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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 (87 ...
 
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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 ...…
 
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 o ...…
 
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, expre ...…
 
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 ...…
 
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 c ...…
 
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 ...…
 
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? ...…
 
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 apo ...…
 
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 ...…
 
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 t ...…
 
Perfect sentences and slang that tickles your mind. A new book of writing advice says that a good sentence "imposes a logic on the world's weirdness" and pares away options for meaning, word by word. Plus, your musician friend may refer to his guitar as an ax, but this slang term was applied to other musical instruments before it was ever used ...…
 
If you want to be a better writer, try skipping today's bestsellers, and read one from the 1930's instead. Or read something besides fiction in order to find your own metaphors and perspective. Plus, just because a city's name looks familiar doesn't mean you should assume you know how the locals pronounce it. The upstate New York town spelled R ...…
 
A caller with a 25-year-old parrot wonders: How much language do birds really understand? Plus, Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo. Well . . . you can guess the rest. But there was a time when these goofy jokes were a brand-new craze sweeping the nation. Finally, the words "coffee" and "sugar" both come from Arabic, as does another familiar word: gh ...…
 
If you catch your blue jeans on a nail, you may find yourself with a winklehawk. This term was adapted into English from Dutch, and means "an L-shaped tear in a piece of fabric." And: What's your relationship with the books on your shelves? Do the ones you haven't read yet make you feel guilty -- or inspired? Finally, we're all used to fairy ta ...…
 
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 prof ...…
 
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 fa ...…
 
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? ...…
 
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 pain ...…
 
A clever pun can make the difference between a so-so phrase and a memorable one. The phrase "the last straw" refers to an old fable about too many items in a load, but it takes on a whole new meaning in a public-awareness campaign about the environment. Also, why do we use the term "mob scene" to refer to an unruly crowd? This term originated i ...…
 
A stereotype is a preconceived notion about a person or group. Originally, though, the word stereotype referring to a printing device used to produce lots of identical copies. If you suspect there's a connection, you're right! Also, the link between tiny mythical creatures called trolls and modern-day mischief-makers, plus the stories behind th ...…
 
Sometimes it's a challenge to give a book a chance: How many pages should you read before deciding it's not worth your time? There's a new formula to help with that decision -- and it's all based on your age. And: Have you ever noticed someone mouthing your words as YOU speak? That conversational behavior can be disconcerting, but there may be ...…
 
In deafening workplaces, like sawmills and factories, workers develop their own elaborate sign language to discuss everything from how their weekend went to when the boss is on his way. Plus, English speakers borrowed the words lieutenant and precipice from French, and made some changes along the way, but not in ways you might suspect. Finally, ...…
 
Sensuous words and terms of endearment. Think of a beautiful word. Now, is it simply the word's sound that makes it beautiful? Or does its appeal also depend on meaning? Also, pet names for lovers around the world: You might call your beloved "honey," or "babe," or "boo." But in Swedish, your loved one is a "sweet nose," and in Persian, you can ...…
 
How often do you hear the words campaign and political in the same breath? Oddly enough, 19th-century grammarians railed against using campaign to mean "an electoral contest." Martha and Grant discuss why. And, lost in translation: a daughter accidentally insults her Spanish-speaking mother with the English phrase You can't teach an old dog new ...…
 
The names of professional sports teams often have surprising histories -- like the baseball team name inspired by, of all things, trolley-car accidents. Plus, some questions to debate at your next barbecue: Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? And when exactly does dusk or dawn begin? Dictionary editors wrestle with such questions all the ...…
 
You may have heard the advice that to build your vocabulary you should read, read, and then read some more--and make sure to include a wide variety of publications. But what if you just don't have that kind of time? Martha and Grant show how to learn new words by making the most of the time you do have. Also, when new words are added to a dicti ...…
 
This week on "A Way with Words": The language of political speech. Politicians have to repeat themselves so often that they naturally develop a repertoire of stock phrases to fall back on. But is there any special meaning to subtler locutions, such as beginning a sentence with the words "Now, look…"? Also, a peculiar twist in Southern speech ma ...…
 
How do languages change and grow? Does every language acquire new words in the same way? Martha and Grant focus on how that process happens in English and Spanish. Plus, the stories behind the Spanish word "gringo" and the old instruction to elementary school students to sit "Indian Style." Finally, the English equivalents of German sayings pro ...…
 
The stories behind slang, political and otherwise. The dated term "jingoism" denotes a kind of belligerent nationalism. But the word's roots lie in an old English drinking-house song that was popular during wartime. Speaking of fightin' words, the expression "out the side of your neck" came up in a feud between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa--and l ...…
 
Martha and Grant have book recommendations, including a collection of short stories inspired by dictionaries, and a techno-thriller for teens. Or, how about novels with an upbeat message? Publishers call this genre "up lit." Plus, a clergyman ponders an arresting phrase in the book Peter Pan: What does the author mean when he says that children ...…
 
The game of baseball has always inspired colorful commentary. Sometimes that means using familiar words in unfamiliar ways. The word "stuff," for example, can refer to a pitcher's repertoire, or to the spin on a ball, or what happens to the ball after a batter hits it. Also: nostalgia for summer evenings and fond terms for fireflies, plus a wor ...…
 
Brand names, children's games, and the etiquette of phone conversations. Those clever plastic PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes -- but where did the word PEZ come from? The popular candy's name is the product of wordplay involving the German word for "peppermint." Also, the story behind that sing-songy playground taunt: "Neener, neene ...…
 
When does a word's past make it too sensitive to use in the present? In contra dancing, there's a particular move that dancers traditionally call a gypsy. But there's a growing recognition that many people find the term gypsy offensive. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. Plus, the surprising story behind why we use ...…
 
Have you ever offered to foster a dog or cat, but wound up adopting instead? There's an alliterative term for that. And when you're on the job, do niceties like "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" make you sound too formal? Not if it comes naturally. And what about the term "auntie" (AHN-tee)? In some circles, it's considered respectful to address a wom ...…
 
In the 11 years Martha and I have been doing A Way with Words together, we’ve developed an attitude. It’s a positive attitude. It’s who we really are. It’s the attitude we take toward language, linguistics, and the people who use them. For example, we believe that if we all — you, me, everyone — try to perfect our understanding of language and ...…
 
How colors got their names, and a strange way to write. The terms "blue" and "orange" arrived in English via French, so why didn't we also adapt the French for black and white? Plus, not every example of writing goes in one direction across the page. In antiquity, people sometimes wrote right to left, then left to right, then back again -- the ...…
 
Teen slang from the South, and food words that are tricky to pronounce. High schoolers in Huntsville, Alabama, give Martha and Grant an earful about their slang -- including a term particular to their hometown. All we can say is: Don't be a "forf"! And: How do you pronounce the name of that tasty Louisiana specialty: Is it JUM-buh-lye-yah or JA ...…
 
A request from Martha. - 13 June 2018 Have you ever wanted to know who we really are? How Grant and I really see ourselves? Well, for one thing, we believe that talking about language should be about the variety of its possibilities. It shouldn’t be about limiting, or condemning, the different language of other people. Isn’t it cool that there ...…
 
There's a proverb that goes "Beloved children have many names." That's at least as true when it comes to the names we give our pets. "Fluffy" becomes "Fluffers" becomes "FluffFace" becomes "FlufferNutter, Queen of the Universe." Speaking of the celestial, how DID the top politician in California come to be named Governor Moonbeam, anyway? Blame ...…
 
When writing textbooks about slavery, which words best reflect its cold, hard reality? Some historians are dropping the word "slave" in favor of terms like "enslaved person" and "captive," arguing that these terms are more accurate. And raising a bilingual child is tough enough, but what about teaching them three languages? It's an ambitious go ...…
 
Vocabulary that trickles down from the top of the world. Malamute, kayak, and parka are just some of the words that have found their way into English from the language of indigenous people in northern climes. Also, the surprising language of physicists: in the 1970s, some scientists argued that two quarks should be called "truth" and "beauty." ...…
 
Secret codes, ciphers, and telegrams. It used to be that in order to transmit information during wartime, various industries encoded their messages letter by letter with an elaborate system--much like today's digital encryption. Grant breaks down some of those secret codes--and shares the story of the most extensive telegram ever sent. Plus, we ...…
 
Funny cat videos and cute online photos inspire equally adorable slang terms we use to talk about them. When a cat leaves its tongue out, that's a blep. A boop is a gentle tap on its nose. Also, when is a salamander not a salamander? The name of this animal once referred to a mythical beast that was impervious to fire. Now it also refers to hea ...…
 
The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma! Grant and Martha try to suss out the backstory of why some people spell that word with an "n." At lot of them, it seems, went to Catholic school. Maybe that's a clue? Plus, the saying "Close, but no cigar" gets traced back to an old carnival game. And the French horn isn't actually French—so why ...…
 
An Ohio community is divided over the name of the local high school's mascot. For years, their teams have been called the Redskins. Is that name derogatory -- or does it honor the history of Native Americans in that area? And: You know when you're waiting in line to make a left turn at a traffic light, but the driver ahead of you is so busy wit ...…
 
This week on "A Way with Words": This week on "A Way with Words": Can language change bad behavior in crowded places? The Irish Railway system has launched ad campaign to encourage passengers to be more generous at boarding time. For example, have you ever rummaged through your belongings or pretended to have an intense phone conversation in or ...…
 
If you think they refer to umbrellas as bumbershoots in the UK, think again. The word bumbershoot actually originated in the United States! In Britain, it's a brolly. Plus, a man who works a ski resort shares the vocabulary he and coworkers use to describe grooming the snow. And there's more than one way to pronounce the name of the bread that ...…
 
According to Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, it's important to master the basics of writing, but there comes a time when you have to strike out on your own and teach yourself. Also, some Spanish idioms involving food: What does it mean to flip the tortilla or to eat turkey at a dance? Plus, a conversation about the difference between compassion ...…
 
A young patron's sense of wonder prompts a moving tweet by a staffer at the Toronto Public Library. The phrases to put on the dog and putting on the dog refer to ostentatious behavior, and in particular to dressing in a flashy way. But what do dogs have to do with stylish clothing? Our discussion about the many ways to say someone is pregnant p ...…
 
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