A Way With Words

Saturday, 2:00 p.m - 3:00 p.m. on KUOW2

A Way With Words is an upbeat and lively hour-long public radio show about language examined through history, culture and family. Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett talk with callers from around the world about slang, grammar, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, and speaking and writing well. They settle disputes, play word quizzes, and discuss language news and controversies.

Composer ID: 
5182a735e1c8bbce02e2bf27|5182a70fe1c89ec2617cc30a

Podcasts

  • Sunday, September 14, 2014 11:27am

    Starting this year, Scripps National Spelling Bee contestants not only have to spell words correctly. A controversial new rule means they'll have to answer vocabulary questions, too. Also, when it comes to reading text, do you prefer "paper" or "plastic"? Some research suggests that comprehension is slightly better when you read offline instead of on a screen. And the term winkle out, plus bike slang, the military origin of I've got your six, why the word awfully isn't awful, and where you'll find onion snow.

    FULL DETAILS

    The Scripps National Spelling Bee, long beloved for its youngsters stammering out words like appoggiatura, is about to change this year, when they're also forced to define words like appoggiatura. Officials added two rounds of computerized vocabulary tests to the early rounds of the tournament. In some circles, though, this new rule spells C-O-N-T-R-O-V-E-R-SY.

    If someone's got your six, it means they've got your back. This expression comes from the placement of numbers on an analog clock, and appears to have originated with military pilots.

    Is there such thing as a half a hole? Most holes are whole holes, but even half holes are whole holes, if you think about it. In any case, it's a fun conundrum, sort of like asking someone if they're asleep. Children's book author Robert McCloskey had some fun with a similar idea in a little ditty in one of his Homer Price stories.

    Michel de Montaigne once wrote, "A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears." This is a classic example of chiasmus, or a reversal of clauses that together make a larger point.

    Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska takes a break from his music career to bring us a game called Initia-rithmetic. For example, if he says there are 4 P's depicted on M.R., what do those initials stand for? The answer to that one is, you might say, monumental.

    Lesley Tweedie from Chicago, Illinois, owns a bike shop, and shares some slang from her workplace. A boomerang bike is one of those bikes that goes out the door and comes back 20 minutes later for another repair. JRA refers to those instances when someone was just riding along when something broke down. And a bikeochondriac is someone who comes in claiming there's something wrong with it, but the wrench (a bike mechanic) just can't find the problem.

    When someone's fly is down, do you say XYZ for "Examine your zipper"? For a change of pace, you might try another euphemistic expression used the Southern United States and South Midlands: Is your finger sore? As in, Is your finger too sore to zip up your pants?

    What Americans call a cold draft, the British call a cold draught. Noah Webster deserves most of the responsibility for changing the British spelling. Regardless of how they're spelled, both words rhyme with "daft," not "drought."

    In parts of Pennsylvania, a late-spring dusting of light snow is called onion snow. It's a reference to the way little green onion shoots are poking through the white.

    Is an iPad just a magazine that doesn't work? The now-classic video of a child thumbing over a magazine to no effect comes to mind given a recent article in Scientific American about our comprehension of things read on e-readers as opposed to printed books. As it turns out, we retain slightly more when reading a real book.

    Awfully might seem like an awful choice for a positive adverb, as in awfully talented, but it makes sense given the history of awful. Once intended to mean filled with awe, it's now a general intensifier. The process of semantic weakening has meant that awfully, along with terribly and horribly, has become synonymous with the word very. Actually, the word very went through a similar process. Very derives from Latin verus, "true," and is cognate with verify.

    Amber from Berlin, New Hampshire, works in a prison, and wants to know why those ominous double sets of prison doors are called by the feminine-sounding name sallyport. Going back to the 1600s, a sallyport was a fortified entrance to a military structure. The name comes from Latin salire, meaning "to go out" or "to leave."

    If something needs to be carefully extracted, you'll want to winkle it out. This Britishism comes from winkles, those edible snails that must be gingerly pulled out of their shells.

    Keep the ishpee out of your mouth. One caller's parents used to shout Ishpee! when he or his siblings would try and eat dirt, marbles, or whatever they found on the floor. He wonders if this expression is unique to his family. It may be related to the exclamation Ish!, which is used particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, when encountering something really disgusting. Ish may derive from similar-sounding words expressions of disgust from Scandinavian languages.

    This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.
    ....

    Support for A Way with Words comes from The Ken Blanchard Companies, celebrating 35 years of making a leadership difference with Situational Leadership II, the leadership model designed to boost effectiveness, impact, and employee engagement. More about how Blanchard can help your executives and organizational leaders at kenblanchard.com/leadership.

    --

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

    Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

    Email: words@waywordradio.org

    Phone:
    United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
    London +44 20 7193 2113
    Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

    Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
    Site: http://waywordradio.org/
    Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
    Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
    Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
    Skype: skype://waywordradio

    Copyright 2014, Wayword LLC.

  • Sunday, September 7, 2014 8:54pm

    Have a question about objective pronouns? Whom ya gonna call? Wait--is that right? Or would it be "who ya gonna call"? "Whom" may be technically correct, but insisting on it can get you called an elitist. It's enough to make you nervous as a polecat in a perfume parlor! And if you really want to dig a hole all the way to China, don't start anywhere in the continental United States--you'll come out at the bottom of the ocean! Plus, how to pronounce the name of the Show-Me State, catfishing, gallon smashing, and what it means to conversate.

    FULL DETAILS

    March 4 was National Grammar Day, an occasion that prompted thoughtful essays and discussions about grammar, as well as a Tweeted Haiku Contest, for which Martha served a judge. Arika Okrent, author of In The Land of Invented Languages, took the prize with this one: I am an error/ And I will never reveal myself/ After you press send. Actually, that tweet became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because she soon followed up with an apt correction: Make that "send".

    The idea of digging a hole to China surfaces as early as 1872 in a Chamber's Journal fiction piece about beavers and engineers. Unfortunately, digging from almost anywhere in the United States would lead you to open water on the other end. To dig straight through to China, you'd have to start shoveling in Northern Argentina. There'd also be a few pesky physics problems to work out, like the fiery, molten mass at the center of the Earth. Here's how to find out where you'd end up when you start digging from anywhere on the planet, and how to make an earth sandwich with your antipodes.

    Whom you gonna call about discrepancies regarding who and whom? Grant and Martha, that's who. Although whom to contact is a correct use of whom, it's fast becoming obsolete, with growing numbers of people viewing it as elitist, effete, or both. But fair warning: Do not correct someone on this unless you're sure you have your facts straight!

    Here's another tweeted haiku from Liz Morrison in San Diego: "Serial comma/ Chicago yes, AP no/ You bewilder me."

    Quiz Master John Chaneski has a game about professions that match their respective verbs. What, for example, does a tutor do?

    Conversate, a variation of the word converse, is part of African-American Vernacular English, but with a slightly different meaning. To conversate is "to converse raucously." This word goes back to at least 1811, and it's well-known to many African-Americans. It's commonly heard in the Bahamas and Jamaica as well.

    Martha spoke recently at an Audubon Society event, where she traced the role of the Latin stem greg-. It's a form of the Latin word grex meaning "flock" or "herd." This root appears in many English words involving groups, including aggregate, congregate, gregarious, as well as the word egregious--literally, "standing outside the herd."

    Cain from Dublin, Ireland, wonders why sportscasters in his country often say a team's at sixes and sevens when they're looking disorganized or nonplussed. The leading theory suggests that sixes and sevens, primarily heard in the United Kingdom, comes from a French dice games similar to craps, called hazard, wherein to set on cinque and sice (from the French words for five and six) was the riskiest roll.

    Old Eddard sayings were plentiful in the 1930s, when the Lum and Abner radio show was a hit in households across the country. Lum Edwards, who made up half of the cornball duo, would offer up such wise sayings as I always found that the best way to figure out what tomorrow's weather was going to be is to wait until tomorrow comes along. That way you never make a mistake.

    Did you know that the word rack can also mean "one thousand," as in, he has four racks, or four thousand dollars? Here's another slang term: Gallon Smashing. It's the latest craze in pranks involving gallons of milk, a grocery store aisle to smash them on, and plenty of free time to waste. And of course, no slang roundup could fail to mention catfishing, the practice of lying to someone on the Internet in order to manipulate them, as in the case of former Notre Dame star Manti Te'o and noted Pacific Islander uberprankster Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

    On the occasion of National Grammar Day, University of Illinois linguist Dennis Barron has pointed out some arresting posters from a wartime version from the early 20th century. They're from a 1918 Chicago Women's Club initiative called Better American Speech Week, a jingoistic campaign tinged with nationalism and ethnocentrism.

    Stanley Wilkins, a listener from Tyler, Texas, shares the idiom nervous as a pole cat in a perfume parlor. A polecat, more commonly known as a skunk, also fronts such gems as mean as a polecat, nervous as a pole cat in a standoff with a porcupine, and tickled as a polecat eating briars. In other news, Grant admits that, from a reasonable distance, he enjoys the mephitic emanations of Mephitis mephitis.

    A while back, we talked about the game Going To Texas, where two kids hold hands and spin around until they fall over dizzy. Becca Turpel from San Diego, California, said she knows the game as Wrist Rockets. Others have identified it as Dizzy Dizzy Dinosaur. Has anyone ever called it Fun?

    How do you pronounce Missouri? The late Donald Lance, a former professor from the University of Missouri at Columbia, compiled the exhaustive research that became The Pronunciation of Missouri: Variation and Change in American English, which traces the discrepancy between Missour-ee and Missour-uh all the way back to the 1600s. Today the pronunciation mostly divides along age lines, with older people saying Missour-uh and younger ones saying Missour-ee. The exceptions are politicians, who often say Missour-uh to sound authentic or folksy.

    Nancy Friedman, who writes the blog Fritinancy, tweeted this haiku for National Grammar Day: Dear yoga teacher/ if you say down once more/ I'll hurt you, no lie.

    If someone's a pound of pennies, it means they're a valuable asset and a pain in the butt, all at the same time. Grant and Martha are stumped on the origin of this one, though it is true that a pound of pennies comes out to about $1.46. One suspects that this guy's banker felt the same way about him.

    Have you heard chick used as a verb? Runners and triathletes use it to refer to a female passing a male in a race, as in You just got chicked!

    This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.
    ....

    Support for A Way with Words comes from The Ken Blanchard Companies, celebrating 35 years of making a leadership difference with Situational Leadership II, the leadership model designed to boost effectiveness, impact, and employee engagement. More about how Blanchard can help your executives and organizational leaders at kenblanchard.com/leadership.

    --

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

    Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

    Email: words@waywordradio.org

    Phone:
    United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
    London +44 20 7193 2113
    Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

    Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
    Site: http://waywordradio.org/
    Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
    Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
    Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
    Skype: skype://waywordradio

    Copyright 2014, Wayword LLC.

  • Monday, September 1, 2014 7:44am

    SUMMARY

     

    Today's most popular dog names are Max and Bella. In the Middle Ages, though, dogs would answer to names like Amiable. Or Nosewise. Or even . . . Clench. And is the term redneck derogatory? Some folks proudly claim that name. They say it's high time they were redneckcognized. Also, the origin of the phrase rule of thumb, whistling Dixie, the eephus pitch, terms for flabby underarms, and craptastic substitutes for swear words, like Sacapuntas!

     

    FULL DETAILS

     

    Grant and Martha recently served as expert spellers at the San Diego Council on Literacy's annual Adult Spelling Bee, but don't let the age group or philanthropic mission fool you—spelling bees are always i-n-t-e-n-s-e. The word Rorschach shall forever haunt them, but they also took away a new favorite—homologate, meaning to sanction or officially approve. As in, "I'm Joe Blow, and I homologated this message."

     

    There comes a time in life where waving hello means showing off some flabby underarm, but we have some slang to make "flabby underarm" sound a little less icky. A hi-Betty takes its name from the idea of someone waving hi to a friend named Betty. They're also known as hi-Helens, bingo wings, bat wings, and flying squirrels. 

     

    A while back we asked listeners what they call tourists in their neck of the woods, and we've heard back about tourons, which combines tourists and morons, and in the Florida panhandle, folks from out of town are known as sand dollars for bringing along their pocketbooks.

     

    Where does the term redneck come from, and is it derogatory? It goes back at least to the 1830s where it pops up in the Carolinas to refer to a farmer that works in the sun. Over time, people like listener Richard Ramirez of Fort Worth, Texas, have taken it as a term of pride, denoting their authenticity and work ethic. The reality series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo has furthered the cause with her call to redneckognize!  As always, whether such a term is offensive depends on who's saying it, and to whom.

     

    Grant dug up an old book of English proverbs, with gems like Novelty always appears handsome, and New dishes beget new appetites. Perhaps you can consider those before lining up for that new iPhone.

     

    Our Puzzle Master John Chaneski has a quiz for all the fans out there--as in fans of Star Trek, or The X-Files, or trains. Come to think of it, what would you call a fan of A Way with Words?

     

    Baseball fans know the eeuphus pitch—that arcing lob made famous by Rip Sewell in the 1946 All-Star Game. Before that, the word eephus referred to insider information. Jim Strain in La Mesa, California, even uses it as a verb, as in, that dog's not allowed on the couch, but he'll eephus his way on somehow.

     

    Do you have junk in your frunk? As in, the front trunk, found on cars like this zippy Tesla.

     

    Where does rule of thumb come from? The idiom referring to a practical measure based on experience was never actually a law, though it does pop up in legal opinions suggesting that it'd be okay to let a man beat his wife if the stick was less than a thumb in width. 

     

    If you need to release some tension but don't want to curse, try shouting Sacapuntas! This Spanish word for "pencil sharpener" falls into a colorful line of curses that aren't actually curses. For plenty of others, turn to Michelle Witte's book The Craptastic Guide to Pseudo-Swearing.

     

    The term daisy cutting, which refers to the low action trot that Arabian and Thoroughbred horses do, is reminiscent of the low grounder in baseball known as a daisy cutter and even the Daisy Cutter explosive, which shoots low-flying shrapnel. 

     

    According to vetstreet.com, the top ten female puppy names from 2012 include Bella, Daisy, Lucy, Molly and Lola. Notice anything odd? They're all human names! Gone are the days of pets named Fluffy and Pooch; in are the days of human children named after fruits and vegetables. In the Middle Ages, though, you might run into dogs that answer to Amiable, Trinket, Nosewise, Holdfast, and Clench. For more about pet ownership back then, check out historian Kathleen Walker Meikle's book Medieval Pets.

     

    Do you have spizerinctum (or spizzerinctum) and huckledebuck? These terms for passion and energy, respectively, are fun examples of false Latin, meaning they replicate the look and mouthful of Latin words but aren't actually Latin. Huckledebuck, which can also mean commotion or craziness, has been in use for over one hundred years, but still hasn't been cited in any dictionaries.

     

    You ain't just whistling Dixie, and that's the truth! Whistling Dixie, which refers to a wistful carelessness, comes from the song that originated in minstrel shows and from which the South takes its nickname. But if you say someone ain't just whistling Dixie, it means they're not kidding around.

     

    Come on over for dinner, we'll knock a tater in the head or something! This lovely form of a dinner invite came to us from Vera, a listener in British Columbia who heard it while living in Arkansas.

     

    Elbow grease isn't a product you can buy at the hardware store. If a task demands elbow grease, that just means whatever you're doing requires hard work.

     

    This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

    ....

     

    Support for A Way with Words also comes from National University, which invites you to change your future today. More at http://www.nu.edu/.

     

    --

     

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

     

    Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

     

    Email: words@waywordradio.org

     

    Phone: 

    United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673

    London +44 20 7193 2113

    Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

     

    Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate

    Site: http://waywordradio.org/

    Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/

    Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/

    Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/

    Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/

    Skype: skype://waywordradio 

     

    Copyright 2013, Wayword LLC.

  • Sunday, August 24, 2014 3:57pm

    It's the Up Goer Five Challenge! Try to describe something complex using only the thousand most common words in English. It's a useful mental exercise that's harder than you might think. Also, if you want to make a room dark, you might turn off the lights. But you might also cut them off or shut them. You probably know the experience of hearing or seeing a word so long that it ceases to make sense. But did you know linguists have a term for that? Plus, cumshaw artists, the history of Hoosier and beep, and the debate over whether numbers are nouns or adjectives.

    FULL DETAILS

    Who uses the phone book these days, right? The people of Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia do! And not only are their names printed, but so are their nicknames. If you're looking to call Carrots, Lettuce Leaf, Moose, Diesel, or Hose, they're all in there.

    What makes a word a word? If something's not in the dictionary, you might not be able to use it in Scrabble. But dictionaries aren't the last word on whether a word is legitimate. If you use a word that someone else understands, then it's a word. So when Johnny from East Hampton, New York, called to ask if his made-up term micronutia, meaning "something even smaller than minutia," was a real word, he was happy with our answer.

    We've all had the experience of saying a word over and over again until it starts to sound like nonsense. Linguists call this semantic satiation, although you might also think of it as Gnarly Foot phenomenon. Stare at your foot long enough, and you'll start to wonder how such a bizarre-looking thing could ever be attached to your body. Something similar happens with language.

    A bleeble is that little sound or word they throw into a radio broadcast, like the call letters, that serves as a brief signature.

     Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game using three-word phrases linked by the word and. For example, what idiom could be described literally as a country carnival found in the center of town? Hint: this phrase could also be used to describe a good bet.

    Is Hoosier a derogatory term? People from Indiana proudly embrace it, but in the dialect island that is the St. Louis area, the word means someone who is uncouth or uncultured. In Southern Appalachia, the related words hoodger, and hoojer still refer to a rustic, ill-mannered person from the hills.

    How do you make a room dark? Do you shut the lights, cut the lights, or turn off the lights? "Shut the light," as Bob Dylan sang, may derive from old lanterns on which you'd shut a little door. They're all correct, though even the most common phrase, turn off the light, sounds weird when you think about it. After all, you're not turning anything if you're flipping a switch up and down.

    In architecture and design, an affordance is a part of something that serves a function, like the handle on a cup or the notch in a dictionary where you put your thumb. In language we have affordances, too, such as words that indicate a place for someone else to speak or respond.

    Is a number a noun or an adjective? Even dictionary editors struggle with how to classify parts of speech. Like color, such words often lie along a spectrum, and asking at what point the number seven goes from a noun to an adjective is like asking at what point blue becomes purple.

    A while back, we talked about bookmashes—the found poetry formed by book spines stacked on top of each other. On our Facebook page, Irvin Kanines shared her bookmash: Shortcuts to Bliss/ Running with Scissors/ Naked/ Why Didn't I Think of That?

    Try to explain something while only using the thousand most common words in English. It's harder than you might think. This comic from xkcd points out the difficulty in describing a space ship called the Up Goer Five, and an Up-Goer Five Text Editor points out what words don't fit. The challenge becomes even more fun if you're trying to describe complex subjects like science or engineering.

    Tracy from Sherman, Texas, wonders why her dad always used cabbage as a verb to mean "to pilfer or swipe." This term goes back to at least the 18th century, when the verb to cabbage had to do with employee theft. Specifically, it referred to the way dressmakers would cut fabric for a garment and keep the excess for themselves, perhaps rolling it into a little ball that looked like, well, cabbage. Today, a student might sneak in a cabbage sheet to cheat on a test.

    To hoodwink, or put something over on someone, derives from the act of thieves literally throwing a hood on victims before robbing them, thereby making them wink, which has an archaic meaning of "to close one's eyes."

    Sue in Eureka, California, was working at the grocery store during Senior Day when she reminded an elderly customer that the woman might be eligible for a discount. The shopper responded, "Thanks for the tap on the shoulder." Did that mean Sue had said something offensive? No. A tap on the shoulder is simply a way of alerting a stranger to something, since the shoulder is an appropriate body part to touch on someone you don't know.

    Think you know Downton Abbey? Try using the Up-Goer Five Text Editor to describe the plot using the thousand most common words in English! Your description probably won't sound much like the Dowager Countess.

    When did we start using the word beep? After all, today we have car horns, microwaves and other electronic gizmos that beep, but before the early 1900s, nothing ever beeped. It makes you wonder: How did people back then know their Hot Pocket was ready?

    We spoke earlier about cumshaw artists, or people who get things done by crafty stealing or bartering. Alan Johnson from Plano, Texas, told us a story from his Air Force days in Vietnam, when he and some comrades stole a bunch of plywood by sneaking onto a Navy base and loading it into the truck. When a Naval officer saw them, they started unloading it and explaining how they'd come to drop off some excess wood. So the officer told them to get their wood out of there! Classic cumshaw artistry.

    This episode was hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

    --

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

    Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

    Email: words@waywordradio.org

    Phone:
    United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
    London +44 20 7193 2113
    Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

    Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
    Site: http://waywordradio.org/
    Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
    Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
    Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
    Skype: skype://waywordradio

    Copyright 2014, Wayword LLC.

  • Sunday, August 17, 2014 7:32pm

    Remember a few years ago when Amazon introduced that mysterious device called a Kindle? People worried that electronic readers would replace traditional books. Turns out the death of the hardcover was greatly exaggerated. Also, the expression "bump and grind" doesn't always mean what you think. Plus, the origin of jet black, the roots of fugacious, a game called Goin' to Texas, and how to punctuate the term y'all. And is there anything express about espresso?

    FULL DETAILS

    Remember the olden days of 2007, when Amazon first introduced the Kindle? Oprah named it her Favorite New Gadget. Some people thought e-readers signaled the death of hardback books, but as Nicholas Carr notes in the Wall Street Journal, only 16% of Americans have purchased an e-book, while 60% say they have no interest in them at all. What is clear is that no matter the medium, people are reading more in general.

    "I don't see nothing wrong with a little bump n' grind," sings the R&B star R. Kelly, referring to the hip-thrusting dance that's all the rage with kids these days. While some people use the phrase the old bump and grind to refer to the daily grind of workaday life, it's probably better not to use it unless your job involves, well, bumping and grinding.

    Alan from Austin, Texas, asks: How do y'all punctuate the contraction of you all? Is it y'all or ya'll? You'd think it'd follow the pattern of she'll and we'll, but y'all is an exception to the rule.

    A while ago we talked about the drink called a suicide, also known as a Matt Dillon. That's when the bartender pours whatever's dripped on the bar mat into a shot glass and some lucky fellow downs it. We've heard lots of variations from listeners, including the Jersey Turnpike, the Gorilla Fart, the Buffalo Tongue and the Alligator Shot. Strangely enough, it's yet to be called the Tasty.

    Our Master of Quiz John Chaneski has a game from his home borough of Brooklyn. For this quiz, he gives us the definition of a word, plus its Brooklynese definition. For example, "a couple with no children" and "a synonym of ponder" are both known as what?

    Why do we say something is jet black? It doesn't have anything to do with aircraft. The jet in jet black is the name of a black semi-precious stone, which in turn takes its name from the part of Syria where it was found in abundance in antiquity.

    Dan Henderson of Sunnyvale, California, sent us a great cartoon of two guys at a bar. One says to the other, "Explain to me how comparing apples and oranges is fruitless?"

    Is master a gender-neutral title? James from Seattle, Washington, hosts a local pub quiz night, where he's known as the Quizmaster. But, he wonders, would it be appropriate to call a woman a Quizmaster? Of course! Many titles, like Postmaster or even actor, have come to be gender-neutral. We wouldn't say Quizmistress because mistress has taken on a specific connotation--namely, the female lover of a married man. For more on gender and language, Grant recommends University of Michigan professor Ann Kurzan's book Gender Shifts in the History of English.

    Hey kid, hey kid, give 'em the saliva toss, the perspiration pellet, the damp fling, deluded dip, the good ol' fashioned spitball! An essay on baseball slang from 1907 sent Martha off on a search for more of these wet ones.

    In Chicano English, the word barely, which traditionally means "just happened," can also mean "almost didn't happen," as in I just barely got here. This locution apparently reflects the fact that in Spanish, the word apenas can mean either one of these. The Chicano use of the barely in this sense is a calque, or loan translation, which occurs when a pattern from one language gets transferred to another.

    Our earlier conversation about sign language reminded Martha of this quote from Helen Keller: "Once I knew only darkness and stillness…my life was without past or future…but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living."

    One of our listeners was visiting the Orchid House at the San Diego Zoo and happened across the word fugacious, meaning "blooming only briefly." The word can also apply to one's mood, and shares a Latin root with "fleeting" words like refuge, fugitive and subterfuge.

    Is there an express in espresso? Nope. Cafe espresso is literally "pressed-out coffee." So the name espresso has nothing to do with the speed with which espresso is made. The term express, on the other hand, as in express train, derives from the idea of "directly," or "specific to a particular destination." It's the same express as in expressly forbidden, meaning "specifically forbidden."

    Mary, from Royal Oaks, Michigan, says she once confused a friend by offering to relieve her of snow shoveling duties with the question, Can I spell you? This usage of spell, which refers to substituting for a period of time, has been deemed archaic by Merriam Webster, although we believe it's alive and well.

    Bill Watkins from Tallahassee, Florida, is having a tough time knowing which setting to use on his microwave. He figures this moment of indecision while standing there with your finger poised over the buttons deserves a name. His suggestion: microwavering.

    What do you call that children's game where you hold hands and spin around until you're too dizzy to stand? Sally Jarvis, who grew up in Eastern Arkansas, says she and her childhood playmates called it Going To Texas.

    Latin phrases are commonly misused, but there's perhaps no better example than Vampire Butters' butchering of per se, which simply means "in itself," in this episode of South Park.

    This episode was hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.
    ....

    Support for A Way with Words comes from The Ken Blanchard Companies, celebrating 35 years of making a leadership difference with Situational Leadership II, the leadership model designed to boost effectiveness, impact, and employee engagement. More about how Blanchard can help your executives and organizational leaders at kenblanchard.com/leadership.

    --

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

    Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

    Email: words@waywordradio.org

    Phone:
    United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
    London +44 20 7193 2113
    Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

    Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
    Site: http://waywordradio.org/
    Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
    Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
    Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
    Skype: skype://waywordradio

    Copyright 2014, Wayword LLC.