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United States

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English


Episodes

Pig Latin (Rebroadcast) - 21 January 2019

1/21/2019
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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 country are admirable and adventurous, while the term immigrant implies that someone moved out of necessity or may even be a burden to their adopted...

Duration:00:52:31

Whistle in the Dark (Rebroadcast) - 14 January 2019

1/14/2019
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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 to describe an awkward love triangle: "running a sandy." Finally, is Northern Spy the name of a military operation or a kind of apple? The surprising...

Duration:00:52:18

Fickle Finger of Fate (Rebroadcast) - 7 January 2019

1/7/2019
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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? Also, listeners step up to help a caller looking for a succinct way to explain that a brain injury sometimes makes it hard for her to remember words....

Duration:00:52:12

Stars and Garters (Rebroadcast) - 31 December 2018

12/31/2018
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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 apologizes each time, what words can you use to accept their latest apology but also communicate that you never want it to happen again? FULL...

Duration:00:52:21

Space Cadet - 24 December 2018

12/24/2018
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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, but you can't swallow a cage, can you? Also, squeaky clean,...

Duration:00:52:07

Howling Fantods - 17 December 2018

12/17/2018
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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 writer David Foster Wallace: Even if you've never heard the...

Duration:00:52:08

Cootie Shot - 10 December 2018

12/10/2018
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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 standing there wondering which recyclables are supposed to go in which bin....

Duration:00:51:56

Boss of Me (Rebroadcast) - 3 December 2018

12/3/2018
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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-I-G-A isn't pronounced like the city in Latvia. Turns out lots of towns and streets have counterintuitive names. Finally, why do we describe being...

Duration:00:52:52

Spur of the Moment (Rebroadcast) - 26 November 2018

11/26/2018
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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: ghoul. There's a spooky story about its origin. Also, freckle, diamond in the rough, spur of the moment, literary limericks, the pronunciation of...

Duration:00:51:55

Bottled Sunshine - 19 November 2018

11/19/2018
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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 Korean folktales, which sometimes begin with the beguiling phrase "In the old days, when...

Duration:00:51:56

Care Package - 12 November 2018

11/12/2018
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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...

Duration:00:51:55

Hell for Leather (Rebroadcast) - 5 November 2018

11/5/2018
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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...

Duration:00:51:56

Ding Ding Man - 29 October 2018

10/29/2018
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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 recycling business say it's important to be sure that an item is truly...

Duration:00:51:55

Take Tea for the Fever - 22 October 2018

10/22/2018
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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 sound of a Betsy bug and a moth's dusty wings give rise to picturesque English words and...

Duration:00:51:34

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