often quoted in Editors Canada discussions, and she was a keynote speaker at the 2015 conference. Author, editor and friend Jennifer Glossop remembers Katherine’s passions.

A blue ballet shoe guides tourists at the Reichstag, Berlin
Katherine Barber’s blue ballet shoe at the Reichstag, Berlin. Photo credit: Jennifer Glossop

A blue ballet shoe on a stick — that’s what Katherine Barber used to corral her charges on her Tours en l’air excursions around the cities of Europe. I followed it and her around Vienna, Prague, London, Berlin, Paris, Dresden and others, seeing the sights and going backstage at the great opera houses by day and appreciating all the marvels of ballets performed live on those stages by night. Each ballet was accompanied by her thoroughly researched and loving notes for our further appreciation. Ballet was Katherine’s second passion, after the English language, and she created the tours when her stint as editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary distressingly ended. But the two worlds intertwined. Even the name of her tours was a pun — in French of course (she was marvellously multilingual) — on the twirling jump in ballet, a turn in the air.

On my first Tour, I was asked by my fellow travellers how I knew Katherine, since most of them had met her at one of her talks on the English language. I told them that I had not met her before but that she was “revered among editors.” And she was — and is. In addition to her amazing work on CanOx (as editors tend to refer to it, somewhat to her dismay), she was Canada’s Word Lady, regularly pronouncing on all things wordy on radio and television, on the lecture tour, on her Wordlady blog, and authoring funny and irreverent books on our uniquely Canadian English.

More recently, she was a frequent poster on Facebook. There and in her classes, she shared her encyclopedic knowledge with grateful editors. Some of them found themselves the brunt of her particular scorn when they proclaimed that they knew the true meaning and derivation of a word, especially if they were peeving about a “horrible” new twist on a venerable old word. The latter folk were referred to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED — the big one, now online) and informed that such a “desecration” of the language actually went back centuries. Once so chastened, the wise among us learned not to open our traps without first checking the OED.

Katherine may not have been an editor in the ways we are, but she shared traits with many of us. She was a cat-loving Virgo who questioned everything and brought a sharp eye to the finer points of the English language, all the while appreciating its overarching wonders and power. She knew from her ballet lessons and years of viewing performances that it takes hours of practice and a deep knowledge for a dancer’s body to soar and communicate so intensely with the audience. Similarly, she taught us to look deeply within the English language so that with much practice, we could help writers express themselves in well-crafted sentences, flawlessly argued prose and flowing fiction. She made us better editors.

I will miss following that blue ballet shoe and the woman who carried it high above us.

Do you have any stories or memories of Katherine? We invite readers to share them in the comment section below.


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7 Comments on “Following Katherine Barber”

  • Anita+Jenkins


    Wonderful, Jennifer. Nice to see you (hear from you) on the blog.

  • Gael Spivak


    Thank you for writing this, Jennifer. You captured Katherine so well.

    I was devastated to hear about her passing. She was a lovely person. Kind, gracious, generous, witty and clever. And amazingly talented.

    I met her several years ago when she contacted me to ask if she could have lunch with me. She said she was going to be in Ottawa (she’d come here to visit her mom) and wanted to meet me. Meet me? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?!

    I’m glad we met that day and that we had many wonderful chats (in person and through email and Messenger) after that. She also gave me a quote for a recent blog post I wrote for Editors Canada. She was indignant about the thing I was writing about and was quite happy to supply a quote.

    I was able to see her last March when I was in Toronto. About 10 of us sat around a table, eating, laughing and drinking. I had no idea that this would be the last time I’d be out with friends for a long while; it was a few days before the pandemic was declared.

    She was seated next to me. We laughed about how hard it was going to be to find a keynote speaker to rival her and Carol Fisher Saller for the next international conference (it got cancelled a few weeks later anyway). And we went over the pros and cons of her going ahead with her next ballet trip overseas (she had to cancel it, of course, as the world shut down the next week). She even somehow got me to try some of the Brussel sprouts she’d ordered. I hate Brussel sprouts but I could not say no to Katherine. And she was right. They were pretty good.

    Knowing now that I will never see her again makes me very glad that we were seated next to each other that night. I was lucky that night. And I was lucky to know her.

  • Thank you, Jennifer. Katherine had so many sides to her and that she brought her love of languages and travel, humour, joie de vivre, and research skills to the world of ballet is so Katherine. She was kind and gracious in other ways—eg when a call went out for sewers in east-end Toronto at the beginning of the pandemic to make and donate masks, Katherine gave sheets and other unneeded fabric. When asked for advice about an anatomy glossary, Katherine kindly responded. And though she loved cats, she had dog bones for at least one pup friend.

  • This is a lovely tribute to an amazing person. I didn’t have the privilege of getting to know Katherine personally, but I loved her Word Lady blog and always appreciated her contributions to editing forums. She’ll be sorely missed!

  • Joanna Odrowaz


    Thank you, Jennifer, for this lovely tribute.

    I first came across Katherine’s writing in a program at the National Ballet of Canada, about 15 years ago. I remember checking the byline and wondering if this could be the same Katherine Barber who I’d heard talking about Canadian words on Metro Morning (the local CBC early morning radio program). What were the chances that someone could write so exquisitely and speak so entertainingly — and be so knowledgeable about both subjects?

    Katherine could and was.

    She will be missed.

  • Thank you, Jennifer, for reminding us of the wonderful Katherine Barber.

    She was an inspiring editor and a truly amazing, generous human being. She wore her passions well. I think of her every day when I open «her» book, the one with the torn cover and the wrinkled pages and not just a few notes and coffee stains. Tabbed, as a dictionary should be. What a wonderful legacy she leaves us.

    On a personal note, she once asked me to watch out for Chinese smorgasbord restaurants in western Canada. It was part of her lifelong search for those uniquely Canadian word combinations. I travelled the Okanagan in an entirely different way, stopping for a photo every time I saw a restaurant sign to add to her collection.

  • Pauline Cheng


    Jennifer, I believe you were one my my fellow travelers on the one ballet trip I took with Katherine. What a great group of people, wonderful experiences and so well organized!

    I love learning about the other sides of Katherine through this post.

    One of my post pandemic bucket list items was to go on another of Katherine’s ballet trip. Alas, not to be and a reminder to all of us to live life now, don’t put it off.

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