A Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all overAuthor: Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, produced by Stefanie Levine
18 Feb 2019

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

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A fun weekly radio show about language seen through culture, history, and family. Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett talk with callers who have questions and stories about linguistics, old sayings, word histories, etymology, regional dialects, slang, new words, word play, word games, grammar, family expressions, books, literature, writing, and more. Email your language questions to words@waywordradio.org or call with your questions toll-free *any* time in the U.S. and Canada at 1 (877) 929-9673. From elsewhere in the world: +1 619 800 4443. All past shows are free: http://waywordradio.org/. On Twitter at http://twitter.com/wayword.

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    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.


    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: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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

  • Posted on 18 Feb 2019

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    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.


    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: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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

  • Posted on 11 Feb 2019

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    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.


    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: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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

  • Posted on 04 Feb 2019

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    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.


    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: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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

  • Posted on 28 Jan 2019

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    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.


    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: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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

  • Posted on 21 Jan 2019


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