A Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all overAuthor: Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, produced by Stefanie Levine
14 Nov 2018

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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    Care Package - 12 November 2018

    Sending someone a care package shows you care, of course. But the first care packages were boxes of food and personal items for survivors of World War II. They were from the Committee for American Remittances to Europe, the acronym for which is CARE. Also: Montgomery, Alabama is home to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This profoundly moving structure commemorates the thousands of African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950 in acts of racial terror. The word lynch itself goes back another century. Finally: a tender term in Arabic that celebrates the milestones of life. Plus high and dry, bought the ranch, neighbor spoofing, afghan blankets, bumbye, gauming around, barking at a knot, and taking the ten-toed mule.


    We send care packages to show others that we care, of course. Originally, though, a CARE package was a shipment of supplies from the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, a group of civic, social, religious, and labor organizations that banded together to help survivors struggling to rebuild their lives after World War II.

    Danielle in Los Angeles, California, wonders: If we call the 1960s the Sixties, what will we call the decade we're now in? And will the next decade be the 2020s? How do these names get decided anyway?

    The painful condition called shingles takes its name from Latin cingulum, meaning belt, because the inflammation often appears as a belt-like band around the torso. The Latin root of cingulum, cingere, meaning to gird, is also the source of cinch, a strap across the belly of a horse, and precinct, an area encircled on a map.

    Six-year-old Aya in Virginia asks about the expression high and dry. Her family member had worried about some relatives in the path of a storm, and phoned to ask if they were high and dry. This puzzled Aya because she had heard that it's a bad thing to leave someone high and dry. She discovers that it's an example of a phrase that can mean two very different things.

    Sarah in Fairbanks, Alaska, has a term to add to our discussion about colloquial terms for traveling on foot, like shank's mare, chevrolegs, and getting a ride with Pat and Charlie: taking Shoelace Express.

    Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle for fellow ailurophiles, also known as cat lovers. All the answers start with the letters CAT. Try this one: Cats are really stuck in the 20th century, they don't even order merchandise from websites. They get their clothes from where?

    Adair in Fort Worth, Texas, says that her mother described traveling a dangerous stretch of road, adding that she and her husband almost bought the ranch, meaning they came close to having a fatal wreck. The more common phrase is bought the farm. Originating around the time of World War II, the phrase he bought it or he bought a packet referred to a pilot in a deadly crash. The phrase to buy the farm most likely refers to the plot of land that is one's final resting place.

    Neighbor spoofing occurs when a scammer appropriates someone's phone number and makes it show up on Caller ID, increasing the odds that a recipient with pick up because the call appears to be from someone nearby. The word spoof itself was popularized by 19th-century British comedian Arthur Roberts.

    Lacy from Virginia Beach, Virginia, says her Lebanese in-laws often use the expression Ya'arburnee when addressing an adorable child. Literally it translates as May you bury me, the idea being that the child is so precious it would be unable to live without them. A similar phrase in Arabic translates as May my last day dawn before yours. Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being by Tim Lomas is an exploration of positive words and phrases used around the world that reflect similar bonds within loving relationships.

    When Matt was growing up in western North Carolina, he heard the word gaum, also spelled gom, meaning a mess. Someone misbehaving might be described as gauming around, or something was gaumed up, meaning messed up, or a person was dismissed as simply a gaum. He also heard the exclamation They! used to mean Wow! Most likely this use of the word they, along with the exclamations They Lord! and They God!, is a variation of There!

    Andrea from Reno, Nevada, submits yet another term for traveling by foot: taking the ten-toed mule.

    A trip to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit The Legacy Museum chronicling the African-American experience, the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University, and the profoundly moving National Memorial for Peace and Justice prompts Martha to delve into the etymology of the word lynch. This term for killing by a mob to punish individuals and terrorize communities is likely an eponym deriving from the name of Captain William Lynch, who led vigilante groups during the American Revolution. In later years, between 1877 and 1950, more than 4400 African-Americans were lynched in the United States.

    Joseph in San Diego, California, says that during high school he lived in Hawaii, where he picked up the word bumbye which means sooner or later or eventually. It's probably a version of by and by. For a closer look at the language of Hawaii, Grant recommends Da Word by Lee Tonouchi and Joseph recommends Pidgin to Da Max.

    To bark at a knot means to engage in foolish or futile activity, like a dog yapping at a knothole on a tree.

    Malia in San Diego is of Afghan descent, and wonders why crocheted blankets are referred to as afghans. There is a long, rich history of textile weaving in Afghanistan with repeated geometric designs, and the term afghan was probably borrowed to apply to the blankets consisting of lots of stitched yarn squares.

    If someone is garrulous, you might say they're talkative. If they like to amble about, you can describe them as walkative. In fact, there's a Walkative Society in England.

    Kieran in Huntsville, Alabama, wonders about the term laid an egg meaning performed badly. The expression to lay an egg goes back at least as far as cricket matches in the 1860s, where duck's egg referred to a zero on a scoreboard. Later in the United States, the term goose egg denoted the same thing. The metaphor was extended to the notion of laying an egg, and not just any egg, but a rotten one, suggesting a performance was bad.

    Joe in Huntsville, Alabama, says an elderly friend consistently uses the word hope to mean help. For more than a century, there's been a strong tradition among some speakers in parts of the Southern United States to drop the L sound in words, which then affects the adjacent vowel.

    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 12 Nov 2018

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    Hell for Leather (Rebroadcast) - 5 November 2018

    Victorian slang and a modern controversy over language and gender. In the early 1900's, a door-knocker wasn't just what visitors used to announce their arrival, it was a type of beard with a similar shape. And in the 21st century: Is it ever okay to call someone a lady? Or is woman always the better term? Plus, surprising stories behind some familiar car brands. Chances are you've been stopped in traffic behind a car named for an ancient Persian deity -- or passed by an automobile that takes its name from a bilingual pun involving German and Latin.

    The 1909 volume Passing English of the Victorian Era by J. Redding Ware has a wealth of slang terms from that era. One entry even includes musical notation for Please mother open the door, a slang phrase that was sung, rather than spoken, to express admiration for a woman.

    A 13-year-old from San Diego, California, wonders: Why do we call that breakfast staple toast instead of, say, toasted bread? It's natural to find shortcuts for such terms; we've also shortened pickled cucumbers to just pickles.

    A wise Spanish proverb, Cada cabeza es un mundo, translates as "Every head is a world," meaning we each have our own perspective.

    A caller from Long Beach, California, say hell for leather describes "a reckless abandonment of everything but the pursuit of speed." But why hell for leather? The expression seems to have originated in the mid-19th century, referencing the wear and tear on the leather from a rough ride on horseback at breakneck speed. But similar early versions include hell falleero and hell faladery. There's also hell for election, which can mean the same thing, and appears to be a variation of hell-bent for election.   

    Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes. The job requires extra pluck and zeal from every young wage-earner. Both of those sentences are pangrams, meaning they use every letter of the alphabet. Our Facebook group has been discussing these and lots of other alternatives to the old typing-teacher classic The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, sleeping dog.

    Quiz Guy John Chaneski has designed a puzzle inspired by the movie Finding Dory about two language experts who journey around the ocean looking for le mot juste. For example, what sea creature whose name literally means "daughter of the wind"?

    When is it appropriate to refer to someone a lady? Is woman a better word to use? Is it ever appropriate to refer to adult females as girls? It all depends on context -- who's doing the talking and who's doing the listening.

    As Mark Twain observed, The compliment that helps us on our way is not the one that is shut up in the mind, but the one that is spoken out. Martha describes a compliments challenge that her friends are taking up on Facebook, with happy results.

    A Dallas, Texas, caller says his girlfriend from a rural part of his state has an unusual way of pronouncing certain words. Email sounds like EE-mill, toenail like TOW-nell, and tell-tale like TELL-tell. These sounds are the result of a well-known feature of language change known as a vowel merger.

    Riddle time! I exist only when there's light, but direct light kills me. What am I?

    The stories behind the brand names of automobiles is sometimes surprising. The name of the Audi derives from a bilingual pun involving a German word, and Mazda honors the central deity of Zoroastrianism, with which the car company's founder had a fascination.

    A high-school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, wonders about the origin of the term honky. This word is widely considered impolite, and likely derives from various versions of the term hunky or hunyak used to disparage immigrants from Eastern Europe.

    Lots of foods are named for what happens to them. Mozzarella comes from an Italian word that means "cut," feta cheese takes its name from a Greek word meaning the same thing, and schnitzel derives from a German word that also means "to cut."

    Why do some people pronounce the word sandwich as SANG-wich or SAM-mitch or SAM-widge?

    In the 19th century, the slang term door-knocker referred to a beard-and-mustache combo that ringed the mouth in the shape of a metal ring used to tap on a door.

    A Canadian-born caller says her mother, who is from Britain, addresses her grandson as booby.   
    In The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, researchers Iona and Peter Opie write that booby is a children's term for "a foolish crybaby," which may be connected.

    The 1909 slang collection Passing English of the Victorian Era defines the phrase to introduce shoemaker to tailor this way: "Evasive metaphor for fundamental kicking." In other words, to introduce shoemaker to tailor means to give someone a swift kick in the pants.

    This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


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

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

  • Posted on 05 Nov 2018

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    Ding Ding Man - 29 October 2018

    In 1803, a shy British pharmacist wrote a pamphlet that made him a reluctant celebrity. The reason? He proposed a revolutionary new system for classifying clouds--with Latin names we still use today, like cumulus, cirrus, and stratus. Also: when reading aloud to children, what's the best way to present a dialect that's different from your own? Finally, recycling our trash demands close attention. Professionals in the recycling business say it's important to be sure that an item is truly recyclable. If you're only guessing when you toss it in the blue bin, then you're engaging in wishcycling -- and that does more harm than good.  Plus, T Jones, diegetic vs. non-diegetic, affixes, solastalgia, and since Sooki was a calf.


    On Twitter, @HerbertStyles ponders what it would be like if all the punctuation marks went to a party.

    Katrina in Williamsburg, Virginia, asks if it's pretentious to use the word said to describe something previously referred to. Using said to mean the aforesaid or the aforementioned is far more common in legal documents, but there's nothing inherently incorrect about using it in other contexts, or using it in an ironic or jocular way in social media. In fact, speakers of English have been using said this way for more than 700 years.

    In film production, the term diegetic refers to a sound that occurs within the story itself that the characters supposedly hear, whereas non-diegetic sound refers to background music or narration. For example, the tune played by the pianist in Casablanca is diegetic, while the stirring background music during the training sequences in the movie Rocky is non-diegetic. Diegetic comes from a Greek word that means narrative.

    Brad from Allen, Texas, is curious about a slang term he's heard only in Texas, used to refer affectionately to a mother or grandmother: T Jones. Most uses of this term for a parent or grandmother seem to occur in the Dallas area. It's been around since the 1970s, but not much more is known about the expression or its origin.

    Recycling companies discourage what they call wish-cycling. That's when people err on the side of tossing a questionable item in the recycling bin, like a tinfoil lid from a cup of yogurt or some other material that they hope is recyclable. Those items can gum up the works at the Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, causing costly delays or damage.

    How is a popular tune like a butterfly? Quiz Guy John Chaneski says the answer to this riddle involves an adjective ending in the letter Y. So do all the other answers in this week's puzzle.

    Cara in San Diego, California, notes that the word monologue refers to something spoken by one person while dialogue involves two people speaking, and that a bicycle, has two wheels, and a unicycle has one. So why aren't they monocycles and dicycles? The di- in dialogue is from the Greek word dia- meaning through. For a thorough exploration of these and other affixes in English, check out Michael Quinion's affixes.org.

    Solastalgia is psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, or by change to a place that has been familiar. Coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia combines the Greek root -algia, meaning pain, and solas-, suggesting both desolation and a lack of solace.

    Monica in Tallahassee, Florida, says that while reading the book Flossie and the Fox to her children, she wondered: What's the right way for a parent to render dialect if the dialect is not one's own?

    Gerald from San Diego, California, says his mother, who was from North Carolina, used the phrase since Sooki was a calf to mean for a long time. The words sook and sookie are among many traditionally used to call cows from the pasture. The phrase since Sooki was a calf falls in line with several other fanciful phrases to indicate a long time, including since Hector was a pup or since Pluto was a pup or since Christ left Chicago.

    In the early 19th, a shy British chemist named Luke Howard self-published a pamphlet called Essay on the Modifications of Clouds, which proposed a taxonomy of cloud formations. To his surprise, the pamphlet captured the public imagination, turned Howard into a reluctant celebrity, and inspired artists from the German writer Goethe to the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Latin terms Howard proposed for various types of clouds, such as cirrus, stratus, and cumulus, are still in use today.

    Rod from Dallas, Texas, recalls that when something wasn't quite right, his favorite aunt, who was born and raised in Arkansas, would exclaim Don't that just frost ya?

    Inspired by Luke Howard's groundbreaking Essay on the Modifications of Clouds, the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley penned his poem The Cloud, an example of personification.

    Mike from Green Bay, Wisconsin, says his dad claims to have coined the term radke for a half-finished beer, and that the term is widespread. Is it? More widespread and well-documented terms for such unfinished drinks are wounded soldier and grenade.

    Rachel, who moved from Nebraska to attend school in College Park, Maryland, says her friends were surprised when she referred to the driver of an ice cream truck as the ding ding man. Indeed, this term seems to be limited largely to Omaha, Nebraska, and parts of that state. The term ding ding man has also been applied to the conductor of a trolley car.

    Tracy in northern Idaho writes that her young son refers to egg nog as chicken milk.

    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 29 Oct 2018

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    Take Tea for the Fever - 22 October 2018

    Silence comes in lots of different forms. In fact, says writer Paul Goodman, there are several kinds: There's the noisy silence of "resentment and self-recrimination," and the helpful, participatory silence of actively listening to someone speak. Plus, the strange story behind the English words "grotesque" and "antic": both involve bizarre paintings found in ancient Roman ruins. Finally, the whirring sound of a Betsy bug and a moth's dusty wings give rise to picturesque English words and phrases. Plus millers, keysmash, subpar, placer mining, dinklepink and padiddle, machatunim and consuegros, and to clock someone.


    Another term for moth is miller or dusty miller, so named the powdery wings of these insects recall the image of a miller covered in flour. That's also the inspiration behind the name of the dusty miller plant.

    Elaine from Boulder, Colorado, wonders: What's the origin of the slang term to clock someone meaning to hit them?

    After the death of Aretha Franklin, her ex-husband described her as someone who didn't take tea for the fever. If you don't take tea for the fever, you refuse to put up with any nonsense. This .expression appears in a story by Langston Hughes.

    Jeff from Huntsville, Alabama, remembers playing a game on family road trips called padiddle. If you see a car at night with one headlight out, you say Padiddle! The first person to do so gets to punch a fellow passenger. His wife's family played a variation in which the winner was entitled to a kiss. There are various rules for the game and various names, including perdiddle perdunkle, pasquaddle, cockeye, cockeye piddle, dinklepink, and popeye. There's also the slug bug version that specifically involves spotting a Volkswagen.

    A keysmash is a random string of letters typed as a way of indicating intense emotion, such as frustration.

    There are scores of new television shows out there, which inspired Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle based on names of TV programs you may not have heard of. For example, is Cloak and Dagger a series about spies in the 1940s, or is it about two superheroes called Cloak and Dagger?

    Cecily from Indianapolis, Indiana, recalls her North Carolina-born grandmother would describe someone doing something stupid as being crazy as a Betsy bug. The phrase alludes to the horned beetle, also known as the patent-leather beetle, a large black insect that makes a whirring noise when disturbed. It's also called a Betsy bug, bess bug, or bessie bug.

    Joseph from Wilson, Wyoming, wonders: Why is subpar, or in other words under par, a good thing in golf but nowhere else?

    Sue from Rancho Palos Verdes, California, says her daughter Pip used to talk about how much she loved the jazz singer Elephants Gerald.

    Judith in Newbury Park, California, shares a funny story about how she used to mispronounce the word grotesque with three syllables. This term meaning strange or unnatural or absurdly exaggerated goes back to Italian grottesca, or having to do with caves, and refers to fantastical subterranean murals discovered in Roman ruins featuring strange and exaggerated figures. Thus grotesque is a linguistic relative of the word grotto. Another English term associated with those bizarre paintings the word antic, from Italian antica, meaning old, and a relative of the English word antique.

    Susan in Traverse City, Michigan, wonders if there's a single English word that denotes the relationship between two mothers-in-law, two fathers-in-law, or a mother-in-law and father-in-law. Co-mother seems too vague, and the psychologists' terms affine or co-affine, from the same root as affinity, aren't used widely among the rest of the population. In Spanish there's consuegro, and in Yiddish machatunim, as well as words in Portuguese, Italian, and Greek, but nothing that's been adopted into English, and the German Gegenschwiegermutter doesn't seem a likely candidate, either.

    Silence exists in more than one form. In his book Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry, Paul Goodman eloquently evokes several of them.

    Will from Lexington, Kentucky, has a long-running dispute with his girlfriend. Is it appropriate to call the machine that launders your clothing a clothes-washing machine rather than just a washing machine? And why do we call the machine that cleans the dishes a dishwasher rather than a dish-washing machine?

    In an earlier conversation, we discussed the term gypsy and its ugly history as a slur against the Roma people. That history prompted the Actors' Equity Association to choose a new name for its traditional Gypsy Robe. For decades, this garment was awarded to the chorus member in a Broadway musical who has the most production credits. However, it's now called the Legacy Robe.

    Placer mining is a method of extracting gold from alluvial deposits. You might guess that the word is pronounced with a long a, but used in this context, it's actually a short vowel. The term derives from a Spanish word for that kind of surface, and goes back to the same Latin root that gives us both plaza and place.

    Brian in Church Hill, Tennessee, had a band called Smackin' Bejeebus. The latter word, more commonly rendered as Bejesus or Bejeezus, is a mild oath that euphemizes the name Jesus, is often used for emphasis.


    A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: 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 22 Oct 2018

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    Come see Martha and Grant live!

    Join A Way with Words, public radio's lively show about language, for a fantastic evening! Slang, dialect, etymology, language change, new words, and a whole lot more.
    We'll explore the amazing oddities of English, from the very old to the very new — plus host a language Q&A where you can find out what you've always wanted to know.
    You'll come away enlightened and inspired. :)
    If you don't see your city fill out this survey to show your interest. We go where the demand is! If enough people in a place ask for A Way with Words, we’ll do our best to make it happen.
    You can learn more about our events, and keep up with new dates we've added, on our events page.
    See you soon!
    Martha Barnette & Grant Barrett
    co-hosts of A Way with Words

  • Posted on 17 Oct 2018


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