DiscoverA Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all over
A Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all over

A Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all over

Author: Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, produced by Stefanie Levine

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A Way with Words is a fun and funny radio show and podcast about language. Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett talk with callers from around the world about linguistics, slang, new words, jokes, riddles, word games, grammar, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, books, literature, folklore, and speaking and writing well. Email your language questions for the show to Or call with your questions toll-free *any* time in the U.S. and Canada at (877) 929-9673. From anywhere in the world: +1 (619) 800-4443. Hear all past shows for free: Also on Twitter at
225 Episodes
Take Tea for the Fever - 22 October 2018
Silence comes in lots of different forms. In fact, says writer Paul Goodman, there are several kinds: There's the noisy silence of "resentment and self-recrimination," and the helpful, participatory silence of actively listening to someone speak. Plus, the strange story behind the English words "grotesque" and "antic": both involve bizarre paintings found in ancient Roman ruins. Finally, the whirring sound of a Betsy bug and a moth's dusty wings give rise to picturesque English words and phrases. Plus millers, keysmash, subpar, placer mining, dinklepink and padiddle, machatunim and consuegros, and to clock someone. FULL DETAILS Another term for moth is miller or dusty miller, so named the powdery wings of these insects recall the image of a miller covered in flour. That's also the inspiration behind the name of the dusty miller plant. Elaine from Boulder, Colorado, wonders: What's the origin of the slang term to clock someone meaning to hit them? After the death of Aretha Franklin, her ex-husband described her as someone who didn't take tea for the fever. If you don't take tea for the fever, you refuse to put up with any nonsense. This .expression appears in a story by Langston Hughes. Jeff from Huntsville, Alabama, remembers playing a game on family road trips called padiddle. If you see a car at night with one headlight out, you say Padiddle! The first person to do so gets to punch a fellow passenger. His wife's family played a variation in which the winner was entitled to a kiss. There are various rules for the game and various names, including perdiddle perdunkle, pasquaddle, cockeye, cockeye piddle, dinklepink, and popeye. There's also the slug bug version that specifically involves spotting a Volkswagen. A keysmash is a random string of letters typed as a way of indicating intense emotion, such as frustration. There are scores of new television shows out there, which inspired Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle based on names of TV programs you may not have heard of. For example, is Cloak and Dagger a series about spies in the 1940s, or is it about two superheroes called Cloak and Dagger? Cecily from Indianapolis, Indiana, recalls her North Carolina-born grandmother would describe someone doing something stupid as being crazy as a Betsy bug. The phrase alludes to the horned beetle, also known as the patent-leather beetle, a large black insect that makes a whirring noise when disturbed. It's also called a Betsy bug, bess bug, or bessie bug. Joseph from Wilson, Wyoming, wonders: Why is subpar, or in other words under par, a good thing in golf but nowhere else? Sue from Rancho Palos Verdes, California, says her daughter Pip used to talk about how much she loved the jazz singer Elephants Gerald. Judith in Newbury Park, California, shares a funny story about how she used to mispronounce the word grotesque with three syllables. This term meaning strange or unnatural or absurdly exaggerated goes back to Italian grottesca, or having to do with caves, and refers to fantastical subterranean murals discovered in Roman ruins featuring strange and exaggerated figures. Thus grotesque is a linguistic relative of the word grotto. Another English term associated with those bizarre paintings the word antic, from Italian antica, meaning old, and a relative of the English word antique. Susan in Traverse City, Michigan, wonders if there's a single English word that denotes the relationship between two mothers-in-law, two fathers-in-law, or a mother-in-law and father-in-law. Co-mother seems too vague, and the psychologists' terms affine or co-affine, from the same root as affinity, aren't used widely among the rest of the population. In Spanish there's consuegro, and in Yiddish machatunim, as well as words in Portuguese, Italian, and Greek, but nothing that's been adopted into English, and the German Gegenschwiegermutter doesn't seem a likely candidate, either. Silence exists in more than one form. In his book Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry, Paul Goodman eloquently evokes several of them. Will from Lexington, Kentucky, has a long-running dispute with his girlfriend. Is it appropriate to call the machine that launders your clothing a clothes-washing machine rather than just a washing machine? And why do we call the machine that cleans the dishes a dishwasher rather than a dish-washing machine? In an earlier conversation, we discussed the term gypsy and its ugly history as a slur against the Roma people. That history prompted the Actors' Equity Association to choose a new name for its traditional Gypsy Robe. For decades, this garment was awarded to the chorus member in a Broadway musical who has the most production credits. However, it's now called the Legacy Robe. Placer mining is a method of extracting gold from alluvial deposits. You might guess that the word is pronounced with a long a, but used in this context, it's actually a short vowel. The term derives from a Spanish word for that kind of surface, and goes back to the same Latin root that gives us both plaza and place. Brian in Church Hill, Tennessee, had a band called Smackin' Bejeebus. The latter word, more commonly rendered as Bejesus or Bejeezus, is a mild oath that euphemizes the name Jesus, is often used for emphasis. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.
Sun Dog - 15 October 2018
A clever pun can make the difference between a so-so phrase and a memorable one. The phrase "the last straw" refers to an old fable about too many items in a load, but it takes on a whole new meaning in a public-awareness campaign about the environment. Also, why do we use the term "mob scene" to refer to an unruly crowd? This term originated in the world of theater. Finally: the Basque language spoken in the westernmost Pyrenees has long posed a linguistic mystery. Its origins are unclear and it's unlike any other language in the region. But Basque is enjoying something of a revival in a surprising place . . . Idaho. Plus, sun dog, ob-gyn, mob scene, George, Double George, Geezum Pete, and somersault vs. winter pepper. FULL DETAILS Carrie from Waupaca, Wisconsin, confesses she was stumped when that her son Aidan asked,"Mom, can you do a winter pepper?" An ad campaign featuring the phrase The Last Straw urging people not to use plastic straws has Allie in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wondering about double meanings in advertising. Research shows that such punning can be effective. On Twitter, @laureneoneal wonders why the term ob-gyn is pronounced by sounding out all the letters, as if it's an initialism. Eleven-year-old Ben calls from Rapids City to ask about the term sun dog, the meterological phenomenon in which a bright spot appears to the left or right of the sun. No one knows the origin of this term. Synonyms include mock sun, weather gall, and parhelion, from Greek words meaning beside the sun. Some 50 years ago, says Susan from Burbank, California, she and a friend made up a game involving prefixes and suffixes, which led to such nonsense words as epidormithry and postpreparize. Ever notice how many comic-book villains have names ending in the letter O? For starters,  there's Magneto, Sinestro, and Bizarro. Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle features new villains with names that are common words ending in -o. For example, who's the villain who takes large islands and breaks them up into chains of smaller islands? Barbara in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, wonders about the term mob scene, means an unruly, dense crowd. The term arose in the world of theater, where it denotes a point in a performance with lots of people onstage. The word mob is a shortening of Latin mobile vulgus, which means fickle crowd. The phrase throw in the towel, meaning to give up, originated in the world of boxing. An earlier phrase from the same sport that carried the same metaphorical meaning is chuck in the sponge. Andrew in Omaha, Nebraska, recalls his grandfather's use of the word George to mean exceptionally good, and Double George to mean really great. Other masculine names, including Jake, Tom, and Jerry have meant something similar. In the 1950s, the name George was used among casino workers for a high roller, as in Here comes George. The German word for longjohns, Liebestoter, literally means love killer. Rick calls from Rouses Point, New York, to ask about the etymology of the phrase hang for a sheep as for a lamb, meaning go for broke or go all out. The answer has involves the old tradition of capital punishment for theft. Given the risk of such dire consequences, one might as well steal the item that's more valuable. There's a similar Scots proverb that goes as well be hanged for a wedder as for a lamb, a wedder being a male castrated sheep. The word wedder is linguistically related to bellwether, a large, castrated sheep wearing a bell and therefore indicative of where the herd is going. Our conversation about being criticized for using yes ma'am and no sir, prompted a letter from an Austin, Texas, listener who had a similar experience when she moved from Mississippi to Ohio. The state of Idaho has a large community of Basque speakers. Their native tongue is what's known as a language isolate, meaning one that is not historically connected to those around it. The name George derives from the Greek word for farmer, a combination of words that literally mean earth worker. Ellen in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, wonders about the origin of the exclamation Geezum Pete! It's a minced oath -- that is a way of avoiding saying Jesus Christ! There are dozens of similar euphemized exclamations, including gee willikins, jiminy, Jehosaphat, Judas Priest, Jeekers, Jiminy Cricket, Jiminy Crickets, Gee willikers, Gee Christmas, Jiminy Christmas, and Jerusalem. Michael in Papillion, Nebraska, asks: Why do we refer to that adjustable vent that regulates air flow in a home as a register? This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.

Sun Dog - 15 October 2018


Oh For Cute - 8 October 2018
A stereotype is a preconceived notion about a person or group. Originally, though, the word stereotype referring to a printing device used to produce lots of identical copies. If you suspect there's a connection, you're right!  Also, the link between tiny mythical creatures called trolls and modern-day mischief-makers, plus the stories behind the color names we give to horses. Finally, wise advice about fending off despair: learn something new. Also, grinslies, personal summers, cowboy slang, smell vs. odor, orient vs. orientate, trolls and trolling, and just for fun, some agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun compounds. FULL DETAILS Scarecrow and pickpocket are compound words that name things and people by describing what they do. Such nouns were especially popular centuries ago, when quake-breech meant a coward, a saddle-goose was a fool, a scrape-gut was a violinist, and tanglelegs meant strong alcohol. The linguistic term for such terms is a mouthful: agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun compounds.  Linguist Brianne Hughes, who has studied them extensively, calls them cutthroat compounds, the word cutthroat being another case in point. She's collected more than 1200 cutthroat compounds at her website, Encyclopedia Briannica. Todd, a firefighter in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, wonders about the difference between the words smell and odor. Also, which verb is the better choice: orient or orientate? While reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Sidney from Indianapolis, Indiana, stumbled across the use of the term stereotyped notice to denote a printed announcement of a meeting. It's an example of this word's earliest sense; stereotype originally referred to a type of metal printing block used to produce multiple copies. The French word for this kind of block is cliche, a word that may be imitative of the clicking sound made by such a device as it prints. Borrowed into English, cliche now refers to a word or phrase that is trite or hackneyed -- in other words, something repeated multiple times. Matt in San Antonio, Texas, poses this question: Which language has the most words? For that matter, how would you even begin to count them? Crossword-puzzle constructors often employ words with a vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel pattern, or VCCV. That's the cruciverbal inspiration Quiz Guy John Chaneski's VCCV puzzle. For example, if the clue is teen woe, what's the four-letter answer begins and ends with a vowel? On our Facebook group, listeners share their terms for menopausal hot flashes, including a short private vacation in the tropics, temperature tantrum, short private trip to the Sahara, and my inner child is playing with matches. The name of that horse with a light gold coat, the palomino, derives from Spanish for young dove, because these animals share similar coloring. In the same way, a sorrel horse has the same color as a certain kind of sorrel plant. The names for the colors of horses come from three main traditions: English from the United Kingdom, Spanish, and French. Western Words, a book of cowboy slang collected by Ramon Adams, contains many more examples, including albino, bald-faced, bayo, bayo coyote, blaze, blood bay, buckskin, calico, chestnut, chin spot, claybank, cremello, flea bitten, grulla, moros, overo, paint, palomilla, piebald, pinto, race, roan, sabino, skewbald, snip, sock, star, star strip, stew ball, stocking, tobiano, trigeuno, and zebra dun. Linguist Brianne Hughes has compiled more than 1200 cutthroat compounds, including  smell-feast meaning a freeloader, and smellfungus, a chronic complainer. For a lively primer about such compounds, check out her video. The gallywampus is a large, wobbly insect that looks like an overgrown mosquito. These long-legged creatures and others like them go by lots of funny-sounding names, including gallinipper, gabber napper, and granny-nipper. A thought-provoking tweet from @Elloryn in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests replacing the words I'm sorry with Thank you. Instead of saying Sorry I was late, try saying Thank you for waiting for me. It's a subtle change, but it powerfully shifts the focus from the offender's feelings to those of the offended. Ann from Fort Worth, Texas, says her elderly aunt was talking disparagingly about two people who, in her words, wet around the same stump. This expression isn't all that common, but it does appear in Sarah Bird's 1999 novel Virgin of the Rodeo. Another version, to smell around the same stump, is likewise rare, but also suggests that the two are thick as thieves or at least have much in common. The word stump figures in several colloquial English expressions where the stump is a metaphorical point of contention or a problem that needs to be solved. Two ways of getting around the same stump means two ways to solve a problem. There's also the phrase to go around the same stump, and to whip or beat the devil around the same stump, which means to avoid one's responsibilities. A proverb on a bench in San Diego's Balboa Park reads: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. T. H. White's The Once and Future King offers excellent advice about how to fight off despair: learn something. Harry from Falls Church, Virginia, wonders about the many meanings and uses of the words troll and trolling. Listeners continue to chime in after our conversation about terms for a quick cleanup, such as Navy shower or G.I. shower, or washing your possible. @TruBlu tweeted still more examples. Jesse in Gainesville, Florida, says that when he was growing up in Northern Minnesota, he often heard the expression Oh for …!, as in Oh for cute!, Oh, for nice!, or Oh for dumb! This idiomatic construction usually expresses judgment, is largely confined to Minnesota, and may be a calque from German or a Scandinavian language. Amy from Ishpeming, Michigan, says her family's idiolect includes the word grinslies, which they use to denote the sediment in the bottom of your coffee cup. The word orts is a term for leftovers, and a dialectal term for the last little bit left from a meal is scrunchings. The last little bit of a drink in a glass or bottle is sometimes called a heel-tap. … This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.

Oh For Cute - 8 October 2018


Coinkydink - 1 October 2018
Sometimes it's a challenge to give a book a chance: How many pages should you read before deciding it's not worth your time? There's a new formula to help with that decision -- and it's all based on your age. And: Have you ever noticed someone mouthing your words as YOU speak? That conversational behavior can be disconcerting, but there may be good reasons behind it. Finally, a punk rock band debates the pronunciation of a word that means "tribute": is it HOM-age, OM-age, or something else entirely? Plus, chevrolegs, Pat and Charlie, on fleek, hornswoggle, 20-couple, coinkydink, and the correct way to say Nevada. FULL DETAILS Saying I'll get a ride with Pat and Charlie or I'm going to go with Pat and Charlie you're saying I'll walk there, Pat and Charlie being a jocular term for one's legs. Other colloquial ways to describe traveling on foot include getting there by shank's leg, chevrolegs, going with Tom and Jerry, or saying I'll use my pegs or I'll use my ponies. The punk band Sacred Cash Cow in Carolina Beach, North Carolina is planning a tribute to another local band that's breaking up, so they call to ask: How do you pronounce the word homage? If you're paying homage to something, you stress the first syllable. If you're referring to an homage, you stress the second the syllable. There's a story in the African-American folktale tradition about two tired mules named Pat and Charlie. Judy from Indianapolis, Indiana, remembers her Great-aunt Fanny using the expression take a jaybird, meaning take a sponge bath, and explained it as when you wash under your wings and your tail feathers, maybe polish off your beak. Great-aunt Fanny may have been thinking of the term naked as a jaybird. There are many other terms for these quick cleanups, including Dutch bath, wipe-off, G.I. bath, Marine shower, and Georgia bath. We've talked before about another euphemized expression about bathing that involves washing one's possibles. In the American South, you might indicate you're going to walk instead of drive with the expression I'm going to take my foot in hand and walk. A variation is I'm going to take my foot in my hand. Either way, you'll be walking there. For this week's puzzle, our Quiz Guy John Chaneski invents some new sports by changing the first letter of a familiar pastime, then changing the rules. For example, in what new favorite sport are you allowed to punish an error by shocking the shortstop or center fielder with 50,000 volts? Stephanie, a social worker in Tallahassee, Florida, talks with people all day long, and she's noticed that sometimes when she's talking to a client, that person starts silently mouthing Stephanie's words. This may be a form of echolalia, the repetition of someone else's vocalizations, or palialia, a language disorder involving the involuntary repetition of words, phrases, or syllables. It might also simply be a matter of mirroring the other person as the result of intense focus, or anticipating what they're going to say and how and when to respond. To use mother's colt or to use granny's colt is another expression for going somewhere on foot. Scott in Billings, Montana, wonders about the word hornswoggle, meaning to swindle, bamboozle, deceive, or trick. This verb found its way into American English during the 1820's, when there was a fad among newspaper editors and writers for inventing words as funny as they were pretentious-sounding. Among these were words like goshbustified, skedaddle, absquatulate, snollygoster, and discombobulate. A similar thing happened in the 16th century when learned people briefly used what came to be known as inkhorn terms. Brannon, a high-schooler in Dallas, Texas, wonders about the meaning of slang term on fleek, meaning perfect or just right. Peaches Monroe popularized this expression in a Vine where she bragged about having eyebrows on fleek later explained that the word she was using was actually flick, as in on point. Sometimes it's a challenge to give a book a chance: How many pages should you read before deciding it's not worth your time? We've talked before about this question, but now there's a new formula to help with that decision. It depends on your age. How do you pronounce the word Nevada? Steven, a Nevada native now living in Baltimore, Maryland, says he's forever encountering people who pronounce the name of his home state incorrectly, with an ah sound in the middle. The a in that second syllable is short. Rose works at a trailer shop South Central Pennsylvania and often hears her co-workers adding the element -couple to a round number to indicate an indefinite amount, such as Bring me 20-couple screws, in the same way that others might say Bring me 20-odd screws. It's not all that common; more well established for indefinite quantities are the terms couple-three, couple-few, and a couple-two-three. In June 2018, we appeared in San Antonio, Texas, to support San Antonio Youth Literacy in conjunction with Texas Public Radio. While there, Martha picked up the term blowin' and goin', a rhyming compound that means extremely busy, booming, or thriving. Thomas in Bahama, North Carolina, says his father used to say You can't hang around the barbershop and not get your haircut, which seems to be a warning about being influenced by the company you keep. Similar ideas are expressed by the sayings Play stupid games, win stupid prizes, and If you wrestle with pigs you get dirty and the pig likes it, and Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. Sundance from Dallas, Texas, says his family uses the word coinkydink for coincidence. It's an intentional malapropism, like the playful pronunciation of schedule as skeduly and difficulty as difulgaty. Coinkydink has been around since at least the 1940s. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.

Coinkydink - 1 October 2018


Sweet Dreams (Rebroadcast) - 24 September 2018
In deafening workplaces, like sawmills and factories, workers develop their own elaborate sign language to discuss everything from how their weekend went to when the boss is on his way. Plus, English speakers borrowed the words lieutenant and precipice from French, and made some changes along the way, but not in ways you might suspect. Finally, how do you pronounce the name of the New York concert hall you can reach with lots of practice? Is it CAR-neg-ghee Hall … or Car-NEG-ghee? Plus, no great shakes, Gomer, a limerick about leopards, foafiness, and sleep in the arms of Morpheus. FULL DETAILS Try this tricky puzzle: Take the words new door and rearrange their letters into one word. How do you pronounce the name Carnegie? The Scottish industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable, as his namesake the Carnegie Corporation of New York takes pains to make clear. Good luck explaining that to New Yorkers, though. They may know that the famous concert venue is named in his honor, but it's become traditional to stress the first syllable in Carnegie Hall. In the 19th century, people would have encountered his name in print first rather than hearing it by radio broadcast and incorrectly surmised it was CAR-neh-ghee, not car-NEH-ghee. A Dallas woman says that when she rebukes the advances of the courtly old gent she's dating, he apologizes with the words I'm sorry for losing my faculties. Using the term my faculties in this sense is not all that common, but understandable if you think of one's faculties as "the ability to control impulses and behavior." Foafiness, which derives from friend of a friend, is the condition of knowing a lot about someone even though you've never actually met, such as when you feel like you know a friend's spouse or children solely because you've read so much about them on Facebook. But is there a term for "experiential foafiness," when you feel like you've visited someplace but then realize you've only read about it or seen it in a video? Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a quiz based on what editors for the Oxford English Dictionary say are the 100 Most Common Words in English. Is it okay use the word ask as a noun, as in What's our ask going to be? Or should we substitute the word question or request? Actually, the noun ask has handy applications in the world of business and fundraising, where it has a more specific meaning. It's taken on a useful function in the same way as other nouns that started as verbs, including reveal, fail, and tell. A Burlington, Vermont, listener says that when he was a boy, his dad used to call him a little Gomer. It's a reference to the 1960's sitcom "Gomer Pyle," which featured a bumbling but good-hearted U.S. Marine from the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. As a result, the name Gomer is now a gently derogatory term for "rube" or "hick." Glenn Reinhardt and his 8-year-old daughter Camryn of San Antonio, Texas, co-authored a limerick that makes clever use of the words leopard, shepherd, and peppered.   A native French speaker wants clarification about the use of the word precipice in English. A listener in Lashio, Myanmar, reports that a term of endearment in the local language translates as "my little liver."   In deafening industrial workplaces, such as textile factories and sawmills, workers often develop their own elaborate system of sign language, communicating everything from how their weekend went or to straighten up because the boss is coming. The phrase no great shakes means "no great thing" or "insignificant." The term may have arisen from the idea of shaking dice and then having a disappointing toss. If so, it would fall into a long line of words and phrases arising from gambling. Or it may derive from an old sense of the word shake meaning "swagger" or "boast."   A listener in Montreal, Canada, asks: How do you pronounce lieutentant? The British say LEF-ten-ant, while Americans say LOO-ten-ant. In the United States, Noah Webster insisted on the latter because it hews more closely to the word's etymological roots, the lieu meaning "place" and lieutenant literally connoting a "placeholder," that is, an officer carrying out duties on behalf of a higher-up. Why doesn't an usher ush? The word goes all the way back to Latin os, meaning "mouth," and its derivative ostium, meaning "door." An usher was originally a servant in charge of letting people in and out of a door. A San Diego woman says her mother always tucked her into bed with the comforting wish, Sweet dreams, and rest in the arms of Morpheus. This allusion to mythology evokes a time when people were more familiar with Greek myth, and the shape-shifting god Morpheus who ruled over sleep and dreams and inspired both the word metamorphosis and the name of the sleep-inducing drug, morphine. This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.
Gangbusters (Rebroadcast) - 17 September 2018
Sensuous words and terms of endearment. Think of a beautiful word. Now, is it simply the word's sound that makes it beautiful? Or does its appeal also depend on meaning? Also, pet names for lovers around the world: You might call your beloved "honey," or "babe," or "boo." But in Swedish, your loved one is a "sweet nose," and in Persian, you can just say you hope a mouse eats them. Finally, in certain parts of the U.S., going out to see a stripper may not mean what you think it means. Plus, clutch, dank, girled up, gorilla warfare, dead ringer, spitten image, butter beans vs. lima beans, and the whole shebang. FULL DETAILS May a mouse eat you, or in Persian, moosh bokharadet, is a term of endearment suggesting the recipient is small and cute. Another picturesque hypocorism: French mon petit chou, "sweetheart," but literally, "my little cabbage." To go gangbusters is to "perform well and vigorously" or "act with energy and speed," as in an economy going gangbusters. The term recalls the swift aggression of 1930's police forces decisively breaking up criminal gangs. The old-time radio show Gangbusters, known for its noisy opening sequence, complete with sirens and the rattle of tommy guns, helped popularize the term. Sotnos, with an umlaut over that first o, is a Swedish term of endearment. Literally, it means "sweet nose." A listener in Billings, Montana, wonders about two of her boyfriend's favorite slang terms: clutch and dank. Clutch most likely derives from the world of sports, where a clutch play requires peak performance from an athlete, giving rise to clutch meaning "great." Dank, on the other hand, is used among cannabis aficionados to describe the smell of good marijuana, and was popularized by Manny the Hippie's appearances on David Letterman's show. Quiz Guy John Chaneski is on the hunt for four-letter words hidden inside related words. For example, find the related four letter word hidden in the last word of this sentence: A union member might find him despicable.   When writing a business letter, what's a modern salutation that doesn't sound as stuffy as Dear Sir or Dear Madam? To Whom It May Concern, perhaps? The answer depends on the context and the intended audience. A Boardman, Ohio, was confused as a child after reading about guerrilla warfare and wondering what those big, hairy primates could possibly be fighting about. In mining country, a stripper is an huge piece of machinery churns up the soil in search of coal veins. This caused no end of hilarity one Christmas Day for a Terre Haute, Indiana, family when a new in-law was scandalized by the thought that all the menfolk were enthusiastically heading out to see a new stripper. More than a century ago, the Springfield Republican newspaper in Massachusetts proposed a new word for that twitterpated time in an adolescent's life when one discovers the joys of flirtation: being all girled up. The Republican is also the publication containing the first known instance of someone suggesting the term Ms. as an honorific. Schadenfreude, from German for "damage-joy," means "delight in the misfortune of others." How dry is it? In the middle of a drought, you might answer that question is So dry the trees are bribing the dogs. What makes a word beautiful? Is it merely how it sounds? Or does a word's meaning affect its aesthetic effect? Max Beerbohm had some helpful thoughts about gondola, scrofula, and other words in his essay "The Naming of Streets." Several years ago, Grant wrote a column on this topic for The New York Times. The origin of the whole shebang, meaning "the whole thing," is somewhat mysterious. It may derive from an Irish word, shabeen, which meant "a disreputable drinking establishment," then expanded to denote other kinds of structures, including "an encampment." The phrase the whole shebang was popularized during the U.S. Civil War.   Two familiar terms that have inspired lots of bogus etymologies are dead ringer and spitting image. Dead ringer probably comes from horse racing, where a ringer is a horse that may look like other horses in a race but is actually from a higher class of competitors, and therefore a sure bet. The dead in this sense suggests the idea of "exact" or "without a doubt," also found in such phrases as dead certain. As for the term variously spelled spitting image or spittin' image or spit and image, Yale University linguist Larry Horn has argued convincingly that the original form is actually spitten image, likening a father-son resemblance to an exact copy spat out from the original. If you want to reassure someone, you might say I've got your back. In Persian, however, to indicate the same thing, you'd say the equivalent of "I have your air," which is havato daram. What's the difference between butter beans, lima beans, and wax beans? The answer depends on where you live and what dialect you speak. Oh, those romantic Germans! Among their many terms of endearment is the one that translates as "mouse bear." This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.
XYZ PDQ (Rebroadcast) - 10 September 2018
How often do you hear the words campaign and political in the same breath? Oddly enough, 19th-century grammarians railed against using campaign to mean "an electoral contest." Martha and Grant discuss why. And, lost in translation: a daughter accidentally insults her Spanish-speaking mother with the English phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Finally, just how many are a couple? Does a couple always mean just two? Or does "Hand me a couple of napkins" ever really mean "Give me a few"? FULL DETAILS Today's pet peeve is often tomorrow's standard usage. Nineteenth-century grammarians railed against the use of the word campaign to denote an electoral contest, arguing it was an inappropriate use of a military term. C.W. Bardeen's 1883 volume Verbal Pitfalls: A Manual of 1500 Words Commonly Misused is a trove of similarly silly and often unintentionally hilarious advice. The slang phrase XYZ, meaning "examine your zipper," has been used since at least the 1960's as a subtle tipoff to let someone know his zipper is down. A variant, XYZ PDQ, means "examine your zipper pretty darn quick." Other surreptitious suggestions for someone with an open fly: There's a dime on the counter, Are you advertising?, and What do birds do? A listener in Palmer, Massachusetts, wants a term for when something, such as a piece of art, evokes fondness by combining both old and new things, such as a Monet painting reimagined by a digital artist. How about a combination of the Italian words for "new" and "old," nuovovecchio? Or newstalgia, perhaps? Retrostalgia? A bollard is a post that helps guide traffic. It probably derives from the Middle English word bole, meaning "tree trunk." You'uns, a dialectal form of the second-person plural, generally means "you and your kin." The term is heard in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and much of the South, reflecting migration patterns of immigrants from the British Isles. It's also related to yinz, heard in western Pennsylvania to mean the same thing. Quiz Guy John Chaneski serves up a sibilant quiz about three-word phrases that have words beginning with S separated by the word and. For example, what 1970's sitcom featured a theme song by Quincy Jones called "The Street Beater"? Go lemony at is slang for "get angry." Does the term a couple mean "two and only two items"? Nope. Plenty of folks use couple to mean "a small but indefinite" quantity, and to insist otherwise is pure peevishness. A colloquial apology for telling an overly long story is Sorry I had to go around my elbow to get to my thumb. The phrase is also a handy way to indicate you took the opposite of a shortcut. A woman whose mother is a native Spanish speaker learning English was bothered when her daughter used the phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks, taking offense at the idea that her daughter was calling her a dog. She might instead have used A leopard can't change its spots, or As the twig is bent, so inclines the tree, and from Latin, Senex psittacus negligit ferulam, or An old parrot doesn't mind the stick. The words plethora and drastic both have roots in ancient Greek. Both were first used in English as medical terms, plethora indicating "an excess of bodily fluid" and drastic meaning "having an effect." In his 1869 volume Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech, self-appointed grammar maven gave specious advice against using the word love when you merely mean "like." A San Diego, California, listener bemoans the lack of a specific term for the person who is married to one's brother or sister. The best we can do in English is brother-in-law or sister-in-law, but often that needs further clarification. The slang expression No Tea, No Shade, meaning "No disrespect, but …" is common in the drag community, where T means "truth." The related phrase All Tea, All Shade, means "This statement is true, so I don't care if it offends you or not." At least as early as the 1920's the slang verb to shade has meant "to defeat." Martha's fond of videos about Appalachian dialect, and in one she came across the expression, I'd just as soon be in hell with my back broke, meaning "I strongly prefer to be anywhere else." English speakers borrowed the German term Witzelsucht (or "joke addiction") to mean "excessive punning and a compulsion to tell bad jokes." While it might sound amusing to have a word for such behavior, the word refers specifically to a brain malfunction that's actually quite serious. In Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Dan Lyons writes about slang he heard during his time working at a hot new startup. If someone was fired, that person was described as having graduated, and the word delight and the neologism delightion were used as terms for what the company aimed to provide to customers. This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.
Hang a Ralph (Rebroadcast) - 3 September 2018
The names of professional sports teams often have surprising histories -- like the baseball team name inspired by, of all things, trolley-car accidents. Plus, some questions to debate at your next barbecue: Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? And when exactly does dusk or dawn begin? Dictionary editors wrestle with such questions all the time, and it turns out that writing a definition is a lot harder than you think. Finally, a new word for your John Hancock: When you use your finger to sign an iPad, what do you call that electronic scribble? Plus, hang a Roscoe, Peck's Bad Boy, coming down the pike, sozzling, stroppy, grammagrams, and umbers. FULL DETAILS Try this riddle: You throw away the outside and cook the inside, then eat the outside and throw away the inside. What is it? A caller from Los Angeles, California, wonders why we say hang a Roscoe for "turn right" when giving directions. This phrase, as well as hang a Louie, meaning "turn left," go back at least as far as the 1960's. These expressions are much like the military practice of using proper names for directional phrases in order to maintain clarity. Some people substitute the word bang for  hang, as in bang a Uey (or U-ee) for "make a U-turn." The phrase coming down the pike refers to something approaching or otherwise in the works. The original idea had to do with literally coming down a turnpike. In the late 19th century, Wisconsin newspaperman George Wilbur Peck wrote a series of columns about a fictional boy who was the personification of mischief. The popular character inspired stage and movie adaptations, and the term Peck's Bad Boy came to refer to someone similarly incorrigible. Quiz Guy John Chaneski tees up a trivia quiz about how sports teams got their names. For example, are the Cleveland Browns so named because one of their founders was named Paul Brown, or because of the orange-brown clay on the banks of the Cuyahoga River? A listener in Bayfield, Wisconsin, says her grandmother used to tell her to go sozzle in the bathtub. John Russell Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms defines the verb to sozzle this way: "to loll; to lounge; to go lazily or sluttishly about the house." A professional shoemaker in Columbiana, Ohio, wonders why the words cobbler and cobble have negative connotations, given that shoemaking is a highly skilled trade. The notion of cobbling something together in a haphazard or half-hearted way goes back to the days when a cobbler's task was more focused on mending shoes, rather than making them. But Grant quotes a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which such a tradesman articulates the nobility of his profession: I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat's leather have gone upon my handiwork. The slang term stroppy is an adjective meaning "annoying" or "difficult to deal with." It might be related to the similarly unpleasant word, obstreperous. If you simply read each letter aloud, you can see why O.U.Q.T.! U.R.A.B.U.T.! can be interpreted to mean "Oh, you cutie! You are a beauty!" A statement expressed that way with letters, numerals, or drawings is called a rebus, or, if it's solely expressed with letters and numerals, a grammagram. Great examples include the F.U.N.E.X.? ("Have you any eggs?") gag by the British comedy duo The Two Ronnies, and William Steig's book CDC? A door divided across the middle so that the bottom half stays closed while the top half opens is known as a Dutch door, a stable door, or a half-door. Some people informally call it a Mr. Ed door, named after a TV series popular in the 1960's about a talking horse named Mr. Ed who frequently stood behind such a door. Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? Why or why not? Is a burrito a sandwich? (A Massachusetts judge actually ruled on that question in 2006.) What about a veggie wrap? These kinds of questions about the limits and core meanings of various words are more complicated that you might think. Lexicographers try to tease out the answers when writing dictionary entries. Some people are using the word fingature to mean that scribble you do on an electronic pad when asked to sign for a credit card payment. A woman who grew up in Albuquerque recalls that when one of her schoolmates got in trouble, she and their peers would say ominously, Umbers! This slang term is apparently a hyperlocal version of similarly elongated exclamations like Maaaaaan! Or Burrrrrn! that youngsters use to call attention to another's faux pas. An Indianapolis, Indiana, listener says that his mother-in-law was asked by a child where she was going, would jokingly sing that she was going to the Turkey trot trot trot, across the lot, lot, lot, feeling fine, fine, fine until Thanksgiving time. Trouble. Trouble trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble on the double. Sounds like she was singing a version of the Turkey Trot Blues. This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.
You Bet Your Boots (Rebroadcast) - 27 August 2018
You may have heard the advice that to build your vocabulary you should read, read, and then read some more--and make sure to include a wide variety of publications. But what if you just don't have that kind of time? Martha and Grant show how to learn new words by making the most of the time you do have. Also, when new words are added to a dictionary, do others get removed to make room? Plus, words of encouragement, words of exasperation, and a polite Japanese way to say goodbye when a co-worker leaves at the end of the day. Also, you bet your boots, the worm has turned, raise hell and put a chunk under it, bread and butter, on tomorrow, a love letter to libraries and an apology to marmots. FULL DETAILS After inadvertently maligning marmots in an earlier discussion of the term whistle pig, Martha makes a formal apology to any marmots that might be listening. Uff-da! is an exclamation of disgust or annoyance. In Norwegian, it means roughly the same as  Yiddish Oy vey!, and is now common in areas of the U.S. settled by Norwegians, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota. The worm has turned suggests a reversal of fortune, particularly the kind of situation in which a meek person begins behaving more confidently or starts defending himself. In other words, even the lowliest of creatures will still strike back if sufficiently provoked, an idea Shakespeare used in Henry VI, Part 3, where Lord Clifford observes, "The smallest worm will turn being trodden on, and doves will peck in safeguard of their brood." Raise hell and put a chunk under it is simply an intensified version of the phrase raise hell, meaning "to cause trouble" or "create a noisy disturbance." The phrases You bet your boots! and You bet your britches! mean "without a doubt" and most likely originate from gambling culture, where you wouldn't want to bet your boots or trousers without being confident that you'd win. Quiz Guy John Chaneski takes us on a road trip, which means another round of the License Plate Game! A Chicago-area listener wonders: When dictionaries go from print to online, are any words removed? What's the best print dictionary to replace the old one on her dictionary stand? For more about dictionaries and their history, Grant recommends the Cordell Collection of Dictionaries at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. When two people are walking side-by-side holding hands but briefly separate to go around an obstacle on opposite sites, they might say bread and butter. This phrase apparently stems from an old superstition that if the two people want to remain inseparable as bread and butter, they should invoke that kind of togetherness. There are several variations of this practice, including the worry that if they fail to utter the phrase, they'll soon quarrel. Another version appears early in an episode of the old TV series The Twilight Zone, featuring a very young William Shatner.   John Webster's 1623 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi includes the memorable lines Glories, like glowworms, afar off shine bright, / But looked to near have neither heat nor light. Much later, Stephen Crane expressed a similar idea in his poem A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky. A woman in Monticello, Florida, is bothered by the phrase on tomorrow, and feels that the word on is redundant. However, this construction is a dialect feature, not a grammatical mistake. It has roots in the United Kingdom and probably derives from the phrase on the morrow. What phrases do you use to encourage others to pick themselves up and dust themselves off? move on? What words do you say to acknowledge someone's bad luck and encourage them to move on? In a discussion on our Facebook group, listeners offer lots of suggestions, including tough beans, tough darts, suck it up, tough nougies, and you knew it was a snake when you picked it up. A listener in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, requests advice about expanding her vocabulary as a writer, but admits she spends only about ten minutes a day reading. The hosts offer several suggestions: Make sure to stop and look up unfamiliar words; listen to podcasts, which will also introduce you to new words; check the etymology, which is sometimes a helpful memory aid; build vocabulary practice into your routine with a word-a-day calendar or a subscription to Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day newsletter. A teacher in Oakley, Vermont, noted a curious construction among his students while teaching in Maine. They would say things like We're all going to the party, and so isn't he orI like to play basketball, and so doesn't he.  Primarily heard in eastern New England, this locution has a kind of internal logic, explained in more detail at one of our favorite resources, The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. A Jackson, Mississippi, woman who used to work in Japan says that each day as she left the office, her colleagues would say Otsukaresama desu, which means something along the lines of "Thank you for your hard work." Although its literal translation suggests that the hearer must be exhausted, it's simply understood as a polite, set phrase with no exact equivalent in English. Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman has observed that her single most formative educational experience was  exploring Harvard's Widener Library. She captured the feelings of many library lovers when she added that her own daughter couldn't enter that building "without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle." To go at something bald-headed means "to rush at something head-on." The same idea informs the phrase to I'm going to pinch you bald-headed, which an exasperated parent might say to a misbehaving child. The more common version is snatch you bald-headed, a version of which Mark Twain used in his Letters from Hawaii.   This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.
Pink Slip (Rebroadcast) - 20 August 2018
This week on "A Way with Words": The language of political speech. Politicians have to repeat themselves so often that they naturally develop a repertoire of stock phrases to fall back on. But is there any special meaning to subtler locutions, such as beginning a sentence with the words "Now, look…"? Also, a peculiar twist in Southern speech may leave outsiders scratching their heads: In parts of the South "I wouldn't care to" actually means "I would indeed like to." Finally, how the word "nerd" went from a dismissive term to a badge of honor. Also, dog in the manger, crumb crushers, hairy panic, pink slips, make a branch, and horning hour. FULL DETAILS A listener in Weathersfield, Vermont, remembers going on car trips as a young child and wondering why, toward the end of the day, her parents would be on the lookout for motels with bacon seed. Someone who is likened to a dog in the manger is acting spitefully, claiming something they don't even need or want in order to prevent others from having it. The story that inspired this phrase goes all the way back to ancient Greece. A Denton, Texas, caller wonders: Are politicians increasingly starting sentences with the phrase Now, look . . . ? A listener in Ellsworth, Michigan, shares a favorite simile from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't. Make a branch is a euphemism that means "to urinate," the word branch being a dialectal term for "a small stream." Quiz Guy John Chaneski puts on his toque and serves up a quiz about kitchen spices. A San Antonio, Texas, listener is puzzled about a story in The Guardian about Mavis Staples speculating about her romance with Bob Dylan: "If we’d had some little plum-crushers, how our lives would be. The kids would be singing now, and Bobby and I would be holding each other up." Plum-crushers? Chances are, though, that the reporter misheard a different slang term common in the African-American community. Nerd used to be a term of derision, connoting someone who was socially awkward and obsessed with a narrow field of interest. Now it's used more admiringly for anyone who has a passion for a particular topic. Linguists call that type of softening amelioration. A Toronto, Canada, caller wonders how a notice that an employee is being fired ever came to be known as a pink slip. Martha reads Jessica Goodfellow's poem about the sound of water, "Chance of Precipitation," which first appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal. A man who moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, was puzzled when he offered one of his new neighbors a refill on her beverage. She said I wouldn't care to have any, which he understood to be a refusal. What she meant was that she did want another glass. Turns out in that part of the country I wouldn't care to can mean I would like to, the key word being care, as in "mind" or "be bothered." If someone's really intelligent, they might be described with the simile as smart as a bee sting. We're off like a dirty shirt indicates the speaker is "leaving right away" or "commencing immediately." Similar phrases include off like a prom dress and off like a bride's nightie. All of them suggest haste, urgency, and speed. Hairy panic is a weed that's wreaking havoc in a small Australian town. The panic in its name has nothing to do with extreme anxiety or overpowering fear. Hairy panic, also known as panic grass, in the scientific genus Panicum, which comprises certain cereal-producing grasses, and derives from Latin panus, or "ear of millet." A woman in Bozeman, Montana, wonders if any other families use the term horning hour as synonym for happy hour. The term's a bit of a mystery, although it may have something to do with horning as in a shivaree, charivari, or other noisy celebration in the Old West. One way of saying someone's a tightwad or cheapskate is to say he has fishhooks in his pocket, meaning he's so reluctant to reach into his pocket for his wallet, it's as if he'd suffer bodily injury if he did. In Australia, a similar idea is expressed with the phrases he has scorpions in his pocket or he has mousetraps in his pocket. In Argentina, what's lurking in a penny-pincher's pocket is a crocodile. This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email 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.
Comments (9)

Alisha Truemper

great episode!

Oct 22nd

Oso Wallman

Chee yoo on Moana

Jun 24th

Kieron Finn

Binning uni iij

Jun 9th

Jonathan Goodman


Apr 14th

Jonathan Goodman

thanks v. g

Apr 14th

Kestrels Call

Thank you! I was curious about what Bones meant by flop sweat!

Feb 1st

Phúc Anh Trần Nguyễn


Dec 22nd

Knew Yennaration

The X could be an example of extended arms wanting a hug and the O could be the shape of the mouth

Sep 5th

Xiaobao Tang


Sep 3rd
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