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.

Spicy Jambalaya - 18 June 2018 (6/2018)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A request from Martha — 13 June 2018 (6/2018)

A request from Martha. - 13 June 2018

Have you ever wanted to know who we really are? How Grant and I really see ourselves?

Well, for one thing, we believe that talking about language should be about the variety of its possibilities. It shouldn’t be about limiting, or condemning, the different language of other people.

Isn’t it cool that there are more than 15 pronunciations of water in the United States?

Isn’t it fascinating that our language preserves the footprints of historical migrations?

Isn’t it compelling to reach for the right word — only to find yourself sounding just like your parents or grandparents?

And isn’t it just fine not to judge anyone for those things?

We think it is.

On our website you can read our mission, vision, and values statement. It’s not boring corporatese! It’s something we put together with each other, the board of our nonprofit, our staff, and through interactions with listeners.

It’s who we really are.

Go to https://waywordradio.org/mission to read the full statement. To endorse that statement — and to support the show and its mission — make a donation that will make a difference.


We can’t do it without you.

Thank you.

Martha Barnette
co-host of A Way with Words.


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

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


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

Chopped Liver — 11 June 2018 (6/2018)

There's a proverb that goes "Beloved children have many names." That's at least as true when it comes to the names we give our pets. "Fluffy" becomes "Fluffers" becomes "FluffFace" becomes "FlufferNutter, Queen of the Universe." Speaking of the celestial, how DID the top politician in California come to be named Governor Moonbeam, anyway? Blame it on a clever newspaper columnist. And: still more names for those slowpokes in the left-turn lane. Plus munge and kludge, monkey blood and chopped liver, a German word for pout, and the land of the living.


There's a proverb that goes Beloved children have many names. That's also true for pets, and listeners are discussing that process on Facebook.

Gary in Denton, Texas, is looking for a word for the pout that precedes a baby's wail. The Germans have a word for that: Schippchen, which means little shovel, and refers to the shape of that wet, protruding lower lip.

The phrase the land of the living goes all the way back to passages in the Bible like Psalm 52:5. Since at least the 1700s, this expression has been used to denote the realm of those still alive.

In the 1940s, the noun munge was student slang for crud or filth, then later became a verb denoting the action of messing with data in a way that might produce the equivalent of trash or rubbish. Over time, munge, which was sometimes spelled mung, lost its negative connotation and simply meant to manipulate data, as in to munge the numbers. Another computing-related term is kludge, which means to come up with a jerry-rigged solution, and may derive from a German word meaning clever.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a brain-stretching challenge to think of the longest word that begins and ends with a particular pair of letters. For example, what's the longest word you can think of that starts with A and ends with A?

Jessica in Omaha, Nebraska, was excited to discover an arrowhead, then puzzled when archaeologists told her that its age was probably between 6000-3000 BP. Why do some scientists measure time with the designation BP, or Before Present, instead of BC or BCE? The reason has to do with the advent of carbon dating techniques.

Obstetricians use the term multip as shorthand for multiparous, the adjective describing a woman who has given birth to more than one child. A woman who is nulliparous has not given birth at all, and a primipara has given birth only once.

Why is California governor Jerry Brown sometimes called Governor Moonbeam? This ethereal moniker was bestowed by the great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko to suggest a kind of hippie-dippie, insubstantial, lack of practicality.

Cartoonist Sarah Anderson has a very funny take on the multiplicity of names we give our cats.  

Clementine, a young caller from Omaha, Nebraska, wonders why we use the term run-of-the-mill to describe something ordinary. The expression originates world of manufacturing, where a run of the mill is the entire run of things being produced, whether it's lumber or bricks, including defective products. This sense of the word run as an overall production process also appears in the expression run of the mine and run of the kiln. (In the process of discussing this last one, we're surprised to learn from each other that's there's more than one way to pronounce the word kiln!)     

During a discussion in our Facebook group, a listener shares that her cat's name evolved from Poor Nameless Cat to PNC to Pansy.

What shall we call those drivers who take so much time when the left-turn light changes to green that you miss your chance to go and sit through another red light? Our conversation about that prompted a whole slew of emails from listeners who've clearly had time in traffic to think about it. Their suggestions include lane loafer, lane lingerer, lazy lefty, left-turn loiterer, lane loiterer, left-lane loiterer, laneygaggers, light laggers, light lingerers, light malingerers. There were also punny offerings, such as phonehead and light-wait. Another suggestion, playing on the term rubbernecker, was bottlenecker.

A Fort Worth, Texas, man remembers putting monkey blood on cuts and scrapes, and wonders about its name. It's not really monkey's blood; it's a bright red substance variously known as Mercurochrome or Merthiolate, also known as Thiomersal. In parts of the Spanish speaking world, that substance is also called sangre de mono or sangre de chango, both of which literally mean monkey blood.

A San Diego, California, man tweets his request for a term for what a dog does when she's happily writhing around on the grass. How about shnerking? Other terms people use for it are stink bathing, mole diving, itchy-scratchies, flea smothering, scruffling, or being a grass shark.

Does the expression to be roped into doing something carry a negative connotation? It all depends on the context.

Following up on our conversation about unconventional forms of diet and exercise, Martha shares an exercise regimen that turns into a paraprosdokian.

A woman in Reno, Nevada, wonders about the expression What am I, chopped liver? Chopped liver is a traditional Jewish dish that's always a side item, never the main course. Speaking of traditional Jewish foods, the term schmaltzy, meaning overly sentimental, derives from the Yiddish term shmalts, which means chicken or goose fat.

In our online discussion about the variety of things we call our pets, one woman shares how her pet's name went from Lucy to Queen of the Universe. Sounds like a perfectly natural progression to us!

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.

Busted Melon (Rebroadcast) - 4 June 2018 (6/2018)

When writing textbooks about slavery, which words best reflect its cold, hard reality? Some historians are dropping the word "slave" in favor of terms like "enslaved person" and "captive," arguing that these terms are more accurate. And raising a bilingual child is tough enough, but what about teaching them three languages? It's an ambitious goal, but there's help if you want to try. Plus, a class of sixth-graders wonders about the playful vocabulary of The Lord of the Rings. Where did Tolkien come up with this stuff? Also, funny school mascots, grawlixes, that melon's busted, attercop, Tomnoddy, purgolders, and dolly vs. trolley vs. hand truck.


In an earlier episode, we discussed funny school mascot names. Listeners wrote in with more, including the Belfry Bats (the high school mascot of Belfry, Montana) and the Macon Whoopie hockey team, from Macon, Georgia.

A Fort Worth, Texas, couple disagrees about how to pronounce the word gymnast, but both JIM-nist and the more evenly stressed JIM-NAST are fine.

A musician from Youngstown, Ohio, is designing an album cover for his band's latest release. He wants to use a grawlix, one of those strings of punctuation marks that substitute for profanity. "Beetle Bailey" cartoonist Mort Walker coined the term, but is there a grammar of grawlixes?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about words and phrases that people have tried to trademark, including a two-word phrase indicating that someone's employment has been terminated, which a certain presidential candidate tried unsuccessfully to claim as his own.

He's a native English speaker who's fluent in Spanish. She grew up in Cameroon speaking French. They're planning a family, and hoping to raise their children to speak all three. What are the best strategies for teaching children to speak more than two languages? The Multilingual Children's Association offers helpful tips.

Offbeat mascot names from Montana include the Powell County Wardens (so named because the high school is in the same county as the Montana State Prison), and the Missoula Loyola Sacred Heart Breakers.

Growing up in Jamaica, a woman used to hear her fashion-designer mother invoke this phrase to indicate that something was good enough, even if it was flawed: A man on a galloping horse wouldn't see it. Variations include it'll never be seen on a galloping horse and a blind man on a galloping horse wouldn't see it. The idea is that the listener to relax and take the long view. The expression has a long history in Ireland and England, and the decades of Irish influence in Jamaica may also account for her mother's having heard it.

The country of Cameroon is so named because a 15th-century Portuguese explorer was so struck by the abundance of shrimp in a local river, he dubbed it Rio dos Camaroes, or "river of shrimp."

The organization Historic Hudson Valley describes the African-American celebration of Pinkster in an exemplary way. It avoids the use of the word slave and instead uses terms such as enslaved people, enslaved Africans, and captives. It's a subtle yet powerful means of affirming that slavery is not an inherent condition, but rather one imposed from outside.

A sixth-grade teacher from San Antonio, Texas, says he and his students are reading The Lord of the Rings. They're curious about the words attercop, which means "spider" (and a relative of the word cobweb) and Tomnoddy, which means "fool." Grant recommends the book The Ring of Words, as well as these online resources: Why Did Tolkien Use Archaic Language? and A Tolkien English Glossary.

If you're in the Ozarks, you might hear the expression that means the same as water under the bridge or spilled milk: that melon's busted. The idea in all three cases is that something irrevocable has happened, and there's no going back.

A listener from Abilene, Texas, recounts the incredulous reaction he got when he was in England and asked some burly fellows for a dolly, meaning a wheeled conveyance for moving heavy loads. He asked for a two-wheeler, then a hand truck, and finally learned that what they were expecting him to ask for a trolley.

Madison East High School in Madison, Wisconsin, is the proud home of the Purgolders. That school mascot resembles a golden puma in purple attire, with a portmanteau name that combines those two colors.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


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

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

Truth and Beauty - 28 May 2018 (5/2018)

Vocabulary that trickles down from the top of the world. Malamute, kayak, and parka are just some of the words that have found their way into English from the language of indigenous people in northern climes. Also, the surprising language of physicists: in the 1970s, some scientists argued that two quarks should be called "truth" and "beauty." Finally, the many layers of words and worlds we invoke when we describe someone as "the apple of my eye." Plus, to have brass on one's face, frozen statues, good craic, prepone, agathism and agathakakological, and the positive use of I don't care to.


In the 1970s, physicists predicted the discovery of two quarks called T and B for top and bottom. Some poetically-minded physicists argued that the T and B quarks should instead be called Truth and Beauty, but the terms top and bottom eventually won out. terms. For the record, beauty lasts about one picosecond before decaying—at least when you're talking about quarks.

Pepper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wonders why something valuable to someone is called the apple of their eye. The expression apple of one’s eye is very old, going back to the ninth century. The use of apple derives from the early misunderstanding that the pupil of the eye is a sphere. Similarly, the French word for pupil is prunelle, or little plum. The word pupil itself comes from Latin pupilla, or little doll, because if you look deeply into someone’s eyes, you’ll see a tiny reflection of yourself. For the same reason, the expression to look babies at each other referred to the way lovers look into each others’ eyes, close enough to see themselves.

The expression to have brass on one’s face is used in the South Atlantic region of the United States to describe someone who is bold or overconfident. There’s a similar idea in the word brazen, which derives from an Old English word for brass.

Aru in Omaha, Nebraska, says friends and colleagues tease him about his use of prepone, as in to put something in front of something. It’s a word commonly used in Indian English, is morphologically sound, and quite useful.

Our conversation about Spanish idioms involving food prompted a tweet from Tijuana, Mexico: del plato a la boca, se cae la sopa, or between the dish and the mouth, the soup spills, or don’t count your chickens before they hatch. A similar idea is reflected there’s many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip, an English proverb similar to a saying in ancient Greek.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's brain teaser involves puzzling out clues to words beginning with de-. For example: Hey, how can our team play baseball when somebody has quite literally stolen second?

Craig, a whale biologist in Alaska, wonders how many words have been adopted into English from such languages as Inuit, Yupik, Tlingit and Inupiaq. Indigenous languages in the far North have contributed mukluk, malamute, kayak, and parka.The word parka took an especially long route into English, coming originally from native peoples in the Russian region of the Arctic Circle. Native American terms also give us some familiar animal names, such as opossum and raccoon.

Agathism is the doctrine that all things ultimately tend toward good, even though the means by which tha happens may be evil or unpleasant or unfortunate. The word comes from Greek agathos, meaning good, which is also the source of agathakakological, an adjective describing a mixture of good and evil.

Rebecca in Austin, Texas, wonders why the terms cold sore and fever blister describe pretty much the same thing. Also, why do we say we have a cold, but we have the flu? The word flu comes from the Italian word for influence, influenza, and is a reference to an old belief that a contagious illness was influenced by celestial movements.

Nick, an Englishman who divides his time between Ireland and Virginia, says his American friends were baffled when he described a convivial evening with them as good craic, pronounced just like English crack. The word craic is often associated with the Irish, but it first appeared as crac in Northern England and Scotland, then migrated to Ireland, and its meaning evolved from talk or excited chatter to fun and good times. Another evocative Irish word is banjaxed, which describes something messed up.

A proverb about what family members learn from each other: Parents teach their children to talk; children teach their parents silence.

The children’s game of frozen statues putting players in awkward poses, which they must then hold for a while. This outdoor pastime has many variations and goes by many names, including falling statues, swinging statues, squat-where-you-be, statue makers, and game of statues. A similar game of spinning around together and then releasing each other is called going to Texas.

Wayne in Sherman, Texas wonders how the term pear-shaped came to describe something that’s gone badly. The expression seems to have arisen during Falklands War of the early 1980s. If you need a word for pear-shaped, there's always pyriform, from the Latin word for pear, pirum.

Our conversation about the term bear-caught, describing someone with heatstroke, prompted Sondra in Florida to share a poem on the topic written years ago by her late husband, Bert Furbee.

Jane in Austin, Texas, is curious about the expression how the cow ate the cabbage, meaning to give someone a talking-to.

Sugar weather refers to a period of time during the spring in Canada marked by warm days and cold nights, when the sap starts running in the trees.

Jim from Bowling Green, Kentucky, says he's heard some folks in his area use the phrase I don't care when they mean to accept an offer. This affirmative use is somewhat similar to saying Don't mind if I do, meaning yes, thank you.

On our Facebook group, Brett asks: What do you call a society run by rabbits? A carrotocracy? How about a whatsupdocracy?

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.

Jump Steady (Rebroadcast) - 21 May 2018 (5/2018)

Secret codes, ciphers, and telegrams. It used to be that in order to transmit information during wartime, various industries encoded their messages letter by letter with an elaborate system--much like today's digital encryption. Grant breaks down some of those secret codes--and shares the story of the most extensive telegram ever sent. Plus, we've all been there: Your friends are on a date, and you're tagging along. Are you a third wheel--or the fifth wheel? There's more than one term for the odd person out. Finally, a rhyming quiz about famous poems. For example, what immortal line of poetry rhymes with: "Prose is a nose is a hose is a pose"? Plus, women named after their mothers, variations on "Happy Birthday," at bay, nannies' charges, and a blues singer who taught us to jump steady.


Great news for scavenger-hunt designers, teenage sleepover guests, and anyone else interested in being cryptic! The old-school commercial codes used for hiding information from the enemy in a telegraphs is at your fingertips on archive.org. Have fun.

If you're single but tagging along on someone else's date, you might be described as a fifth wheel, a term that goes back to Thomas Jefferson's day. Not until much later, after the bicycle had been invented, the term third wheel started becoming more common.

The long popular and newly legal-to-sing "Happy Birthday to You" has always been ripe for lyrical variations, particularly at the end of the song. Some add a cha cha cha or forever more on Channel 4, but a listener tipped us off to another version: Without a shirt!

We spoke on the show not long ago about yuppies and dinks, but neglected to mention silks: households with a single income and lots of kids.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a game of schmoetry—as in, famous lines of poetry where most of the words are replaced with other words that rhyme. For example, "Prose is a nose is a hose is a pose" is a schmoetic take on what famous poem?

A young woman who works as a nanny wants to know why the term charge is used to refer to the youngsters she cares for. Charge goes back to a Latin root meaning, "to carry," and it essentially has to do with being responsible for something difficult. That same sense of "to carry" informs the word charger, as in a type of decorative dinnerware that "carries" a plate.

Plenty of literature is available, and discoverable, online. But there's nothing like the spontaneity, or stochasticity, of browsing through a library and discovering great books at random.

After a recent discussion on the show about garage-sailing, a listener from Henderson, Kentucky, sent us an apt haiku: Early birds gather near a green sea/ Garage doors billow on the morning wind/ Yard-saling.

To jump steady refers to either knocking back booze or knocking boots (or, if you’re really talented, both). It's an idiom made popular by blues singers like Lucille Bogan.

Long distance communication used to be pretty expensive, but few messages have made a bigger dent than William Seward's diplomatic telegram to France, which in 1866 cost him more than $300,000 in today's currency. This pricey message aptly became known as Seward’s Other Folly.

Someone who's being rude or pushy might be said to have more nerves than a cranberry merchant. This idiom is probably a variation on the phrase busier than a cranberry merchant in November, which relates to the short, hectic harvesting season right before Thanksgiving.

The Spanish version of being a fifth wheel on a date is toca el violin, which translates to being the one who plays the violin, as in, they provide the background music. In German, there's a version that translates to, "useless as a goiter."

It's far less common for women in the United States to name their daughters after themselves, but it has been done. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, is actually Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Jr.

A listener from Dallas, Texas, wonders why we say here, here to cheer someone on, and there, there to calm someone down. Actually, the phrase is hear, hear, and it's imperative, as in, listen to this guy. There, there, on the other hand is the sort of thing a parent might say to console a blubbering child, as in "There, there, I fixed it."

We spoke on the show not long ago about how the phrase to keep something at bay derives from hunting. A listener wrote in with an evocative description of its origin, referring specifically to that period when cornered prey is able to keep predators away--that is, at bay--but only briefly. It's a poignant moment of bravery.

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.

Dessert Stomach - 14 May 2018 (5/2018)

Funny cat videos and cute online photos inspire equally adorable slang terms we use to talk about them. When a cat leaves its tongue out, that's a blep. A boop is a gentle tap on its nose. Also, when is a salamander not a salamander? The name of this animal once referred to a mythical beast that was impervious to fire. Now it also refers to heating devices. And: the story of how the Italian term for a dish towel became a word heard halfway across the world in Rome, New York. Plus, Bozo buttons, betsubara, both vs. bolth, straight vs. shtraight, mlem, hoosegow, sticky bottle and magic spanner, all served up with a helping helping of caster sugar.


A listener shares a story on our Facebook group about how a child's misunderstanding that illustrates the power of metaphor.

Michael in San Diego, California, plays a game with his 3-year-daughter that involves spotting small round property markers in the sidewalk, which he calls bozo buttons. His mother played the same game as a youngster, but calls those metal discs monkey buttons. It's unclear whether there's a connection with the Bozo button from the old Bozo the Clown TV show from the 1960s. Losing contestants on that show received a button with a picture of the clown on it, and the term Bozo button came to mean the prize you get when you think you deserve an award but no one else agrees.

You know how you can feel full after a meal, but then dessert arrives and you suddenly find a little more room? The Japanese have a term for this: betsubara, which literally means other stomach. In English, it's your dessert stomach.

Jan in Ketchikan, Alaska, says when she worked in a hospital in Maine, co-workers described a patient with a low pain threshold or otherwise reluctant to move about as spleeny. New Englanders in particular use the term spleeny to mean fussy, hypochondriacal, or malingering. The blood-filtering organ called the spleen takes its name from a similar-sounding word in ancient Greek. The phrase to vent your spleen means to express anger.

A listener notes that among the many Italian-Americans in Rome, New York, term mappine is commonly used for dish towel. In some some dialects of Italy, particularly the Piedmont and Neapolitan regions, the word mappina means cloth or towel or rag. In the mouths of Italian-Americans, that final syllable was dropped, a linguistic process known as lenition, and handed down through generations, resulting in variable spellings such as mopeen. Mappine also extends metaphorically to someone who is filthy or disreputable or spineless. Another term used by many Italian-Americans is gagootz, from the Italian word for a type of squash, which applies to someone acting goofy.

In an earlier episode, we talked about plogging and trashercize, those workouts that involve picking up trash while jogging or walking. Jeannie from Port Wing, Wisconsin, wrote to share another fitness gimmick, the Bean Diet. Just open a bag of dried beans, toss them into the air, and then squat or bend over to pick them all up.

Funny cat videos and squee-worthy photos on sites like Cute Overload have inspired equally adorable slang terms. When a cat leaves its tongue out, that's a blep. A boop is a gentle tap on a critter's nose, so if a friendly pup is nearby, you can reach out and boop a snoot. Mlem is a cats' gentle licking of its whiskers. Tocks, short for buttocks, is a fuzzy behind that makes you say Anh!, and those squishy pink pads on a paw are fondly referred to as toe beans. Many more affectionately silly terms are in Cute Overload's glossary, and are also found in the Dogspotting group on Facebook and the @weratedogs Twitter feed. Linguist Gretchen McCullough, co-host of the Lingthusiasm podcast, has described still more cute internet language involving animals, such as doggo for dog.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's brain teaser this week is inspired by the Grammys, Emmys, and other awards shows. For example, if the nominees Double Bubble, Juicy Fruit, Dentyne, Trident, and Orbit, what coveted honor are they competing for?

We've talked before about needing a word for the disappointment you feel when your favorite restaurant closes for good. A listener suggests a pun on melancholy, meal-ancholy.

Jason in San Antonio, Texas, is curious why the term salamander is applied to small heater on a construction site. In ancient lore, the mythical beast called a salamander was impervious to fire. Later salamander was applied to various heating instruments, from an 18th century browning iron to modern pizza broilers. Salamander has also been applied metaphorically to the seeming invincibility of brave soldiers, fire-eating jugglers, and women who stay chaste despite temptation.

Benjamin in Seattle, Washington, was surprised when someone pointed out his nonstandard pronunciation of the word both as bolth. About 10 percent of respondents to our online survey said they pronounce the word both with an l sound in it.

Martha shares a poem by Mexican-American poet Sandra Cisneros, "Peaches--Six in a Tin Bowl, Sarajevo." It's from My Wicked, Wicked Ways, copyright 1987 by Sandra Cisneros. By special arrangement with Third Woman Press. Published by Vintage Books in paperback and ebook, in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf. By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Service. All rights reserved.

Eben, a chef in Lummi Bay, Washington, who blogs about food at UrbanMonique, is curious about the term caster sugar, which denotes sugar less fine than powdered sugar, but less coarse than the regular table variety. The name caster sugar derives from the fact that it's typically sprinkled, or cast, from a small container with holes that accommodate the size of the grains. It's also called baker's sugar or castor sugar, although the spelling it sharese with foul-tasting castor oil is merely a coincidence.

Our conversation about gram weenies, those ultralight backpackers who go to extremes to shave off every last bit of excess weight in their gear, prompts a bicyclist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to share some cycling slang about ways to find a competitive edge. A weight weenie is a cyclist concerned about ensuring that their wheels and other bike components are the lightest weight possible. Another term, sticky bottle, refers to the way that during a race, a support team pulling up alongside a biker to hand off a water bottle will hang onto the bottle slightly longer than needed, allowing the biker to briefly hitch a ride. The expression magic spanner involves a similarly shady strategy--handing the biker a wrench from the support car, but holding on a little longer than necessary, helping to pull the biker along for a few seconds.

Paul in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, has noticed that some people pronounce street as shtreet and straight as shtraight. Why do some people add that sh sound?

Sandee from New York City thought that she was the only person who had misunderstood a line from the song "Ladies Who Lunch" from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, memorably performed on Broadway by Elaine Stritch. Years later, however, she learned that Stritch had had the same misunderstanding. Such an instance of words misheard is known as a mondegreen.

The word hoosegow means jail, and derives from the Spanish word for tribunal, juzgado. In some dialects of Spanish, the d sound is not pronounced.

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.

Scat Cat (Rebroadcast) - 7 May 2018 (5/2018)

The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma! Grant and Martha try to suss out the backstory of why some people spell that word with an "n." At lot of them, it seems, went to Catholic school. Maybe that's a clue? Plus, the saying "Close, but no cigar" gets traced back to an old carnival game. And the French horn isn't actually French—so why in the world do we call it that ? Plus, a word game based on famous ad slogans, the plural form of the computer mouse, a Southern way to greet a sneeze, and remembering a beloved crossword puzzle writer.


The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma. Are there Catholic school teachers out there still teaching their students to spell it the wrong way, i.e., dilemna?

The saying close but no cigar comes from the famous carnival game wherein a bold fellow tries to swing a sledgehammer hard enough to make a bell ring. The winner of the game, which was popular around 1900, would win a cigar. The game still exists, of course, but tobacco is no longer an appropriate prize for a family game.

Here's a riddle: What seven-letter word becomes longer when the third letter is removed?

The most common plural form of mouse—as in, a computer mouse—is mice. But since the mouse was introduced in the 1960's, tech insiders have applied their own sense of humor and irony to the usage of mice.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game based on nicknames and slogans sure to test your knowledge of both geography and niche comestibles, such as the product sold with the line, That's rich.

We heard from a woman who told her boyfriend about her plan to get her haircut. He responded that he thought that particular style would make her hair "worse." Does the word worse in this case imply that her hair was bad to begin with?

Nook-shotten is an old word meaning that something has many corners or projections. Shakespeare used it in Henry V when he spoke about the nook-shotten isle of Albion.

Scat cat, your tail's on fire is a fun variant of scat cat, get your tail out of the gravy—both of which are Southern ways to say bless you after someone sneezes.

The crossword puzzle community lost an exceptional man when Merl Reagle died recently. Reagle was a gifted puzzle writer and a lovely person who gave his crosswords a sense of life outside the arcane world of word puzzles.

What do you call the phenomenon of running into a dear friend you haven't seen in decades? Deja you, maybe?

The French horn, a beautiful instrument known for its mellow sound, originated as a hunting horn. The French merely added some innovations that made it more of a practical, usable instrument. But professional musicians often prefer to call it simply the horn.

It might be the grooviest new holiday since Burning Man: Hippie Christmas is the annual festivity surrounding the end of the college school year, when students leave perfectly good clothing and household goods by the curb or the dumpster because they don't want to schlep it all back home.

That foam thing you put around a beer or soda can to keep your drink cold and your hand warm is called a koozie. Or a cozy. Or a coozy, or a kozy or any variant of those spellings. It originates from the tea cozy, pronounced with the long o sound. But a patented version with the brand name Koozie came about in the 1980's, making the double-o sound a popular way to pronounce it as well.

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.

Far Out, Man - 30 April 2018 (4/2018)

An Ohio community is divided over the name of the local high school's mascot. For years, their teams have been called the Redskins. Is that name derogatory -- or does it honor the history of Native Americans in that area? And: You know when you're waiting in line to make a left turn at a traffic light, but the driver ahead of you is so busy with their cell phone that you end up having to sit through another red light? There ought to be a word for that, right? Maybe there is. Finally, the surprising connection between a passage of ancient poetry and familiar brand of athletic shoes. Plus rhyming phrases, far out, using a wheelchair vs. confined to a wheelchair, honey hole, pirate lingo, honte, and floorios.


On Twitter @flaminghaystack asks: What if the person who named walkie talkies named everything? For starters, we might refer to a defibrillator as a hearty starty and stamps as licky stickies.

A San Diego, California, listener wonders if the expression far out originally had to do with surfing. This expression describing something excellent or otherwise impressive originated in the world of jazz, where far out suggested the idea of something beyond compare.

The Yiddish phrase Hak mir nisht keyn tshaynik and its variants have been used to tell someone to stop babbling or making noise. Literally, it means Don't knock me a teakettle.

After the death of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, @tommysantelli tweeted a powerful reminder about the language we use to describe someone who uses a wheelchair.

A Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, listener notes that the word cunning is sometimes used to describe a cute baby. In the 14th century, this adjective had to do with the idea of knowing, and eventually also acquired the meaning of quaint or charming. The word cute itself followed a somewhat similar path, deriving from acute, meaning sharp or knowledgeable.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a take-off puzzle this week, offering clues to rhyming two-word phrases made by removing the letter D from the beginning of one of them. For example, if your sound equipment was damaged in a flood, what are you left with?

A debate is raging in a Cincinnati, Ohio, community over the name of a local high school mascot, the Redskins. What's the origin of the word redskin, and is it a derogatory term or an homage to Native Americans? The book Redskins: Insult and Brand by C. Richard King is a helpful resource on this topic. In this local dispute, the adults seem to be arguing past each other, and the hosts suggest that the students themselves should be brought into the discussion.

Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time. This may be a Jewish proverb, although its provenance is uncertain. In any case, it's a reminder that while young people still have much to learn, they also know things their elders don't.

A law enforcement professional describes a dispute that arose over the term honey hole. He and some of his colleagues understand it to mean a place where many citations would be written, but two others took offense at what they perceived as a sexual connotation. Actually, the term honey hole has had a variety of meanings over the years, including a hole in a tree where honey is found, a good fishing or hunting spot, a place on a baseball field where a hit ball is likely to land, a strong source of income or profit, a hole made in a log to attract raccoons, a spot where in-ground compost is made. Honey hole is also used ironically to mean a latrine or an area where one is likely to catch a serious illness like malaria.

A ninth-grade English teacher in Canfield, Ohio, says that when her class reached the climactic scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus bends his mighty bow and kills his wife's suitors, a student wondered whether the correct phrase is shoot a bow or shoot an arrow. The latter is far more common.

The Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano, or "a healthy mind in a healthy body," comes from one of the Satires of the ancient Roman poet Juvenal. Fast-forward to 1977, when the Japanese manufacturer of athletic footwear was looking for a name for his new product. He chose an acronym based on a phrase with roughly the same translation, anima sana in corpore sano, or ASICS.

You know when you're waiting in line to make a left turn at a traffic light, but the pokey driver ahead of you is so busy with their cell phone that you end up having to sit through another red light? Shouldn't there be a word for those selfish drivers? How about left-lane losers? Or light hogs? Maybe lanesquatters? A listener in La Jolla, California, believes that naming this phenomenon will be the first step to ending it.

Honeypots is a children's game in which players sit or squat with their hands gripping the backs of their thighs, while other players lift them up by the armpits and shake or swing them in an attempt to make them lose their grip. What fun!

Why is the past tense of buy not buyed but bought? Often the verbs most likely to have such irregular forms are the simplest, reflecting the residue of centuries-old grammatical features.

A chance encounter with University of California San Diego professor of history Mark Hanna, author of Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740, leads to a discussion of how the saying Arrr! came to be associated with pirates. This exclamation seems to have been popularized by British actor Robert Newton in the 1950 movie Treasure Island.

A woman in Lafayette, Louisiana, and wonders about the Cajun French word honte, which means extreme embarrassment and shame.

Food that fell on the floor that you go ahead and eat anyway? That's a floorio.

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.

Beat the Band (Rebroadcast) - 23 April 2018 (4/2018)

This week on "A Way with Words": This week on "A Way with Words": Can language change bad behavior in crowded places? The Irish Railway system has launched ad campaign to encourage passengers to be more generous at boarding time. For example, have you ever rummaged through your belongings or pretended to have an intense phone conversation in order to keep someone from grabbing the seat next to you? Then you're busted -- there's a word for that! Also, one of America's top experts on garage sales is looking for the right term for that kind of bargain-hunting. Is it garage-sailing? Yard-selling? Or something else? Plus, a Godfather-themed word game you can't refuse. And conversational openers, see-saw vs. teeter-totter, ledged out, scartling, trade-last, and beat the band.


If you're the type of person who wants so badly to sit alone on a train that you have strategies for deterring other passengers from taking the seat next to yours, the Irish train system is onto you. Irish Rail's #GiveUpYourSeat campaign has posters all over trains warning people about frummaging (pretending to rummage through your bag in the seat next to yours) and snoofing (spoof snoozing).

The guy who may be the nation's foremost garage sale expert called us from Crescent City, California, with a question that's vital for anyone writing or thinking about garage sales: Do the verbs garage-saling or yard-saling refer to the person holding the sale or the shopper visiting the sale?

Someone who looks like the wreck of Hesperus isn't exactly looking their best. The idiom comes from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, inspired by an 1839 blizzard off the coast of Massachusetts that destroyed 20 ships.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski presented a word game we couldn't refuse based on the line in The Godfather, "I’m gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." Except in this game, he can't refuse is replaced with other words that rhyme.

There's no one correct way to pronounce buried, but depending on where you live, it might be common to hear it in a way that rhymes with hurried. As the spelling of the word changed from the original old English version, byrgan, no single standard pronunciation was settled on.

A mobile-phoney, as defined by the Irish rail system's new ad campaign, is someone on a train who pretends to be having a phone conversation in order to prevent fellow passengers from taking the seat next to them.

The exhortation in Shakespeare's Henry V, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends," is now a part of common speech. But not every fan of the Bard knows what a breach is. It's simply a gap—a space between two things.

Scartle is an old Scots word meaning to scrape together little bits of things, like picking the coins and crumbs out of a car seat.

Bill Cosby is perhaps the latest but certainly not the first celebrity whom the public has fallen out of love with over something terrible they did that went public. Is there a term for this kind of mass disenchantment with a celebrity?

Goggle-bluffing is the train passenger's trick of averting your line of eyesight so as to fool other passengers into not taking the seat next to you.

The first occasion when a new mother sees company after having a baby is called the upsitting. But upsitting in certain cultures is also used to describe a courtship ritual where two people on either sides of a thin partition get to flirt with each other. William Charles Baldwin talks about it in his book, African Hunting, From Natal to Zambesi.

What do you call the piece of playground equipment with a long board and spots for a kid to sit on either end and make it go up and down? A see-saw? A teeter-totter? A flying jenny, or a joggling board? The term you're most familiar with likely has to do with where you grew up.

When hiking off-trail, it's important to keep an eye on where you've been as well as where you're going. Otherwise, you run the risk of what experienced hikers call being ledged out, which means you've descended to a point where you can't go any farther, but you've slid down so far that you can't go back up and try a different route. It's a good metaphor for life as well.

A trade-last, also known as a told-last, is a compliment that's relayed to the intended recipient by someone else.

We've spoken on the show before about conversation openers that differ from the often dreaded "What do you do?" and we heard from one listener who prefers "What keeps you busy?"

Beat the band, as in, it's snowing to beat the band, or he's dressed to beat the band, is an idiom that's mainly used as a positive intensifier. It evolved from shouting to beat the band, meaning someone is talking so loudly they can be heard over the music.

Billennials, or bilingual millennials, is a new term being bandied about by marketers and television programmers who've realized that young Americans who grew up in Spanish-speaking homes don't necessarily care for the traditional telenovela style shows on Spanish language networks.

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.