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.

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.

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Frozen Rope - 9 October 2017 (10/2017)

Where would you find a sports commentator talking about high cheese and ducks on a pond? Here's a hint: both terms are part of what make the language of America’s pastime so colorful. And: a government official in New Zealand proposes a new, more respectful term for someone with autism. Plus, the roots of that beloved Jamaican export, reggae music. Also, hang a snowman, goat rodeo, jimson weed, work-brickle vs. work-brittle, OK vs. okay, and banana bag.

FULL DETAILS

Ducks on the pond, frozen rope, tumblebug, and high cheese are baseball slang. Ducks on the pond means "runners on base," frozen rope is "a line drive," a tumblebug is "a fielder who makes a catch and adds theatrical flair," and high cheese is "a fastball high in the strike zone." The definitive reference book on baseball slang is The Dickson Baseball Dictionary.

A San Antonio, Texas, middle-schooler has observed that when she and her friends are texting, they use different spellings to indicate agreement. Her friend types OK, but the caller prefers okay. Either is correct. For an engaging, thorough history of the word, however you spell it, check out Allan Metcalf's OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word.

In baseball, a yakker is a curveball with a big break. The term apparently derives from yawker, a kind of bird that has  the same kind of swooping flight.

A New York City listener enjoys the music played between segments of our show, particularly the reggae tunes, and wonders about the origin of the word reggae. This musical form was popularized by the Jamaican band Toots and the Mayfield, and may be related to the Jamaican patois term streggae, meaning "a loose woman." A great resource for learning about the English spoken in Jamaica is the Dictionary of Jamaican English.

In baseball, to hang a snowman is "to score eight runs in one inning," inspired by the shape of the numeral 8.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a "Takeoff" quiz, in which the letter C is removed from a word to yield a rhyming two-word phrase. For example, if someone wanted to find out how old an animal enclosure is, what would they be trying to find?

A woman in Indianapolis, Indiana, says her father regularly used the phrase out in the giggleweeds, meaning "out in the middle of nowhere" or "off the beaten path." Giggleweed is slang for both marijuana and jimson weed, a highly dangerous, hallucinogenic plant, Datura, which resembles the morning glory.

A Montreal, Canada, caller says that when he does something annoying, his wife will say simply, Can you not? He wonders if that construction is grammatically correct.

The plant jimson weed has dangerous hallucinogenic effects. The weed takes its name from Jamestown, Virginia. In 1676, settlers there ingested the weed, and its poisonous effects were vividly described a few years later in a volume called The History and Present State of Virginia.

A man who works as a caregiver in Calais, Vermont, says one of his elderly clients insists on saying banana bag to mean "fanny pack." Banana bag is a term used by horseback riders to refer to a pouch that fits under a saddle.

A government official in New Zealand has devised a new Maori-based glossary to replace some of the English words used by the government for talking about mental health, disability, and addiction. For example, he proposes replacing the word autism with takiwatanga, which translates as "in his or her own time or space."

How did the acronyms POTUS, FLOTUS, and SCOTUS for "President of the United States," "First Lady of the United States," and "Supreme Court of the United States" come about?

Some of us can remember when typing an exclamation mark required hitting four different keys: the shift key, the apostrophe, the backspace, and the period!

Goat rope, goat roping, and goat rodeo describe a "messy, disorganized situation." Grant wrote about these terms in his book The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English.

Kid cheater and child cheater are synonyms for "spatula," because when you're baking a cake, a spatula is so efficient for removing the remnants of a sweet mixture from a bowl that there's little left for a kid to lick off.

A Indianapolis, Indiana, woman remembers that her Kentucky-born grandfather used to say that a lazy person wasn't very work-brickle. The dialectal term work-brickle is a variant of work-brittle, which, in the late 19th century, described someone who was "industrious." Over time, work-brittle also came to mean "lazy," perhaps because of associating the word brittle with the idea of being "delicate" or "fragile." The use of work-brittle in the positive sense of being "energetic and eager to work" is especially common in Indiana.

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

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Gone to Seed (Rebroadcast) - 2 October 2017 (10/2017)

Restaurant jargon, military slang, and modern Greek turns of phrase. Some restaurants now advertise that they sell "clean" sandwiches. But that doesn't mean they're condiment-free or the lettuce got an extra rinse. In the food industry, the word "clean" is taking on a whole new meaning. Plus, a Marine veteran wonders about a phrase he heard often while serving in Vietnam: "give me a Huss," meaning "give me a hand." Finally, some surprising idioms used in Greece today. For example, what does a Greek person mean if he tells you "I ate a door"?

FULL DETAILS

In English, the expression keep your eyes peeled means "pay close attention" or "be on the lookout." In Modern Greek, the equivalent is ta matia sou dekatessera, literally, "your eyes fourteen." In Greece today, if you've been rejected you might say so with a phrase that translates as "I ate a door." If you've been looking for someone for a very long time, you might say Efaga ton kosmo na se vro, the equivalent of "I ate the world to find you."

A listener in New York City asks: Why do we say yesterday but not yesterweek?

The phrase ignorance gone to seed invokes an agricultural metaphor. Picture a field that is so far gone it's no longer flowering and is now beyond the point of further cultivation.

If someone feigns ignorance, a Greek might describe him with an expression that translates as "He pretends to be a duck."

Unless you're having a bad dream about equine creatures, a nightmare doesn't have anything to do with horses. The mare in nightmare comes from an old word that means "goblin."

In Modern Greek, if you want to say something is "fantastic," "out of this world," or otherwise "terrific," you can say Den iparchei!, which literally means "It doesn't exist!"

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's challenge requires removing an initial letter from one word to form a two-word rhyme. For example, what two rhyming words are suggested by the clue "I'd like to try that ice cream, but you didn't give me enough"?

A Marine Corps veteran in Omaha, Nebraska, is puzzled by a phrase he often heard during his service in Vietnam: give me a huss, meaning "give me a hand" or "help me." One strong theory for its origin involves a type of helicopter known as the Huss, described in the book Marines and Helicopters 1962-1973, by William Fails.

Some people, particularly younger folks, are adamant that the term belligerent means "drunk." It's a misanalysis of the word, perhaps associating being intoxicated with being ready to fight. Instead, belligerent derives from the Latin word bellum, meaning "war," also found in bellicose, and the term applied to that period before a war, particularly the U.S. Civil war, antebellum.

A woman in Carmel, Indiana, wonders about the use of the verb kimble to mean a certain kind of "strutting." Kimbling is that proud, confident way of walking you might associate with Barack Obama or Denzel Washington. But its origin is unclear.

Second-acting, the once-common practice of sneaking in to see the second act of a Broadway show for free by mixing in with paying patrons outside at intermission, largely ended as theaters began tightening their security and fewer people step outside for a cigarette.

What is the plural of attorney general? Attorneys general or attorney generals?

The word clean, as in clean food, has taken on a whole new life as a buzzword describing food free of artificial ingredients, preservatives, or added color. A restaurant chain now boasts clean sandwiches, and the topic is now covered by the magazine Clean Eating.

Scobolotch is a term used in Wisconsin for the mayfly, and may derived from a Native American language. Variants include scobblotcher and skoplotch. This short-lived insect goes by many other names, including Green Bay fly and Canadian soldier.

The words flet and dray, or drey, refer to types of squirrel's nests.

Why don't we pronounce the letter b in the word subtle? The word derives ultimately from Latin subtilis, meaning "fine, delicate," and was adopted into Middle English from Old French as sotil. The b was later added back in so that the spelling reflected the word's original Latin roots, but the pronunciation continued to lack the b sound.

The mayfly, that insect whose time is up in a mere 24 hours or so, goes by many other names, including bay fly, cisco fly, drake fly, dun, eel fly, fish fly, flying clipper, green fly, July fly, June bu, June fly, and more.

Spondulix, also spelled spondulicks, is a slang term for money. Mark Twain used it in Huckleberry Finn, although it had been around for a while before that. The word may derive from the Greek word spondylos, meaning "vertebra" or "spine," suggesting the similarity between a column of those round bones and of a stack of coins.

The Spanish phrase tiene mas lana que un borrego means someone is quite wealthy. Literally, the phrase means "he has more wool than a lamb."

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Hell's Half Acre (Rebroadcast) - 25 September 2017 (9/2017)

Hundreds of years ago, the word girl didn't necessarily mean a female child. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the term "girl" could refer to a child of either sex. Only later did its meaning become more specific. Plus, some people think that referring to a former spouse as an ex sounds harsh or disrespectful. So what DO you call someone you used to be involved with? Finally, the story behind the real McCoy. This term for something that's "genuine" has nothing to do with the famous feud. Also, hairy at the heels, Spanglish, nose out of joint, punctuating abbreviations, and gaywater.

FULL DETAILS

Listeners respond to our discussion about what to call a baby shower for the dad-to-be, suggesting Huggies and Chuggies, beer shower, beer for diapers, diaper kegger, baby boot camp, and Baby Fat Tuesday.

Why do we describe something that's genuine or authentic as the Real McCoy?

The expression Hell's Half Acre denotes a small patch of land or a place that's otherwise undesirable, and has been around for a century and a half.

A Courtland, Alabama, woman wonders about the phrase hairy at the heel. Along with hairy-heeled, hairy about the heels, and hairy about the fetlocks, this snobby term describes someone who is considered ill-bred, and derives from the fact that non-thoroughbred horses often have tufts of hair above their hooves.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a fill-in-the-blank puzzle about famous hip-hop rhymes. For example, from Run DMC, there's the verse: I'm the King of Rock / There is none higher / Sucker MC's should call me _________.

A man in Carlsbad, California, contends that the word ex for "a former partner" or "a former spouse" sounds too harsh. Is there a better term besides wasband?

Responding to our discussion about what to call a baby shower for a dad-to-be, one listener suggests the term bro bath.

A man who divides his time between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, wonders if linguistic mixtures similar to Spanglish arise at other borders. Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language by Ilan Stavans, offers a comprehensive look at this phenomenon.

A Hindi proverb that means "Unity is strength" literally translates as one and one make eleven.

Why, when writing out an abbreviated name like NATO for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, don't we use periods between the letters?

When someone's buried in a cemetery, you can visit their grave. But what do you call the place where you go to visit someone's scattered ashes? Listeners ponder that question on our Facebook group.

Hundreds of years ago, the word girl could refer to a child of either sex, and the word boy applied specifically to a servant. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a useful resource for understanding which terms were in common use during what period.

A listener suggests a sartorial twist on our conversation about baby showers for dads-to-be.

Why, when someone's unhappy about something, do we say someone's nose is out of joint or out of socket?

A man in Devon, England, notes that where he lives, wetting the baby's head is a term for a baby shower for a soon-to-be dad, and involves taking the man out to a pub for copious amounts of beer.

A San Diego, California, says his high school history teacher used the phrase Chop chop wiki wiki meaning "Hurry up!" The first part of this phrase comes from similar-sounding Cantonese words--the source also of the chop in chopsticks--and the second half comes from a Hawaiian word that means "quick," and is also found in the name of the online reference work that can be edited quickly, Wikipedia.

Gaywater is a Southern term for whiskey, especially the illegal variety.

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Steamed Bun (Rebroadcast) - 18 September 2017 (9/2017)

This week on "A Way with Words”: The language we use to cover up our age, and covering up a secret message. Do you ever find yourself less-than-specific about your age? Listeners share some of their favorite phrases for fudging that number, like: "Oh, I'm 29, plus shipping and handling." Plus, since ancient times, people have hidden messages in clever ways. Nowadays, coded messages are sometimes concealed in pixels. Finally, uber-silly German jokes: Did you hear the one about the two skyscrapers knitting in the basement? It's silly, all right. Plus, the origin of hello, the creative class, all wool and a yard wide, get some kip, a handful of minutes, and jeep.

FULL DETAILS

On our Facebook group, listeners share a variety of ways to refer to someone who's lived a half-century or more: 50-plus, member of the 600 Month Club, 29 plus shipping and handling, the 40th anniversary of my 30th birthday, and Jack Benny-plus.

There's the living room, the dining room, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the TV room. So why don't we call the kitchen the cooking room?

The hell in hello has nothing to do with the Devil's abode. The word is related to similar shouts of greeting, such as Hallo or Halloa. Several languages have similar exclamations, such as Swedish hej, which sounds like English hey.

A listener in our Facebook group reports that sometimes he says he's not old -- he's just been young for a really long time.

A man in Del Mar, California, wonders about the expression must needs meaning "must by necessity." Is it a regionalism, pretentious, or perhaps used just for emphasis?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a tricky quiz with false answers. For example, if the plural of mouse is mice, then what's the false plural of spouse?

A listener has been baffled for years by a riddle told a German friend. It goes: What's the difference between a frog? Answer: The greener it is, the faster it swims. It's an example of an Antiwitz or "anti-joke," a popular form of German humor that has the structure of a traditional joke, but involves absurd imagery and lacks a satisfying punchline. In China, a similarly silly type of humor goes by a name that translates as "cold joke."

A popular Hindi proverb about blaming everyone but oneself translates as "One who knows no dance claims that the stage is tilted."

The term creative class has been around for a century, but it was popularized by economist and sociologist Richard Florida and his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida uses the term to refer to artists, designers, tech producers, and other knowledge workers whose products and ingenuity invigorate local economies.

The translation of one silly German Anti-witz joke begins, "Two thick feet are crossing the street…" Another starts, "Two skyscrapers are sitting in the basement knitting…" They go downhill from there.

All wool and a yard wide means "reliable and trustworthy." The phrase was part of an advertisement in the late 19th century, touting material produced by textile mills that wasn't shoddy, or made from the shredded fiber of old scraps.

In Appalachia, the term handful of minutes refers to something small, as in She's no bigger than a handful of minutes.

Steganography is the practice of concealing messages within text, digitized data, or other objects. The word derives from Greek words that mean "covered writing."

A listener in Ypsilanti, Michigan, wonders how the Army vehicle called a jeep got its name. It was associated with Eugene the Jeep, a strange creature from the 1930s comic strip, Popeye.

In a discussion our Facebook group, a woman shares her mother-in-law's favorite expression for fudging her age.

A triathlete in Traverse City, Michigan, calls to say she's going stir-crazy while recuperating from an injury. The term stir-crazy makes sense if you know that stir is an old synonym for "prison."

A witty euphemism from our Facebook group for discussing one's age: I'm plenty-nine.

Time to get kip means "time to get some sleep." Kip goes all the way back to an old Dutch word that means "brothel."

The tradition of the German Antiwitz or anti-joke includes a groaner that starts with a couple of muffins sitting in an oven. When one muffin complains about the heat, the other muffin exclaims incredulously, "Oh my god, a talking muffin!"

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Charismatic Megafauna (Rebroadcast) - 11 September 2017 (9/2017)

Choosing language that helps resolve interpersonal conflict. Sometimes a question is really just a veiled form of criticism. Understanding the difference between "ask culture" and "guess culture" can help you know how to respond. And what words should you use with a co-worker who's continually apologizing for being late--but never changes her behavior? Finally, charismatic megafauna may look cuddly, but they're best appreciated from a distance. Plus, in like Flynn, gradoo, champing, pronouncing the word the, pilot episodes, and Bless your heart.

FULL DETAILS

Following our discussion about how to handle repeated excuses from a perpetually late co-worker, a listener sends a snarky solution from a stylist in her hair salon.

The multipurpose phrase Bless your heart is heard often in the Southern United States. Although it sounds polite and solicitous, it often has a cutting edge to it.

The phrase loose lips sink ships is a warning to be careful about what you say publicly. It stems from propaganda posters from World War II that proclaimed Loose Lips Sink Might Sink Ships, meaning that anything you say could be overheard by an enemy, with literally catastrophic results.

An ex-Marine reports that his commanding officer used to castigate his men for any stray threads hanging from their uniforms, calling those loose threads Irish pennants. That term is an ethnophaulism, or ethnic slur. Other examples of ethnopaulisms include Irish screwdriver for "hammer" and Irish funnies for "obituaries."

In the 17th century, the verb to bate and the likely related verb, to bat, were used in falconry to mean "to flap wildly."  By the 19th century, to bat was also part of the phrase to bat one's eyelashes.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle is inspired by the periodic table, and involves adding the chemical symbol for an element to one word in order to form an entirely new word. For example, if you take the hat from a baseball fan and add helium to it, it becomes very inexpensive. What's the new word?

In comic strips, a bright idea is symbolized by a light bulb over a character's head. This association between an incandescent bulb and inspiration was popularized in the early 20th century by the cartoon character Felix the Cat, but the notion of an idea being bright goes back as least as far as the writing of Jonathan Swift.

Listeners weigh in on a call about what language to use with a co-worker who continually apologizes for being late, but doesn't change their behavior.

To be in like Flynn means to be "quickly and easily successful." The phrase has long been associated with hard-living heartthrob Errol Flynn, but was around before he became famous. Some people use the phrase in like Flint to mean the same thing, a phrase probably inspired by the 1967 movie In like Flint.  

If two people are like five minutes of eleven, they're close friends. The phrase reflects the idea of the position of a clock's hands at that time.

Why is the first episode of a television series often called a pilot?

As the 19th-century British jurist Charles Darling observed: "A timid question will always receive a confident answer."

After researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego discovered a seahorse-like creature called the Ruby Sea Dragon, they described this brilliant red fish as a charismatic species. Many scientists use the word charismatic to characterize animals that humans may find particularly appealing, which makes such animals useful for raising public awareness of biological diversity and environmental concerns. Such fauna--or in the case of pandas and elephants, megafauna--are sometimes called glamour animals or hero species. A hero shot in advertising, by the way, is a photo of a product or service that sums up its appeal to potential customers.

A psychotherapist in Burlington, Vermont, observes that couples in counseling together ask each other questions that are actually veiled criticisms. Such indirect communication was the topic of a spirited conversation on Metafilter.  Much has been written about direct vs. indirect communication styles, or as it's sometimes called, "ask culture" vs. "guess culture."

A Palm Springs, California, listener was taught that when the word the is followed by a vowel, it should be pronounced with a short e, and otherwise with a schwa sound. However, there's no basis for such a rule.

The Churches Conservation Trust helps maintain and repurpose more than 300 churches in Britain that are no longer used for worship. To raise money for the buildings' upkeep, the trust now offers visitors the chance to have a sleepover in the sanctuary, which they've dubbed champing, a portmanteau that combines the words church and camping. Their promotional materials also offer a slap-up breakfast, slap-up being a Britishism that means "first-rate."

A Dallas, Texas, listener wonders if his family made up the term gradoo, meaning "grime" or "schmutz." It's definitely more widespread than that, and may derive from a French term.

The noun bangs, meaning "hair cut straight across the forehead," may derive from the idea of the word bang meaning "abruptly," as in a bangtail horse whose tail is trimmed straight across. The verb curtail, meaning to "cut off," was first used to mean "dock a horse's tail," and then later applied more generally to mean "shorten" or "diminish."

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Knuckle Down (Rebroadcast) - 4 September 2017 (9/2017)

A wingnut is a handy, stabilizing piece of hardware. So why is it a pejorative term for those of a certain political persuasion? Also, is there something wrong with the phrase "committed suicide"? Some say that the word "commit" is a painful reminder that, legally, suicide was once considered a criminal act. They've proposed a different term. Finally, a word game inspired by that  alliteratively athletic season, March Madness. Plus, rabble rouser vs. rebel rouser, BOLO, feeling punk, free reign, sneaky pete, and a cheesy pun.

FULL DETAILS

Did you hear about the explosion in the French cheese factory? (If you don't like puns, brace yourself.)

Which is it: rabble rouser or rebel rouser? It's rabble rouser, rabble meaning "a confused collection of things" or "a motley crowd." Rubble rouser is another variant listed in The Eggcorn Database.

A listener in Carmel, New York, remembers his father's phrase knuckle down screw boney tight, a challenge called out to someone particularly adept at playing marbles. The game of marbles, once wildly popular in the United States, is a rich source of slang, including the phrase playing for keeps.

An Omaha, Nebraska man wonders about starting a sentence with the word anymore, meaning "nowadays." Linguists refer to this usage as positive anymore, which is common in much of the Midwest, and stems from Scots-Irish syntax.

BOLO is an acronym for Be On the Lookout. An all-points bulletin may also be described as simply a BOL.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz inspired by March Madness, taking us through the year with the name of a month followed by an adjective with the suffix -ness attached to form an alliterative noun phrase. For example, what do you call a festival in which everyone wears a hat a rakish angle, and the attendees decide which is the most lively and cheerful?

A listener in Council Bluffs, Iowa, says his grandmother, born in 1899, used to say I'm feeling punk, meaning "I'm feeling ill." The term derives from an older sense of punk meaning "rotted wood."

Linguistic freezes, also known as binomials or irreversible pairs, are words that tend to appear in a certain order, such as now and then, black and white, or spaghetti and meatballs.

To give free rein, meaning "to allow more leeway," derives from the idea of loosening one's grip on the reins of a horse. Some people mistakenly understand the term as free reign.

The Mighty is a website with resources for those facing disability, disease, and mental illness. In an essay there, Kyle Freeman, who lost her brother to suicide, argues that the term commit suicide is a source of unnecessary pain and stigma for the survivors. The term commit, she says, is a relic of the days when suicide was legally regarded as a criminal act, rather than a last resort amid terrible pain. She prefers the term dying by suicide. Cultural historian Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, has written that the phrase dying by suicide is preferable, but for a different reason: it's more blunt, and "doesn't let death hide behind other words."

A woman in Hudson, New York, says her boyfriend, who grew up on Long Island, uses the expression call out sick, meaning "to phone an employer to say you're not coming to work because you're ill." But she uses the phrase call in sick to mean the very same thing. To call out sick is much more common in the New York City area than other parts of the United States.

A wingnut is a handy, stabilizing piece of hardware. So how did it come to be a pejorative term for those of a particular political persuasion?

In English, we sometimes liken feeling "out of place" to being a fish out of water. The corresponding phrase in Spanish is to say you feel como un pulpo en el garaje, or like an octopus in a garage.

A man in Red Lodge, Montana, says he and his wife sometimes accuse each other of being a sneaky pete. It's an affectionate expression they use if, say, one of them played a practical joke on the other. The origin of this term uncertain, although it may have to do with the fact that in the 1940's sneaky pete was a term for cheap, rotgut alcohol that one hides from the authorities.

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What Kids Know and Want to Find Out - 1 September 2017 (9/2017)

Our youngest listeners have questions about everything from love to one of their favorite foods. Kids ask why we might end a text with the letters xoxo, what the word "canoodle" means, and how pizza got its name. And it turns out that when it comes to words, sometimes kids know even more than their parents!

FULL DETAILS

Andrea in Haslett, Michigan, and her six-year-old daughter Neevee had a question about the way we show our love in writing. When they were texting back and forth with Neevee’s dad, she got to wondering where where we get X and O for kisses and hugs. It may have something to do with the way people used to sign and kiss important documents, and the Christian cross.

Seven-year-old Charlie and his mom were playing a word game when his mom mentioned the word canoodle. He wonders: What does canoodle mean and where does it come from?

Katie from Tallahassee, Florida, remembers that her late grandfather used to exclaim I swannee! whenever he needed a euphemism for "I swear." She still uses the phrase in his memory, and is curious where it came from. It's a form of the older phrase, I shall warrant, which means "I promise."

Eleven-year-old Sophia in Omaha, Nebraska, is having a debate with her dad about the meaning of the words opaque and translucent. Opaque describes something that blocks light, and translucent means that a little bit of light can get through. (She's right, he's wrong!)

Lilly, a 14-year-old from San Diego, California, is a fan of vintage clothing, and wonders when vintage, from the Latin word vinum, meaning "wine," began to be used to describe clothing. Originally the word vintage applied to the yield of vineyard during a specific season or a particular place. Over time, vintage came to be applied to automobiles and eventually to clothing. The term vintage clothing suggests more than simply "old clothes" or "hand-me-downs"; it carries an additional connotation of taste and style and flair.

Eleven-year-old Eleanor, from San Antonio, Texas, has noticed that when texting, some of her friends respond affirmatively with the expression OK, but Eleanor prefers writing it out as okay. Which is preferable? Either is fine, as long as you're consistent. A great resource on the history of this term is OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word by Allan Metcalf.

Sophia, a 13-year-old in San Diego, California, observes that terrible and horrible are synonyms, so how did terrific and horrific come to be antonyms? In the 17th century terrific meant "causing fear." Over time, it went through a process that linguists call amelioration, which turned its meaning into something positive. A similar thing happened with the word tremendous, a relative of the word tremble, which originally described something "frightful," but eventually came to describe something "awe-inspiring" or "remarkable for its size."

The word pizza derives from an Italian term at least a thousand years old for a type of savory flat bread. The type of pie we now think of as pizza, with tomato sauce, has been around since the 15th century, when tomatoes were first brought back to Europe from the New World.

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

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Lie Like a Rug (Rebroadcast) - 28 August 2017 (8/2017)

The words we choose can change attitudes--and change lives. A swing-dance instructor has switched to gender-neutral language when teaching couples. He insists that using words like "leader" and "follower" actually works better than using gendered terms. But not everyone agrees. Plus, a pithy observation about how stray comments can seem meaningless at the time, but can lodge in other people like seeds and start growing. Plus, slang you might hear in Albuquerque, sufficiently suffonsified, make ends meet, cut a chogie, and minders, finders, and grinders.

FULL DETAILS


Sometimes English grammar means that prepositions and adverbs pile up in funny ways. Take, for example, "It's really coming down up here" or "Turn left right here."

A listener in Shreveport, Louisiana, reports that after a fine meal, her father used to announce, "I have dined sufficiently, and I have been well surossfied." It's a joking exaggeration of the word satisfied. In a 1980 article in American Speech, former editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English Frederic G. Cassidy reported lots of variations, including suffancifed, suffencified, suffoncified, suffuncified, and ferancified. Another version of the phrase goes
"My sufficiency is fully surancified; any more would be obnoxious to my fastidious taste."

A 1957 story by James Thurber includes a sentence with an oddly stranded preposition.

Why do some place names include the word The, as in The Hague or the Bronx?

The word traces denotes the long, thin leather straps that secure a horse to a wagon. The expression to kick over the traces, meaning "to become unruly," refers to the action of a horse literally kicking over those straps and getting all tangled up, and can be used metaphorically to describe a person who rebels against authority or tradition.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's game involves misreading memos that start with Re: For example, if Don Draper of Sterling Cooper Draper Price leaves a message asking you to "comprehend written matter", what's the subject of that message?

A San Antonio, Texas, listener says some of her friends use the word toasted to mean "drunk" and some use it to mean "high on marijuana." Which is it?

Attorneys use the terms minders, grinders, and finders to refer to different roles in a law firm. Finders get the business, grinders do the business, and minders keep the business.

To cut a chogi, also spelled choagy or chogie, is a slang term meaning "Let's get out of here." It probably stems from Korean words meaning "go there," and was picked up by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.

The medical term sialogogic, which means "producing saliva," comes from Greek words meaning "to bring forth saliva."

A San Diego, California, man says that when he got into trouble as a boy, his mother would say, "You lie like a rug and you hang like a cheap curtain."

If you go to a party and the host neglects to put out the food that guests brought, or offers only a small portion of it, they're what you might call a belly robber.

The Humans of New York series of portraits and quotations includes one subject's wise observation about how a single offhand remark can change a life.

A swing-dance instructor in Burlington, Vermont, says gender-neutral language has been well-received in his own dance classes. Instead of the words man and woman, he now uses leader and follower. He reports this not only helps clarify his instructions but makes everyone feel welcome. Swing dancer Cari Westbrook has detailed discussions about the pros and cons of such gender-neutral language, as well as the word ambidanectrous, on her blog The Lindy Affair.

To make ends meet means to make money last through the end of a calendar period.

Poet Adrienne Rich wrote powerfully of the "psychic disequilibrium" that occurs when people don't see their own identities reflected in the language of others, "as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing."

Burqueno slang, spoken by residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico, includes such expressions as umbers, said ominously when someone's caught doing something wrong, as well as get down, meaning "to get out of a vehicle" and put gas for "fill a vehicle's gas tank." Then there's the Burqueno way to get off the phone: bueno bye!

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

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Pig Latin (Rebroadcast) - 21 August 2017 (8/2017)

This week on "A Way with Words": Grant and Martha discuss the L-word--or two L-words, actually: liberal and libertarian. They reflect different political philosophies, so why do they look so similar? Also, is the term expat racist? A journalist argues that the word expat carries a value judgment, suggesting that Westerners who move to another country are admirable and adventurous, while the term immigrant implies that someone moved out of necessity or may even be a burden to their adopted country. Finally, what do guys call a baby shower thrown for the father-to-be? A dad-chelor party? Plus, glottalization, film at 11, grab a root and growl, and Pig Latin.

FULL DETAILS

In a futile situation, English speakers might say that we're spinning our wheels. The French have a phrase for the same situation that translates as to pedal in sauerkraut. The Illustrated Book of Sayings collects similarly colorful idioms in other languages. There's a Turkish expression that literally translates as Grapes darken by looking at each other, and means that we're influenced by the company we keep. In Latvian, there's an expression that means  "to prevariate," but literally it translates as "to blow little ducks."

An Austin, Texas, listener says he and his buddies are throwing a baby shower for a dad-to-be, but they're wondering what to call a baby shower thrown for the father. A man shower? A dadchelor party?

We go back like carseats is a slang expression that means "We've been friends for a long time."

The political terms liberal and libertarian may look similar, but they have very different meanings. Both stem from Latin liber, "free," but the word liberal entered English hundreds of years before libertarian.

Half-filled pots splash more is the literal translation a Hindi expression suggesting that those who bluster the most, least deserve to. Another Hindi idiom translates literally as Who saw a peacock dance in the woods? In other words, even something worthy requires publicity if it's going to be acknowledged.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle of Container Clues, in which one word is inserted whole into another to create a new word. For example, if the definition is "kind of potatoes," and the clue is "She is in mad," what kind of potatoes are we talking about?

A Carmel, Indiana, teacher is puzzled to hear younger colleagues pronounce the words kitten and mitten as KIT-un and MIT-un, with a noticeable break between the syllables. Linguist David Eddington of Brigham Young University reports that this phenomenon, called glottalization, is a growing feature of American dialect, mainly among young women in their 20's and 30's, particularly in the western United States.  

A New York City caller wonders why we refer to clothing as duds. The term dates back to the 1300's, when the word dudde referred to a cloak or mantle of coarse cloth. Over time, it came to refer to shabby clothing, and eventually acquired a more neutral meaning of simply "clothes." The earlier sense of "ragged" or "inferior" may also be reflected in the term dud, denoting something that fails to function.

For English speakers of a certain age, Film at 11 is a slang phrase means "You'll hear the details later." It's a reference to the days before 24-hour cable news, when newscasters would read headlines during the day promoting the 11 p.m. broadcast, when viewers would get the whole story, including video.

The exhortation Grab a root and growl is a way of telling someone to buck up and do what must be done. The sense of grabbing and growling here suggests the kind of tenacity you might see in a terrier sinking his teeth into something and refusing to let go. This phrase is at least 100 years old. A much more rare variation is grab, root, and growl. Both expressions are reminiscent of a similar exhortation, root, hog, or die.

Is the term expat racist? Journalist Laura Secorun argues that the word expat implies a value judgment, suggesting that Westerners who move to another country are adventurous, while the term immigrant suggests someone who likely moved out of necessity or may be a burden to society in their adopted country.

In much of the United States, the phrase I'll be there directly means "I'm on my way right now." But particularly in parts of the South, I'll be there directly simply means "I'll be there after a while." As a Marquette, Michigan, listener points out, this discrepancy can cause lots of confusion!

Why do so many people begin their sentences with the word So? In linguistics, this is called sentence-initial so. The word So at the start a sentence can serve a variety of functions.

Ix-nay on the ocolate-chay in the upboard-cay is how you'd say Nix on the chocolate in the cupboard in Pig Latin. English speakers have a long history of inserting syllables or rearranging syllables in a word to keep outsiders from understanding. The pig in Pig Latin may just refer to the idea of pig as an inferior, unclean animal.

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

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