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

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

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. Your language questions: https://waywordradio.org/contact or words@waywordradio.org. Call 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: https://waywordradio.org/. On Twitter at https://twitter.com/wayword.... Show More

Episodes

September 21, 2020 51 min

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 "un...

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September 14, 2020 51 min

Some TV commercials launch catchphrases that stick around long after the original ads. The exclamation Good stuff, Maynard! is still a compliment almost 40 years after it was used in a commercial for Malt-O-Meal hot cereal. And: what do you call that room where the whole family gathers? The family room? The den? The TV room? Names for that part of a home go in and out of fashion. Finally, if you're suffering from writer's b...

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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...

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August 31, 2020 51 min

How does social context shape our perception of language? When hiking the Appalachian Trail, a young woman from Wyoming found that fellow hikers assumed she was from another country, not only because of how she spoke, but also how she looked. Sometimes our perception of other people's accents have more to do with social context than with any real dialect features. And: did you ever wonder if there was a punctuation mark to indi...

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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 p...

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August 17, 2020 51 min

What happens in a classroom of refugee and immigrant youngsters learning English? Their fresh approach to language can result in remarkable poetry -- some of which is collected in the anthology England: Poems from a School. Also, new language among healthcare professionals: the term cohorting describes the act of grouping patients with COVID-19 in designated facilities. But what's the word for reintegrating them into the genera...

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We have books that should be on every language lover's wish list, plus a couple of recommendations for history buffs. Plus: how did the word boondoggle come to denote a wasteful project? The answer involves the Boy Scouts, a baby, a craft project, and a city council meeting. Plus, wordplay with palindromes. Instead of reversing just individual letters, some palindromes reverse entire words! Like this one: You can cage a swallow...

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Are there words and phrases that you misunderstood for an embarrassingly long time? Maybe you thought that money laundering literally meant washing drug-laced dollar bills, or that AM radio stations only broadcast in the morning? A Twitter thread prompts those and other funny confessions. And: a moving new memoir by Kansas writer Sarah Smarsh touches on the connection between vocabulary and class. Plus, the inventive language of wr...

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July 27, 2020 51 min

An ornithologist says there's a growing movement to change the name of a pink-footed bird currently called the flesh-footed shearwater. The movement reflects a growing understanding that using flesh-colored for "pink" fails to acknowledge the full range of human skin color. Plus, is hooligan an anti-Irish slur? Some people might perceive it that way, but originally the word itself simply referred to the name of a partic...

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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 tales that start with the words "Once upon a time." Not so with...

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July 13, 2020 51 min

An artist asks strangers to write haiku about the pandemic, and gets back poetic, poignant glimpses of life under lockdown. Plus, the new book Queenspotting features the colorful language of beekeeping! Bees tell each other about a good source of nectar by doing a waggle dance, and when a queen bee is ready to mate, she flies around followed by a drone comet. Also, do you refer to that savory red stuff dripped over your pasta as sa...

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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 for guitars. And: we need a word for that puzzling moment when you're sta...

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June 29, 2020 51 min

In 1971, when a new public library opened in Troy, Michigan, famous authors and artists were invited to write letters to the city's youngest readers, extolling the many benefits of libraries. One of the loveliest was from E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web. Plus, you may think navel-gazing is a relatively new idea -- but it goes back at least to the 14th century, when meditating monks really did look like they were study...

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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 recycl...

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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 sou...

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June 8, 2020 51 min

There was a time when William Shakespeare was just another little 7-year-old in school. Classes in his day were demanding -- and all in Latin. A new book argues that this rigorous curriculum actually nurtured the creativity that later flourished in Shakespeare's writing. Don't know Latin? You can still adapt those approaches to stretch and hone your own mind. Plus, why do we refer to an unpredictable person as a loose canno...

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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 in the world of theater. Finally: the Basque language spoken in the wester...

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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 the color names we give to horses. Finally, wise advice about fending off despair:...

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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 good reasons behind it. Finally, a punk rock band debates the pronunciati...

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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 can be “gay and innocent and heartless”? Finally, watch out: if you spend money ...

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