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.

The Last Straw - 11 December 2017 (12/2017)

Books for word lovers, plus the stories behind some familiar terms. Want a gift for your favorite bibliophile? Martha and Grant have recommendations, from a collection of curious words to some fun with Farsi. Plus, some people yell "Geronimo!" when they jump out of an airplane, but why that particular word? Also, we call something that heats air a heater, so why do we call something that cools the air an air conditioner? The answer lies in the history of manufacturing. Also, quaaltagh, snuba, the last straw vs. the last draw, and I have to go see a man about a horse.

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There's a word for the first person to walk through your door on New Year's Day. The word quaaltagh, and it's used on the Isle of Man. This Manx term is one of many linguistic delights in a book Martha recommends for word lovers: The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, by Paul Anthony Jones.

Why do we use the term air-conditioner to refer a mechanism for cooling air, when we use the word heater to describe a mechanism for heating air? The term air conditioning was borrowed from the textile industry, where it referred to filtering and dehumidifying. The first use of this term is in a 1909 paper by Stuart Cramer called Recent Developments in Air Conditioning.

Snuba is a portmanteau--a combination of snorkel and scuba--and refers to snorkeling several feet underwater while breathing through a long hose that's attached to an air supply float on a raft.

What do you call that last small irritation, burden, or annoyance that finally makes a situation untenable? Is it the last straw or the last draw? Hint: it has nothing to do with a shootout at the OK corral.

We've talked before about kids' funny misunderstandings of words. Martha shares another story from a Dallas, Texas, listener.
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has an inside-out puzzle that's clued by a short sequence of letters inside a longer one. For example, what holiday contains the letters KSGI?

A man in Surprise, Arizona, wonders why people jumping into a pool sometimes yell Geronimo! The history of this exclamation goes back to an eponymous 1939 movie about the famed Apache warrior Geronimo. The film was quickly popular on U.S. military bases, where the warrior's name became a rallying cry. A widely circulated story goes that in 1940, a U.S. Army private named Aubrey Eberhardt responded to teasing about his first parachute jump by yelling Geronimo! as he leapt into the wild blue yonder.

The acronym NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard. A more emphatic version used among urban planners is BANANA, which stands for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

Someone who's really hungry might say I'm falling to staves, meaning they're famished. It's a reference to the way a barrel falls apart if the metal hoops that hold them together are removed.

A listener in Plaza, North Dakota, says he tried to signal some teenagers to lower their car window by moving his fist in a circle, but since they grew up with push-button window controls, they didn't understand the gesture. What's the best gesture now for communicating that you want someone to roll down their car window?

For the book lover on your gift list, Grant recommends the mix of magic in science in All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. He also likes the work of Firoozeh Dumas: It Ain't So Awful Falafel, about an Iranian teenage girl living in California, as well as Dumas's books for adults, Funny in Farsi, and Laughing Without An Accent. Martha recommends Kory Stamper's love letter to lexicography, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, and Jessica Goodfellow's poetry collection about mountaineering, Whiteout.

A woman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says her Appalachia-born grandmother would occasionally say that it was time to string the leather britches, or hang up the leather britches, or string up the leather britches. She was referring to preserving green beans. So why the leather and britches?

If you're living with a chronic illness or disability, you often have to ration your physical and mental energy. And if that illness isn't readily apparent to others, it can be hard to explain how debilitating that process can be. On her website But You don't Look Sick, writer Christine Miserandino, who has lupus, illustrates that process with handful of spoons, each representing a finite amount of physical and mental energy that must be spent in order to get through a typical day. Someone without a disability or illness starts each day with an unlimited number of spoons, while others must weigh which task is worth spending a spoon for, and then making more decisions as the supply is depleted. Inspired by that metaphor, a growing community of people facing such invisible challenges call themselves spoonies.

A listener in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, recalls that his grandfather used to announce he was headed to the restroom by saying I have to go see a man about a horse. An earlier version of the phrase is I have to go see a man about a dog. These phrase are among many euphemisms for leaving to take care of bathroom business, such as going to see Miss White or going to go pluck a rose.

A Burlington, Vermont, listener wants to settle a dispute: Can laughter be described as gregarious?

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

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A gift for your language nerd! (12/2017)

Donate to support A Way with Words https://waywordradio.org/donate

....

Here’s the perfect gift for your language nerd: a donation to A Way with Words.

For more than ten years we’ve been producing fun episodes about words and language that are heard millions of times each year by people like your word nerd.

Making the show takes money, of course. We don’t get any from NPR. And we don’t get any from your local station. We get much of our support from our podcast and radio fans.

This year, go to waywordradio.org/donate and sign up as a sustaining donor on behalf of the linguistics geek in your life. Your linguaphile. Your thesaurus brontosaurus. Your lexical BFF-exical.

PLUS! Thanks to a challenge grant from Jack and Caroline Raymond, your donation goes twice as far through the end of 2017! They will double whatever you give! It’s a two-for-one, but you have to donate before the end of the year to activate the challenge grant.

In return, you and your loved one get more new episodes all year long.

Pause this show and go to https://waywordradio.org/donate.

Thank you!

Sincerely,

Martha and Grant

Skedaddle (Rebroadcast) - 4 December 2017 (12/2017)

The months of September, October, November, and December take their names from Latin words meaning "seven," "eight," "nine," and "ten." So why don't their names correspond to where they fall in the year? The answer lies in an earlier version of the Roman calendar. The sweltering period called the "dog days" takes its name from the movements of a certain star.
A new book offers an insider's view of the world of dictionary editing.

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You're trying to unscrew the stubborn lid on a jar of pickles and ask someone to hand you that flat, round, rubber thing that helps you get it open. What do you call that item? In a discussion on our Facebook group, listeners share several names, including rubber husband, second husband, rubber grippy thing, and round tuit.

A surfer in Imperial Beach, California, wonders who coined the word gnarly to describe waves that are particularly challenging. This term may have originated in the slang of surfers in South Africa in the 1970s, and eventually spread into everyday slang.

The slang term sky hag was originally a negative appellation for an older flight attendant. But it's now being reclaimed by longtime airline employees as a positive self-descriptor.

A woman in Mammoth Lakes, California, says her father used to offer this advice: In promulgating your esoteric cogitations or articulating your superficial sentimentalities, beware of preposterous ponderosities. In other words, don't use big words. This particular phrase and variations of it were passed around in 19th century, much like internet memes today.

Gram weenie is a slang term for an ultralight backpacker who goes to extreme lengths to shave off every last bit of weight they must carry.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski shares puzzle called "Blank in the Blank." For example, what classic toddler's toy shares its name with a fast-food restaurant?

A college student in Bowling Green, Kentucky, wonders about the origin of the word emoji. Although you might guess that the name for these little pictures inserted into text messages contains the English word emotion, that's just a coincidence. Instead, the word derives from Japanese e meaning "picture" and moji, meaning "letter" or "character."

The phrase to be nebby is heard particularly in Western Pennsylvania, and means to be "picky" or "gossipy." Originally, it meant "nosy" or "snooping." Nebby is a vestige of Scots-Irish, where the word neb means "nose" or "beak."

Some parents take homeschooling a step further with world-schooling, or educating children through shared travel experiences.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener recalls hearing the term las caniculas to denote a period of 12 days in January where the weather seems to run the gamut of all the kinds of weather that will be experienced in the coming year. This period is also known as las cabanuelas. Canicula derives from Latin for "little dog," a reference to Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, which at a certain time of the year appears in the eastern horizon just before sunrise, appearing to accompany the sun like a faithful pup. There's a great deal of folklore associated with la canicula, a term applied at different times in different Spanish-speaking countries. In English, this period in late summer is known as the dog days.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, is a must-read for anyone interested in language and how dictionaries are made.

The months September, October, November, and December derive from Latin words that mean "seven," "eight," "nine," and "ten" respectively. So why are they applied to the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year? The answer lies in the messy history of marking the year, described in detail in David Duncan's book, Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.

A sneck is a kind of latch. A listener in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says his British relatives use the term snecklifter is sometimes used to mean "a gift that will get you in the door at a dinner party."

A U.S. Forest Service firefighter in Lakeland, Florida, also teaches classes on chainsaw safety, and wants to make sure he's using gender-neutral pronouns when doing so. The epicene pronoun they will work just fine.

The origin of skedaddle, meaning to "run away in a panic" or "flee," has proved elusive. Renowned etymologist Anatoly Liberman suggests it may be related to a Scottish term, skeindaddle, meaning "to spill." Its popularity in the United States took off during the Civil War.

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Coast Is Clear (Rebroadcast) - 27 November 2017 (11/2017)

In the military, if you've "lost the bubble," then you can't find your bearings. The term first referred to calibrating the position of aircraft and submarines. And the phrase "the coast is clear" may originate in watching for invaders arriving by sea. Plus, a dispute over how to pronounce the name of a savory avocado dip. Finally, one more place where people are starting sentences with the word "So"--during prayers at church. Also: elbow clerk, smitten, Tennyson's brook, fussbudget vs. fuss-bucket, clinomania, and 50k south of Woop Woop.


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Our conversation about goofy German Antiwitze prompts listeners to send in their own silly jokes. For example: What's the difference between a duck? A pencil, because a duck has no sleeves!

A brother and sister in Elgin, Illinois, disagree about how to pronounce guacamole. She argues that it rhymes with whack-a-mole. She's wrong.

Speaking to a conference of judges and lawyers, Grant learns the term elbow clerk, meaning a clerk who works in the judge's chambers.

A woman in Vancouver, Washington, wants to know the origin of the phrase the coast is clear, meaning "it's safe to proceed." It most likely has to do with a literal coast, whether from the perspective of a ship at sea or guards patrolling the shoreline. The Spanish equivalent No hay Moros en la costa translates literally as "There are no Moors on the coast."

Why does it seem that more and more people start responses to a question with the word So? After hearing our discussion about sentence-initial so, a Nashville, Tennessee, churchgoer calls to say that he often hears something similar at the beginning of a prayer after a sermon or to conclude a service.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about people whose names are words. For example, if he asks, "Is the comedian who was one of the Three Amigos vertically challenged?" you'd answer with name of a funny man whose last name is also an adjective.

A woman who is fond of the word smitten is curious about about the word's origin. Smitten is the past participle of "smite," so if you're smitten with someone, you're struck by them, metaphorically speaking.

A San Antonio, Texas, woman who has taught at the Defense Language Institute at Lackland Air Force Base, says one of her Spanish-speaking students taught her the equivalent of the pot calling the kettle black: el conejo gritando orejon, which translates literally as "the rabbit yelling 'big ears.'"

A listener in Marquette, Michigan, says her daughters criticize her for saying Where you at? They argue that the word at in this case is unnecessary. In many cases, this phrase is indeed a pleonasm, but Grant explains that in some contexts this use of the word at plays a particular linguistic role to convey additional meaning.

In response to our conversation about euphemistic terms for one's age, a listener says that he fudged his age on his last big birthday by telling friends he'd turned 21 in Celsius.

Two-hander is theater jargon for a play that features just two people.

The expression on and on like Tennyson's brook describes something lengthy or seemingly interminable, like a long-winded speaker who goes on and on like Tennyson's brook. The phrase is a reference to a lovely poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson about the course of a body of water.

To lose the bubble means "to lose track" or "lose one's bearings," and refers to the bubble in an inclinometer on an airplane or ship, much like the bubble in a carpenter's level. It's described in detail in Gene Rochlin's Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization.

In Australian slang, Woop Woop is a joking term for any remote town, and if you want to denote someplace even more remote, you can describe it as 50k south of Woop Woop.

A fussbudget is someone who's "ill-tempered" or "overly critical," the -budget in this term deriving from an old word for "purse" or "pouch." Variants include fussy-budget, fuss-a-budget, and fussbucket.

The words clinomania and dysania both refer to extreme difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.

If the car you bought is a lemon, it's defective. This negative use of lemon derives from the tart taste of this fruit, which first inspired an association with a sourpuss, then a generally disappointing person, and then finally a similarly disappointing product.

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

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Hidden Treasures - 20 November 2017 (11/2017)

Civil War letters and the opposite of prejudice. A new online archive of Civil War letters offers a vivid portrait of the everyday lives of enlisted men. These soldiers lacked formal education, so they wrote and spelled "by ear," and the letters show how ordinary people spoke back then. Plus, is there a single word that means "the opposite of prejudice"? How about "unhate"? Or maybe "allophilia"? Finally, there's an old joke that if you buy clothes at a flea market, they throw in the fleas for free. But the story behind the term "flea market" is a lot more complicated. Plus: go to grass, go up the spout, take the devil out of it, bobbery, and diabetes of the blow-hole.

FULL DETAILS

Private Voices, also known as the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, is an online archive of thousands of letters written by soldiers during the U.S. Civil War. Because the soldiers lacked formal education and wrote "by ear," the collection is a treasure trove of pronunciation and dialect from that time and place. One phrase frequently appearing in these letters is go up the spout, meaning to die, be lost, or ruined. In fact, the transcript from the trial of John Wilkes Booth quotes a witness who testified that Booth told him Old Abe Lincoln must go up the spout. A similar idea is expressed by the phrase go up the flue.

A flea market is a type of bazaar, usually outdoors, where vendors of second-hand and discount goods sell their wares. But why flea market? The term probably reflects the influence of two linguistic strains: In 18th-century New York City, the Fly Market took its name from a similar-sounding Dutch word. Later, English speakers adopted the French phrase for a similar type of market, marche aux puces, or literally, market of the fleas.

In the Private Voices corpus of American Civil War letters, the term pill is often used to mean bullet, although this slang term is at least a century older.

A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, woman says her family has long used the term nun puckeroo to designate a kind of vague, non-serious malaise. Neither Martha nor Grant knows that one, but the Dictionary of American Regional English lists lots of jocular terms for such illness, including none-puck in Delaware and rum puckeroo in Rhode Island. Any of these sound preferable to diabetes of the blow-hole.

The term bobbery means a noisy disturbance or hubub. The word's origin is disputed, although one explanation is that it comes from the Hindi exclamation Bap re! or literally, Oh father!

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has us looking for Hidden Treasures, specifically terms for valuable items you might find in adjacent sounds in a sentence. For example, the name of a precious metal is hidden in the following sentence: If you don't reach your goal, don't get discouraged.

A researcher in Port Jefferson, New York, wonders if there's a single word that means the opposite of prejudice. Unhate? He suggests the word allophilia, a combination of Greek words that mean love or like of the other.

There are three words in the English language that sound like "too." So how do you indicate in writing how word should be pronounced? IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to the rescue!

A San Antonio, Texas, woman wonders about a tradition she grew up with. Before drinking an alcoholic beverage, you hand the drink to someone else to have a sip in order to take the devil out of it.

An Indianapolis, Indiana, woman offers a followup to our discussions about various geographic belts around the country. The Bungalow Belt in Chicago refers to a strip of small brick bungalows just inside the city limits originally occupied by Catholic European immigrants.

Martha has a special connection to the U.S. Civil War soldier who wrote this letter.

A man from Fort Smith, Arkansas, says his Canadian wife is baffled by his pronouncing the word cement as CEE-ment. Stressing the first syllable of such words as police, insurance, umbrella, and vehicle is an occasional feature of Southerners' speech.

A woman in Suffolk, Virginia, is curious about the origin of the word onus, as in responsibility. The word onus is borrowed directly from Latin where it means burden. This Latin word is also the root of the words onerous, which describes something burdensome, and exonerate, meaning to free from a burden.

Salisbury steak is named for Dr. James H. Salisbury, who prescribed what he referred to as muscle pulp of beef for Civil War soldiers suffering from so-called camp diarrhea.

A woman in Council Bluffs, Iowa, says that when her mother was indicating that two things were roughly equal, she's say they were six and one half dozen of the other. The more common version is six of one and half a dozen of the other or six of one, half a dozen of the other. Another phrase for saying two things are equivalent is a horse apiece.

A saying attributed to the 13th-century poet Rumi goes Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.

Go to grass is In the 1600s, go to grass meant to be knocked down. In the 1800s, the phrase was the equivalent of telling someone to die and go to hell. Go to grass has also been used to refer to a racehorse or working horse that's been retired from service. A variant is go to grass and eat hay.

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

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

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Butterflies in Your Stomach - 13 November 2017 (11/2017)

If you're not using a dictionary to look up puzzling words as you read them, you're missing out on a whole other level of enjoyment. Also, when you're cleaning house, why not clean like there's literally no tomorrow? The term "death cleaning" refers to downsizing and decluttering specifically with the next generation in mind. The good news is that older folks find that "death cleaning" enhances their own lives. Finally, you know when anticipating something has you extremely nervous but also really excited? Is there a single word for that fluttery feeling? Plus, marrow, set of twins, skid lid, I reckon, vicenarian, miniscule vs. minuscule, and how to pronounce potable.

FULL DETAILS

Someone in their 70s is septuagenarian, someone in their 80s is an octogenarian, and someone in their 90s is a nonagenarian. Someone in their 50s is a quinquagenarian, and if they're in their 40s, they're a quadragenarian. If you're between 100 and 110, you're a centenarian, and older than that, well, congratulations! In that case you're a supercentenarian.

How do you pronounce the word potable, which means drinkable. A woman in the Navy stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, says most of her fellow sailors pronounce it with a short o, but she pronounces it with a long o. The word derives from Latin potare, meaning to drink, and traditionally the long o sound in the Latin has been preserved in the pronunciation of potable. Increasingly, though, many people pronounce it with a short o, as if assuming that the adjective describes something that might be put in a pot and boiled. This pronunciation is especially common in the military. Potable is a linguistic relative of the word potion, a type of drink, and symposium, from Greek words that literally mean drinking together.

A listener in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, was surprised to learn that in England the word marrow refers to zucchini.

A woman and her 10-year-old daughter are looking for a word that describes being excited but anxious. It's not exactly twitterpated, and the Southernism like a worm in hot ashes is vivid, but a phrase. If a single word for this feeling exists, maybe it involves butterflies?

If you're between the ages of 10 and 19, you're a denarian.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiet quiz involving words that are usually shouted. Suppose, for example, someone said,  Excuse me, Mr. Horse, I'd appreciate it if you stopped. What's the exclamation suggested by this request?

If you tell someone you have a set of twins, does that mean you have two kids or four kids? It depends on the meaning of the word set.

A woman in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, wonders: Why is the less busy period in a tourist area known as the shoulder season?

Skid lid, cage, and backyard are all slang terms from the world of motorcycle enthusiasts. A skid lid is a helmet, a cage is an automobile, and a backyard is a favorite place to ride. The phrase lay it down means to have a motorcyle accident.

The phrase I reckon meaning I suppose is marked in the United States as rural, rustic or uneducated. The term is centuries old, however, and used widely in the United Kingdom.

Death cleaning is the translation of a Swedish term describing a kind of de-cluttering later in life, when you downsize to make things easier for the next generation. It's being popularized by The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning by Margareta Mangusson.

Martha shares an email from a listener from Delray Beach, Florida, about the rewards of looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

If you're in your 20s, you're a vicenarian; the word for someone in their 30s is tricenarian.

A Dallas, Texas, listener is annoyed when he sees a price listed with the dollar sign after the amount, rather than before, as in 500$ rather than $500. In some parts of the world, however, the currency symbol routinely follows the number.

The word stenophagous means eating a limited variety of food. It derives from Greek stenos, meaning narrow, also found in stenography (literally, narrow writing) and stenosis, a medical term for abnormal narrowing.

A nonprofit that promotes literacy in Reno, Nevada, held a spelling bee in which adult competitors were asked to spell words from books in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. The author made up some of those words herself. But are they really words if they're not in the dictionary? Yes, if it's said or written and has a meaning, it's a word. The word that took out a lot of the competitors was minuscule, which Rowling used in The Prisoner of Azkaban. In the United States, the word is usually spelled differently: miniscule.

A Bay Area listener says she always giggles when she sees a sign in the Oakland airport that reads You are leaving a sterile area. Among security experts, the term sterile specifically means an area that is officially under control and clear of threats.

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

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

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

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Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Catch You on the Flip Side - 6 November 2017 (11/2017)

Some countries have strict laws about naming babies. New Zealand authorities, for example, denied a request to name some twins Fish and Chips.  Plus, Halley's Comet seen centuries before English astronomer Edmund Halley ever spotted it. That's an example of Stigler's Law, which says no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. Funny thing is, Stigler didn't come up with that idea. Finally, anagrams formed by rearranging the letters of another word. But what do you call anagrams that are synonyms, like "enraged" and "angered"? There's a word for that, too. Also, flip side, over yonder, kyarn, old-fashioned script, avoiding adverbs, and another country heard from.

FULL DETAILS

Anagrams are words formed by rearranging the letters of another word, such as star and arts. As Paul Anthony Jones points out on his site Haggard Hawks, some words can be anagrammed to a synonymous word, such as enraged and angered, or statement and testament. Such pairs are known as synanagrams.

A New York City listener wonders about the origin and literal meaning of the phrase Catch you on the flip side. It's a reference to the B side of vinyl records, and became part of truckers' CB lingo in the 1970s.

A San Diego, California, man wonders about the meaning and distribution of the directional phrase over yonder.

The letters in the word sterilize can be rearranged to form the synangram Listerize.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle features variations on the phrase lawyer up, in which the answers are a verb followed by the word up. For example, if someone's in his car and trying to change gears, but getting a little verklempt about it, what's he about to do?

The former student of a Spanish teacher in Valdosta, Georgia, will soon give birth in her homeland, the Czech Republic, one of several countries that have strict naming laws. The mother-to-be would like to name her son Lisandro, but needs official evidence that Lisandro a legitimate baby name. There is, by the way, a dictionary of Guatemalan Spanish edited by a Lisandro Sandoval. A good source for names mentioned by the Bard is The Shakespeare Name Dictionary.  Most Czech parents chose baby names from a book with a title that translates as What is Your Child Going to Be Called?

A Montreal, Canada, woman wonders why sometimes in old manuscripts the letter S looks like the letter F. A great resource on this topic is Andrew West's blog Babelstone.

New Zealand has strict naming laws, but somehow the names Violence, Number 16 Bus shelter, Midnight Chardonnay, and for twins, Benson and Hedges all passed muster. However, the proposed names Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Sex Fruit, and Fish and Chips didn't make the grade.

Stigler's Law is states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. Halley's Comet, Fibonacci numbers, the Pythagorean theorem, and the Bechdel test all bear the names of people who didn't discover or formulate them. The funny thing is, Stephen Stigler, the University of Chicago statistics professor credited with this law of eponymy, wryly claims that sociology professor Robert K. Merton was the first to come up with it.

Author Stephen King's book On Writing is an excellent guide to the craft. In it, he warns that "the road to hell is paved with adverbs." For another take on writing guides, check out the work of Oliver Kamm, grammar columnist for the Times of London.

An antigram is a variety of anagram, in which the letters of one word are rearranged to create its opposite. Examples of antigrams include united and untied, and the word forty-five, which anagrams to over fifty.

A listener calling from the public library in Chowan County, North Carolina, says her father used the word kyarn to describe something unpleasant or repulsive, as in describing something that isn't worth a kyarn or stinks like kyarn. Also spelled cyarn, this dialectal term derives from the word carrion, which means dead or rotting flesh.

A grandmother in Ferndale, California, wonders about a phrase her own grandmother used. If one of the grandchildren walked into a room and joined a conversation already taking place, she'd exclaim, Oh! Another country heard from! Although her grandmother used the expression affectionately, traditionally, it's had a more dismissive sense. It derives from an older expression, Another county heard from!, a reference to the days when election results could take days or even weeks to come in.

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

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All Verklempt - 30 October 2017 (10/2017)

Of all the letters in the alphabet, which two or three are your favorites? If your short list includes one or more of your initials, that's no accident. Psychological research shows we're drawn to the letters in our name. And: if you doubt that people have always used coarse language, just check out the graffiti on the walls of ancient Pompeii. Cursing's as old as humanity itself! Plus, just because a sound you utter isn't in the dictionary doesn't mean it has no linguistic function. Also: verklempt, opaque vs. translucent, chorking, bruschetta, mothery vinegar, and a goose walked over your grave.

FULL DETAILS

Psychological research shows that when it comes to letters of the alphabet, people tend to like their own initials, perhaps because of a sense of ownership. This phenomenon is called the name-letter effect.

A listener in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, wonders about the origin of the word verklempt, which describes someone all seized up with emotion. This Yiddish term enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 1990s when it was used by Mike Myers playing talk show host Linda Richman on TV's Saturday Night Live.

A nullifidian is someone who subscribes to no particular faith or religion.

A girl in Omaha, Nebraska, has a dispute with her father about the meaning of the words opaque and translucent. Opaque describes something that blocks light completely; something translucent lets some light pass through.

The verb to chork means to make the noise your feet make if your shoes are full of water.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a Double Stuff puzzle in which each answer consists of two rhyming words with two syllables each. For example, what would you call food provided by God for your grandmother?

Bruschetta is the Italian bread soaked with olive oil and topped with savory ingredients. But how do you pronounce it? With a k sound or a sh sound? Bruschetta should be pronounced broo-SKETT-ah.

A Pasadena, California, man says some of his relatives make a noise that sounds like unh-Unh, and it's clear to everyone in the family that it means Well, what did you expect? A lexical utterance like that does have meaning, even if it's not in the dictionary.

The word sacrilegious, describing something that violates the sacred, is tricky to spell. It's easy to assume that it contains the word religious, but it doesn't. Sacrilegious derives from sacrilegus, a Latin word that means a stealer of sacred things.

Why are psychiatrists and psychologists called shrinks? It's a jocular reference to the ritual practice in certain tribal societies of literally shrinking the heads of one's vanquished enemies. The term shrink was adopted as a joking reference to psychotherapists in the 1960s.
Martha shares a letter from a San Antonio, Texas, listener about a child's misunderstanding of the word sophisticated.

How far back does cursing go? People have been using coarse language for thousands of years. Just check out the filthy graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. Although cursing has changed over time, the F-word and its ilk have been around for hundreds of years.

A woman in Cheyenne, Wyoming, says her mom used to refer to the cloudy scum that sometimes forms atop vinegar as mother. The term has been around at least 500 years, and can refer to the scum on the top or sediment on the bottom. It's also used as a verb, and a liquid with that kind of surface can be described with the adjective mothery. A similar cloudy substance that forms atop old wine is called a wineflower.

An observation about life and language from author Michael Sims: Every encounter with another human being is like being able to read half a page from the middle of a novel, isn't it? And then someone grabs the book away.

A Temecula, Califonia, man recalls that whenever he feels a chill, he says, I guess someone walked on my grave. If someone else feels a chill, he'll say, Did someone walk on your grave? Then one day he shivered, and before he could get the words out, a friend asked, Did a goose walk on your grave? Which came first, the person or the goose? A similar expression may be used during a lull in a conversation. The earliest known reference to someone walking over one's final resting place is in the writing of Jonathan Swift.

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

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

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Hunk Waffle - 23 October 2017 (10/2017)

Decisions by dictionary editors, wacky wordplay, and Walt Whitman's soaring verse.  How do lexicographers decide which historical figures deserve a mention or perhaps even an illustration in the dictionary? The answer changes with the times. Plus, a tweet about basketball that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. It goes: "LaBron has played more career minutes than MJ, Shaq, Hakeem, Ewing, and others. Crazy how we never expect him to get fatigued in a game." Turns out there's an entire Twitter feed full of tweets that pull off that same linguistic trick! Also, a Walt Whitman poem that crosses time, space, and experience. And Friday Wednesday vs. Wednesday Friday, actress vs. actor, balling the jack, a la mode, and grab the brass ring.

FULL DETAILS

A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. The Twitter feed Pangram Tweets (@pangramtweets) uses a bot to scour the internet for pangrammatic tweets, providing a weirdly wonderful window on what people write.

A writer at an ad agency in Rochester, New York, has a dispute with his chief copy writer: If you're taking off Thursday and Friday, is your last day of work that week a Wednesday Friday? Or is it a Friday Wednesday?

A Fort Worth, Texas, listener wonders about the pronunciation of the word apricot. Is that first syllable long or short? The answer depends on what part of the country you're in. If you're in the Northern United States, for example, you're far more likely to pronounce apricot with a long a.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle takes the definition of a word, and then alphabetizes all the words in the definition. For example, the definition of one familiar noun consists of the following words, but not in alphabetical order: and army engaged especially in in military one service the. What's the word?

A man who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, says that when he and his friends were playing a game of tag and wanted to take a break they would call "Pax!" This Latin word for peace used in this way is what's called a truce term. Other examples are King's X, truce, time, times, full stop, scribs, skinch, cree, barley, and I freeze my seat.

Why do we differentiate linguistically between an actor and an actress, but don't make a similar distinction between a male doctor and a female one? The profession of being an actor was initially limited to men, so the word actress came later. For a helpful reference on this topic, check out Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet.

A ride on the carousel in San Diego's Balboa Park has Martha pondering the origin of the phrases to grab the brass ring, meaning to achieve something difficult, and to reach for the brass ring, meaning to try hard to reach a goal, and by extension, to live life with gusto.

A Tallahassee, Florida, man says that when his father was passed by a speeding car, he'd say that the driver was balling the jack. In the early 20th century, a fast, high-energy dance among African-Americans was called balling the jack. The term was later adopted by those in the railroad industry.

Martha reads Walt Whitman's poem "On the Beach at Night, Alone."

A listener in Albany, New York, wonders who decides which historical personages deserve mention a dictionary, and how editors decide which of those people merit a photo or illustration? Grant explains the process by which lexicographers handle these encyclopedic entries.

A slice of pie topped with ice cream is said to be served a la mode, a French phrase that means in the fashion of. A listener in Greenfield, Massachusetts, wants to know why.

On our Facebook group, a member told the story of teaching English in Japan, where a student couldn't remember the slang expression stud muffin, but came pretty close by substituting his own term, hunk waffle.  

A woman in Eureka, California, is curious about the term bailiwick. It comes from a Middle English word for bailiff, and wik, a Middle English word that means dwelling and is related to several English place names, such as Gatwick and Norwich.

"LaBron has played more career minutes than MJ, Shaq, Hakeem, Ewing, and others. Crazy how we never expect him to get fatigued in a game." That's an astute observation about basketball, but it's also a pangram, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. More on Pangram Tweets (@pangramtweets).

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

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Pants on Fire - 16 October 2017 (10/2017)

A highly anticipated children's book and the epic history behind a familiar vegetable. Fans of illustrator Maurice Sendak are eagerly awaiting the publication of a newly discovered manuscript by the late author. And speaking of children's literature, some wise advice from the author of Charlotte's Web, E. B. White: "Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears." Plus, when is a mango not a mango? If you're in Southern Indiana, you may not be talking about a tropical fruit. And: the longest F-word in the dictionary has 29 letters, and is rarely used -- partly because pronouncing it is such a challenge. Also, Limestone Belt, I swanee, gorby, fluke print, pour the cobs on,  and Liar, liar, pants on fire.

FULL DETAILS

After we discussed the Smile Belt and other "belt" regions of the United States, listeners chimed in with more, including the Potato Belt and Potato Chip Belt in Pennsylvania, and Banana Belt, a term used for the southern regions of both Vermont and Alaska.

The saying Liar, liar pants on fire is part of a longer children's rhyme that's been around since 1841 or so. There are several different versions of what comes after the line Liar, liar, pants on fire, such as Hanging by a telephone wire / While you're there, cut your hair / And stick it down your underwear. A listener in Indianapolis, Indiana, reports finding other taglines, such as Stick your head in boiling water, and the milder Wash your face in dirty water.

To describe someone who is dazed, lost, or confused, you might say he looks like he was sent for and couldn't go.
 
An 11-year-old in Tallahassee, Florida, wonders about a phrase her late grandfather used. Instead of swearing, he'd exclaim I swanee! or I'll swanny! This mild oath, and its shorter version, I'll swan, derives from an English dialectal phrase, I shall warrant.

The Indiana Limestone Belt has an abundance of this type of rock. The limestone industry figured prominently in the movie Breaking Away, in which affluent residents of Bloomington, Indiana, referred derisively to quarry workers and their families as cutters, as in stonecutters.

For this week's puzzle, Quiz Guy John Chaneski is inventing new breeds of dogs by changing one letter in the name of an existing breed. If you take a Rottweiler, for example, then change one letter in the breed's name, you'll have anew mutt that can exist on carrots, parsnips, turnips, and the like.

A woman in Mandeville, Louisiana, wonders about a term her grandfather used when someone hogged all the ice cream or took more of their share of cookies: Don't be a gorby! This termmay derive from the Scots word gorb, meaning "glutton." Her grandfather was from northern Maine, where the term gorby also applies to a kind of bird called the Canada jay, known for swooping in and making off with food.

A woman in Farmers Branch, Texas, explains how the simple term cousin succinctly denotes a complicated relationship.

The phrase he doesn't know from, meaning "he doesn't know about," is a word-for-word borrowing, or calque, of a Yiddish phrase Er veys nit fun.

A fluke print is the pattern a whale's tail leaves on the surface of the water.

A man in San Clemente, California, and his friends are debating the term for when a substance in a smoking device is all used up. Which phrase is correct: the bowl is cashed, or the bowl is cacked? In this case, both terms work.

For a clever way to describe someone as arrogant, you can always say I'd like to buy him for what he's worth and sell him for what he thinks he's worth. A less common variant: I'd like to buy him for what he's worth and sell him for what he thinks he'll bring.

A new Maurice Sendak manuscript, Presto and Zesto in Limboland, will be published in 2018, several years after the death of the beloved illustrator. E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, had some wise advice about writing for children: "Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears."

A woman who relocated from the eastern United States to Evansville, Indiana, was confused when her mother-in-law there asked her to bring in some mangoes from the garden, since tropical fruits don't grow in the Midwest. In that part of the country, the word mango means "green pepper." The reason involves a deliciously circuitous history.

In an earlier episode, we talked about the butterfly mating behavior known as hilltopping, in which male butterflies try to appeal to females by flying as high as possible. A listener in Fairbanks, Alaska, reports that the term hilltopping is used among sledheads, or "snowmobile enthusiasts," to mean a different kind of showing off -- riding up a hill on a snowmobile as high as possible before falling back. This move is also called hightopping.

An Indianapolis, Indiana, man says that when his grandmother wanted to urge someone on, she'd say It's time to pour the cobs on or It's time for the cobs. What's the origin?

A woman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, wants to know the pronunciation of floccinaucinihilipilification, and why such a long word means "the habit of estimating something as worthless."

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

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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