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.

Whistle in the Dark (Rebroadcast) - 14 August 2017 (8/2017)

Echoes of the Greatest Generation, and a tasty bite of history. The language and melodies of military marching songs can connect grown children with their parents who served. Is there a collection of those military cadences somewhere? Also, a story about a woman sifting through her parents' love letters from World War II, and a puzzling phrase to describe an awkward love triangle: "running a sandy." Finally, is Northern Spy the name of a military operation or a kind of apple? The surprising story of how this apple variety got its name. Plus, kayakers' slang, wooden spoon, Shakespearean knock-knock jokes, Sunday throat, celestial discharge, and mickey mousing.

FULL DETAILS

Whitewater rafting has a rich tradition of slang that includes such terms as boulder garden, strainer, and drop pool.

An Indianapolis, Indiana, teacher and his class wonder about the origin of whistling in the dark, which means "to put on a brave face in a scary situation." As it happens, the teacher's band, The Knollwood Boys, recorded a song by the same name.

A listener reports that the pronunciation of Novi, Michigan, is counterintuitive. It's pronounced noh-VYE.

The manager of a cider mill in Rochester, Minnesota, is curious about the name of the variety of apple known as Northern Spy. The origins of its name are murky, but it was likely popularized by the 1830 novel Northern Spy, about a wily abolitionist. Other names for this apple are Northern Pie and Northern Spice.

An Omaha, Nebraska, listener has a word for using Google Earth to fly around the planet virtually and zoom in on far-flung locations: floogling, a combination of flying and Googling.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about 4-letter anagrams. For example, what letters can anagram into words meaning either "cruel" or "designation"?

A historian in Indianapolis, Indiana, says a World War II-era letter from her father to her mother refers to running a sandy. It's a phrase that derives from poker, and the act of sandbagging, or in other words, "bluffing," an opponent.

Locals pronounce the name of the town of Thoreau, New Mexico, as thuh-ROO.

In Cantabrigian tradition, a wooden spoon was jokingly awarded to low achievers in mathematics. That practice later extended to other types of competitions. It's also key to a heartwarming story about a charitable organization that arose from a friendly spoon-swapping rivalry between English and Irish rugby teams.

If you complain that something went down my Sunday throat, you mean that it went into your windpipe. To go down your Sunday throat may derive from the fact that just as Sunday is a special day of the week, the bite you swallowed went into an unaccustomed place.

In kayakers' slang, a park and play is a part of a river where you park your vehicle closer to a river and enter the water to paddle around a particular water feature, then paddle back to your launch spot rather than continue downstream. If you make a wet exit, you end up in the water.

As we mentioned earlier, knock-knock jokes were once a fad sweeping the nation. What we didn't mention is that there are quite a few Shakespearean knock-knock jokes. Such as: Knock-Knock. Who's there? Et. Et who? Et who, Brute? (Hey, don't blame us! Blame some guy named Duane.)  

A caller from San Antonio, Texas, remembers a song her father, a World War II vet, used to sing: Around the corner and under a tree/ A sergeant major proposed to me / Who would marry you? I would like to know / For every time I look at your face it makes me want to go -- at which point the verse repeats. These marching songs are known as cadence calls or Jody calls. They apparently arose among American troops during World War II, when a soldier named Willie Duckworth began chanting to boost his comrades' spirits. Such songs echo the rhythmic work songs sung by enslaved Africans and prison chain gangs, which helped to make sure they moved in unison and also helped pass the time.  

The Indianapolis, Indiana, caller who asked about running a sandy figures out the movie she saw that included that phrase: Action in Arabia. And sure enough, the expression is used by a character during a poker game.

Who is she from home? meaning "What's her maiden name?" is a construction common in communities with significant Polish heritage. It's what linguists call a calque--a word or phrase from another language translated literally into another. From home is a literal translation of Polish z domu, just as English blueblood is a literal translation of the older Spanish term sangre azul.

Celestial discharge, in medical slang, refers to a patient's death.

The terms mickey mouse and mickey mousing can be used as pejoratives.

In whitewater rafting, river left and river right refer to the banks of the river on either side when looking downstream.

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

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Chocolate Gravy (Rebroadcast) - 7 August 2017 (8/2017)

Say you have an acquaintance you always see at the dog park or the playground. But one night, you run into them at the movies, and for a moment, it's confusing. Is there a word for that disorienting sense of someone or something being out of place? Yes! Plus: the term sea change doesn't have to do with winds changing direction on the surface of the sea. It's a kind of profound transformation that Shakespeare wrote about. Finally, Martha and Grant have recommendations for the book lovers on your gift list. Plus: titch, chocolate gravy, the overview effect, the cat's pajamas, snot otters, and zoomies.

FULL DETAILS

The book Lingo, by Dutch linguist and journalist Gaston Dorren, is an enjoyable whirlwind tour of languages throughout Europe.

An anachronism is something that's placed in the wrong time period, like a Roman soldier wearing Birkenstocks. But what's the word for if someone or something is literally out of place geographically speaking? You can use the word anatopism, from the Greek word for "place," or anachorism, from Greek for "country."

An eighth-grade history teacher from Denton, Texas, is teaching about colonial America, and wonders if there's a difference between the phrases to found a colony or establish a colony.

The "Think and Grin" section of Boy's Life magazine has some pretty corny jokes, including one about a parking space.

The word titch means "a small amount," and is most likely just a variant of touch.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a game that involves finding the synonym with the most syllables. For example, one synonym for the word dumb is vacuous. But can you think of another that has five syllables?

A listener in San Antonio, Texas, has fond memories of chocolate gravy over biscuits, the word gravy in this sense having nothing to do with a meat-based sauce. Grant shares his mother's own recipe.

Overview effect refers to the cognitive shift in awareness and sense of awe experienced by astronauts who observe Earth from space. The term also inspired the title of Benjamin Grant's new book, Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, a collection of spectacular images culled from satellite photographs.

Where does the accent fall in the word Caribbean? Most English speakers stress the second syllable, not the third. The word derives from the name of the Carib Indians, also the source of the word cannibal.

The Italian word ponte means "bridge," as in the Ponte Vecchio of Florence. Ponte now also denotes the Monday or Friday added to make for a long weekend.

A sea change is a profound transformation, although some people erroneously use it to mean a slight shift, as when winds change direction on the surface of the ocean. In reality, the term refers to the kind of change effected on something submerged in salt water, as in Ariel's song from Shakespeare's The Tempest.

It's book recommendation time! Grant recommends the Trenton Lee Stewart series for young readers, starting with The Mysterious Benedict Society. Martha praises Ronni Lundy's Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes, a love letter to the cuisine, folkways, history, and language of Appalachia.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener lives in a house built by his grandfather, who was from Finland. The house has a small window in an upper corner that supposedly was designed to ensure that evil spirits could escape from the house. He thinks it's called a grum hole. Ever heard of it?

Why do we say I'm just joshing you? Was there a Josh who inspired this verb?

A snot otter is a kind of salamander.

The cat's pajamas, denoting something excellent, arose in the 1920's along with many similarly improbable phrases involving animals and their anatomy or possessions, including the gnat's elbow, the eel's ankles, and the elephant's instep.

What do you call it when your dog or cat suddenly turns into a blur of fur, racing through the house? Trainers and behaviorists call those frenetic random activity periods or FRAPs. Other people just call them zoomies.

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

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Fickle Finger of Fate (Rebroadcast) - 31 July 2017 (7/2017)

Clean cursing for modern times, more about communicating after a brain injury, and 1970's TV lingo with roots in the Second World War. A young woman wants a family-friendly way to describe a statement that's fraudulent or bogus, but all the words she can think of sound old-fashioned. Is there a better term than malarkey, poppycock, or rubbish? Also, listeners step up to help a caller looking for a succinct way to explain that a brain injury sometimes makes it hard for her to remember words. Finally, you may remember the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate awarded on the old TV show "Laugh-In." As it turns out, though, the phrase "fickle finger of fate" is decades older than that!

FULL DETAILS

Door dwell, hoistway, and terminal landing are all terms from the jargon of elevator design and maintenance.

If you hear someone use the word jumbo used for "bologna," it's a good bet they're from Pittsburgh or somewhere nearby in southwestern Pennsylvania. A regional company, Isaly's, sold a brand of lunchmeat with that name.

Why do say It's academic when referring to a question or topic that's theoretical?

The "Think and Grin" section of Boy's Life magazine has some pretty silly humor, especially in issues from the 1950's.

A listener in Burlington, Vermont, remembers being punished as a youngster for talking during class. His teacher forced him to write out this proverb dozens of times: For those who talk, and talk, and talk, this proverb may appeal. The steam that blows the whistle will never turn the wheel. Translation: If you're talking, then you're not getting work done.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle requires misreading words that begin with the letters P-R-E. For example, the word preaching could be misread as having to do with "hurting beforehand" -- that is, pre-aching.

A young woman from Portland, Oregon, seeks a noun to denote something fake or otherwise dubious. She doesn't want an obvious swear word, but also doesn't like the ones she found in the thesaurus, and thinks malarkey, poppycock, and flim-flam sound too old-fashioned and unnatural for a 20-something to say. Fraud, fake, hoax, janky, don't sound quite right for her either. The hosts suggest chicanery, sham, rubbish, bogus, or crap.

A San Diego, California, listener is bothered by colleagues' use of the expression I'll revert meaning "I'll get back to you."

Regarding suffering caused by others, singer Bob Marley had this to say: The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.

Put up your dukes! means "Get ready to fight!" But its etymology is a bit uncertain. One story goes that it's from Cockney rhyming slang, in which dukes is short for Dukes of York, a play on the slang term fork, meaning "hand." But the phrase may originate from or be influenced by a Romany word involving hands.

Why do we call a peanut a goober? The word comes from the Bantu languages of East Africa.

If you need a synonym for freckle, there's always the word ephelis, from ancient Greek for "nail stud."

Listeners step up to help a caller from an earlier show who was seeking a succinct way to explain that a brain injury sometimes makes it difficult for her to remember words.

Primarily in the Southern United States, the word haint refers to a ghost or supernatural being, such as a poltergeist. Haint appears to be a variant of haunt.

The word pretty, used to modify an adjective, as in pretty good or pretty bad, has strayed far from its etymological roots, which originally had to do with "cunning" or "craft."

Here's something to think about the next time somebody says A penny for your thoughts.

The TV show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," popular in the late 1960's and early 1970's was famous for awarding its goofy trophy, the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate. But the term fickle finger of fate is actually decades older than that.

Tunket is a euphemism for "hell," as in Where in tunket did I put my car keys? No one knows its origin.

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

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Flop Sweat - 24 July 2017 (7/2017)

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.

FULL DETAILS

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Smile Belt - 17 July 2017 (7/2017)

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!

FULL DETAILS

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

A Shoo-In - 10 July 2017 (7/2017)

This week it’s butterflies, belly flowers, plot bunnies, foxes, and cuckoos. Also, writing advice from Mark Twain and a wonderful bit of prose from Sara Pennypacker's book Pax. And are there word origins? Well, does a duck swim? We'll hear the stories of polka, smarmy, bully pulpit, and the exes and ohs we use to show our affection. Plus! Sarcastic interrogatives, the echo questions we give as answers to other people's no-duh queries.


FULL DETAILS


Hiking in the mountains, Martha kept noticing butterflies at about 4,000-to-5,000 feet above sea level. Those butterflies are hilltopping. It’s when male butterflies of many species go to high points to advertise their fortitude and genes to the female butterflies.


Judy in Huntsville, Alabama, has hundreds of song lyrics playing on auto-shuffle in her head. When the Polka Dot Polka started playing, she began to wonder how polka dots came to be associated with the music. It turns out that the polka dance craze of the early 1800s — named after the Polish word for a Polish woman — gave its name to a lot of things, including this fabric pattern.


Writing advice from Mark Twain, who was not a fan of adjectives. In The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, he says, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” He also wrote a letter with clever, useful advice that still holds true for the modern writer.


When you would ask the father of Chris from Reno, Nevada, something to which he thought the answer was obvious, he’d answer with jokey phrases like “Is a pig pork?” or “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “Does a bear poop in the woods?” (but with a different verb!). These sarcastic interrogatives, also known as a kind of echo question, are wonderfully discussed in an article by Charles Clay Doyle titled “Is the Pope Still Catholic?” in the journal Western Folklore. (The article is free with registration.)


The Greek word for the cuckoo bird, kokkux, is related to our word coccyx, the tailbone, because the bone looks like the bill of a cuckoo.


Our New York City quiz guy John Chaneski joins us for a punny word quiz. How to play: There’s a pun with a key word missing. You need to fill in the blank. For example, if you don’t pay your e_______, you get repossessed. The answer: exorcist. Get it?


Steve in Bend, Oregon, asks: Does bully pulpit mean what people think it means? Is the bully the same as the bully you might find in a schoolyard? What did Teddy Roosevelt really mean when he said he had a bully pulpit? There’s an old meaning that has fallen away that changes how we understand the phrase.


Hamid in San Diego, California, says that his wife is a job recruiter who finds people to fill high-profile positions. She will come home and say, “This candidate’s a shoo-in.” What’s the story with shoo-in? Where does it come from? It has something to do with an old slang term for rigging a horse race. It’s not, shoe-in, by the way, although that is a common misspelling, and it has nothing to do with footwear. There are many everyday terms that come from horse-racing, such as the term hands-down.


Growing up in Kentucky, where the state religion seems to be basketball, Martha played a lot of rounds of horse, where players compete to make baskets from the same court positions, shot for shot. If you miss, you get a letter from the word horse. If you get all the letters, you lose. Basketball star Steph Curry instead challenged a bunch of high school students to a game of sesquipedalian. We’ve talked about long words like that before.


Rodney in Suffolk, Virginia, is interested in the word tattoo. His grandmother didn’t use it to mean skin art. She used it to rave about seeing a great concert or band: “It was just such a wonderful tattoo!” It might have something to do with a musical military tradition involving a tattoo (of Dutch origin) that is unrelated to the skin tattoo (which has a Tahitian origin).


A belly flower is a small low-growing flower you have to get down on the ground to see.


Martha recommends Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, a book targeted at children but in which adults will find much to admire and mull over. In preparing the book, Pennypacker spent a great deal of time studying the behavior of foxes. Martha shares a particularly perfect passage.


Zach from Plano, Texas, watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In it, a protegé of the star sushi chef ends a long explanation about how much he’s learned from his mentor by saying, “I don’t sleep with my feet in his direction.” What does this Japanese expression it mean?


Man-eating spiders! Martha tells a charming story about how illustrators and authors work together when they make children’s books.


Greg, calling from Norfolk, Virginia, says that when he uses the word smarmy, some people seem not to know it. What does it mean? Where does it come from? Is it even a real word? It’s related to an old verb meaning to smear or be-daub. It’s kind of like the word unctuous.


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


Plot bunnies are writing ideas that you can’t get rid of. The only way to purge yourself of the ideas is to write them!


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

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Stars and Garters (Rebroadcast) - 3 July 2017 (7/2017)

Novelist Charles Dickens created many unforgettable characters, but he's also responsible for coining or popularizing lots of words, like "flummox" and "butterfingers." Also, the life's work of slang lexicographer Jonathon Green is now available to anyone online. Finally, the art of accepting apologies. If a co-worker is habitually late but apologizes each time, what words can you use to accept their latest apology but also communicate that you never want it to happen again?

FULL DETAILS

What do the terms flummox, butterfingers, and the creeps have in common? They were all either invented or popularized by Charles Dickens. The earliest citations we have for many familiar words and phrases are from the work of the popular 19th-century novelist. You can find more in What the Dickens: Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them by Brian Kozlowski.

A San Diego, California, 12-year-old whose last name is Jones wonders: Why do so many African-Americans as well as European Americans share the same last name?

The exclamation Oh my stars and garters! likely arose from a reference to the British Order of the Garter. The award for this highest level of knighthood includes an elaborate medal in the shape of a star. The expression was probably reinforced by Bless my stars!, a phrase stemming from the idea that the stars influence one's well-being.

If you're having a particularly tough time, you might say that you're having a hard fight with a short stick. The idea is that if you're defending yourself with a short stick, you'd be at a disadvantage against an opponent with a longer one.

A man in Chalk Mountain, Texas, recalls a sublime evening of conversation with a new German friend. As they parted, the woman uttered a German phrase suggesting that she wanted the moment to last forever. It's Verweile doch, Du bist so schoen, and it comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's tragic play, Faust.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's game involves clues about the names of countries. For example, a cylindrical container, plus an abbreviation on the back of a tube of toothpaste, combine to form the name of what neighbor to the north?

Why is a factory called a plant?

A flat tire is a slang term for the result of stepping on someone's heel so that their shoe comes loose.

The word jackpot can denote the pile of money you win at a game of poker, but another definition is that of "trouble" or "tangled mess" or "logjam."

What do you call the holes in a Pop-Tart? Those indentations in crackers, Pop-Tarts, and similar baked goods are called docker holes or docking holes, used to release air as the dough gets hotter.

The phrase Don't cabbage that, meaning "don't steal that," may derive from the old practice of tailors' employees pilfering scraps of leftover fabric, which, gathered up in one's hands, resemble a pile of cabbage leaves.

The first known citation for the word dustbin is credited to Charles Dickens.

Language enthusiasts, rejoice! Jonathon Green's extraordinary Dictionary of Slang is now available online.

What's the most effective way to respond to someone who keeps apologizing for the same offense? Say, for example, that a co-worker is habitually late to work, and is forever apologizing for it, but does nothing to change that behavior? How do you accept their apology for their latest offense, but communicate that you don't want it to happen again?

When comparing two things, what's the correct word to use after the word different? Is it different than or different from? In the United States, different from is traditional, and almost always the right choice. In Britain, the most common phrase is different to.

If a Southerner warns she's going to put a spider on your biscuit, it means she's about to give you bad news.

A listener in Omaha, Nebraska, says his mother always ends a phone conversation not with Goodbye, but 'Mbye. How common is that?



This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Noon of Night - 26 June 2017 (6/2017)

Pranks, cranks, and chips. As a kid, you may have played that game where you phone someone to say, "Is your refrigerator running? Then you better go catch it!" What's the term for that kind of practical joke? Is it a crank call or a prank call? There's a big difference. Also, if someone has a chip on his shoulder, he's spoiling for a fight -- but what kind of chip are we talking about? Potato? Poker? Hint: the phrase arose at a time when there were many more wooden structures around. Finally, a conversation with an expert on polar bears leads to a discussion of history and folklore around the world.

FULL DETAILS


After our conversation about a verbose admonition to use short words, a Tallahassee, Florida, man called with a version he learned as a boy: Do you have the audacity to doubt my veracity? Or even to insinuate that I would prevaricate? While I'll thrust my phalanges into your physiognomy with such intensity that it will horizontalize your perpendicularity.

There's a difference between a crank call and a prank call.

If someone has a chip on their shoulder, they're spoiling for a fight. The phrase derives from the old practice of literally putting a chip of wood or other small object on one's shoulder, and daring an adversary to knock the chip off--a gesture indicating that a line had been crossed and the opponent was ready to fight.

In Ireland, the word omadhaun means "a foolish person."

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle this week involves adding a letter to the names of famous bands to come up with entirely new ones. For example, Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool are trading in their instruments for a lime-colored delivery truck. What are they known as now?

Those strings of amber lights on 18-wheelers are known as chicken lights. But why? Although the term's origin is unclear, a participant in a discussion forum of the American Historical Truck Society suggests they may have been originally associated with trucks hauling Frank Perdue chickens.

Noon of night is an archaism, a poetic way of saying "midnight."

A New York City listener recalls that as a youth in Erie, Pennsylvania, he and his peers referred to a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich as a choke-and-slide or choke-n-slide. It's a reference to the qualities of the sticky peanut butter and the slippery jelly. The colloquial names of some other foods also refer to how they make their way down the throat, including gap-and-swallow and slick-and-go-down or slip-go-down. Other foods named for action associated with them are saltimbocca, literally "jump into the mouth," and tiramisu, from Italian for "pick me up!"

A woman who grew up in south central Minnesota grew up using the phrase too yet, which can have various meanings at the end of a sentence, usually with some negative sense. An article by Peter Veltman in American Speech suggests that the tag too yet used this way is a calque from Dutch.

A conversation with a leading expert on polar bears has Martha thinking about several bear-related words, including the term arctic and the feminine name Ursula.

In the 1940's, kids commonly teased a playmate who'd just gotten a short haircut by pointing at them and saying Baldy Sour! Baldy Sour!

A man in Bowling Green, Kentucky wonders: is the correct phrase You have another thing coming? Or is it You have another think coming?

The medical term tragomaschalia means "smelly armpit sweat," and derives from Greek words that mean "goat armpit."

A woman from Abilene, Texas, is preparing to make a move to the Northeast, and was amused when a realtor in her new hometown used the phrase Bada boom, bada bing, a phrase she'd heard only in movies. It's possible that this term is older than the 1960's, although so far no such record has been found.

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Boss of Me (Rebroadcast) - 19 June 2017 (6/2017)

If you want to be a better writer, try skipping today's bestsellers, and read one from the 1930's instead. Or read something besides fiction in order to find your own metaphors and perspective. Plus, just because a city's name looks familiar doesn't mean you should assume you know how the locals pronounce it. The upstate New York town spelled R-I-G-A isn't pronounced like the city in Latvia. Turns out lots of towns and streets have counterintuitive names. Finally, why do we describe being socially competitive as "keeping up with the Joneses"? The Joneses, it turns out, were comic strip characters. Also, sugar off, filibuster, you're not the boss of me, and lean on your own breakfast.

FULL DETAILS

When it comes to the names of towns and cities, the locals don't necessarily pronounce them the way you expect. Charlotte, Vermont, for example, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, not the first--and therein lies a history lesson. The town was chartered in 1762, the year after England's King George III married the German-speaking Princess Charlotte, and it's named in her honor.

What's the deal with the use of person, as in I'm a dog person or She's a cat person? The word person this way functions as a substitute for the Greek-derived suffix -phile, meaning "lover of," and goes back at least a century.

A woman from Hartford, Connecticut, remembers her mom used the term clackers to denote those floppy, rubber-soled shoes otherwise known as flip-flops, go-aheads, or zoris. Anyone else use clackers in that way?

A listener in Reno, Nevada, wants to know: If one member of a long-term, unmarried couple dies, what's a good term for the surviving partner, considering that the usual terms widow and widower aren't exactly correct?  

To sugar off means to complete the process of boiling down the syrup when making maple sugar. Some Vermonters use that same verb more generally to refer to something turns out, as in that phrase How did that sugar off?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle involves social media "books" that rhyme with the name Facebook. For example, Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, posts on on what fancifully named social media outlet?

A Los Angeles, California, listener says his grandmother, a native Spanish speaker, used the word filibustero to mean "ruffians." Any relation to the English word filibuster? As a matter of fact, yes.

To encourage diners to dig into a delicious meal, an Italian might say Mangia!, a French person Bon appetit! and Spaniard would say Buen provecho. But English doesn't seem to have its own phrase that does the job in quite the same way.

A Palmyra, Indiana, listener observes that in online discussions of Pokemon Go, Americans and French-speaking Canadians alike use the word lit to describe an area of town where lots of people playing the game. This usage apparently is related to the earlier use of lit to describe a great party with lots of activity, or recreational drug use.

If you think the city of Riga, New York, is pronounced like the city in Latvia, think again.

A listener in Brazil wants to know about the source of the phrase keeping up with the Joneses, which refers to trying to compete with others in terms of possessions and social status. This expression was popularized by a comic strip with the same name drawn by newspaper cartoonist Arthur "Pop" Momand for several years during the early 20th century.

If you're sitting on a subway or airplane seat and someone's invading your space, you can always offer the colorful rebuke Lean on your own breakfast, meaning "straighten up and move over."

Essayist Rebecca Solnit has excellent advice for aspiring writers.

The phrase You're not the boss of me may have been popularized by the They Might Be Giants song that serves as the theme for TV's "Malcolm in the Middle." But this turn of phrase goes back to at least 1883.

A woman whose first language is Persian wonders about the word enduring. Can she describe the work of being a parent as enduring? While the phrase is grammatically correct, the expression enduring parenting not good idiomatic English.

The poetic Spanish phrase Nadie te quita lo bailado expressing the idea that once you've made a memory, you'll always have it, no matter what. Literally, it translates as "no one can take away what you've danced."

In a roadway, the center lane for passing or turning left is sometimes called the chicken lane, a reference to the old game of drivers from opposite directions daring each other in a game of chicken. For the same reason, some people refer to it as the suicide lane.  

A bible lump, or a bible bump, is a ganglion cyst that sometimes forms on the wrist. It's also called a book cyst, the reason being that people sometimes try to smash them with a book, but  don't try this at home!

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

Sunny Side Up (Rebroadcast) - 12 June 2017 (6/2017)

Baseball has a language all its own: On the diamond, a snow cone isn't what you think it is, and Three Blind Mice has nothing to do with nursery rhymes. And how do you describe someone who works at home while employed by a company in another city? Are they telecommuters? Remote workers? One writer wants to popularize a new term for this modern phenomenon: working in place. Also, a powerful essay on white privilege includes a vivid new metaphor for the pain of accumulated slights over a lifetime: chandelier pain. Plus, sunny side up eggs, count nouns, bluebird weather, harp on, think tank, thought box, and how to remember to spell Mississippi.

FULL DETAILS


Baseball is a rich source of slang, and The Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson is a trove of such language. A snow cone, in baseball lingo, is a ball caught so that it's sticking up out of the fielder's glove. And which month of the year is called Dreamer's Month? It's March, when loyal fans believe that anything is possible for their team in the coming season.

Sunny side up eggs sometime go by the name looking at you eggs, an apparent reference to how the yolk in the middle of the egg white makes them resemble eyes. A similar idea appears in the German name, which translates as "mirror egg," and in Hebrew, where such eggs go by a name that translates as "eye egg." The Japanese term, medama yaki, translates as "fried eyeball." In Latvia, they're "ox eyes," and "cow eyes" in Indonesia.

In baseball, a two-o'clock hitter is one who hits well in batting practice, but not during the game. It used to be that games traditionally started at 3 p.m., with batting practice an hour before.

An attorney in El Centro, California, is bothered by the phrase a large amount of people, because the word amount is usually applied to mass nouns, not count nouns. There are exceptions, however.  

In baseball slang, three blind mice denotes the three umpires on the field.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has an artful quiz about, well, art. For example, remove two letters from the end of this painting's title, and now the couple in it has been replaced by a pale young man outside a farmhouse sporting a black T-shirt, eyeshadow, and several piercings. What's the name of this new painting?

In Arabic-speaking families, it's not uncommon for mothers to address their children with the Arabic word for "mama" or for fathers to use the word for "father" when addressing their offspring. These words are used in this way as a term of endearment. Some other languages do the same.

Writer Isabel Allende offers this writing advice: Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the Muse shows up, too.

A listener in Honolulu, Hawaii, wonders about an expression used by her husband's grandmother, who was from Eastern Kentucky: He left so fast, that you could have played marbles on his coattails. The notion that a person is running so fast his coattails are stretched out perfectly flat goes back at least to the 1850's.

Since the 1950's, the term think tank has meant "a research institute." But even earlier than that, going as far back as the 1880's, think tank referred "a person's mind." Another slang term for one's mind is thought box.

A Seattle, Washington, listener wants to know why, when marking time, we say One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, as opposed to other states or rivers. In the United Kingdom, they're more likely to say hippopotamus. Some people count instead with the word banana, or Nevada, or one thousand one. Also, a mnemonic for spelling the pesky name Mississippi: M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked-letter-I-humpback-humpback-I.

In Maryland and Virginia, bluebird weather is a brief period of warm weather in autumn.

What do you call it when you work for a corporation but aren't based in the same place as its headquarters. Writer Michael Erard believe that the term working remotely doesn't really characterize it, and instead has suggested working in place.

A caller from New York City wonders about his grandmother's use of the word says rather than said when she's telling a story about something that happened in the past. It's a form of the historical present tense that helps describe recounted or reported speech.

In a powerful essay on white privilege, Good Black News editor Lori Lakin Hutcherson includes the term chandelier pain to describe how painful accumulated slights can be. Medical professionals use the term chandelier pain to refer to the result of touching an exquisitely painful spot--so painful that patients involuntarily rise from the examining table or reach toward the ceiling.  

Does the expression to harp on something, as in "to nag," have anything to do with the stringed instrument one plays by plucking? Yes. As early as the 16th century to harp all of one string meant to keep playing the same single note monotonously.

We talk about something occurring beforehand, so why don't we talk about something happening afterhand? Actually, afterhand goes all the way back to 15th-century English, even though it's not that commonly used today.

A New Hampshire listener recalls that as a boy, when he talked friends within earshot of his mother and said referred to her as She, his mother would pipe up with She, being the cat's mother. It's an old expression suggesting that it's insulting to refer to people in the third person if they're present.

The early 20th-century Spanish poet Antonio Machado has a beautiful poem about finding one's way. The translation in this segment is by Anna Rosenwong and Maria Jose Gimenez.

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

--

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

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

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.