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.

Brollies and Bumbershoots - 16 April 2018 (4/2018)

If you think they refer to umbrellas as bumbershoots in the UK, think again. The word bumbershoot actually originated in the United States! In Britain, it's a brolly. Plus, a man who works a ski resort shares the vocabulary he and coworkers use to describe grooming the snow. And there's more than one way to pronounce the name of the bread that you pile with lox and cream cheese. Also: strong like bull, whistle britches, long suit and strong suit, homey and homely, wet behind the ears, and dead nuts.


If you think they refer to umbrellas as bumbershoots in the UK, think again. The word bumbershoot actually originated in the United States; in Britain, it's a brolly.  You'll learn that and much more about the differences between British English and American English in the marvelous new book The Prodigal Tongue, by linguist Lynne Murphy.

A middle-school teacher and her students in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, have a question about one girl's pronunciation of the word bagel. Is this round yeast roll with a hole in the middle pronounced BAY-gul or BAG-ul? Although most people pronounce it with a long a, a growing number are pronouncing it to rhyme with waggle.

A ski slope groomer in Stowe, Vermont, says he and his colleagues vehicles that make corduroy, the packed, ridged surfaces of snow that are perfect for skiing. Another term for corduroy, or someone who wears it, is whistle britches, because of the sound they make when the wearer is walking.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz similar to the board game Tribond, in which the object is to figure out the bond that links three things. For example, what's the common bond that links the words playground, trombone, and microscope?

In The Prodigal Tongue, linguist Lynne Murphy recounts the story of a friend from the US who was confused when her physician inquired about her waterworks. In Britain, that's a slang term for urinary tract.

The terms long suit and strong suit, are both used metaphorically to refer to a particular strength someone possesses. Both expressions arose from card playing.

In the US, if you're ambivalent about something, you're said to be of two minds. In the UK, however, they use a different preposition -- they're said to be in two minds. Also, Americans talk about brainstorms, which in Britain are called brain showers.

A woman in Bowling Green, Kentucky wonders: How did the phrase wet behind ears come to describe someone who's inexperienced?

Martha shares a quote from author Madeleine L'Engle about how growing up means accepting vulnerability.

An Escanoba, Michigan, construction worker who specializes in plumbing and pipefitting says that when he and his co-workers finish a job just so, they say approvingly Dead nuts! But he wonders if there's anything obscene about that expression.

In the US, if you step on a Lego, you scream bloody murder; in the UK, you step on a piece of Lego and scream blue murder. Also, in the US, you eat scrambled eggs; in the UK, it's scrambled egg.

The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by linguist Lynne Murphy is a trove of information about differences between these two versions of English. Murphy's blog, Separated by a Common Language, is another great source, and you can take online quizzes to test your knowledge of the two.

A woman in Omaha, Nebraska, wonders about the difference between the adjectives homey and homely. In the UK, the word homely is a positive term that means cozy.

If you're in England and want some cream cheese to go with your bagel, ask for Philadelphia.

The word bougie evolved from bourgeois, meaning characteristic of the middle class. Bougie often has a derogatory sense, but not always.

Bert Vaux, the linguist whose data was the basis of the wildly popular New York Times Dialect Quiz, is collecting more data about American English, and invites you to take a survey. The answers will help inform a new app he's working on.

A woman in Fairbanks, Alaska, says she's been described as strong like ox, smart like streetcar. Is that a compliment? Other variations include strong like bull and smart like tractor or smart like dump truck. The phrase strong like bull was likely popularized by the character of Uncle Tonoose on the 1950s sitcom, The Danny Thomas Show.

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.

Cool Your Soup - 9 April 2018 (4/2018)

According to Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, it's important to master the basics of writing, but there comes a time when you have to strike out on your own and teach yourself. Also, some Spanish idioms involving food: What does it mean to flip the tortilla or to eat turkey at a dance? Plus, a conversation about the difference between compassion and sympathy. Also recursive acronyms, bear-caught, leaverites, jonesing, mon oeil, Jane Austen's pins, high-water pants, and save your breath to cool your soup.


In English, if someone's terrified, they might be shaking like a leaf. In Spanish, the phrase is temblar como un flan, or to tremble like a flan. The Spanish phrase darle la vuelta a la tortilla literally means to flip the tortilla, but metaphorically it means to turn the tide, as in an athletic contest where the losing team finds a way to start winning.

Is the word mac actually an acronym for macaroni and cheese? No, just a shortening of the term. If it mac were an acronym, however, it would be a recursive acronym, or one that refers to itself.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener recalls that when she was a youngster, she'd pester her mother by asking the name of lots and lots of rocks on the ground. Her mother eventually began referring to those specimens as leaverites--as in leave 'er right there. The term is popular among geology enthusiasts.

The saying You might as well save your breath to cool your soup is centuries old. Variants include save your breath to cool your porridge and save your breath to cool your pottage. In all those cases, it's a wry way to suggest that someone to be less long-winded.

A San Diego, California, man is having a dispute with his wife, who is a linguist. How exactly do you pronounce the word exactly?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle inspired rhyming terms with the eee-aww, eee-aww, eee-aww sounds of police sirens. For example, what sound does a donkey make?

A podcast listener in Buenos Aires, Argentina, wonders about the differences between the words compassion, sympathy, and empathy.

The Spanish phrase estar en la edad del pavo literally translates as to be in the age of the turkey--to be, in other words, at that awkward age. Comer pavo, literally to eat turkey, means to sit alone at a dance because no one has asked you to join them. The Spanish word pavo comes from Latin word pavo, which means peacock, and is the source of the English word pavonine, which means resembling a peacock or having coloration similar to a peacock's.

An Omaha, Nebraska, man asks about the origin of the term bear-caught, which applies to someone with sunstroke or heat exhaustion. The point of popularization for this expression appears to be the 1965 book by Donn Pearce and subsequent movie, Cool Hand Luke.

In many cultures, tugging at one's lower eyelid is an expression of skepticism, as if to indicate that the person is being watchful and alert and won't be taken in. In the United States, the gesture may be accompanied by a phrase like Do you see the green of my eye? In France, it's accompanied by mon oeil, or my eye, and in Japan, this action is referred to as akanbe or red eye.

In a 1994 interview in The Paris Review, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe offered some great advice about having faith in your process as a writer based on his own experiences as an undergraduate.

To be jonesing for something means to be craving it. The phrase arose in 1960's drug culture, but beyond that, there are competing stories about its origin.

The cut-and-paste feature in word-processing programs makes it easy to rearrange text. But in the past, some writers literally cut and pinned their copy. At the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries, you can see the pins Jane Austen used to fasten together parts of pages from her unfinished novel, The Watsons.

A listener in Fargo, North Dakota, ask which is correct: graduated from high school or graduated high school? Increasingly, the former is falling by the wayside.

A member of our Facebook group posted a photo of a box that left him completely puzzled until he realized that if you look at the word spoons upside down, it spells suoods.

A Lakeland, Florida, woman wonders about the use of the term floodin' or flooding to describe someone wearing pants that are too short, as in He's floodin.' There are many terms for such ill-fitting pants, including flash-flooders, flood pants, floods, high waders, and high waters, all based on the image of keeping one's pants above the ankles in order to avoid getting them wet in a flood.

In English, women give birth; in Spanish, they give to the light, expressed as dar a luz or dar a la luz. Another luminous word, alumbrando, is applied to a woman who is giving birth.

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.

Put on the Dog - 2 April 2018 (4/2018)

A young patron's sense of wonder prompts a moving tweet by a staffer at the Toronto Public Library.

The phrases to put on the dog and putting on the dog refer to ostentatious behavior, and in particular to dressing in a flashy way. But what do dogs have to do with stylish clothing?

Our discussion about the many ways to say someone is pregnant prompts a listener to share another one he picked up from broadcaster Paul Harvey: infanticipating.

A woman in San Diego, California, says that when she was making too much noise as a youngster, her dad would gently reprimand her by saying You're a noisy piece of cheese.

Need a mnemonic to remember difference between the spelling of the palate in your mouth and an artist's palette? Associate the one in your mouth with the past tense of the verb to eat.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski, who also writes for Paid Off, a game show starring Michael Torpey, offers a game-show style puzzle. For example, what are the top 3 most likely responses from Google's autocomplete feature if you type in the question Why does my arm . . . ?

Whatever happened to saying You're welcome? A Lantana, Texas, woman observes that during media interviews, people will often respond to a Thank you by saying Thank you themselves.

A listener in Hope, North Wales, points out that there's punny way to spell a hungry horse in four letters. (Hint: one synonym for horse is gee-gee.)

A 10-year-old in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, says friends correct him whenever he says funner and funnest. Are they really words, and if so, is it okay to use them?

A law enforcement officer says he and his colleagues are curious about how the word pig came to be used as a derogatory term for police. This use has a long history that goes back more than two centuries.

The term cowbelly is used in Louisiana to mean both a kind of work shoe and  soft river mud. This kind of silt has been described evocatively by writer Conger Beasley, Jr.

A tweet soliciting the biggest lies people heard from other kids while growing up turns up some whoppers, like the boy who claimed his great-great-great-great grandfather was Elvis.

What you call the space between two mountain peaks depends on which part of the country you're in. The word gap is used more in the Southern United States, notch in the Northeast, and saddle or pass in the West.

There's a word for those noble souls who're picking up litter while they jog. They're ploggers.  The neologisms plogger and plogging are a combination of the English word jogging and  Swedish plocka upp, which means pick up.

A listener in Omaha, Nebraska, says that when he was being particularly inquisitive, his grandmother would exclaim, You ask more questions than a Philadelphia lawyer! This term for a particularly shrewd attorney goes all the way back to the late 18th century, and may be a reference either to Ben Franklin or the Philadelphia attorney Andrew Hamilton, who successfully defended German-American printer John Peter Zenger.

The term mind-boggling describes something that has a powerful effect on the mind. Sometimes it's misunderstood as mind-bottling, an eggcorn popularized by a Will Farrell movie.

The Italian-American slang word skutch refers to someone who's being annoying, and derives from the Italian word scocciare, which means to pester.

The Japanese have a term for the act of buying books but letting them pile up without reading them. It's tsundoku.

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.

Fighting Artichokes (Rebroadcast) - 26 March 2018 (3/2018)

What’s in a mascot name? Maybe you’re a fan of the Banana Slugs, or you cheer for the Winged Beavers. Perhaps your loyalty lies with the Fighting Artichokes. There are some strange names for sports team out there. But what’s even stranger is the origin of the word mascot itself. It’s from a 19th-century opera! And: the host of a television show about gardening is tired of using the verb “to plant,” and is desperate for an alternative. But coming up with one is harder than you might think! Plus, a word for that sinking feeling when your favorite restaurant closes. Also, a word quiz based on the party game Taboo, the history of cataract, a begrudging ode to office jargon, and an old children’s song about popping the heads off of flowers.

This episode first aired October 2, 2015.

Come From Away, a new musical about the 7000 passengers whose planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the September 11th attacks, is not only a fine piece of theater. It’s also a rich trove of Newfoundland language, including “come from away,” and a noun that means “visitor.”

Evergreen State College in Washington is certainly in the running for best school mascot, with the Geoduck. But you can’t forget the UC Santa Cruz Fighting Banana Slugs, or the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes. The term mascot itself was popularized by a 19th century French comic opera, called La Mascotte. The word is also related to the Spanish term for “pet,” mascota.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English offers a look at some intriguing vocabulary from that part of the world, such as the expression “best kind,” meaning “in the best state or condition.”

If you pronounce roof to rhyme with hoof, you’re not alone. Millions of people all over the U.S. say it that way, though the pronunciation with the long o sound is more common.

You’re not a true resident of Poca, West Virginia, if you’re not cheering on the local high school, the Poca Dots.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brought us a puzzle based on one of his favorite party games: Taboo. If he gave you a series of terms that all match up with a certain word — like car, clock, burglar, and siren — what word would you say goes with them?

We got a call from Nan Sterman, host of the public television gardening show A Growing Passion, who writes so much about plants that she’s looking for some alternatives to the verb “to plant.” But what to say if you don’t want to sound pretentious or stilted? What about variations such as “Stick that little guy in the soil,” or “Bury that gem in a pot?”

“Fair weather to you, and snow to your heels,” is one way for Newfoundlanders to wish each other good luck.

The Fibber McGee drawer is that essential place where you quickly shove a bunch of junk when you need to clean up fast and don’t have the time or care to organize anything. It comes from the old radio comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly, which featured a running gag in which Fibber had a closet crammed with junk that fell cacophonously to the floor whenever he opened it.

The high school in Hoopeston, Illinois, calls its teams the Hoopeston Area Cornjerkers, and in Avon, Connecticut, the Avon Old Farms Winged Beavers are a beloved hockey team. In case you’re shopping for school districts.

A cataract is not only an eye condition, it’s also a waterfall. And the two uses of the word are related, in the sense that in the ancient world, a cataracta was one of those iron gates that hung outside a city, such as Pompeii, to protect against invading hoardes.

A chemist who spent years working in the pharmaceutical industry sent us an amusing sendup of corporatespeak that begins, “It is what it is, so let’s all reach out and circle the wagons…” Although his jargon-laden riff wonderfully satirizes such cliched writing, it’s worth noting that many find the phrase “circle the wagons” objectionable.

“Biting the bit,” akin to champing at the bit, means someone’s raring to go, or out of control.

Expressions like, “I don’t not like that,” or, “You can’t not like being out,” are versions of litotes, a rhetorical device used for expressing understatement.

In Newfoundland, the word wonderful is often used as an intensifier for both positive and negative things. For example, a Newfoundlander might refer to something as a wonderful loss.

There’s an old children’s ditty that goes, “Mama had a baby and its head popped off,” which you sing while popping the top off of a dandelion or similar flower.

Is there a word for when your favorite restaurant closes? What about goneappetit?

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


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

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

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Burn Bag (Rebroadcast) - 19 March 2018 (3/2018)

This week on "A Way with Words": Slang from the 19th century. The slang coming out of Victorian mouths was more colorful than you might think. A 1909 collection of contemporary slang records clever terms for everything from a bald head to the act of sidling through a crowd. Plus, how to remember the difference between CAV-al-ry and CAL-va-ry. And: what's the best way to improve how introverts are perceived in our society? For starters, don't bother asking for help from dictionary editors. Also, collieshangles, knowledge box, nanty narking, biz bag, burn bag, yuppies, and amberbivalence.


Mind the grease is a handy phrase to use when you're trying to sidle through a crowd. It's found in 1909 volume of English slang called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Speaking of greasy, in those days something extravagant might be described as butter upon bacon.

If you're telling a story involving someone with an accent, and while relaying what so-and-so said, you imitate that person's accent, is that cool? If your retelling starts to sound offensive or gets in the way of good communication, best to try paraphrasing rather than performing.

Collieshangles is an old Scottish term for a quarrel, possibly deriving from the notion of two collie dogs fighting.

We've previously discussed the term going commando, meaning "dressed without underwear." It first appears in print in 1974, but likely goes back further than that. The scene in a 1996 episode of Friends, wherein Joey goes commando in Chandler's clothes, likely popularized the saying.

A Chicago-area listener suggests that approaching to a yellow traffic light and deciding whether or not to go for it might be described as amberbivalence. It's somewhat like that decision you face when coming toward what you know is a stale green light—do you gun it or brake it?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski wasn't savvy enough way back when to snag an email address like john@aol.com, but he was clever enough to come up with a game about apt email addresses that serve as a pun on the word at. For example, a prescient lawyer might have claimed attorney@law.com.

What's the difference between cavalry and calvary? The first of these two refers to the group of soldiers on horseback, and is a linguistic relative of such "horsey" words as caballero, the Spanish horse-riding gentleman, and cavalcade, originally a "parade of horses." The word calvary, on the other hand, derives from the Latin calvaria, "skull," and refers to the hill where Jesus was crucified, known in Aramaic as Golgotha, or "place of the skull."

Knowledge box is an old slang term for noggin; one 1755 describes someone who "almost cracked his knowledge box."

An introvert in Baltimore, Maryland, is unhappy with an online definition of introvert, and is speaking up about wanting it changed. The definition describes an introvert as someone preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings—such as a selfish person, or a narcissist. The problem is, Google's definitions come from another dictionary, and dictionary definitions themselves come from perceived popular usage. So the way to change a definition isn't to petition lexicographers, but to change the popular understanding of a term.

What's the female equivalent of a man cave? Some people are promoting the term she shed.

Ann Patchett, the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, among other books, has some great advice about writing. She says the key is to practice writing several hours a day for the sheer joy of getting better, and find the thing that you alone can say.

The term biz bag, meaning a bag to stuff your discarded items in, comes from an old commercial for Biz stain-removing detergent.

If you're looking for a little nanty narking, try going back to the 19th century and having a great time, because that's a jaunty term the British used for it back then.

Betamax players and hair metal bands may be trapped in the 1980's, but the term yuppie, meaning "young urban professional," is alive and well. Dink, meaning dual income, no kids, is also worth throwing around in a marketing presentation.

In the world of covert secret agents, a burn bag is the go-to receptacle for important papers you'd like to have burned rather than intercepted by the enemy.

A listener from Santa Monica, California, says he's going to mow something down, as in, he's going to eat a huge amount of food really fast. But when he writes it, he spells mow as mau, and pronounces it to rhyme with cow. Ever heard of this?

A fly-rink, in 19th-century slang, is a bald head—perfect for flies to skate around on!

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.


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

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

Gee and Haw - 12 March 2018 (3/2018)

The highly specialized vocabulary of people who work outdoors, like farmers and fishermen, can bring us closer to the natural world. Also, a woman who trains sled dogs discusses the words she uses to communicate with her animals. You may be surprised to hear that "Mush!" is not one of them! Finally, if you're getting ready to go rock climbing, you'll first want the beta--a word with roots in the technology of video recording. Plus church key, browse line, smeuse, nitnoy, mommick, zawn, zwer, boom dog, and I think my pig is whistling.


There's a word hole in a hedge or wall made by the repeated passage of a small animal. It's called a smeuse. This dialectal term from the UK is one of hundreds from Landmarks, a book of essays in which Robert Macfarlane seeks to reanimate our connection with nature by showcasing some of the specialized language involving features of the natural world.

A listener doing volunteer work in Tempe, Arizona, is puzzled when a co-worker refers to a bottle opener as a church key.

The highest point on trees that grazing animals can reach is called the browse line.

A rock climber in Omaha, Nebraska, wonders about the term beta, which her fellow climbers use to refer to  information about a particular route. It's a reference to using Betamax video to record information about a climb. A good source for the vocabulary used in this sport is Matt Samet's The Climbing Dictionary: Mountaineering Slang, Terms, Neologisms, & Lingo.

Samuel Butler once likened definitions to a kind of scratching.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's punny puzzle involves words that end in -ISH. For example, something that's somewhat like a mark used to identify livestock might be what word that ends in -ISH?

In dogsledding, the exclamations gee and haw are used for left and right respectively. A woman in Fairbanks, Alaska, uses those terms when training her dogs for the Iditarod and wonders about their origin. (As promised, here are her pups.)

The German idiom Ich glaub mein Schwein pfeift is used to express tremendous surprise. Literally, it means I think my pig is whistling!

The term nitnoy means a little bit, and most likely derives from a Thai term that means the same thing.

Robert Macfarlane's book Landmarks, a collection of dialectal terms for features of the natural landscape, includes zwen, the sound of partridges taking off, and zawn, a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff.

A young woman in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is conflicted after a professor writes a glowing recommendation for her that also describes her as sassy. Isn't sassy a gendered term that should be avoided? And if so, how should she handle the situation?

According to Robert Macfarlane's book Landmarks, long, thin patches of snow that have not yet melted are called snow bones.

A trucker in Glasgow, Kentucky, wonders about the term boom dog, a device used to secure things on a trailer. The boom may be inspired by a ship's boom. The word dog has long been used in a variety of ways to refer to something that holds something else tightly in place.

A caller from coastal North Carolina says that in her part of the country, people use the word mommicked to mean flustered or deeply frustrated. It derives from mammock, which means to tear or muddle, and was used that way in Shakespeare's time. She reports they'll also say I'm bent double for I'm laughing really hard, and use the phrase in the merkles, to describe someone's lost their way--a phrase that probably derives from in the myrtles, or in other words, having wandered away from a cleared path.

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.

Gung Ho - 5 March 2018 (3/2018)

The stories behind symbols and expressions around the world. The peace symbol popular during 1960's antiwar demonstrations had been around for decades. It originated in the antinuclear movement in the UK. Also, why do we say someone who's enthusiastic is all "gung ho"? The term derives from Chinese words meaning "work together." It was popularized by a Marine officer who admired the can-do spirit of Chinese industrial collectives. Plus, a tasty spin on stuffed foccacia that originated in eastern Sicily and is now a popular menu item in Omaha, Nebraska. Also: curling parents, sharking, ribey, a great book for young readers, and man lettuce.


In English-speaking countries, overprotective Moms and Dads are called helicopter parents for the way they hover and meddle in their children's lives. In Denmark, they're called curling foraeldre, or curling parents, alluding to the sport of curling and frantic efforts to sweep away all obstacles in their offspring's path.  

A man in Orlando, Florida, asks if there's a word for slowly circling a parking lot in search of a space for your car. Slang terms for this practice include sharking and sharking for parking, and sometimes such drivers are jokingly called vultures.

Following up on our conversation about the need for a collective noun for librarians, a Ranchester, Wyoming, man suggests a Marian of librarians, a nod to The Music Man. And a woman in Bennington, Vermont, suggests that although many people are likely to propose a hush of librarians, she thinks a far more appropriate term would be a riot of librarians.

A Chicago, Illinois, man says his Appalachian relatives describe a thin or gaunt person as ribey. This adjective probably derives from the Scots term ribe, meaning a tall, scraggly plant and by extension a tall, thin person.

The low, wheeled device that auto mechanics use to slide under a car is called a creeper.

After noting how similar the word genre sounds to his own first name, Quiz Guy John Chaneski crafted a quiz that involves replacing the letters gen- with John- to form an entirely new word. For example, he says, from now on when you talk about a person's role in society as a man or a woman, as opposed to their biological sex, you'll be talking about not gender, but ...?

A Huntsville, Alabama, man asks: What's the origin of the peace symbol? A good resource on this topic is Peace: The Biography of a Symbol, by Ken Kolsbun.

In cycling slang, on the rivet refers to putting out maximum effort, and derives from the way cyclists lean all the way forward on the hard bicycle seat, which traditionally has a flat rivet in the very front.

An Omaha, Nebraska, woman wonders about an Italian food that's like a stuffed, pizza-size calzone stuffed with potatoes and spinach, or meat, or broccoli. She's seen it spelled several ways, including goodierooni, goudarooni, and cudaruni. The original version, cudduruni, comes from Sicily and is found in Sicilian dictionaries as far back as the 16th century.

A Mandarin Chinese speaker is curious about the origin of gung ho, referring to great enthusiasm. It derives from an anglicized Chinese expression, kung-ho, meaning "work together," which was adapted and popularized by Marine officer Evans Fordyce Carlson as gung ho.

Grant recommends a book for young readers by Rita Williams-Garcia. It's called One Crazy Summer, and it's about three girls who travel to Oakland, California, in 1968 to meet the mother who abandoned them.

The parent of a highschooler in Madison, Wisconsin, says that at the beginning of each semester, when her daughter's classmates introduce themselves and their preferred pronouns, gender-neutral students often say their pronouns are they and their. Linguist Denis Baron has compiled an extensive list of other epicene pronouns. Although they and their may be applied to an individual, in that case, it's best to use plural verb.

Texas journalist Molly Ivins delighted in collecting colorful expressions from state legislators, including Who put Tabasco sauce in his oatmeal?, said of a suddenly invigorated colleague.

A Houston, Texas, woman asks: Why are there so many different dictionaries?

What's man lettuce? A Tallahassee, Florida, listener uses that term for beard. If you have a beard you might be said said to be barbigerous. If you get it trimmed, you've had a pogonotomy.  

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.

Flop Sweat (Rebroadcast) - 26 February 2018 (2/2018)

Gerrymandering is the practice of redistricting to tip the political scales. Originally, though, this strategy was called "GARY-mandering" with a hard "g." But why? And: Mark Twain and Helen Keller had a devoted friendship. When he heard accusations that she'd plagiarized a story, Twain wrote Keller a fond letter assuring her that there's nothing new under the sun. Finally, a well-crafted message header makes email more efficient. A subject line that contains just the word "Question" is almost as useless as no subject line at all. Plus, flop sweat, vintage clothing, the solfege system, on line vs. in line, groaking, the Hawaiian fish dish called poke, and around the gool.


Someone who's anxious about performing may break out in a flop sweat, meaning excessive perspiration. The term flop sweat comes from theater slang, and the idea of sweating profusely due to nervousness that a production will flop. In the film Broadcast News, Albert Brooks's character breaks into a flop sweat when he finally gets a shot at hosting the newscast, only to be so rattled that he starts sweating heavily, to the point where it soaks right through his shirt.

The term Re: in a message header, means "regarding" or "with reference to," but it's not an abbreviation for either one of those things. It comes from a form of the Latin word res meaning "matter" or "thing." The hosts discuss strategies for making an email subject line more efficient.

A listener in New York City wonders about how to pronounce gerrymander, which means "to redraw the lines of an electoral district so as to favor a particular political party." The term comes a joking reference to Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 presided over such a redistricting. Gerry pronounced his name with a hard g, and for a while, the term gerrymandering also retained that pronunciation. In the absence of audible mass media, the name spread, but the pronunciation varied. By 1850, for example, an Indiana politician alluded to this variation, declaring, "You are constantly gerrymandering the State, or jerrymandering, as I maintain the word should be pronounced, the g being soft."

The World Tae Kwan Do Federation has dropped  the word Federation from its name, and will no longer be known as the WTF. As the organization's president explained: "In the digital age, the acronym of our federation has developed negative connotations unrelated to our organization and so it was important that we rebranded to better engage with our fans."

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's musical puzzle is based on the solfege system of the syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti. Each answer is composed of combinations or repetitions of those notes. For example, if the musical question is about a bird that's now extinct, what's the musical answer?

The word vintage, from the Latin word vinum, or "wine," originally 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.

Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner has written about the popular fish dish called poke, which takes its name from a Hawaiian word that means "to cut crosswise." Many other foods take their names for the way they're sliced, including mozzarella, feta, scrod, schnitzel, and even the pea dish called dahl, which goes back ultimately to a Sanskrit word meaning "to split." The way poke traveled between Hawaii and the mainland mirrors the migration of many other words.

A New York City man wonders if there's any truth to the story that New Yorkers say they stand on line, as opposed to in line, because of lines painted on the floor at Ellis Island. Although such lines are useful for managing large queues, the origin of this usage is uncertain. What we do know is that New Yorkers have been using on line in this way for at least 100 years.

Mark Twain and Helen Keller enjoyed a close, enduring friendship. When he learned that she was mortified to have once been accused of plagiarism, he sent her a fond letter as touching as it was reassuring.     

A San Diego, California, man recalls working on a cruise ship with a Canadian who insisted the proper phrase is not Let me buy you a beer, but Let me pay you a beer. Is that construction ever correct?

We've talked before about surprising local pronunciations, like the name of a particular town or street.  A term or pronunciation that distinguishes locals from outsiders is called a shibboleth. The word derives from the biblical story of the warring Gileadites and Ephraimites. Gileadites would demand that fleeing Ephraimites pronounce the word shibboleth, and if they could not, because their own language lacked an sh sound, they were exposed as the enemy and executed on the spot.  

To groak is an obscure verb that means "to look longingly at something, as a dog begging for food. In the Scots language, it's more commonly spelled growk.

A woman in Monkton, Vermont, says that when she and her 91-year-old mother return from a leisurely drive, her mother will proclaim That was a nice ride around the gool. The phrase going around the gool appears in the Dictionary of American Regional English in a 1990 citation from Vermont. It appears to come from an older Scots word that could mean "a hollow between hills" or some sort of "anatomical cleft."

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.

Smile Belt (Rebroadcast) - 19 February 2018 (2/2018)

The only time you'll ever see the sun's outer atmosphere is during a full solar eclipse, when sun itself is completely covered. That hazy ring is called the corona, from the Latin word for "crown" -- just like the little crown on a bottle of Corona beer. Plus, the phrase "throw the baby out with the bathwater" contains a vivid image of accidentally tossing something -- and so does the phrase "to fly off the handle." But where did we get the expression "to hell in a handbasket"? The origin of this phrase is murky, although it may have to do with the fact that handbaskets are easily carried. Also: Biscuit Belt vs. Pine Belt, how to pronounce via, streely, pizza, tuckered out, FOOSH, and Sorry, Charlie!


You probably know about the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt, but have you heard of the Smile Belt? How about the Biscuit Belt or the Pine Belt? The word belt is sometimes used to denote a loosely defined geographical area.

An Omaha, Nebraska, woman reports that a customer emailed her after a sales presentation to correct her pronunciation of the word via, meaning "through" or "by means of." In this case, the customer wasn't right: via can be pronounced either VEE-ah or VYE-uh. There's a slight preference for the former if you're talking about a road, and the latter in the case of the method.

A Huntsville, Alabama, man finds that his younger co-workers have never heard the phrase going to hell in a handbasket. Although the expression is at least as old as the U.S. Civil War, its etymology remains unclear. In the early 1960s, the humorist H. Allen Smith helped popularize the phrase with his book To Hell in a Handbasket, a dubious title for an autobiography.

If you're tired of telling youngsters to hurry up and close the refrigerator door, try this admonishing them with this phrase or one like it: Stop letting the penguins out!

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle involving synonyms for the word hard. For example, the title of a popular Netflix series might otherwise be known as the Hard Kimmy Schmidt.

A Vermont family used to tease one of its members with the phrase Sorry, Charlie! She's surprised to learn that this catchphrase comes from a long-running series of TV commercials for canned tuna.

A bolt-hole is a place where you can escape to avoid people you don't want to run into. This term for "a type of refuge" is used mainly in Britain, comes from the idea of a place where an animal might hide or bolt from if disturbed.

A listener in Cambridge, Wisconsin, says her mother, who is of Irish descent, used to tell her children to wash their hair so it wouldn't be streely. This word derives from Irish for "unkempt," and perhaps ultimately from a Gaelic term having to do with something "flapping" or "undone."

In Ireland, if you say someone's not as slow as he walks easy, you mean he's a whole lot smarter than he appears.

A listener in Quebec, Canada, wonders about the origin of to fly off the handle, meaning "to lose control." It refers to the image of the head of an axe becoming loose and flying through the air.

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.

During a full solar eclipse, you can see the sun's glowing outer atmosphere called the corona. In Latin, the term corona, means "crown" or "garland." It's the source of coronation, as well as the coronary arteries that wreathe the human heart, and coroner, originally an officer of the Crown. Another eclipse-related term, penumbra, comes from Latin for "almost shadow," and refers to the shadow cast by the earth or moon over an area where a partial eclipse is visible. A related word, umbrage, means "a sense of offense" or "resentment."

To be tuckered out, or "tired," is thought to derive from the image of a starved quadruped that's so skinny and worn out that it has a "tucked" appearance just behind the ribs. It may have been influenced by an older verb tuck, meaning "to chastise."

A lecturer in business law in St. Cloud, Minnesota, is astonished to discover his students are unfamiliar with throw the baby out with the bathwater, meaning "to accidentally get rid of the good while getting rid of the bad." You can find out pretty much everything you could ever possibly want to know about this phrase from an article by Wolfgang Mieder.

For a luscious description of exactly what you will see during a total solar eclipse, check out Dan McGlaun's site, Eclipse 2017.

A middle school teacher in Flower Mound, Texas, responds to students' protests and excuses with If all our butts were candied nuts, we'd all be fat for Christmas. It's probably a variation of a phrase popularized by former Dallas Cowboys star turned sports commentator Dandy Don Meredith, who often observed, If 'ifs' and 'buts' were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a merry Christmas?" The practice of using ifs and buts as nouns goes back at least 900 years.

The medical term FOOSH is an acronym for a painful injury. It stands for "fall onto outstretched hand."

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.

Crusticles and Fenderbergs - 12 February 2018 (2/2018)

A second-generation Filipino-American finds that when he speaks English, his personality is firm, direct, and matter-of-fact. But when he speaks with family members in Tagalog, he feels more soft-spoken, kind, and respectful. Research shows that when our linguistic context shifts, so does our sense of culture. Also: why do we describe movies that are humorously exaggerated and over-the-top as "campy"? This type of "camp" isn't where your parents sent you for the summer. It derives from slang in the gay community.  Finally, if someone looks after another person, do you call them a caregiver? Or a caretaker? Plus crusticles, screenhearthing, growlerly and boudoir, krexing, delope, and go do-do.   


Is there a word to describe focusing so intently on your computer that you don't notice the sun has gone down and the only light in your room is from your computer screen? A Twitter user suggests the neologism screenhearthing. Or is there a better word? Screensetting, perhaps. The English word focus, by the way, derives from Latin focus, meaning hearth or fireplace.

A deckhand on the Lake Champlain ferry in Burlington, Vermont, wonders if there's a word for those accumulated chunks of ice in the wheel wells of cars. He calls them crusticles, but as we've discussed before, they go by lots of names, including snow snot, fenderbergs, carsicles, slush puppies, and kickies.

Charles Dickens is credited with the first use of the term growlery to mean a person's private sitting room or a place to retreat when one is in a bad mood. Long before that, the French were using the term boudoir for something similar. Boudoir comes from bouder, meaning to sulk.

A worker in Montgomery, Alabama, doctor's office reports that when the office is extremely busy, she and her colleagues will say We're slammin' or We're slammed. It's a common expression in the American South, and particularly in the restaurant business.

Members of our Facebook group have been sharing stories of signs altered in funny ways, such as the one that someone with a can of spray paint changed from No Logging Allowed to No Flogging Allowed.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's "Coffee Cup" quiz requires the addition of the letters M (as in milk) or S (as in sugar) to a word to form another word that fits a clue. For example, if the original word is cap, but what he's looking for is a place to pitch his tent, which letter would you add?

A New York City man who grew up speaking both English and Tagalog reports an experience common to bilinguals: his behavior and emotions tend to shift when he's speaking one language as opposed to the other. Two good books on the topic: Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism by Francois Grosjean and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.

A Huntsville, Alabama, physical therapist notes that patients with a hamstring cramp will sometimes say I've got a rising in my leader. Rising is a dialectal term for swelling, and leader is a regional term for tendon or muscle, perhaps inspired by the old use of the term leader for the ropy stalk of a plant. Another dialectal term for a medical condition is the sugar, which means diabetes.

What's the difference, if any, between a caregiver and a caretaker? Generally in the United States, a caretaker is someone who tends property; a caregiver looks after a person. The term caregiver is far more recent.

Our discussion about grammagrams prompts listeners to send in several more stories from their workplaces. A high-school drama teacher in Arlington, Texas, reports that in the theater world, the letter Q is scribbled in scripts to mean cue.  A plumber points out that pipes that are Y-shaped are called wyes. A Virginia man who works in a shipyard that refuels nuclear submarines says that because the abbreviation for Bill of Materials is BOM, he and his colleagues joke about exploding nuclear BOMs.

The noun camp and the adjective campy refer to movies, theater, or a style or an exaggerated manner of creative or personal expression that combines high and low elements of culture. These terms were first used in the underground gay community, and may have originated from French se camper, which means to strike a pose. Camp was introduced into mainstream discourse by Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Notes on Camp.

Delope is a term used in duelling that to throw away one's shot. Incidentally, before taking office, elected officials in Kentucky, including notary publics, must swear they have never fought in a duel.

A listener in Richmond, Virginia, is understandably bothered by the overuse of the word gentleman, as when media outlets report that police have apprehended the gentleman suspected of committing a heinous crime.

A new arrival to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is curious about a phrase used by her husband's family: go do-do (DOH-doh), for go to sleep. It's from French dormir, to sleep. Grant recommends the Dictionary of Louisiana French: As Spoken in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities.

Krex is a dialectal term, probably from German and related to Yiddish, that means to grumble or complain.

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 LLC. All rights reserved.