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Episodes

Sun Dog - 15 October 2018

10/15/2018
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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 westernmost Pyrenees has long posed a linguistic mystery. Its origins are unclear...

Duration:00:51:34

Oh For Cute - 8 October 2018

10/8/2018
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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: learn something new. Also, grinslies, personal summers, cowboy slang,...

Duration:00:50:59

Coinkydink - 1 October 2018

10/1/2018
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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 pronunciation of a word that means "tribute": is it HOM-age, OM-age, or something else...

Duration:00:50:59

Sweet Dreams (Rebroadcast) - 24 September 2018

9/24/2018
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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, how do you pronounce the name of the New York concert hall you can reach with lots of practice? Is it CAR-neg-ghee Hall … or Car-NEG-ghee? Plus, no...

Duration:00:50:59

Gangbusters (Rebroadcast) - 17 September 2018

9/17/2018
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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 just say you hope a mouse eats them. Finally, in certain parts of the U.S., going out to see a stripper may not mean what you think it means. Plus,...

Duration:00:50:59

XYZ PDQ (Rebroadcast) - 10 September 2018

9/10/2018
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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 tricks. Finally, just how many are a couple? Does a couple always mean just two? Or does "Hand me a couple of napkins" ever really mean "Give me a...

Duration:00:50:59

Hang a Ralph (Rebroadcast) - 3 September 2018

9/3/2018
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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 time, and it turns out that writing a definition is a lot harder than you think. Finally, a new word for your John Hancock: When you use your finger...

Duration:00:50:59

You Bet Your Boots (Rebroadcast) - 27 August 2018

8/27/2018
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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 dictionary, do others get removed to make room? Plus, words of encouragement, words of exasperation, and a polite Japanese way to say goodbye when a...

Duration:00:50:59

Pink Slip (Rebroadcast) - 20 August 2018

8/20/2018
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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 may leave outsiders scratching their heads: In parts of the South "I wouldn't care to" actually means "I would indeed like to." Finally, how the word...

Duration:00:50:59

Criss Cross Applesauce (Rebroadcast) - 13 August 2018

8/13/2018
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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 provide clever ways to think about naps, procrastination, lemons, and more. Also: catawampus, raunchy, awful vs. awesome, Man Friday, and...

Duration:00:50:59

Whistle Pig (Rebroadcast) - 6 August 2018

8/6/2018
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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 let's just say the phrase is hardly complimentary. Finally, a German publishing company has declared that the top slang term among that country's youth...

Duration:00:50:59

Up Your Alley - 30 July 2018

7/30/2018
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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 freely, you just might be called . . . . a dingthrift. Plus,...

Duration:00:50:59

Piping Hot - 23 July 2018

7/23/2018
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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 word to describe that feeling when your favorite restaurant closes for good. "Noshtalgia," anyone? And: homonyms, forswunk, sweetbreads, get on the...

Duration:00:50:59

Copacetic (Rebroadcast) - 16 July 2018

7/16/2018
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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, neener, NEEEEEEEEEEner!" Listen closely, and you'll hear the same melody as other familiar children's songs. Finally, the process of ending a phone...

Duration:00:50:59

Mustard on It (Rebroadcast) - 9 July 2018

7/9/2018
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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 the phrase in a nutshell to sum things up. A hint: it goes all the way back to Homer's Iliad. And finally, games that feature imaginary Broadway...

Duration:00:50:59

Proof in the Pudding (Rebroadcast) - 2 July 2018

7/2/2018
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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 woman that way, even if she's not a relative. Also, the old saying "The proof is in the pudding" makes no sense when you think about it. That's because...

Duration:00:51:56

We have an attitude — 27 June 2018

6/27/2018
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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 it’s truly used, we’ll all understand each other better, we’ll learn to respect other identities and other worldviews, and we will more...

Duration:00:01:02

Mimeographs and Dittos - 25 June 2018

6/25/2018
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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 same pattern you use when mowing a lawn. There's a word for that! And: a whiff of those fragrant duplicated worksheets that used to be passed out in...

Duration:00:52:23

Spicy Jambalaya - 18 June 2018

6/18/2018
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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 JAM-buh-lye-yah? And which syllable do you stress when pronouncing the spice spelled T-U-R-M-E-R-I-C? Finally, the word spelled W-A-T-E-R is of course...

Duration:00:51:56

A request from Martha — 13 June 2018

6/13/2018
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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 are more than 15 pronunciations of water in the United States? Isn’t it fascinating that our language preserves the footprints of historical...

Duration:00:01:13