DiscoverA Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all over
A Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all over
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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
242 Episodes
One Armed Paper Hanger - 18 February 2019
The emotional appeal of handwriting and the emotional reveal of animal phrases. Should children be taught cursive writing in school, or is their time better spent studying other things? A handwritten note and a typed one may use the very same words, but handwritten version may seem much more intimate. Plus, English is full of grisly expressions about animals, such as "there's more than one way to skin a cat" and "until the last dog is hung." The attitudes these sayings reflect aren't so prevalent today, but the phrases live on. Finally, the centuries-old story of the mall in "shopping mall." Plus, agloo, dropmeal, tantony pig, insidious ruses, yen, and a commode you wear on your head. FULL DETAILS The word piecemeal means bit by bit. If you pay back a debt piecemeal, you repay it a little at a time. The -meal in piecemeal is an old term that means a measure of time, or by a specified portion. In Middle English, this element appears in several words, such as littlemeal, meaning little by little; pennymeal, meaning penny by penny; and dropmeal, meaning drop by drop. They're all the etymological kin of the term meal, meaning a fixed portion of time for eating food. The word mall, as in shopping mall, has traveled a long and winding path, beginning with the Italian game of pallamaglio, which was played with a ball and a mallet. The name of the game found its way into French as pallemaille, which in turn became English pall mall. Pall Mall is now the name of a street in central London where the game was once played, and The Mall, which was also once the site of such games, is now a tree-lined promenade leading to Buckingham Palace. In the 1950s, the word mall was applied to streets that were closed off to make shops convenient for pedestrians. Later mall was used to denote complexes built specifically for shopping and located outside of urban centers. A tantony pig is the runt of the litter. This term derives from the name of St. Anthony of Egypt, patron saint of swineherds. Elizabeth in Burlington, Texas, says she always referred directly to her grandparents using their last names, as in Grandma and Grandpa Bell, or Grandma and Grandpa Van Hoose, but her husband calls his own grandparents Nanaw and Pawpaw. The Dictionary of American Regional English lists at least 100 different names for grandmothers, including Big Mama, Mamaw, Gram, Nana, Grammy, and at least that many names for grandfathers. Quiz Guy John Chaneski has whipped up a puzzle about swapped initialisms. Try this one: My TV is so good you can see the beds of sweat on some of those American League players when they get up to bat. Thanks to ______ I can see how stressed the ______ is. Orion in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, grew up in rural West Virginia on something called Lick Run Road, not far from Mud Lick Road, Turkey Lick Road, and Sanders Run Road. Why do the words lick and run appear in these types of place names? James Hall wrote about animals visiting salt licks in his book Letters from the West. In Kentucky, Big Bone Lick is now a tourist attraction; thousands of years ago, large animals were attracted by its salt deposits. A listener confesses that for decades she misunderstood the expression take it with a grain of salt, meaning retain a healthy dose of skepticism, as take it with a grand assault. Such mishearings of a word or phrase that nevertheless make some sense are jokingly called eggcorns. The Eggcorn Database has a collection them, including from the gecko for from the get-go, and in the feeble position for in the fetal position. Jocelyn in Richmond, Virginia, is curious about the expression busier than a one-armed paper hanger, meaning extremely busy. Perhaps the earliest version of this phrase comes from a 1908 short story by O. Henry: as busy as a one-armed man with the nettle rash pasting on wallpaper, which would be very busy indeed. In other versions, the embattled paper hanger is battling hives, the itch, the crabs, or the seven-year-itch. Other picturesque English phrases for such bustling activity include busy as a beaver, busy as a bee, busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, busier than flies in a tarpit, busier than a bee in a tar bucket, busier than a bee on a buzzsaw, busier than a cranberry merchant, busier than a one-eyed cat watching three mice holes. Other phrases using busier than or busy as can indicate the opposite, as in busier than a pickpocket in a nudist camp, busy as a hen with one chick, busy as a puppy, and busy as a hibernating bear. Paul in South Bend, Indiana, notes that the French equivalent of the phrase have other fish to fry, meaning to have other things to do, is avoir d'autre chats a fouetter, or literally, to have other cats to whip. In Italian, a similarly creepy phrase that means the same thing is to avere altre gatte da pelare, or to have other cats to skin.To have a frog in one's throat means to have difficulty speaking; in French, the expression is avoir un chat dans la gorge, or to have a cat in the throat. English also has several expressions reflecting a less-than-humane attitude toward felines, including there's more than one way to skin a cat, there's not enough room to swing a cat, or to let the cat out of the bag. Dogs don't fare much better in some English sayings, such as to stick around until the last dog is hung and there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with pudding. All of these expressions reflect a time when people had different attitudes toward the kinds of animals we now regard as pets. Should cursive handwriting be taught in schools? There are compelling arguments on both sides, a handwritten letter or note may carry additional emotional power. To have a yen for something means to yearn for it. It comes from a Chinese word that has to do with the craving on an addict. This type of yen has nothing to do with the Japanese unit of currency. A high-schooler in Indianapolis, Indiana, wonders why the word number is abbreviated as No. when there's no letter O in the word. The answer lies in the Latin word numero, which is the ablative form of the Latin word for number, numerus. Alexander Chee's essay in The Morning News about studying writing with Annie Dillard includes a memorable description of how it felt to get back papers that she'd marked up. Steve in Neenah, Wisconsin, says he'd not heard the term suss out in a long time, but then suddenly he was hearing again it in several different places. What he's experiencing is the Frequency Illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or Blue Car Syndrome. During the reign of France's Louis XIV, you could wear a commode on your head. Commode referred to a wire frame worn on the head to support an elaborate headdress. Melinda in Indianapolis, Indiana, shares a bit of wordplay in which someone is invited to repeat such phrases as I'm a brass lock and I'm a brass key, all leading up to a punchline in which the repeater is tricked into saying something silly or self-deprecating. Folklorists sometimes refer to this type of verbal prank as an insidious ruse. An aglu, also spelled agloo, is a seal's breathing hole in a sheet of ice. 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.
Hair on Your Tongue - 11 February 2019
If you speak both German and Spanish, you may find yourself reaching for a German word instead of a Spanish one, and vice versa. This puzzling experience is so common among polyglots that linguists have a name for it. Also, the best writers create luscious, long sentences using the same principles that make for a musician's melodious phrasing or a tightrope walker's measured steps. Finally, want to say something is wild and crazy in Norwegian? You can use a slang phrase that translates as "That's totally Texas!" Plus happenstance, underwear euphemisms, pooh-pooh, scrappy, fret, gedunk, tartar sauce, antejentacular, and the many ways to pronounce the word experiment. FULL DETAILS Takk for sist is a Norwegian greeting that means thanks for the last time, which conveys the idea that the speaker is pleased to see the person again. Another Norwegian slang phrase translates literally as to be in the middle of the butter's eye, meaning to be in the best possible spot. It alludes to a dab of butter that melts deliciously atop a popular rice pudding. Step-ins, pull-ons, and drawers are all euphemistic terms for underwear. Jane in Billings, Montana, says her daughter is a veterinary student who pronounces the word experiment as ecks-PEER-a-ment rather than ex-PARE-a-ment. By their early teens, children tend to get their language from peers, rather than their parents or books. The word experiment has about half a dozen different common pronunciations, and two major ones. Norwegians often indicate that something's crazy or mixed up by using a slang term that translates as That's totally Texas! Jeff from Iron Mountain, Michigan, is curious about the word happenstance. It's a combination of the words happen and circumstance, and means by chance or by accident. Happenstance has been around since the 1850s. It outlasted a couple of competing terms, happenchance and happenso, the latter a reduction of it so happens. Quiz Guy John Chaneski has crafted a puzzle inspired by Australian slang. For example: New Yorkers know the meaning of a Bronx cheer, but they may not know what it means to wave one's hand in the air in an Aussie salute. What does an Aussie salute signify? Lael in Heartland, Iowa, wonders how tartar sauce got its name. The answer is a complicated etymological story that combines cream of tartar, which derives from the Latin tartarum, or a residue left on the inside of wine casks, and the story of the fierce 13th-century warriors known as the Tartars, also known as the Tatars, led by Genghis Khan. These rough-and-ready fighters were known for cooking their meat by placing it under their saddles during a long ride, the result of which eventually inspired the German dish steak tartare, which in turn inspired the modern meat patty we call a hamburger. Antejentacular derives from Latin words that mean before breakfast. One might take, for example, an antejentacular walk before sitting down for the morning's meal. Antejentacular comes from the Latin jejunus meaning fasting or barren. It's related to the word jejune meaning empty or insipid, and jejunum, the part of the small intestine that anatomists discovered is usually empty at death. Dennis in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, recalls that his Spanish-speaking mother used to speak frankly with him or rebuke him using the phrase I have no hair on my tongue, no tengo pelo en mi lengua. The same idea appears in Italian, Welsh, Croatian, and Serbian. In French, the phrase that translates as to have no hair on my tongue means to speak with a lisp. In Turkish it means I'm tired of repeating myself. Marley in Indianapolis, Indiana, is arguing with her friends over whether the word scrappy is positive or negative. The answer depends on context. The gorgeous essay In Praise of the Long and Complicated Sentence by Joe Moran argues for the glories of spinning out long and beautiful sentences. Destiny from Huntington Beach, California, speaks German proficiently, plus some Spanish. She's now learning Russian, but finds herself frustrated as she reaches instead for Spanish words for the same thing. This phenomenon is so common among polyglots that linguists have a term for it: faulty language selection. Sometimes physically embodying the mannerisms you use with a particular language can help you keep them straight. At our recent appearance in Dallas, Texas, a listener asked about the use of fret as a transitive verb, as in Don't fret that child. This usage is particularly common in the American South, and comes from the old notion of fret meaning to eat. The listener brought her infant daughter Dayspring to the event, dayspring being an archaic word for dawn. Tom in Tallahassee, Florida, wonders why he and his fellow buddies called the store on a ship the gedunk, also geedunk, and also applied the word to the sweets and other goodies they purchased there. As Paul Dickson notes in his book War Slang, some servicemembers believe the word derives from the sound of a snack landing with a thud in a vending machine. More likely, though, it was inpsired by the gedunk sundaes mentioned in a popular cartoon from the 1920s called Harold Teen. A listener reports that her Brooklyn-born mother used to exclaim, upon seeing something remarkable, Don't that jar your preserves? An Alabama man wonders about the verb to pooh-pooh, meaning to disdain or disapprove. It has nothing to do with the similar-sounding word for excrement, but rather the noise one makes when being dismissive. It started as simply pooh in the 1500s, was reduplicated by the 1600s, and by the 1800s, it's commonly used as a verb. In Norway, a popular bit of advice translates as There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. 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.
Train of Thought - 4 February 2019
Chances are you recognize the expressions Judgment Day and the root of all evil as phrases from the Bible. There are many others, though, some of which may surprise you: the powers that be and bottomless pit first appeared in scripture. Plus, there's a term for when the language of a minority is adopted by the majority. When, for example, expressions from drag culture and hip-hop go mainstream, they're said to have covert prestige. And the language of proxemics: how architects design spaces to bring people together or help them keep their distance. All that, and Segway vs. segue, part and parcel, Land of Nod, hue and cry, on the razzle, train of thought, and a special Swedish word for a special place of refuge. FULL DETAILS Land of milk and honey, Judgment Day, and the root of all evil are well-known phrases that first appeared in English translations of the Bible. There are several less obvious ones, though, including bottomless pit, meaning an abyss, the first recorded use of which appears in William Tyndale's 1526 translation of the Book of Revelation. Is the brand name Segway starting to replace the word segue, which meaning either to follow or seamless transition? The term sign of the times, denoting something indicative of the kinds of things happening in a particular period, goes back to the Gospel of Matthew. Part and parcel, indicating an integral component is one of many legal doublets in English consisting of two words that mean essentially the same thing. Others include law and order, cease and desist, will and testament, sole and exclusive. There are a few triplets as well, such as right, title, and interest; give, devise, and bequeath; and ordered, adjudged, and decreed. The term Land of Nod, a joking reference to sleep, has its origins in the biblical Land of Nod, to which Cain was exiled after murdering his brother Abel. Jonathan Swift first used it that way in his 1738 work, A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation. The novels Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright and A Void by Georges Perec are examples of constrained writing or lipograms. Lipogrammatic writing is composed entirely with words that don't contain a particular letter, such as, in this case, the letter E. Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a puzzle that works just the opposite way: the only vowel in all of the answers is the letter E. For example, what do you call the place where you put items that you won't need for a long time, especially if you want them to be extremely cold? Smultronstalle is a Swedish word for a special place of refuge. Literally, it means wild strawberry patch. Why is the ch pronounced differently in spinach and stomach? Today, the phrase hue and cry means a clamor or uproar, but in old English law, hue and cry referred to the public outcry during the pursuit of a criminal suspect. Anyone who heard this shouting was legally obligated to join in the chase. Jason in Barre, Vermont, wonders if there's a connection between the words casual and casualty. Both belong to a family of words involving the idea of falling, deriving from Latin cadere, to fall, and its past participle, casus. From the same roots come the words cascade, referring to things tumbling, as well as cadaver, literally someone who has fallen, and caducity, the increasing infirmity of old age. The first recorded use of the phrase fight the good fight is in the Biblical book of Timothy. Tony in Reno, Nevada, says he's noticed people leaving more space between each other while standing in a queue. Is there a better term for this than personal space? The study of public spaces and the way we move around them is known as proxemics. Public spaces that tend to keep people apart are called sociofugal and those designed to bring people together are described as sociopetal. A Kazahk saying that literally translates as I see the sun on your back means Thank you for being you. The earliest recorded appearance of the phrases A house divided cannot stand and the powers that be occurred in early English translations of the Bible. Although the exact phrase a fly in the ointment isn't in the Bible, the idea of a dead fly ruining an ointment does appear in Ecclesiastes 10:1, and apparently inspired the modern phrase. When the dialect of a minority group becomes highly valued and exerts force on the language of the majority, linguists say it has covert prestige. For example, many words and phrases from drag culture and hip-hop found their way into the mainstream. Gary in San Antonio, Texas, wonders if the term train of thought, meaning a line of reasoning or narrative, predates locomotives. It does indeed, going back to the idea of train meaning anything trailing behind, like a bridal train. You might guess that an orangutan is named for its color. In reality, the name of this ape derives from Malay terms that mean man of the forest. After crossing the International Date Line, Alison from Riverside, California, wonders if there's a word for losing an entire day when traveling between time zones. We suggest deja noon and groundhogging, and offer a little ditty about time: Today was tomorrow yesterday, but today is today today, just as yesterday was today yesterday, but yesterday today, and tomorrow will be today tomorrow, which makes today yesterday and tomorrow all at once. (For those of you with a Newspaper Archive subscription, you can find it in the June 15, 1916 edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.) In Britain, to be on the razzle means to be celebrating wildly. Tim from Manhattan Beach, California, says his grandmother used to carry a brown paper bag and call it her poke sack. The word poke, in this case, means bag, making poke sack a pleonasm, which is an expression using more words than necessary to convey its meaning. This type of poke comes from French and is related to the words pouch and pocket. To buy a pig in a poke is to purchase something without carefully inspecting it. 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.
Colonial English - 28 January 2019
The anatomy of effective prose, and the poetry of anatomy. Ever wonder what it'd be like to audit a class taught by a famous writer? A graduate student's essay offers a taste of a semester studying with author Annie Dillard. Also, what did George Washington sound like when he spoke? We can make a few guesses based on his social class and a look at dialect changes in colonial America. Plus, where is your body's xiphoid (ZIFF-oyd) process? Also: inept vs. ept, ruly vs. unruly, gruntled vs. disgruntled, cross and pile, lick the cat over, anyone vs. anybody, bloody, and rock, paper, scissors vs. paper, scissors, rock. FULL DETAILS The city of Portland, Oregon, where Martha and Grant recently took their live show, owes its name to a coin toss. The city's founders, Asa Lovejoy of Boston, Massachusetts, and Frances Pettygrove of Portland, Maine, each wanted to name it for his own hometown. Lovejoy lost, and the penny tossed to decide the matter is on display at the Oregon Historical Society. Portland also goes by the nicknames Stumptown, Beervana, and Bridgetown. Nathan, a sailor at the United States Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia, reports a vigorous dispute among his fellow servicemembers: Is gruntled a word? Nathan feels gruntled must be a word, arguing that it's clearly the opposite of disgruntled. But it's more complicated than that. Disgruntled is one of several terms known as orphaned words or unpaired negatives, which look like they should have a commonly used opposite, but don't. Others unruly and ruly, unkempt and kempt, as well as inert and ert. Writer J.H. Parker played with this discrepancy in a poem called "A Very Descript Man." Responding to our ongoing discussion about unexpected pronuncations for various towns, a listener notes that the names of Cairo, Georgia, and Havana, Florida, are not pronounced the way you might think. Michelle works for the United States Department of Defense in San Diego, California, thinks of the word alibi as excuse, but her coworkers have an additional meaning for it. Toward the end of a meeting, her supervisor will ask if anyone has an alibi before they wrap up, signaling that it's time to bring up any unfinished business. In Latin, the word alibi means elsewhere. But it has another meaning in the military, referring to unfinished rounds of ammunition. An old version of the heads or tails coin toss is cross or pile, or cross and pile. That's because an old English coin was marked with a cross on one side; the term pile was a synonym for the back of a coin. It's time once again for Quiz Guy John Chaneski's annual (and non-political) Limericks Puzzle! Fill in the blank: When somebody says Where's the beef? / Say western Australia in brief / Knickers the steer / Is so huge, I fear / That his photograph beggars . . . ? Diego from Orange County, California, wonders: How did George Washington sound when speaking. We can make guesses about his speech, accent, and dialect based on the historical context. Following up on our talk about regional terms for a small, raised section of road, such as tickle bump and belly-tickler, Martha shares a passage from The Guardian Angel by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which references another term for that kind of bump. One of his characters calls it a thank-you-ma'am, referring to the fact that one's head involuntarily nods when going over one. Debra in Gates, North Carolina, says that her husband tries to do things right the first time because, as he puts it, he doesn't like licking the cat over. To have to lick the cat over is to have to repeat a laborious process for a second time. When Julie, a journalism student at California's San Francisco State University, got her dream job covering the San Francisco Giants for a season, she noticed while transcribing interviews that the players tended to use the terms somebody, everybody, and nobody instead of someone, everyone, and no one. She wonders if that has anything to do with where those players grew up. Another town with a name that sounds different from what you might expect: Russiaville, Indiana. For a taste of what it's like to spend a semester studying writing with a renowned author, check out Alexander Chee's essay in The Morning News called Annie Dillard and the Writing Life. Dillard's remarkable description of the death of a frog in her Pulitzer-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a good example of Dillard practicing the techniques she preaches. Kim from Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada, is studying anatomy and wonders why the lower end of one's sternum is called the xiphoid process. The word process in this case means projection, and xiphoid comes from the Greek word for sword. Early anatomists likened the sternum to a sword or dagger: the top part is called the manubrium -- literally handle -- the middle part is the gladiolus --which in Latin means little sword -- and the tip is the swordlike projection. The scientific name for a swordfish, by the way, is Xiphias gladius. Many anatomical structures have similarly picturesque names, like tibia, from the Latin for flute, and pelvis from the Greek for wooden bowl or basin. Our conversation about books that sit on your shelves unread and the difficulty of parting with them prompted Jen in Essex, New York, to write about her own attachment to long-outdated field guides because of the memories attached to them. Laura in New Bedford, Massachusetts, says her mother often uses the adjective bloody as a mild swear word, but Laura wonders if the expression is more offensive than that. The answer depends on what part of the English-speaking world you're in. Travis in Austin, Texas, has a dispute with friends: is the popular sorting game called Paper, Scissors, Rock, as he believes? Or is it Rock, Paper, Scissors? In the United States, the latter is the more common variant, although some people say Scissors, Paper, Rock. The game itself appears to go back to counting games in Asia, such as Japanese jan ken pon. 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.
Pig Latin (Rebroadcast) - 21 January 2019
This week on "A Way with Words": Grant and Martha discuss the L-word--or two L-words, actually: liberal and libertarian. They reflect different political philosophies, so why do they look so similar? Also, is the term expat racist? A journalist argues that the word expat carries a value judgment, suggesting that Westerners who move to another country are admirable and adventurous, while the term immigrant implies that someone moved out of necessity or may even be a burden to their adopted country. Finally, what do guys call a baby shower thrown for the father-to-be? A dad-chelor party? Plus, glottalization, film at 11, grab a root and growl, and Pig Latin. FULL DETAILS In a futile situation, English speakers might say that we're spinning our wheels. The French have a phrase for the same situation that translates as to pedal in sauerkraut. The Illustrated Book of Sayings collects similarly colorful idioms in other languages. There's a Turkish expression that literally translates as Grapes darken by looking at each other, and means that we're influenced by the company we keep. In Latvian, there's an expression that means  "to prevariate," but literally it translates as "to blow little ducks." An Austin, Texas, listener says he and his buddies are throwing a baby shower for a dad-to-be, but they're wondering what to call a baby shower thrown for the father. A man shower? A dadchelor party? We go back like carseats is a slang expression that means "We've been friends for a long time." The political terms liberal and libertarian may look similar, but they have very different meanings. Both stem from Latin liber, "free," but the word liberal entered English hundreds of years before libertarian. Half-filled pots splash more is the literal translation a Hindi expression suggesting that those who bluster the most, least deserve to. Another Hindi idiom translates literally as Who saw a peacock dance in the woods? In other words, even something worthy requires publicity if it's going to be acknowledged. Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle of Container Clues, in which one word is inserted whole into another to create a new word. For example, if the definition is "kind of potatoes," and the clue is "She is in mad," what kind of potatoes are we talking about? A Carmel, Indiana, teacher is puzzled to hear younger colleagues pronounce the words kitten and mitten as KIT-un and MIT-un, with a noticeable break between the syllables. Linguist David Eddington of Brigham Young University reports that this phenomenon, called glottalization, is a growing feature of American dialect, mainly among young women in their 20's and 30's, particularly in the western United States.   A New York City caller wonders why we refer to clothing as duds. The term dates back to the 1300's, when the word dudde referred to a cloak or mantle of coarse cloth. Over time, it came to refer to shabby clothing, and eventually acquired a more neutral meaning of simply "clothes." The earlier sense of "ragged" or "inferior" may also be reflected in the term dud, denoting something that fails to function. For English speakers of a certain age, Film at 11 is a slang phrase means "You'll hear the details later." It's a reference to the days before 24-hour cable news, when newscasters would read headlines during the day promoting the 11 p.m. broadcast, when viewers would get the whole story, including video. The exhortation Grab a root and growl is a way of telling someone to buck up and do what must be done. The sense of grabbing and growling here suggests the kind of tenacity you might see in a terrier sinking his teeth into something and refusing to let go. This phrase is at least 100 years old. A much more rare variation is grab, root, and growl. Both expressions are reminiscent of a similar exhortation, root, hog, or die. Is the term expat racist? Journalist Laura Secorun argues that the word expat implies a value judgment, suggesting that Westerners who move to another country are adventurous, while the term immigrant suggests someone who likely moved out of necessity or may be a burden to society in their adopted country. In much of the United States, the phrase I'll be there directly means "I'm on my way right now." But particularly in parts of the South, I'll be there directly simply means "I'll be there after a while." As a Marquette, Michigan, listener points out, this discrepancy can cause lots of confusion! Why do so many people begin their sentences with the word So? In linguistics, this is called sentence-initial so. The word So at the start a sentence can serve a variety of functions. Ix-nay on the ocolate-chay in the upboard-cay is how you'd say Nix on the chocolate in the cupboard in Pig Latin. English speakers have a long history of inserting syllables or rearranging syllables in a word to keep outsiders from understanding. The pig in Pig Latin may just refer to the idea of pig as an inferior, unclean animal. This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett and produced by Stefanie Levine. -- 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.
Whistle in the Dark (Rebroadcast) - 14 January 2019
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: 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.
Fickle Finger of Fate (Rebroadcast) - 7 January 2019
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: 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.
Stars and Garters (Rebroadcast) - 31 December 2018
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: 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.
Space Cadet - 24 December 2018
We have books that should be on every language lover's wish list, plus a couple of recommendations for history buffs. Plus: how did the word boondoggle come to denote a wasteful project? The answer involves the Boy Scouts, a baby, a craft project, and a city council meeting. Plus, wordplay with palindromes. Instead of reversing just individual letters, some palindromes reverse entire words! Like this one: You can cage a swallow, but you can't swallow a cage, can you? Also, squeaky clean, Dad, icebox, search it up, pretend vs. pretentious, toe-counting rhymes, comb the giraffe, and a Korean song about carrots. FULL DETAILS The French expression peigner la girafe means to do a useless, tedious, or annoying job, but literally means to comb the giraffe. That's one of the many gems in Mark Abley's new book Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean. Abley also observes that Korean youngsters use words meaning Of course! or Absolutely! Literally, though, the expression translates as It's a carrot! You can hear the expression dang geun in an adorable Korean cartoon that shows carrots singing to each other that of course they'll always be friends. Andrew from Annandale, Virginia, asks: What's the origin of the word boondoggle? Why does it mean a wasteful project or plain old busywork, but also dentoes a kind of leathercraft lanyard made at camp? A palindrome is a word or phrase with letters that read the same backwards and forwards, such as taco cat, nurses run, and a nut for a jar of tuna. Word-unit palindromes are similar, although you read them word by word. One example: You can cage a swallow, but you can't swallow a cage, can you? Another is goes Fall leaves after leaves fall. And then there's Did I say you never say "Never say never?" You say I did. Judy in Miami, Florida, wonders how the expression squeaky clean came to mean spotless, whether literally or metaphorically. At least as early as the 1930s, the term squeaky clean referred to hair that was so free of oil and dirt it makes a squeaking sound between your fingers. Later, TV commercials for Ajax dishwashing liquid played upon that idea, touting the so-called Ajax squeak that results from using that soap to wash dishes. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a Latin palindrome doubling as a riddle. It's variously translated as We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire or We turn in circles in the night and are devoured by fire. The answer to the riddle: moths. This Latin palindrome is also the title of a film by French director Guy Debord, and is referenced in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a Take-Off Quiz. All the answers to this quiz involve removing the letter E from a word to form another word. For example, if the clue is The man at the piano played the black keys with skinny, knobby fingers, what two words does that suggest? Kirk from New Braunfels, Texas, wonders about the origin of the word Dad. It's one of many names for a parent that arose simply from the sounds an infant makes when trying to communicate. Keith in Valparaiso, Indiana, wonders why his mother uses the term icebox for what other people call a refrigerator. Before electric refrigeration, people kept food cold by putting it in a an insulated box that was literally cooled with a block of ice delivered by the local iceman. If you want someone to calm down, you might say Cool your jets! This expression is among several catchphrases from a 1950s TV show about the extraterrestrial adventures of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Others include plug your jets, meaning to shut up; cut your jets, meaning to quit doing something; blow your jets, which meant to get angry. The TV series was apparently inspired by by the Robert Heinlein novel Space Cadet, which also led to space cadet as an ironic term for someone whose head is metaphorically in the clouds. Our conversation about slang terms for traveling by foot prompted an email from Tom in Canton, Texas, who reports that while living in Israel, he used to hear fellow high school students say in Arabic that they were taking Bus Number 11, the long, straight numerals representing their two legs. More book recommendations: For a smart, in-depth look at language change and usage controversies, Martha suggests Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can't Be Tamed by Lane Greene. Grant says his 11-year-old son thoroughly enjoyed all of the graphic series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. That series includes such books as Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, which, as it happens, was a great complement to the book for adults that Grant just finished, Barbara Tuchman's excellent history of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August. Sophia is a 13-year-old from Napierville, Illinois, says she and her peers use the phrase search it up on the internet to mean look it up on the internet. Her mother says it's look it up or just search it, not search it up. Sophia and her friends aren't wrong, though. Search it up is used by lots of people, particularly younger ones, and it's becoming more common. What's the linguistic connection between pretend and pretension or pretentious? They all go back the Latin praetendere, meaning to put something forward. Susan from Virginia Beach, Virginia, remembers a toe-counting game from her childhood that goes This Toe Tight / This Penny White / This Toe Tizzle / This Penny Wizzle. She doesn't recall the rest and has no idea where it came from. There are many versions of this kind of rhyme, particularly in the traditions of Scandinavia and Germany. Among them are the one that goes Peedee / Peedee Loo / Loodee Whistle / Whistle Nobble / and Great Big Hobble Tobble! And another that goes Little Pea / Penny Rou / Judy Whistle / Mary Tossle / and Big Tom Bumble. Susan remembers another one that involves gently slapping the bottom of the child's foot: Shoe the old horse / and shoe the old mare / and let the little colt go bare, bare, bare. The blog Mama Lisa's World has a multitude of other versions. Henry Bolton's 1888 book The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children, which is available in its entirety online, is another good source of these, although some of the rhymes may be offensive to modern readers. 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.
Howling Fantods - 17 December 2018
Are there words and phrases that you misunderstood for an embarrassingly long time? Maybe you thought that money laundering literally meant washing drug-laced dollar bills, or that AM radio stations only broadcast in the morning? A Twitter thread prompts those and other funny confessions. And: a moving new memoir by Kansas writer Sarah Smarsh touches on the connection between vocabulary and class. Plus, the inventive language of writer David Foster Wallace: Even if you've never heard the term "nose-pore-range," you can probably guess what it means. Also, ilk, how to pronounce Gemini, fart in a mitten, greebles, make over, sploot, and to boot. FULL DETAILS On Twitter, columnist Shannon Proudfoot asks: What's the most mundane but thunderous epiphany you ever had? Something so ridiculously dull or elementary that still bowled you over when you figured it out? Some of the answers had to do with misunderstandings about language, including the meaning of guerilla warfare, AM radio stations, and money laundering. Sarah from Grove City, Pennsylvania, says her husband had no idea what she meant when she said she wanted to make over him. The verb to make over means to be affectionate. The terms make of and to make on have long meant to value highly or treat with great consideration. Viewers of the movie First Man, about the Gemini space program, may be surprised to learn that within National Aeornautics and Space Administration, the name Gemini is pronounced more like JEM-in-nee. Gemini is the Latin word for twin, and the source of the Spanish word for twins, gemelos. James in San Diego, California, wonders about the origin of the word sploot, which refers to the way cute cuddly animals, such as Corgis, lie on their bellies with their back legs splayed out. Other terms for this include frog legs, frog dog, furry turkey, drumsticks, turkey legs, chicken legs, Supermanning, pancaking, flying squirrel, and frogging. The origins of sploot are murky, although it may be connected with splat. There's a whole subreddit for all your splooting needs. Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle is involves weather terms hidden inside longer words. For example, suppose he's going to the store to buy some stuff -- nothing in particular, just various objects that are too small and unimportant to mention separately. How's the weather? Cory in Newark, Ohio, says that while in South Africa, he heard the exclamation Shot! used in an empathetic way to mean That's so sweet! or Bless your heart! In South Africa, the word can be used to express agreement, and in Australia, the expression That's the shot! expresses approval. In boxing, a skillful punch might be commended with Oh, shot! Inspired by a Twitter thread about things people learned surprisingly late in life, Martha relates an extremely embarrassing story of her own about her misunderstanding how beer is made. Rebecca from San Diego, California, wants to know the origin of the verb to bogart, as in Don't bogart that salad dressing! It's associated the forcefulness of matinee idol Humphrey Bogart. Masha in Vergennes, Vermont, says her family uses the word ilk to refer to a variety or type, as in What ilk of tree is that? Is this term is now archaic? Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, advises that although would-be writers should read extensively, it's even more important to listen intensely. Sharon in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, says that when her father wanted his children to stop squirming, he used to say You're just like a fart in a mitten. Versions of this term for something moving around feature a fart in a colander, a blender, a hot skillet, a jacuzzi, a spaceship, a submarine, a phone box, and an elevator. Shannon Proudfoot's tweet about thunderous epiphanies later in life prompted a response about misunderstanding the meaning of the term surgical dressing. David Foster Wallace's book Infinite Jest, includes many unusual turns of phrase, including nose-pore-range for something very close, toadbelly white for a particular shade of the color, howling fantods for the heebie-jeebies, and greebles for disintegrated bits of Kleenex. Grant worked with Wallace on the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, for which Wallace supplied some usage notes. Our discussion about proper salutations for business letters prompts Mary in Austin, Texas, to suggest beginning such correspondence with the neutral but emphatic Hark! Maribel in Montgomery, Alabama, asks about why we say to boot to mean in addition. This kind of boot has nothing to do with the kind you wear on your feet. It's from Old English bot, meaning advantage or remedy, and is a linguistic relative of the English word better. 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.
Comments (13)

Tomasz Jurewicz

Just sploot and listen to this show! It's extremely informative and entertaining.

Dec 20th

Baby Cakes

When you do the quizzes can you please give a 5 to 10 second pause so we can play along with you both! Your both to fast for us novices out here.

Dec 16th

Baby Cakes

I think hope is used in Driving Miss Daisy.

Dec 11th

Baby Cakes

There is still turnpikes in OK on I44 going to Tulsa and on another hwy on the way to OK city.

Dec 11th

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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