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.

Criss Cross Applesauce (8/2018)

How do languages change and grow? Does every language acquire new words in the same way? Martha and Grant focus on how that process happens in English and Spanish. Plus, the stories behind the Spanish word "gringo" and the old instruction to elementary school students to sit "Indian Style." Finally, the English equivalents of German sayings provide clever ways to think about naps, procrastination, lemons, and more. Also: catawampus, raunchy, awful vs. awesome, Man Friday, and no-see-ums.


If you're looking forlorn and at a loss, a German speaker might describe you with a phrase that translates as "ordered but not picked up." It's as if you're a forgotten pizza sitting on a restaurant counter.

Sitting on the floor Indian style, with one's legs crossed, is a reference to Native Americans' habit of sitting that way, a practice recorded early in this country's history in the journals of French traders. Increasingly, though, schools across the United States are replacing this expression with the term criss-cross applesauce. In the United Kingdom, however, this way of sitting is more commonly known as Turkish style or tailor style.

A nine-year-old from Yuma, Arizona, wants to know the origin of catawampus. So do etymologists. Catawampus means "askew," "awry," or "crooked." We do know the word has been around for more than a century, and is spelled many different ways, such as cattywampus and caddywampus. It may derive from the Scots word wampish, meaning to "wriggle," "twist," or "swerve."

How sour is it? If you speak German, you might answer with a phrase that translates as "That's so sour it will pull the holes in your socks together."

A sixth-grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas, is skeptical about a story that the gringo derives from a song lyric. He's right. The most likely source of this word is the Spanish word for "Greek," griego, a term applied to foreigners much the same way that English speakers might say that an unintelligible language is Greek to me. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, imitated the sound of foreigners with the word barbaroi, the source of our own word barbarian.

The board game Clue inspired this week's puzzle from our Quiz Guy John Chaneski. It also inspired him to create an online petition to give Mrs. White a doctor's degree.

What's the meaning of the word raunchy? A woman in Indianapolis, Indiana, thinks it means something naughty or ribald, but to her husband's family, the word can mean "icky" or otherwise "unpleasant." She learned this when one of them mentioned that her husband's grandfather was feeling raunchy. What they mean was that he had a bad cold. The word raunchy has undergone a transformation over the years, from merely "unkempt" or "sloppy" to "coarse" and "vulgar."

A German idiom for "I'm going to take a nap" translates as "I have to take a look at myself from the inside."

A native of Colombia wants to know: Do different languages add new words in similar ways? He believes that Spanish, for example, is far less open to innovation than English.

Awesome and awful may have the same root, but they've evolved opposite meanings. Awful goes back more than a thousand years, originally meaning "full of awe" and later, "causing dread." Awesome showed up later and fulfills a different semantic role, meaning "fantastic" or "wonderful."

More listeners weigh in on our earlier discussion about the word gypsy, and whether it's to be avoided.

A listener in Norwich, Connecticut, is going through a trove of love letters her parents sent each other during World War II. In one of them, her father repeatedly used the word hideous in an ironic way to mean "wonderful." Is that part of the slang of the time?

An astute German phrase about procrastination translates as "In the evening, lazy people get busy."

A young woman is puzzled when her boyfriend's father says he was looking for someone who needs a Good Boy Friday. It's most likely a reference to Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. The title character spends 30 years on a remote tropical island, and eventually saves the life of an islander who becomes his helper. Crusoe decides to call him Friday, since that's the day of the week when they first encountered each other. Over time, English speakers began using the term Man Friday to mean a manservant or valet, and later the term Girl Friday came to mean an office assistant or secretary.

The term no-see-ums refers to those pesky gnats that come out in the heat and humidity and are so tiny they're almost invisible. The term goes back at least as far as the 1830's, and is heard particularly in the Northeastern United States.

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.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Whistle Pig (Rebroadcast) - 6 August 2018 (8/2018)

The stories behind slang, political and otherwise. The dated term "jingoism" denotes a kind of belligerent nationalism. But the word's roots lie in an old English drinking-house song that was popular during wartime. Speaking of fightin' words, the expression "out the side of your neck" came up in a feud between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa--and let's just say the phrase is hardly complimentary. Finally, a German publishing company has declared that the top slang term among that country's youth is a name for someone who's completely absorbed in his cell phone. That word is...Smombie! And if you're guessing that Smombie comes from "zombie," you're right. Plus, thaw vs. unthaw, dinner vs. supper, groundhog vs. whistle pig, riddles galore, speed bumps and sleeping policemen, pirooting around, and kick into touch.


Riddle: This two-syllable word has five letters. If you remove letters from it one by one, its pronunciation is still the same.

A husband and wife have a heated dispute. The topic? Whether thaw and unthaw mean the same thing.

What English speakers call speed bumps or sleeping policemen go by different names in various parts of the Spanish-speaking world. In Argentina, traffic is slowed by lomos de burro, or "burro's backs." In Puerto Rico that bump in the road is a muerto, or "dead person." In Mexico, those things are called topes, a word that's probably onomatopoetic.

A St. Petersburg, Florida, listener says when she used to ask her mother what was for dinner, her mom's answer was often Root little pig or die, meaning "You'll have to fend for yourself." An older version, root hog or die, goes all the way back to the memoirs of Davy Crockett, published in 1834. It refers to a time when hogs weren't fenced in and had to find most of their own food.

The German publisher Langenscheidt declared Smombie as the Youth Word of the Year for 2015. A portmanteau of the German borrowings Smartphone and Zombie, Smombie denotes someone so absorbed in their small, glowing screen that they're oblivious to the rest of the world. Runner-up words included merkeln, "to do nothing" or "to decide nothing"--a reference to Chancellor Angela Merkel's deliberate decision-making style--and Maulpesto, or "halitosis"-- literally, "mouth pesto."

Puzzle Person John Chaneski proffers problems pertaining to the letter P. What alliterative term, for example, also means "wet blanket"?

A San Antonio, Texas, caller wonders: What's a good word for a shortcut that ends up taking much longer than the recommended route? You might call the opposite of a shortcut a longcut, or perhaps even a longpaste. But there's also the joking faux-Latinate term circumbendibus, first used in 17th-century England to mean "a roundabout process."

A listener from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, sent us this riddle: I begin at the end. I am constant but never the same. I am frequently captured but never possessed. What am I?

Jingoism, or "extreme nationalism," derives from a drinking-hall song popular in the 1870's, with the belligerent refrain: "We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do / We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too / We've fought the Bear before and while we're Britons true / The Russians shall not have Constantinople." The term jingo came to denote "fervent patriot espousing an aggressive foreign policy."

In rugby and soccer to kick into touch means to "kick a ball out of play." The phrase by extension can mean to "take some kind of action so that a decision is postponed" or otherwise get rid of a problem.

The Twitter feud between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa has a listener wondering about the phrase talk out the side of your neck, meaning to "talk trash about someone." It's simply a variation of talking out of the side of one's mouth.

When they happen to say the same word at the very same time, many children play a version of the Jinx! game that ends with the declaration, You owe me a Coke! Martha shares an old version from the Ozarks that ends with a different line: What goes up the chimney? Smoke!

Many listeners responded to our conversation about the use of the term auntie to refer to an older woman who is not a blood relative. It turns out that throughout much of Africa, Asia, as well as among Native Americans, the word auntie, or its equivalent in another language, is commonly used as a term of respect for an older woman who is close to one's family but not related by blood.

A Las Vegas, Nevada, listener says her South Dakota-born mother always refers to supper as the last meal of the day and dinner as the largest meal of the day. It's caused some confusion in the family. Linguist Bert Vaux has produced dialect maps of the United States showing that in fact quite a bit of variation in the meaning of these terms depending on which part of the country you're from.

How do you make the number one disappear? (You can do it if you add a letter.)

Whistle pig, woodchuck, and groundhog are all terms for a type of large squirrel, or marmot, found in the United States. The name whistle pig, common in Appalachia, is a jocular reference to the sound they make.

On our Facebook group, a listener posted a photo of a doubletake-worthy sign in her local grocery, which reads We Now Offer Boxes to Bag Your Groceries.

Pirooting around can means "whirling around," as well as "prowling" or "nosing around." This expression is most commonly heard in the American South and Southwest. Piroot is most likely a variant of pirouette and is probably influenced by root, as in root around. Similarly, rootle is a dialectal term that means to "root around" or "poke about."

What do you call that force that keeps you lounging on the couch rather than get up the energy to go outdoors? A listener calls it house gravity.

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.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Up Your Alley - 30 July 2018 (7/2018)

Martha and Grant have book recommendations, including a collection of short stories inspired by dictionaries, and a techno-thriller for teens. Or, how about novels with an upbeat message? Publishers call this genre "up lit." Plus, a clergyman ponders an arresting phrase in the book Peter Pan: What does the author mean when he says that children can be “gay and innocent and heartless”? Finally, watch out: if you spend money freely, you just might be called . . . . a dingthrift. Plus, waterfalling, pegan, up a gump stump, spendthrift, vice, cabochon, cultural cringe, welsh, and neat but not gaudy.


The slang term birdie refers to drinking from a bottle without touching it with your lips. You might ask for a sip, for example, by promising Don't worry--I'll birdie it. This sanitary sipping method is also jokingly called waterfalling.

A listener in Southampton, New York, puzzles over the language at the end of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, in which the narrator assures that the story will continue so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless. What does heartless mean in this context?

If you're a pegan, then your diet is limited to a combination of paleo and vegan.

Judy from Tallahassee, Florida, is curious about the word spendthrift, which means someone who spends money freely. The word thrift in this case means wealth, and is the past participle of thrive. A more obvious word that means the same thing: spendall. Another is dingthrift, someone who dings, or makes a dent in, their savings.

The term cultural cringe refers to a tendency to regard one's own culture as inferior to that of another.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's shares Writer's Math, a puzzle in which the names of numbers hidden within consecutive letters in a sentence. For example, what number lurks in the sentence Launch yourself on every wave?

Alice in Atlanta, Georgia, seeks a term for an adult who has lost both their parents. The best that English can offer is probably adult orphan or elder orphan.    

Vice is a noun meaning bad behavior, but it's also an adjective referring to an official who is second in command.  Karen, a seventh-and-eighth-grade history teacher in Waco, Texas, says her students wonder why. These two senses of vice come from two separate Latin words: vice, meaning in place of, and vitium, meaning fault or blemish. The two English descendants of these words ended up being spelled exactly the same way, even though they mean completely different things.

The little-used word famulus means assistant, and originally referred to the assistant of a sorcerer or scholar.

Rod in LaPorte, Indiana, has Welsh ancestry, and always wondered if the expressions to welsh on a bet suggests that the Welsh are dishonest. The verb to welsh and the noun welsher are  indeed mild ethnic slurs. To welsh dates back to at least the 1850s, and because it may offend, should be replaced by other words such as renege, waffle, or flip-flop. Similarly, taffy, another old word for the Welsh, long carried similar connotations of being a habitual liar and cheater.

Chandler from Chesapeake, Virginia, wonder about a term her in-laws use to mean in abundance, as in We have strawberries up the gump stump. The expression seems to have evolved from an earlier phrase possum up a gum tree or possum up a gum stump, referring to a hunted animal that's trapped. Over time, it became the rhyming phrase up a gump stump, and like the phrase up the wazoo, came to mean in abundance.

Book recommendation time! Martha's reading Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows, short stories based on example sentences from dictionaries, and Grant recommends Julia Durango's The Leveler, a techno-thriller for teens about virtual worlds.

Named for anesthesiologist Dr. Virginia Apgar, the Apgar score--a measure of a newborn's appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration--is both an eponym and an acronym.

Publishers use the term up lit to describe contemporary novels with an upbeat message focusing on kindness and empathy.

Shawn, who lives in Washington State, is used to hearing the phrase right up your alley to describe something that's particularly fitting for someone. Then she heard a British vlogger use the phrase right up your street in the same way. Since the early 1900s, the phrases right up one's alley, or right down one's alley, or the more old-fashioned in one's street, all mean pretty much the same thing. Both up one's alley and up one's street suggest the idea of a place that's quite familiar. In its original sense, alley meant a wide space lined with trees, deriving from the French alee.

Publishers use the term up lit to describe contemporary novels with an upbeat message focusing on kindness and empathy.

To have one's work cut out comes from an earlier phrase to have all one's work cut out. Picture a tailor who's working as fast as possible with the help of an assistant who's cutting out the pieces to be sewn. If you have your work cut out for you, you have a big job ahead, with a series of smaller tasks coming at you thick and fast.

A cabochon is a convex gem or bead that's highly polished but not faceted.

Scott from Copper Canyon, Texas, wonders about a expression he heard from his childhood in the Deep South: neat but not gaudy. He understood it to mean appropriate, but not over the top. The expression goes back to 1600s and has many variations. Early versions and elaborations included as Neat but not gaudy, said the devil when he painted his tail pea-green, or Neat but not gaudy, said the devil when he tied up his tail with a red ribbon. Sometimes the artistic creature was a monkey.

Twitter user @crookedroads770 observed that his two-year-old son referred to an owl as a wood penguin.

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.

Piping Hot - 23 July 2018 (7/2018)

The game of baseball has always inspired colorful commentary. Sometimes that means using familiar words in unfamiliar ways. The word "stuff," for example, can refer to a pitcher's repertoire, or to the spin on a ball, or what happens to the ball after a batter hits it. Also: nostalgia for summer evenings and fond terms for fireflies, plus a word to describe that feeling when your favorite restaurant closes for good. "Noshtalgia," anyone? And: homonyms, forswunk, sweetbreads, get on the stick, back friend, farblonjet, and taco de ojo.


Fireflies have lots of different names in English, including lightning bug, lighter fly, glowworm, and third-shift mosquito. These insects have similarly poetic names in other languages. In Brazil, it's a vagalume or wandering light, and the Hebrew term for it translates as little ember or little spark.

Jeff, a junior-high band director from Lafayette, Indiana, led a spring concert as part of the Bernstein at 100 celebration featuring work by Leonard Bernstein (pronounced BERN-steyn) as well as composer Elmer Bernstein (pronounced BERN-steen). Since these surnames are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, Jeff wonders: Are they homographs, homonyms, or heteronyms?

To be forswunk means to be totally worn out from overwork. It's from forswink, meaning to exhaust by labor.

Chelsea says that after moving from the Midwest to Norfolk, Virginia, she was confused by traffic reports indicating that a local bridge was open. Turns out the bridge is a drawbridge, and by open, the announcers were saying that the bridge was lifted for boats and barges, and therefore not open to cars. This is an example of polysemy, or the fact that words have more than one meaning. Another example is Janus words, also known as antagonyms or enantiodromes, such as cleave, which can mean either to stick together or to split.

In Spanish, taco de ojo literally means taco of the eye, but in Mexican slang, it's the equivalent of English eye candy, or someone who's very nice to look at.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle involves dropping a letter from a fictional character to form the name of a new one. For example, if the clue is: He once used the Force to turn people to the Dark Side, but now all he does is hang out in bars and toss pointy objects at a board, who would that fictional character be?

Kevin, a longtime vegetarian in St. Louis, Missouri, queasily recounts how he accidentally ordered sweetbreads in a fancy restaurant, thinking they were some kind of deep-fried bread, only to discover that it's a kind of meat--a thymus gland, or the pancreas of a lamb. The origin of the misleading term sweetbreads is uncertain. In his book Cupboard Love, Mark Morton suggests that this name is a marketing ploy to make organ meat more appealing, like the similarly euphemistic terms Cape Cod turkey for codfish, Welsh rabbit for a cheese-and-toast dish, and Rocky Mountain oysters for deep-fried bull testicles.

Like the brand name ASICS, which derives from an acronym, the name of NECCO wafers is also an acronym--at least partially. The candy takes its name from that of the New England Confectionary Company.  

Iris from Cave Junction, Oregon, wonders about the expressions get on the stick, meaning get going, and piping hot, meaning extremely hot. While some have associated the phrase get on the stick with an automotive origin, a more likely etymology involves an old dialectal use of stick meaning a rate of speed, and to cut stick meaning to go away quickly. Piping hot, on the other hand, refers to liquid so hot that it forces a kettle to make a whistling sound. Similarly, the Japanese dish shabu-shabu has a name imitative of its piping-hot, hissing broth.

What do you call a firefly in Jamaica? A peenie-wallie. For a lovely use of this term, check out Valerie Bloom's poem Two Seasons. Better yet, listen to the audio.

Katie from Mansfield, Texas, is curious about the term ruthless meaning merciless or having no remorse. In the 13th century, the word ruth meant the quality of being compassionate. Ruthless appeared in the language shortly thereafter, but the word ruth itself faded away. Linguists refer to such terms as unpaired words or missing opposites. Another example is disconsolate; although the word consolate was used centuries ago, it's no longer used today.

Stepmother's blessing is a slang term for hangnail.

Ben in Sydney, Australia, writes with a suggestion for a word describing that feeling you get upon discovering that your favorite restaurant has closed. He calls it noshtalgia, and shares a touching story about his own experience with it. Noshtalgia, he says, is a combination of nosh, meaning to eat, and nostalgia, from Greek words that literally mean return home pain.

Sarah from Leyden, Massachusetts, wonders about the many ways baseball commentators and sportswriters use the word stuff, as in The stuff is there, but the command is off, or The kid's got great stuff, but he's only got one pitch. The term most often refers to a pitcher's repertoire, and has been used that way since at least 1905. Stuff may also refer to the spin a pitcher adds to the ball, as well as the batter's effect on the ball's trajectory. A fantastic resource for all such lingo is Paul Dickson's book,  The Dickson Baseball Dictionary.

Why do we use the plural for pieces of clothing worn below the waist, like trousers, pants, shorts, and jeans?

The expression back friend is an old term that means an enemy who pretends to be a friend. It's more insidious than the modern coinage, frenemy.

Elliott, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, asks about the Yiddish word variously spelled farblonjet, farblunget, and other ways, meaning lost, befuddled, confused. It may derive from a Polish term meaning to go astray.

The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form, also known as OEDILF, includes a limerick by Sheila B. Blume that illustrates the use of the Yiddish word farblunget, meaning confused or befuddled.

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.

Copacetic (Rebroadcast) - 16 July 2018 (7/2018)

Brand names, children's games, and the etiquette of phone conversations. Those clever plastic PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes -- but where did the word PEZ come from? The popular candy's name is the product of wordplay involving the German word for "peppermint." Also, the story behind that sing-songy playground taunt: "Neener, neener, NEEEEEEEEEEner!" Listen closely, and you'll hear the same melody as other familiar children's songs. Finally, the process of ending a phone conversation is much more complex than you might think. Linguists call this verbal choreography "leave-taking." It's less about the literal meaning of the words and more about finding a way to agree it's time to hang up. Also, Hold 'er Newt, copacetic, drupelet, pluggers, pantywaist, this little piggy, and the word with the bark on it.


When an Austrian candy maker needed a name for his new line of mints, he took the first, middle, and last letters of the German word Pfefferminz, or "peppermint, "to form the brand name PEZ. He later marketed the candies as an alternative for smokers, and packaged them plastic dispensers in the shape of cigarette lighters. The candy proved so popular that now PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes.

A Georgia caller says when her grandfather had to make a sudden stop while driving, he'd yell Hold 'er Newt, she smells alfalfa! This phrase, and variations like Hold 'er Newt, she's a-headin' for the pea patch, and Hold 'er Newt, she's headin' for the barn, alludes to controlling a horse that's starting to bolt for a favorite destination. Occasionally, the name is spelled Knute instead of Newt. The name Newt has long been a synonym for "dolt" or "bumpkin."

Lord Byron continues to make readers think with these words about language: But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which make thousands, perhaps millions, think.

Why does the playground taunt Neener, neener, neener have that familiar singsongy melody?

Jeffrey Salzber, a theater lighting designer and college instructor from Essex Junction, Vermont, says that when explaining to students the need to be prepared for any and all possibilities, he invokes Salzberg's Theory of Pizza: It is better to have pizza you don't want, than to want pizza you don't have.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's latest puzzle involves changing a movie plot by adding a single letter to the original title. For example, the movie in which Melissa McCarthy plays a deskbound CIA analyst becomes a story about the same character, who's now become very old, but still lively and energetic.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Although there are many proposed etymologies for the word copacetic, the truth is no one knows the origin of this word meaning "fine" or "extremely satisfactory."

A drupe is a fleshy fruit with a pit, such as a cherry or peach. A drupelet is a smaller version, such as the little seeded parts that make up a raspberry or blackberry. It was the similarity of druplets to a smartphone's keyboard that helped professional namers come up with the now-familiar smartphone name, Blackberry.

A caller from University Park, Maryland, wonders what's really going on when someone says That's a great question. As it turns out, that is a great question.

This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had corned beef and cabbage, this little piggy had none. At least, that's the way a caller from Sebastian, Florida, remembers the children's rhyme. Most people remember the fourth little piggy eating roast beef. Did you say it a different way? Tell us about it.

The Japanese developers of an early camera named it Kwannon, in honor of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Later, the company changed the name to Canon.

A Zionsville, Indiana, man recalls that when his mother issued a warning to her kids, she would add for emphasis: And that's the word with the bark on it. The bark in this case refers to rough-hewn wood that still has bark on it--in other words, it's the pure, unadorned truth.

A customer-service representative from Seattle, Washington, is curious about the phrases people use as a part of leave-taking when they're finishing a telephone conversation. Linguists who conduct discourse analysis on such conversations say these exchanges are less about the statements' literal meaning and more about ways of coming to a mutual agreement that it's time to hang up. Incidentally, physicians whose patients ask the most important questions or disclose key information just as the doctor is leaving refer to this as doorknobbing or getting doorknobbed.

Tokuji Hayakawa was an early-20th-century entrepreneur whose inventions included a mechanical pencil he called the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil, and later renamed the Ever-Sharp Pencil. Over time his company branched into other types of inventions, and its name was eventually shortened to Sharp.

A rock or particle of debris out in space is called a meteoroid. If it enters the earth's atmosphere, it's a called meteor. So why is it called a meteorite when it falls to earth?

If someone's called a pantywaist, they're being disparaged as weak or timid. The term refers to a baby garment popular in the early 20th century that snapped at the waist. Some people misunderstand the term as pantywaste or panty waste, but that's what linguists jokingly call an eggcorn.

A pair of Australian men interrupted their night of partying to foil a robbery, and captured much of it on video. They went on to give a hilarious interview about it all, in which one mentioned that he "tripped over a sign and busted my plugger." The word plugger is an Aussie name for the type of rubber footwear also known as a flip-flop.

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.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Mustard on It (Rebroadcast) - 9 July 2018 (7/2018)

When does a word's past make it too sensitive to use in the present? In contra dancing, there's a particular move that dancers traditionally call a gypsy. But there's a growing recognition that many people find the term gypsy offensive. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. Plus, the surprising story behind why we use the phrase in a nutshell to sum things up. A hint: it goes all the way back to Homer's Iliad. And finally, games that feature imaginary Broadway shows and tweaked movie titles with new plots. Also, the phrases put mustard on it, lately deceased, resting on one's laurels, and throw your hat into the room, plus similes galore.


A game making the rounds online involves adding the ending -ing to the names of movies, resulting in clever new plots. For example, on our Facebook group, one member observed that The Blair Witch Project becomes The Blair Witch Projecting, "in which high-schooler Blair Witch reads too much into the inflection of her friends' words."

Which is correct: rest on one's laurels or rest on one's morals? The right phrase, which refers to refusing to settle for one's past accomplishments, is the former. In classical times, winners of competitions were awarded crowns made from the fragrant leaves of bay laurels. For the same reason, we bestow such honors as Poet Laureate and Nobel Laureate.

When someone urges you to put some mustard on it, they want you to add some energy and vigor. It's a reference to the piquancy of real, spicy mustard, and has a long history in baseball.

Need a synonym for "nose"? Try this handy word from a 1904 dialect dictionary: sneeze-horn.

Those little musical interludes on radio programs, particularly public radio shows, go by lots of names, including stinger, button, bumper, and bridge. By the way, the fellow who chooses and inserts them in our show is our engineer and technical editor, Tim Felten, who also happens to be a professional musician.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about Broadway show titles--but with a twist.

There's a long tradition in contra dancing of a particular move called a "gypsy." Many people now consider the term "gypsy" offensive, however, because of the history of discrimination against people of Romani descent, long referred to as gypsies. So a group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. We explain why they should.

In the game of adding -ing to movie titles, Erin Brockovich becomes Erin Brockoviching, the story of a crotchety Irishwoman's habit of complaining.

When is it appropriate to use the word late to describe someone who has died? Late, in this sense, is short for lately deceased. There's no hard and fast time frame, although it's been suggested that anywhere from five to 30 years is about right. It's best to use the word in cases where it may not be clear whether the person is still alive, or when it appears in a historical context, such as "The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 in honor of the late John F. Kennedy."

In the game of appending -ing to a movie title to change its plot, the movies Strangers on a Train and Network both become films about corporate life.

A simile is a rhetorical device that describes by comparing two different things or ideas using the word like or as. But what makes a good simile? The 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases, by Yale public speaking instructor Grenville Kleiser, offers a long list similes he'd collected for students to use as models, although some clearly work better than others.

In a nutshell refers to something that's "put concisely," in just a few words. The phrase goes all the way back to antiquity, when the Roman historian Pliny described a copy of The Iliad written in such tiny script that it could fit inside a nutshell.

Among many African-Americans, the term kitchen refers to the hair at the nape of the neck. It may derive from Scots kinch, a "twist of rope" or "kink."

Some of the more successful similes in Grenville Kleiser's 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases include The sky was like a peach and Like footsteps on wool and Quaking and quivering like a short-haired puppy after a ducking.

To throw your hat into the room is to ascertain whether someone's angry with you, perhaps stemming from the idea of tossing your hat in ahead of to see if someone shoots at it. Ronald Reagan used the expression this way when apologizing to Margaret Thatcher for invading Grenada in 1983 without notifying the British in advance.

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.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Proof in the Pudding (Rebroadcast) - 2 July 2018 (7/2018)

Have you ever offered to foster a dog or cat, but wound up adopting instead? There's an alliterative term for that. And when you're on the job, do niceties like "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" make you sound too formal? Not if it comes naturally. And what about the term "auntie" (AHN-tee)? In some circles, it's considered respectful to address a woman that way, even if she's not a relative. Also, the old saying "The proof is in the pudding" makes no sense when you think about it. That's because the original meaning of pudding had nothing to do with the kind we eat for dessert today.


When people who foster rescue animals break down and adopt the animal instead, you've happily committed a foster flunk.

A native of Houston, Texas, moves to a few hundred miles north to Dallas and discovers that people there say she's wrong to call the road alongside the highway a feeder road rather than a frontage road. Actually, both terms are correct. The Texas Highway Man offers a helpful glossary of road and traffic terms, particularly those used in Texas.

A listener from Silver City, New Mexico, writes that when he was a child and pouted with his lower lip stuck out, his aunt would say Stick that out a little farther, and I'll write the Ten Commandments on it with a mop.

Snarky refers to someone or something "irritable," "sharply critical," or "ill-tempered." It goes back to a 19th-century word meaning "to snort."

According to the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, the expression throw it over the hill means "to get rid of something." In Appalachia, the phrase can also mean "wrap it up," as in bring something to a close.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz that's all about the word for. An example: There's a cave that accommodates a large ursine mammal when it hibernates during the winter. But what's it "for"?

A listener in Billings, Montana, says his brother is an English teacher who corrects his pronunciation of forte, meaning "strong point." Pedants will insist that it should be pronounced FORT, but that reflects an assumption about its etymology that's flat-out wrong. Besides, the far more common pronunciation now is FOR-tay. The bottom line is t's a word that raises hackles either way you say it, so it's best to replace it with a synonym.

If someone spilled a box of paper clips, for example, would you say that they wasted the paper clips, even though the clips could be picked up and re-used? Although most people wouldn't, this sense of waste meaning "to spill" is used among many African-American speakers in the American South, particularly in Texas.

Our discussion of eponymous laws prompted Peg Brekel of Casa Grande, Arizona, to send us one based on her years of experience in a pharmacy, where she had to keep minding the counter even during her lunch break. Peg's Law: The number of customers who come to the counter is directly proportional to how good your food tastes hot.

Is saying Yes, Ma'am and No, Sir when addressing someone in conversation too formal or off-putting? Not if it's clear that those niceties come naturally to you.

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin, listener who heard our conversation about the phrase sharp as a marshmallow sandwich wonders about a similar expression that denotes a person who's not all that bright: sharp as a bag of marsh. Variations of this insult include sharp as a bowling ball and sharp as bag of wet mice.

A dancer in the Broadway production of The Lion King says he and his colleagues are curious about the use of the term Auntie (pronounced "AHN-tee) to refer to an older woman, regardless of whether she's a blood relative. Auntie is often used among African-American speakers in the American South as a sign of respect for an older woman for whom one has affection.

If you're in the three-comma club, you're a billionaire--a reference to the number of commas needed to separate all those zeroes in your net worth.

The verb to kibitz has more than one meaning. It can mean "to chitchat" or "to look on giving unsolicited advice." The word comes to English through Yiddish, and may derive from German Kiebitz, a reference to a folk belief that the bird is a notorious meddler.

On the face of it, the expression the proof is in the pudding doesn't make sense. It's a shortening of the proverbial saying, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pudding is an old word for sausage, and in this case the proof is the act of testing it by tasting it.

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.
Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

We have an attitude — 27 June 2018 (6/2018)

In the 11 years Martha and I have been doing A Way with Words together, we’ve developed an attitude.

It’s a positive attitude. It’s who we really are.

It’s the attitude we take toward language, linguistics, and the people who use them.

For example, we believe that if we all — you, me, everyone — try to perfect our understanding of language and how it’s truly used, we’ll all understand each other better, we’ll learn to respect other identities and other worldviews, and we will more successfully avoid conflict.

Language and respect — language and fairness — language and justice — they’re all tied together.

Treating people with humanity is a part of really knowing how language works.

We’ve now written about our attitude and beliefs, and more, and published it all as a kind of platform that explains our mission, vision, and values.

Go to https://waywordradio.org/mission to read the full statement, and to support the show and its mission with a donation that can make a difference.


Thank you.

Grant Barrett

co-host of A Way with Words.


A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: https://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.

Mimeographs and Dittos - 25 June 2018 (6/2018)

How colors got their names, and a strange way to write. The terms "blue" and "orange" arrived in English via French, so why didn't we also adapt the French for black and white? Plus, not every example of writing goes in one direction across the page. In antiquity, people sometimes wrote right to left, then left to right, then back again -- the same pattern you use when mowing a lawn. There's a word for that! And: a whiff of those fragrant duplicated worksheets that used to be passed out in elementary schools. Do you call them mimeographed pages or ditto sheets? Also, three-way chili, hangry, frogmarch, the cat may look at the queen, hen turd tea, and the  rhetorical backoff I'm just saying.


Is there a word or phrase that's particular to your hometown? The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary would like to hear about it. In Cincinnati, for example, three-way refers to a kind of style of serving chili. You can contribute your examples on the OED's site, or talk about it on Twitter using the hashtag #wordswhereyouare.

If you're of a certain age, you may remember the smell of pages from ditto machines. Before those fragrant pages, there were sheets printed by mimeographs. Both the words ditto and mimeograph were originally brand names. Xerox machines later came along, a brand name deriving from the Greek word xeros, or dry, a reference to the printing process. From the same Greek root comes xeroscaping, which is landscaping that requries little or no water. The word ditto goes back to an Italian word that means said, while mimeograph comes from Greek words that mean "to write the same." Other terms for similar types of printing devices are formograph, mimeoscope, spirit duplicator, hectograph, roneograph, and pyrograph.

When trying to make themselves understood, kids cab be wonderfully creative with language. A couple of examples sent in by listeners: lasterday, referring to any time in the past, and spicy, describing bath water that's too hot.

Colleen from Fairbanks, Alaska, is pondering the word hangry, a portmanteau of hungry and angry, and applied to someone who's irritable as the result of hunger. Although hangry has been around sincet at least the 1950s, it enjoyed a boost in popularity in the 1990s. In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary added an entry for this useful adjective.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's quiz involves words and phrases that the late writer Tom Wolfe helped popularize. For example, what phrase is associated with Wolfe's 1979 book with a title that might be paraphrased as Just What Is Needed?

Why does English derive words for some colors, such as blue and orange, from French, but not words for other colors, such as black and white? A fantastic resource about the history of colors is Kassia St. Clair's The Secret Lives of Color.

On Twitter, @mollybackes notes that in Wisconsin, a Tyme machine dispenses cash, not time travel.

Nancy in Panama City Beach, Florida, remembers that as a girl, whenever she asked why her mother was looking at her, her mother would respond, Well, can't the cat look at the queen? This phrase goes all the way back to the mid-16th century. A 1652 book of proverbs includes the version What, a cat may look on a king, you know. Another version goes, a cat is free to contemplate a monarch.

To frogmarch someone means to hustle them out of a place, usually by grabbing their collar and pinning their arms behind. Originally, this verb referred to police carrying an unruly person out of a building face down with a different person grasping each limb.

Steve in Dennis, Massachusetts, remembers a cartoon that showed a boy trying to persuade a donkey to pull a cart by holding out a carrot suspended from a stick. Is that the origin of the expression carrot and stick? The original metaphor involved the idea of motivating an animal with intermittent rewards and punishment -- that is, proffering a carrot or threatening with a stick.

In his collection of essays, A Temple of Texts, writer William Gass observed: The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words."

Boustrophedonic writing goes from right to left, then left to right, then right to left again. This term derives from Greek word bous, meaning "ox," also found in bucolic and bulimia (literally, ox hunger) and strophe, meaning turn, like the downward turn that is a catastrophe. The adjectival form is boustrophedonic.

Mark from Los Angeles, California, is curious about the slang term gank, meaning to steal.

Monte from San Antonio, Texas, responded to our query about what to call people who hold up traffic in turn lanes. Monte and his fellow truck drivers refer to such motorists as steering-wheel holders.

Eric in Fairbanks, Alaska, notes the use of the phrase I'm just saying as a way to soften one's comment or avoid responsibility for an observation. Linguists, who've been studying this phrase since the early 2000s, call such a statement a rhetorical backoff. Other examples are present company excluded, no offense, not to be critical, no offense or the even more elaborate I'm not saying, I'm just saying.

Julie in Nantucket, Massachussetts, was tickled when her father used the expression weak as hen turd tea. More commonly called chicken poop tea, or chicken poo tea, or in Australia chook pop tea, hen turd tea is a mixture of poultry manure steeped in water that some believe is helpful to spread over garden soil.

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.

Spicy Jambalaya - 18 June 2018 (6/2018)

Teen slang from the South, and food words that are tricky to pronounce. High schoolers in Huntsville, Alabama, give Martha and Grant an earful about their slang -- including a term particular to their hometown. All we can say is: Don't be a "forf"! And: How do you pronounce the name of that tasty Louisiana specialty: Is it  JUM-buh-lye-yah or JAM-buh-lye-yah? And which syllable do you stress when pronouncing the spice spelled T-U-R-M-E-R-I-C? Finally, the word spelled W-A-T-E-R is of course pretty simple . . . so you might be surprised it can be pronounced at LEAST 15 different ways! Plus gnat flat, looking brave, vog, Russian mountains, high hat, whisker fatigue, chi hoo -- eh, fuggedaboudit!


During a visit to Lee High School in Huntstville, Alabama, we collect a treasure trove of slang, including a term that seems to be particular to the Huntsville area: forf, which as a verb means to fail to follow through on commitments, and as a noun denotes the kind of person who does that, or in other words, a flake. Thanks to our friends at WLRH in Huntsville for inviting us.

Jared in Liberty, New York, wonders when and how the term Fuggedaboudit originated and how came to be popularly associated with the New York metropolitan area. The films of Martin Scorsese had a lot to do with that. The word doesn't always literally mean forget about it; it can also be used to mean No problem! or Certainly!

The Spanish term for rollercoaster, montana rusa, or "Russian mountain," refers to the earliest versions of rollercoasters, which were Russian slopes for sled built from wood and covered with ice. Oddly enough, the Russian for roller coaster translates as "American mountain."

Pearl, a youngster in Massachusetts, asks how to pronounce the name of the East Indian spice turmeric.The accent falls on the first syllable, and pronouncing that first r sound is optional.

Students at Lee High School in Huntstville, Alabama use the slang terms snack and whole meal. A snack is an attractive person, and if you're better than a snack, you're a whole meal!

"Rhyme and Time" is the name of this week's puzzle from Quiz Guy John Chaneski. All the answers are rhyming words separated by the word and. For example, what do you call the technique for narrowing the aspect ratio of a wide-screen movie so it will fit on your TV screen?

Peg in Papillion, Nebraska, has been reading Winston Graham's Poldark series, which is set in Cornwall around the turn of the 19th century. The characters sometimes greet each other with You're looking brave. Although brave usually means courageous, it's also been used to mean finely dressed or excellent. This sense also appears in the related Scots term brawf and as well as braw, all of which may derive from the Italian word bravo, meaning good or brave.

Aiya from Toronto, Canada, finds that whenever he moves to a new location, he adopts some of the local dialect, which feels a bit uncomfortable. At one point, for example, he found himself unable to recall if he used on accident or by accident to refer to something that happened accidentally. It's natural to pick up some of the lingo of those around you, so no need to overthink it. In the case of the phrases on accident versus and by accident, though, something very interesting is going on.

The housing shortage in crowded urban areas has led to ever smaller domiciles known as micro-units. Even smaller ones are sometimes called nano units or gnat flats.

Gary from Santa Maria, California, has been arguing with a friend for years over how to pronounce that tasty Louisiana mix of meat, vegetables, and rice called jambalaya.

Vog is the air pollution caused when sulphur dioxide and other volcanic gases react with oxygen. The word vog is a portmanteau of volcano and fog.

Martha reads the poem "Instructions on Not Giving Up" by the poet Ada Limon. Used with permission.

Rachel from San Diego wonders whether the exuberant Hawaiian cry Chi hoo! is onomatopoetic--that is, if the sound of the word resembles what it actually denotes. The cry is not originally Hawaiian. It's a version of the Samoan war cry known as a fa'aamu or sisu or ususu. The Honolulu Advertiser's Lee Cataluna has written about its use in Hawaii.

In South Africa, the word spookasem is a term for cotton candy, although it literally translates as ghost's breath. Elsewhere in the English-speaking word, the sweet stuff is called candy floss or fairy floss.

Cindy in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is going through her mother's diary from the 1930's and finds the term high hat used as a transitive verb. To high hat someone means to act in a supercilious,  condescending, affected manner, as if wearing a high hat. In a someone similar way today, the slang term to cap someone can mean to be boastful.

In the United States alone, there are 15 different pronunciations of the word water!

Cats' whiskers, or vibrissae, are exceedingly sensitive. If a cat seems reluctant to eat out of a particular bowl, she may be bothered by whisker fatigue.

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.