A Way with Words

A Way with Words is a fun and funny public radio show about words, language, and how we use them. Hundreds of thousands of language-lovers around the world tune in each week to hear author Martha Barnette and dictionary editor Grant Barrett take calls about slang, grammar, English usage, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, and speaking and writing well. The program is a fresh look at the pleasures and delights of language and linguistics, words and speech, writing and reading. Language-learners, ESL, ELT, and TESOL folks will find it a treat.

Cootie Shot - 10 December 2018 (12/2018)

Perfect sentences and slang that tickles your mind. A new book of writing advice says that a good sentence "imposes a logic on the world's weirdness" and pares away options for meaning, word by word. Plus, your musician friend may refer to his guitar as an ax, but this slang term was applied to other musical instruments before it was ever used for guitars. And: we need a word for that puzzling moment when you're standing there wondering which recyclables are supposed to go in which bin. Discomposted, anyone? Plus, tickle bump, dipsy doodle, dark as the inside of a goat, thickly settled, woodshedding, and ish.


Belly tickler, dipsy doodle, johnny-come-lately, duck and dip, how-do-you-do, tickle bump, yes-ma'am, thank-you-ma'am, kiss-me-quick, and cahot are all terms used in various parts of the United States denoting a bump in the road. Particularly in southwest Pennsylvania, the term Yankee bump refers to ice or snow that's intentionally packed to send sledders flying into the air.

Marisa in Bellingham, Washington, was puzzled by a traffic sign in Massachusetts that read Thickly Settled. As far back as the 1830s, the term thickly settled was used in the Massachusetts legal code to refer to an area with a lot of structures, such as a business district, or residences within 200 feet of each other, so the sign warns drivers that the road may be congested with traffic.

Pam in Eureka, California, says that when her mother and grandmother would enter a particularly dark room, they'd remark that it was dark as the inside of a goat. Mark Twain used the phrase dark as the inside of a cow in his book Roughing It as well as The Innocents Abroad. Other versions: dark as the inside of a whale, dark as the inside of a cat, dark as the inside of a black cat, dark as the inside of a sack, dark as the inside of a horse, dark as the inside of a magician's hat, dark as the inside of a coal scuttle, dark as the inside of the Devil's waistcoat pocket, and dark as the inside of a needle. Joyce Cary wrote about something being as dark as the inside of a cabinet minister, and Groucho Marx also had something to say about the lack of light inside a living creature.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about unusual names for sports teams. For example, what minor-league baseball team has a name that appears to derive from the word for a large-scale weather event, but actually comes from the team's proximity to a legendary rollercoaster?

Karen from Santa Barbara, California, wonders about the verb to retire. Why doesn't it mean to tire all over again? The Spanish word for retirement, jubilacion, is cognate with the English word jubilation.

A step-and-repeat is the sponsor-studded banner or wall that serves as a backdrop for photographs at event.

Is there a difference between the adverbs maybe and perhaps? They're basically synonyms, but of the two, perhaps tends to appear in language of a slightly higher register. The affected language in an old Taster's Choice coffee commercial makes effective use of this difference.

Elizabeth in Suffolk, Virginia, spent her early childhood in Hawaii, then moved to Indiana and found that kids had a different playground game that involved pretending to use a cootie shot to inoculate someone against imagined bugs, or cooties. In Indiana, they drew two circles on the back of someone's hand then poked that hand with a finger, chanting Circle circle dot dot, now you have your cootie shot. In Hawaii, Elizabeth learned it as Circle circle dot dot, now you have your uku shot. The Hawaiian word 'uku means flea, and the word ukulele derives from Hawaiian words that mean jumping flea, a reference to the rapid motion of a musician's fingers on the instrument's strings.

In railroad workers' slang, the expression to bake a cake means to build up steam in a locomotive by stoking a fire. Another term for a train's fireman is bakehead.

Joe Moran's essay on writing well suggests that his forthcoming book is a great read. It's called First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life.

Taryn in Washington, D.C., wants to know the proper way to pronounce the word museum.

Johanna in Munising, Michigan, has a funny story about a childhood misunderstanding.

Guitarists sometimes refer to their instrument as an ax. But at least as early as the 1940s, the slang term ax referred to other instruments, including trombones and saxophones. The name probably derives from the slang term woodshedding, which goes back to the 1920s and suggests the idea of going out to the woodshed to practice in solitude. Other terms for playing an instrument include chopping and shredding.

David in Portland, Oregon, wants a word for that moment of puzzlement when you're trying to figure out which bin to use for tossing your recyclables. Discomposted, maybe?

Ed in Florence, South Carolina, remembers that when he was stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, the locals used a couple of words he'd never heard. They'd use Ish! as an interjection to express disgust and ishy, which describes something disgusting or revolting. These terms are heard primarily in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and most likely comes from the language of Swedish and Norwegian settlers in the region.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Boss of Me (Rebroadcast) - 3 December 2018 (12/2018)

If you want to be a better writer, try skipping today's bestsellers, and read one from the 1930's instead. Or read something besides fiction in order to find your own metaphors and perspective. Plus, just because a city's name looks familiar doesn't mean you should assume you know how the locals pronounce it. The upstate New York town spelled R-I-G-A isn't pronounced like the city in Latvia. Turns out lots of towns and streets have counterintuitive names. Finally, why do we describe being socially competitive as "keeping up with the Joneses"? The Joneses, it turns out, were comic strip characters. Also, sugar off, filibuster, you're not the boss of me, and lean on your own breakfast.


When it comes to the names of towns and cities, the locals don't necessarily pronounce them the way you expect. Charlotte, Vermont, for example, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, not the first--and therein lies a history lesson. The town was chartered in 1762, the year after England's King George III married the German-speaking Princess Charlotte, and it's named in her honor.

What's the deal with the use of person, as in I'm a dog person or She's a cat person? The word person this way functions as a substitute for the Greek-derived suffix -phile, meaning "lover of," and goes back at least a century.

A woman from Hartford, Connecticut, remembers her mom used the term clackers to denote those floppy, rubber-soled shoes otherwise known as flip-flops, go-aheads, or zoris. Anyone else use clackers in that way?

A listener in Reno, Nevada, wants to know: If one member of a long-term, unmarried couple dies, what's a good term for the surviving partner, considering that the usual terms widow and widower aren't exactly correct?  

To sugar off means to complete the process of boiling down the syrup when making maple sugar. Some Vermonters use that same verb more generally to refer to something turns out, as in that phrase How did that sugar off?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle involves social media "books" that rhyme with the name Facebook. For example, Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, posts on on what fancifully named social media outlet?

A Los Angeles, California, listener says his grandmother, a native Spanish speaker, used the word filibustero to mean "ruffians." Any relation to the English word filibuster? As a matter of fact, yes.

To encourage diners to dig into a delicious meal, an Italian might say Mangia!, a French person Bon appetit! and Spaniard would say Buen provecho. But English doesn't seem to have its own phrase that does the job in quite the same way.

A Palmyra, Indiana, listener observes that in online discussions of Pokemon Go, Americans and French-speaking Canadians alike use the word lit to describe an area of town where lots of people playing the game. This usage apparently is related to the earlier use of lit to describe a great party with lots of activity, or recreational drug use.

If you think the city of Riga, New York, is pronounced like the city in Latvia, think again.

A listener in Brazil wants to know about the source of the phrase keeping up with the Joneses, which refers to trying to compete with others in terms of possessions and social status. This expression was popularized by a comic strip with the same name drawn by newspaper cartoonist Arthur "Pop" Momand for several years during the early 20th century.

If you're sitting on a subway or airplane seat and someone's invading your space, you can always offer the colorful rebuke Lean on your own breakfast, meaning "straighten up and move over."

Essayist Rebecca Solnit has excellent advice for aspiring writers.

The phrase You're not the boss of me may have been popularized by the They Might Be Giants song that serves as the theme for TV's "Malcolm in the Middle." But this turn of phrase goes back to at least 1883.

A woman whose first language is Persian wonders about the word enduring. Can she describe the work of being a parent as enduring? While the phrase is grammatically correct, the expression enduring parenting not good idiomatic English.

The poetic Spanish phrase Nadie te quita lo bailado expressing the idea that once you've made a memory, you'll always have it, no matter what. Literally, it translates as "no one can take away what you've danced."

In a roadway, the center lane for passing or turning left is sometimes called the chicken lane, a reference to the old game of drivers from opposite directions daring each other in a game of chicken. For the same reason, some people refer to it as the suicide lane.  

A bible lump, or a bible bump, is a ganglion cyst that sometimes forms on the wrist. It's also called a book cyst, the reason being that people sometimes try to smash them with a book, but  don't try this at home!

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Spur of the Moment (Rebroadcast) - 26 November 2018 (11/2018)

A caller with a 25-year-old parrot wonders: How much language do birds really understand? Plus, Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo. Well . . .  you can guess the rest. But there was a time when these goofy jokes were a brand-new craze sweeping the nation. Finally, the words "coffee" and "sugar" both come from Arabic, as does another familiar word: ghoul. There's a spooky story about its origin. Also, freckle, diamond in the rough, spur of the moment, literary limericks, the pronunciation of divisive, and a cold vs. the flu. 


In 1936, newspapers across the United States breathlessly reported on a new craze sweeping the nation: knock-knock jokes -- and they were at least as corny as today's version.

A seventh-grader from Colorado wonders where the word freckle comes from. This word's origin is a bit murky, but appears to be related to old Scandinavian term rooted in the idea of "scattering," like the seeds that freckles resemble. The German word for these bits of pigment is Sommersprossen, literally, "summer sprouts."

A native New Yorker who lived as a boy with his grandmother in South Carolina recalls coming home late one day and offering a long-winded excuse, prompting his grandmother to declare, Boy, you're as deep as the sea! She probably meant simply that he was in deep trouble.

Our earlier conversation about the word ruminate prompts a Fort Worth, Texas, listener to send a poem that his aunt, an elementary-school teacher, made him memorize as a child:  A gum-chewing boy and a cud-chewing cow / To me, they seem alike somehow / But there's a difference -- I see it now / It's the thoughtful look on the face of the cow.

What's the meaning of the phrase diamond in the rough? Does it refer to a rose among thorns, to unrealized potential? The phrase derives from the diamond industry, where a diamond in the rough is one taken from the ground but still unpolished. The word diamond is an etymological relative of adamant, meaning "unbreakable," as well as adamantine, which means the same thing.

Looking for an extremely silly knock-knock joke? Here's one that's as silly as they come:

Knock, knock. Who's there? Cows go. Try figuring out the rest.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's challenge involves phrases of two words, each of which ends in the letter a. For example, if you mix nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, you get a yellow, fuming, corrosive liquid that eats metals, even gold. What's it called?

A listener in Hartland, Vermont, has a 25-year-old African parrot named Trouble, and says he's often asked about the bird's vocabulary and how the two of them communicate, which raises the question "What is a word?" Grant argues that the better question is "Does this bird have a language?" and the answer is no. For example, the bird might associate an object with a particular word, but wouldn't understand pronouns, nor would the bird be able to comprehend recursive statements that contain ideas embedded in ideas.

Before knock-knock jokes swept the country in 1936, another silly parlor game called Handies was all the rage.

To do something on the spur of the moment, or to "act spontaneously," comes from the idea of using a sharp device to urge on a horse.

The English language includes several words deriving from Arabic, such as coffee, sugar, and giraffe. Another is ghoul, which comes from an Arabic term for a "shapeshifting demon."

How do you pronounce the second syllable in the word divisive? This question divides lots of English speakers. Either is fine, but the use of a short i is more recent, first recorded in dictionaries in 1961.

Why do we say someone has a cold when we say someone else has the flu, and another person has croup?

A listener in Abu Dhabi responded to our request for literary limericks with one of her own. It starts with "There once was a lass on a ledge … "

A bank teller suffered a brain injury and now sometimes finds it hard to remember simple words. She wants a succinct way to explain to her customers why she's having difficulty.

Some knock-knock jokes stir the emotions, including Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo ...

A woman in Middlesex, Vermont, says that when she was a girl her parents sometimes described her as porky, but they weren't referring to her appearance -- they meant she was acting rebelliously. This use of the word might be related to pawky, or "impertinent," in British English.

Don't worry, be happy -- or, as a quote attributed to Montaigne goes, My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Bottled Sunshine - 19 November 2018 (11/2018)

If you catch your blue jeans on a nail, you may find yourself with a winklehawk. This term was adapted into English from Dutch, and means "an L-shaped tear in a piece of fabric." And: What's your relationship with the books on your shelves? Do the ones you haven't read yet make you feel guilty -- or inspired? Finally, we're all used to fairy tales that start with the words "Once upon a time." Not so with Korean folktales, which sometimes begin with the beguiling phrase "In the old days, when tigers used to smoke…" Plus, excelsior, oxtercog, wharfinger, minuend, awesome vs. awful, Good Googly Moogly, and eating crackers in bed.


A teacher of English as a second language asks our Facebook group to name some unusual words for ordinary things. The group's suggestions include winklehawk, which means an L-shaped tear in cloth, and diastema, which means a gap between one's teeth.

In his 1926 book History in English Words, Owen Barfield offers this lyrical observation about etymology: Words may be made to disgorge the past that is bottled up inside them, as coal and wine, when we kindle or drink them, yield up their bottled sunshine.

Gila in Woodridge, Connecticut, wonders if there's a connection between the adjective patient, meaning able to withstand delay, pain, or problems, and the noun patient, meaning a person who is sick. Both derive from Latin adjective patientem, describing someone who suffers or tolerates. These words are related to the term passion meaning suffering, as in the Passion of Christ, and passionflower, the name of that odd-looking blossom that is said to symbolize the whips, nails, and other instruments used to torture Jesus.

In English, fairy tales often begin with the phrase Once upon a time. In contrast, Korean folktales often begin with In the old days, when tigers used to smoke, or similar phrases, such as In the old, old days when tigers smoked tobacco pipes and In the old days, when tigers smoked long pipes.

Is the brand in brand-new connected to the kind of brand left by a hot iron?

Writer Anne Lamott memorably compared librarians to trail guides, leading people through the forest of shelves and aisles.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle features intentionally misunderstandings of the names of familiar movies and TV shows. For example, if John refers to a creepy Netflix show set in the 1980s called More Unusual Objects, what's the program he really means?

The Latin comparative adjective excelsior means higher, and also happens to be the state motto for New York. But a member of our Facebook group notes that it's also a term for fine wood shavings used as stuffing or packing material.

Chris from Castro, New York, is curious about bum rush or bum's rush, which refers to forcibly removing someone from an establishment. In 1987, Public Enemy's debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show popularized the use of bum rush to mean something entirely different -- not roughly escorting someone out, but rather a rowdy crowd pushing their way into an establishment. Rapper Chuck D has said that this term also alludes to Public Enemy's effort to push its way to the top of music business and into the national consciousness.

The English word oxter means armpit, and to oxtercog someone is to carry them by the armpits. The term derives from the image of each of two people locking one shoulder under an armpit of the person carried, like a cog fitting into a wheel.

Cora from Cleveland, Ohio, notes that cashiers in stores often say good-bye to her with the phrase Have a nice rest of your day. She's charmed by its use, and wonders if the phrase is on the rise and whether it's confined to a particular geographic region.

Victoria from Tallahassee, Florida, weighs in on our discussion about terms for an extremely quick bath. When Victoria was young, her great-great grandmother from Poland if Victoria had indeed washed up, she'd ask Did you spit in the air and jump through it?

Mary says her Illinois-born husband and father-in-law refer to a measuring tape as a billy. The word billy is used in a slangy sense to refer long lengths of metal, such a billy knife, and a Billy Box is a kind of toolbox, but the use of billy to mean a measuring tape is extremely rare.

A minuend is a quantity from which something is to be subtracted. The amount subtracted is called the subtrahend.

What's your relationship with the books in your personal library? Some people feel inspired by the books still have left to read, while others feel guilty seeing them staring down from the shelves. Writer Kevin Mims finds value in yet another category: books you've read only partially and may revisit.

David from Trophy Club, Texas, wonders about the phrase I wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating crackers. This jocular expression has been around since the early 1940s, and indicates that someone is so lovable they could do something incredibly annoying and still be adored. In the early 20th century, Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia Athletics was notorious for eating animal crackers in bed, and his roommate on tour, Osse Schreck, hilariously insisted to his bosses that Waddell should refrain from doing so.

In our Facebook discussion about unusual English words for ordinary things, a listener points out the term wharfinger, which means someone who manages a wharf.

Lawrence from San Antonio, Texas, wonders if spelling is a factor in the different meanings of awful, which describes something negative, and awesome, which describes something positive. Spelling doesn't come into play here; in fact, for years the word awful was actually spelled with an e after the w. The difference in these words is the result of what linguists call semantic drift. Something similar happened with the words terror, terrific, and terrible.

Lisa from Chesapeake, Virginia, says her father used to say Good Googly Moogly! to express surprise, delight, or emphasis. There are several versions of this exclamation, which derives from a phrase well known to fans of 1950s R&B, Good Googa Mooga.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Care Package - 12 November 2018 (11/2018)

Sending someone a care package shows you care, of course. But the first care packages were boxes of food and personal items for survivors of World War II. They were from the Committee for American Remittances to Europe, the acronym for which is CARE. Also: Montgomery, Alabama is home to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This profoundly moving structure commemorates the thousands of African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950 in acts of racial terror. The word lynch itself goes back another century. Finally: a tender term in Arabic that celebrates the milestones of life. Plus high and dry, bought the ranch, neighbor spoofing, afghan blankets, bumbye, gauming around, barking at a knot, and taking the ten-toed mule.


We send care packages to show others that we care, of course. Originally, though, a CARE package was a shipment of supplies from the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, a group of civic, social, religious, and labor organizations that banded together to help survivors struggling to rebuild their lives after World War II.

Danielle in Los Angeles, California, wonders: If we call the 1960s the Sixties, what will we call the decade we're now in? And will the next decade be the 2020s? How do these names get decided anyway?

The painful condition called shingles takes its name from Latin cingulum, meaning belt, because the inflammation often appears as a belt-like band around the torso. The Latin root of cingulum, cingere, meaning to gird, is also the source of cinch, a strap across the belly of a horse, and precinct, an area encircled on a map.

Six-year-old Aya in Virginia asks about the expression high and dry. Her family member had worried about some relatives in the path of a storm, and phoned to ask if they were high and dry. This puzzled Aya because she had heard that it's a bad thing to leave someone high and dry. She discovers that it's an example of a phrase that can mean two very different things.

Sarah in Fairbanks, Alaska, has a term to add to our discussion about colloquial terms for traveling on foot, like shank's mare, chevrolegs, and getting a ride with Pat and Charlie: taking Shoelace Express.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle for fellow ailurophiles, also known as cat lovers. All the answers start with the letters CAT. Try this one: Cats are really stuck in the 20th century, they don't even order merchandise from websites. They get their clothes from where?

Adair in Fort Worth, Texas, says that her mother described traveling a dangerous stretch of road, adding that she and her husband almost bought the ranch, meaning they came close to having a fatal wreck. The more common phrase is bought the farm. Originating around the time of World War II, the phrase he bought it or he bought a packet referred to a pilot in a deadly crash. The phrase to buy the farm most likely refers to the plot of land that is one's final resting place.

Neighbor spoofing occurs when a scammer appropriates someone's phone number and makes it show up on Caller ID, increasing the odds that a recipient with pick up because the call appears to be from someone nearby. The word spoof itself was popularized by 19th-century British comedian Arthur Roberts.

Lacy from Virginia Beach, Virginia, says her Lebanese in-laws often use the expression Ya'arburnee when addressing an adorable child. Literally it translates as May you bury me, the idea being that the child is so precious it would be unable to live without them. A similar phrase in Arabic translates as May my last day dawn before yours. Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being by Tim Lomas is an exploration of positive words and phrases used around the world that reflect similar bonds within loving relationships.

When Matt was growing up in western North Carolina, he heard the word gaum, also spelled gom, meaning a mess. Someone misbehaving might be described as gauming around, or something was gaumed up, meaning messed up, or a person was dismissed as simply a gaum. He also heard the exclamation They! used to mean Wow! Most likely this use of the word they, along with the exclamations They Lord! and They God!, is a variation of There!

Andrea from Reno, Nevada, submits yet another term for traveling by foot: taking the ten-toed mule.

A trip to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit The Legacy Museum chronicling the African-American experience, the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University, and the profoundly moving National Memorial for Peace and Justice prompts Martha to delve into the etymology of the word lynch. This term for killing by a mob to punish individuals and terrorize communities is likely an eponym deriving from the name of Captain William Lynch, who led vigilante groups during the American Revolution. In later years, between 1877 and 1950, more than 4400 African-Americans were lynched in the United States.

Joseph in San Diego, California, says that during high school he lived in Hawaii, where he picked up the word bumbye which means sooner or later or eventually. It's probably a version of by and by. For a closer look at the language of Hawaii, Grant recommends Da Word by Lee Tonouchi and Joseph recommends Pidgin to Da Max.

To bark at a knot means to engage in foolish or futile activity, like a dog yapping at a knothole on a tree.

Malia in San Diego is of Afghan descent, and wonders why crocheted blankets are referred to as afghans. There is a long, rich history of textile weaving in Afghanistan with repeated geometric designs, and the term afghan was probably borrowed to apply to the blankets consisting of lots of stitched yarn squares.

If someone is garrulous, you might say they're talkative. If they like to amble about, you can describe them as walkative. In fact, there's a Walkative Society in England.

Kieran in Huntsville, Alabama, wonders about the term laid an egg meaning performed badly. The expression to lay an egg goes back at least as far as cricket matches in the 1860s, where duck's egg referred to a zero on a scoreboard. Later in the United States, the term goose egg denoted the same thing. The metaphor was extended to the notion of laying an egg, and not just any egg, but a rotten one, suggesting a performance was bad.

Joe in Huntsville, Alabama, says an elderly friend consistently uses the word hope to mean help. For more than a century, there's been a strong tradition among some speakers in parts of the Southern United States to drop the L sound in words, which then affects the adjacent vowel.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Hell for Leather (Rebroadcast) - 5 November 2018 (11/2018)

Victorian slang and a modern controversy over language and gender. In the early 1900's, a door-knocker wasn't just what visitors used to announce their arrival, it was a type of beard with a similar shape. And in the 21st century: Is it ever okay to call someone a lady? Or is woman always the better term? Plus, surprising stories behind some familiar car brands. Chances are you've been stopped in traffic behind a car named for an ancient Persian deity -- or passed by an automobile that takes its name from a bilingual pun involving German and Latin.


The 1909 volume Passing English of the Victorian Era by J. Redding Ware has a wealth of slang terms from that era. One entry even includes musical notation for Please mother open the door, a slang phrase that was sung, rather than spoken, to express admiration for a woman.

A 13-year-old from San Diego, California, wonders: Why do we call that breakfast staple toast instead of, say, toasted bread? It's natural to find shortcuts for such terms; we've also shortened pickled cucumbers to just pickles.

A wise Spanish proverb, Cada cabeza es un mundo, translates as "Every head is a world," meaning we each have our own perspective.

A caller from Long Beach, California, say hell for leather describes "a reckless abandonment of everything but the pursuit of speed." But why hell for leather? The expression seems to have originated in the mid-19th century, referencing the wear and tear on the leather from a rough ride on horseback at breakneck speed. But similar early versions include hell falleero and hell faladery. There's also hell for election, which can mean the same thing, and appears to be a variation of hell-bent for election.   

Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes. The job requires extra pluck and zeal from every young wage-earner. Both of those sentences are pangrams, meaning they use every letter of the alphabet. Our Facebook group has been discussing these and lots of other alternatives to the old typing-teacher classic The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, sleeping dog.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has designed a puzzle inspired by the movie Finding Dory about two language experts who journey around the ocean looking for le mot juste. For example, what sea creature whose name literally means "daughter of the wind"?

When is it appropriate to refer to someone a lady? Is woman a better word to use? Is it ever appropriate to refer to adult females as girls? It all depends on context -- who's doing the talking and who's doing the listening.

As Mark Twain observed, The compliment that helps us on our way is not the one that is shut up in the mind, but the one that is spoken out. Martha describes a compliments challenge that her friends are taking up on Facebook, with happy results.

A Dallas, Texas, caller says his girlfriend from a rural part of his state has an unusual way of pronouncing certain words. Email sounds like EE-mill, toenail like TOW-nell, and tell-tale like TELL-tell. These sounds are the result of a well-known feature of language change known as a vowel merger.

Riddle time! I exist only when there's light, but direct light kills me. What am I?

The stories behind the brand names of automobiles is sometimes surprising. The name of the Audi derives from a bilingual pun involving a German word, and Mazda honors the central deity of Zoroastrianism, with which the car company's founder had a fascination.

A high-school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, wonders about the origin of the term honky. This word is widely considered impolite, and likely derives from various versions of the term hunky or hunyak used to disparage immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Lots of foods are named for what happens to them. Mozzarella comes from an Italian word that means "cut," feta cheese takes its name from a Greek word meaning the same thing, and schnitzel derives from a German word that also means "to cut."

Why do some people pronounce the word sandwich as SANG-wich or SAM-mitch or SAM-widge?

In the 19th century, the slang term door-knocker referred to a beard-and-mustache combo that ringed the mouth in the shape of a metal ring used to tap on a door.

A Canadian-born caller says her mother, who is from Britain, addresses her grandson as booby.   
In The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, researchers Iona and Peter Opie write that booby is a children's term for "a foolish crybaby," which may be connected.

The 1909 slang collection Passing English of the Victorian Era defines the phrase to introduce shoemaker to tailor this way: "Evasive metaphor for fundamental kicking." In other words, to introduce shoemaker to tailor means to give someone a swift kick in the pants.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
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Ding Ding Man - 29 October 2018 (10/2018)

In 1803, a shy British pharmacist wrote a pamphlet that made him a reluctant celebrity. The reason? He proposed a revolutionary new system for classifying clouds--with Latin names we still use today, like cumulus, cirrus, and stratus. Also: when reading aloud to children, what's the best way to present a dialect that's different from your own? Finally, recycling our trash demands close attention. Professionals in the recycling business say it's important to be sure that an item is truly recyclable. If you're only guessing when you toss it in the blue bin, then you're engaging in wishcycling -- and that does more harm than good.  Plus, T Jones, diegetic vs. non-diegetic, affixes, solastalgia, and since Sooki was a calf.


On Twitter, @HerbertStyles ponders what it would be like if all the punctuation marks went to a party.

Katrina in Williamsburg, Virginia, asks if it's pretentious to use the word said to describe something previously referred to. Using said to mean the aforesaid or the aforementioned is far more common in legal documents, but there's nothing inherently incorrect about using it in other contexts, or using it in an ironic or jocular way in social media. In fact, speakers of English have been using said this way for more than 700 years.

In film production, the term diegetic refers to a sound that occurs within the story itself that the characters supposedly hear, whereas non-diegetic sound refers to background music or narration. For example, the tune played by the pianist in Casablanca is diegetic, while the stirring background music during the training sequences in the movie Rocky is non-diegetic. Diegetic comes from a Greek word that means narrative.

Brad from Allen, Texas, is curious about a slang term he's heard only in Texas, used to refer affectionately to a mother or grandmother: T Jones. Most uses of this term for a parent or grandmother seem to occur in the Dallas area. It's been around since the 1970s, but not much more is known about the expression or its origin.

Recycling companies discourage what they call wish-cycling. That's when people err on the side of tossing a questionable item in the recycling bin, like a tinfoil lid from a cup of yogurt or some other material that they hope is recyclable. Those items can gum up the works at the Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, causing costly delays or damage.

How is a popular tune like a butterfly? Quiz Guy John Chaneski says the answer to this riddle involves an adjective ending in the letter Y. So do all the other answers in this week's puzzle.

Cara in San Diego, California, notes that the word monologue refers to something spoken by one person while dialogue involves two people speaking, and that a bicycle, has two wheels, and a unicycle has one. So why aren't they monocycles and dicycles? The di- in dialogue is from the Greek word dia- meaning through. For a thorough exploration of these and other affixes in English, check out Michael Quinion's affixes.org.

Solastalgia is psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, or by change to a place that has been familiar. Coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia combines the Greek root -algia, meaning pain, and solas-, suggesting both desolation and a lack of solace.

Monica in Tallahassee, Florida, says that while reading the book Flossie and the Fox to her children, she wondered: What's the right way for a parent to render dialect if the dialect is not one's own?

Gerald from San Diego, California, says his mother, who was from North Carolina, used the phrase since Sooki was a calf to mean for a long time. The words sook and sookie are among many traditionally used to call cows from the pasture. The phrase since Sooki was a calf falls in line with several other fanciful phrases to indicate a long time, including since Hector was a pup or since Pluto was a pup or since Christ left Chicago.

In the early 19th, a shy British chemist named Luke Howard self-published a pamphlet called Essay on the Modifications of Clouds, which proposed a taxonomy of cloud formations. To his surprise, the pamphlet captured the public imagination, turned Howard into a reluctant celebrity, and inspired artists from the German writer Goethe to the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Latin terms Howard proposed for various types of clouds, such as cirrus, stratus, and cumulus, are still in use today.

Rod from Dallas, Texas, recalls that when something wasn't quite right, his favorite aunt, who was born and raised in Arkansas, would exclaim Don't that just frost ya?

Inspired by Luke Howard's groundbreaking Essay on the Modifications of Clouds, the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley penned his poem The Cloud, an example of personification.

Mike from Green Bay, Wisconsin, says his dad claims to have coined the term radke for a half-finished beer, and that the term is widespread. Is it? More widespread and well-documented terms for such unfinished drinks are wounded soldier and grenade.

Rachel, who moved from Nebraska to attend school in College Park, Maryland, says her friends were surprised when she referred to the driver of an ice cream truck as the ding ding man. Indeed, this term seems to be limited largely to Omaha, Nebraska, and parts of that state. The term ding ding man has also been applied to the conductor of a trolley car.

Tracy in northern Idaho writes that her young son refers to egg nog as chicken milk.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Take Tea for the Fever - 22 October 2018 (10/2018)

Silence comes in lots of different forms. In fact, says writer Paul Goodman, there are several kinds: There's the noisy silence of "resentment and self-recrimination," and the helpful, participatory silence of actively listening to someone speak. Plus, the strange story behind the English words "grotesque" and "antic": both involve bizarre paintings found in ancient Roman ruins. Finally, the whirring sound of a Betsy bug and a moth's dusty wings give rise to picturesque English words and phrases. Plus millers, keysmash, subpar, placer mining, dinklepink and padiddle, machatunim and consuegros, and to clock someone.


Another term for moth is miller or dusty miller, so named the powdery wings of these insects recall the image of a miller covered in flour. That's also the inspiration behind the name of the dusty miller plant.

Elaine from Boulder, Colorado, wonders: What's the origin of the slang term to clock someone meaning to hit them?

After the death of Aretha Franklin, her ex-husband described her as someone who didn't take tea for the fever. If you don't take tea for the fever, you refuse to put up with any nonsense. This .expression appears in a story by Langston Hughes.

Jeff from Huntsville, Alabama, remembers playing a game on family road trips called padiddle. If you see a car at night with one headlight out, you say Padiddle! The first person to do so gets to punch a fellow passenger. His wife's family played a variation in which the winner was entitled to a kiss. There are various rules for the game and various names, including perdiddle perdunkle, pasquaddle, cockeye, cockeye piddle, dinklepink, and popeye. There's also the slug bug version that specifically involves spotting a Volkswagen.

A keysmash is a random string of letters typed as a way of indicating intense emotion, such as frustration.

There are scores of new television shows out there, which inspired Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle based on names of TV programs you may not have heard of. For example, is Cloak and Dagger a series about spies in the 1940s, or is it about two superheroes called Cloak and Dagger?

Cecily from Indianapolis, Indiana, recalls her North Carolina-born grandmother would describe someone doing something stupid as being crazy as a Betsy bug. The phrase alludes to the horned beetle, also known as the patent-leather beetle, a large black insect that makes a whirring noise when disturbed. It's also called a Betsy bug, bess bug, or bessie bug.

Joseph from Wilson, Wyoming, wonders: Why is subpar, or in other words under par, a good thing in golf but nowhere else?

Sue from Rancho Palos Verdes, California, says her daughter Pip used to talk about how much she loved the jazz singer Elephants Gerald.

Judith in Newbury Park, California, shares a funny story about how she used to mispronounce the word grotesque with three syllables. This term meaning strange or unnatural or absurdly exaggerated goes back to Italian grottesca, or having to do with caves, and refers to fantastical subterranean murals discovered in Roman ruins featuring strange and exaggerated figures. Thus grotesque is a linguistic relative of the word grotto. Another English term associated with those bizarre paintings the word antic, from Italian antica, meaning old, and a relative of the English word antique.

Susan in Traverse City, Michigan, wonders if there's a single English word that denotes the relationship between two mothers-in-law, two fathers-in-law, or a mother-in-law and father-in-law. Co-mother seems too vague, and the psychologists' terms affine or co-affine, from the same root as affinity, aren't used widely among the rest of the population. In Spanish there's consuegro, and in Yiddish machatunim, as well as words in Portuguese, Italian, and Greek, but nothing that's been adopted into English, and the German Gegenschwiegermutter doesn't seem a likely candidate, either.

Silence exists in more than one form. In his book Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry, Paul Goodman eloquently evokes several of them.

Will from Lexington, Kentucky, has a long-running dispute with his girlfriend. Is it appropriate to call the machine that launders your clothing a clothes-washing machine rather than just a washing machine? And why do we call the machine that cleans the dishes a dishwasher rather than a dish-washing machine?

In an earlier conversation, we discussed the term gypsy and its ugly history as a slur against the Roma people. That history prompted the Actors' Equity Association to choose a new name for its traditional Gypsy Robe. For decades, this garment was awarded to the chorus member in a Broadway musical who has the most production credits. However, it's now called the Legacy Robe.

Placer mining is a method of extracting gold from alluvial deposits. You might guess that the word is pronounced with a long a, but used in this context, it's actually a short vowel. The term derives from a Spanish word for that kind of surface, and goes back to the same Latin root that gives us both plaza and place.

Brian in Church Hill, Tennessee, had a band called Smackin' Bejeebus. The latter word, more commonly rendered as Bejesus or Bejeezus, is a mild oath that euphemizes the name Jesus, is often used for emphasis.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Come see Martha and Grant live! (10/2018)

Join A Way with Words, public radio's lively show about language, for a fantastic evening! Slang, dialect, etymology, language change, new words, and a whole lot more.
We'll explore the amazing oddities of English, from the very old to the very new — plus host a language Q&A where you can find out what you've always wanted to know.
You'll come away enlightened and inspired. :)
If you don't see your city fill out this survey to show your interest. We go where the demand is! If enough people in a place ask for A Way with Words, we’ll do our best to make it happen.
You can learn more about our events, and keep up with new dates we've added, on our events page.
See you soon!
Martha Barnette & Grant Barrett
co-hosts of A Way with Words

Sun Dog - 15 October 2018 (10/2018)

A clever pun can make the difference between a so-so phrase and a memorable one. The phrase "the last straw" refers to an old fable about too many items in a load, but it takes on a whole new meaning in a public-awareness campaign about the environment. Also, why do we use the term "mob scene" to refer to an unruly crowd? This term originated in the world of theater. Finally: the Basque language spoken in the westernmost Pyrenees has long posed a linguistic mystery. Its origins are unclear and it's unlike any other language in the region. But Basque is enjoying something of a revival in a surprising place . . . Idaho. Plus, sun dog, ob-gyn, mob scene, George, Double George, Geezum Pete, and somersault vs. winter pepper.


Carrie from Waupaca, Wisconsin, confesses she was stumped when that her son Aidan asked,"Mom, can you do a winter pepper?"

An ad campaign featuring the phrase The Last Straw urging people not to use plastic straws has Allie in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wondering about double meanings in advertising. Research shows that such punning can be effective.

On Twitter, @laureneoneal wonders why the term ob-gyn is pronounced by sounding out all the letters, as if it's an initialism.

Eleven-year-old Ben calls from Rapids City to ask about the term sun dog, the meterological phenomenon in which a bright spot appears to the left or right of the sun. No one knows the origin of this term. Synonyms include mock sun, weather gall, and parhelion, from Greek words meaning beside the sun.

Some 50 years ago, says Susan from Burbank, California, she and a friend made up a game involving prefixes and suffixes, which led to such nonsense words as epidormithry and postpreparize.

Ever notice how many comic-book villains have names ending in the letter O? For starters,  there's Magneto, Sinestro, and Bizarro. Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle features new villains with names that are common words ending in -o. For example, who's the villain who takes large islands and breaks them up into chains of smaller islands?

Barbara in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, wonders about the term mob scene, means an unruly, dense crowd. The term arose in the world of theater, where it denotes a point in a performance with lots of people onstage. The word mob is a shortening of Latin mobile vulgus, which means fickle crowd.

The phrase throw in the towel, meaning to give up, originated in the world of boxing. An earlier phrase from the same sport that carried the same metaphorical meaning is chuck in the sponge.

Andrew in Omaha, Nebraska, recalls his grandfather's use of the word George to mean exceptionally good, and Double George to mean really great. Other masculine names, including Jake, Tom, and Jerry have meant something similar. In the 1950s, the name George was used among casino workers for a high roller, as in Here comes George.

The German word for longjohns, Liebestoter, literally means love killer.

Rick calls from Rouses Point, New York, to ask about the etymology of the phrase hang for a sheep as for a lamb, meaning go for broke or go all out. The answer has involves the old tradition of capital punishment for theft. Given the risk of such dire consequences, one might as well steal the item that's more valuable. There's a similar Scots proverb that goes as well be hanged for a wedder as for a lamb, a wedder being a male castrated sheep. The word wedder is linguistically related to bellwether, a large, castrated sheep wearing a bell and therefore indicative of where the herd is going.

Our conversation about being criticized for using yes ma'am and no sir, prompted a letter from an Austin, Texas, listener who had a similar experience when she moved from Mississippi to Ohio.

The state of Idaho has a large community of Basque speakers. Their native tongue is what's known as a language isolate, meaning one that is not historically connected to those around it.

The name George derives from the Greek word for farmer, a combination of words that literally mean earth worker.

Ellen in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, wonders about the origin of the exclamation Geezum Pete! It's a minced oath -- that is a way of avoiding saying Jesus Christ! There are dozens of similar euphemized exclamations, including gee willikins, jiminy, Jehosaphat, Judas Priest, Jeekers, Jiminy Cricket, Jiminy Crickets, Gee willikers, Gee Christmas, Jiminy Christmas, and Jerusalem.

Michael in Papillion, Nebraska, asks: Why do we refer to that adjustable vent that regulates air flow in a home as a register?

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.