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Anne Curzan

That's What They Say

Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.

As an expert in the history of the English language, Curzan describes herself as a fount of random linguistic information about how English works and how it got to be that way. She received the University's Henry Russel Award for outstanding research and teaching in 2007, as well as the Faculty Recognition Award in 2009 and the 2012 John Dewey Award for undergraduate teaching.

Curzan has published multiple books and dozens of articles on the history of the English language (from medieval to modern), language and gender, and pedagogy. Her newest book is Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (2014).

When she is not tracking down new slang or other changes in the language, Curzan can be found running around Ann Arbor, swimming in pools both indoor and out, and now doing yoga (in hopes that she can keep running for a few more years to come).

If you have a box filled with items of the "what am I ever going to do with this" variety, we suggest the purchase of a knick-knack shelf.

A knick-knack shelf is the perfect place for a figurine of a flamingo wearing a shirt that says "Florida" or a collection of ceramic animals that came free with your tea bags. And how else does one properly display a  commemorative royal wedding plate?

What better word to describe the kind of mischief you can get up to on the weekend than "shenanigans"?

That’s precisely why we thought “shenanigan” would be the perfect topic for this long holiday weekend.

Back in May, comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee used a pair of choice words to describe Ivanka Trump.

Soon after, a listener named D.C. wrote to us and asked us about one of those words: "What the heck is the story behind the word 'feckless'?"

Let's just say we're relieved D.C. didn't ask about the other word Bee used.

Garnishing a dish with sprigs of fresh parsley, lemon slices and vegetables sliced up to look like flowers can be a lovely way to spruce up a meal. But do you know what's not lovely at all? Having your wages garnished. 

A listener named Bryan asks, "Why is it that when you 'garnish' a plate of food, you add something to it, but when you garnish someone's wages you take something away?"

Coaches, referees and gym teachers are probably better authorities than we are, but we've got a feeling that whistles probably aren't very clean.

Think about it. It's a small, tight device that you force your hot, moist breath through to produce a sound. That doesn't sound like the foundation for a sterile environment, does it?  

Some things in English seem intuitive. Take the verbs "proceed" and "precede," for example. They sound so similar, they must be etymologically related, right? 

A listener named Ron says he was helping his fifth grader study for a spelling test when they came across "precede" and "proceed."

"He struggled with why two nearly identical words are spelled so differently," Ron says. "I thought I could provide him with a simple explanation of their origin -- I cannot."

Don't worry Ron. That's why we're here.

Lollygagging, screwing around, goofing off – whatever you call it, we can all agree there a lot of ways to talk about wasting time in English. 

Kalen, who previously asked us about "druthers," says "I tell my kids all the time to not lollygag, doodle or dilly dally. They are fun words, to be sure, but where do they come from?"

They are most definitely fun words. But watch out for "lollygag." It seems innocent at first, but then things get kind of racy.

If we had our druthers, we would spend every morning nerding out about language and grammar. 

Fortunately, we do get the opportunity to flex our language muscles every Sunday. We're also fortunate to have awesome listeners like Kalen, who recently asked us where the phrase "if I had my druthers" comes from.

When it comes to the internet, seemingly innocuous topics are often the grounds for heated debates. Is the dress blue and black or gold and white? Is this voice saying "yanny" or saying "laurel"?

For several months now, English Professor Anne Curzan has been combing through various editions of the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage to see how usage rules have changed over time.

When it comes to "insure" and "ensure," do you find it necessary to keep them distinct from one another?

For some people, this may not be much of an issue, since "ensure" and "insure" sound so similar. But things get trickier when it comes to writing. 

English Professor Anne Curzan says she runs into this question of distinction all the time when she's editing other people's work.

"Nonplussed" is one of those words that historically doesn't have a particularly complicated meaning, but it's one that people frequently misuse. 

In fact, the definition of "nonplussed" has become so muddled over time, people often use it to mean the complete opposite of its actual meaning.

Again, the definition of "nonplussed" is pretty simple, so why all the confusion? You could say there's a prefix to blame. 


Leave it to a political reporter to come up with a question that's both intriguing and extremely relevant to an election year. Michigan Radio's Rick Pluta, who also co-hosts It's Just Politics, came to us with this question:

"I see how we get from 'president' to 'presidential,' from 'congress' to 'congressional' and from 'legislator' to 'legislative,' but how do we go from 'governor' to 'gubernatorial'? Are governors historically 'goobers' or is it something else?"  

Considering that Michigan voters will head to the polls this November to elect a new governor, this question about one of the many oddities of English couldn't be more timely.


Idioms generally don't get clearer the longer you think about them. They simply mean what they mean.

For instance, have you ever thought about the phrase "get someone's goat"? You may already know that it means to annoy or anger someone, but why?

Our advice is don't spend too much time on this phrase -- it'll just get your goat.


When you write emails, what are your preferred greetings and sign-offs?  There are a lot of options, and your choice probably depends on the nature of the email. 

Sunday can be an excellent time to stay home and potter about. But not everyone is a potterer. 

Some of us are putterers who'd rather spend our spare time puttering around the house. And some of us like to putter about but are open to pottering around.


It's no trifle that we received two emails within two weeks about the word "trifle." The first one came from a listener named Matt who writes:

"Something insignificant is often described as 'a mere trifle.' At the same time, something that could be very challenging is said to be 'nothing to trifle with.' How did we end up with such different meanings for the same word?"

As English Professor Anne Curzan was researching Matt's question, a colleague who also wanted to know more about trifle sent her an email with the subject line "Because I'm triflin'." 

Coincidence or kismet? We're pretty sure it's the latter.


An eggcorn is a word or phrase that occurs when someone re-interprets a word in a way that makes sense and allows them to understand its components.

For example, someone might say "all intensive purposes," when what they really mean is "all intents and purposes." Or "escape goat" instead of "scape goat."

Anne Curzan has been thinking about an eggcorn she heard on the radio recently. During an interview, a person said "halfhazard" instead of "haphazard." 

It's an it's easy mistake to make. Does anyone actually know what a "hap" is?


As designated word nerds, we here at That's What They Say whole-heartedly admit that sometimes we do things in our spare time that are a bit, well, geeky. But also pretty fascinating.

For instance, English Professor Anne Curzan has been been working on a project that traces changes in the New York Times style guide. She's been perusing stylebooks from the beginning of the 20th century to the present to see what has changed over time.


We use contractions such as "can't" or "shouldn't" all the time in our writing. There are a few though that we use in speech but probably wouldn't write down.

For example, if you read that last paragraph out loud, do you actually say "there are" or do you squish the words together as a contraction -- "there're"?

Here's another question: Would you ever use "there're" in writing? Probably not, but many of us wouldn't have a problem using contractions like "can't" and "won't.  

So why do some contractions get a pass but not others?


When was the last time you asked for a rain check? 

Maybe a store gave you a rain check for a product you wanted that was out of stock. Or maybe you invited a friend out to lunch, but they were busy and asked for a rain check.

If you've ever asked for a rain check, you're actually using a phrase that we can trace back to baseball and, surprisingly, chess.


Employee perks have become increasingly elaborate over the years.

Some jobs come with unlimited vacation time and months of paid parental leave. There are companies that offer a constant supply of free food. This place has on-site car wash facilities, bicycle repair, haircut services and spa treatments. 

It's a far cry from stale "all-you-can-drink" break room coffee and the occasional Hawaiian shirt day. 

Your job may not have the perks you crave, but don't worry. This edition of That's What They Say has several "perks" and zero detriments.


Our goal here at That's What They Say is to answer our listeners' burning questions about language. But here's an interesting question -- why are those questions burning in the first place?

Obviously, a question is not a physical object. You can't douse a question with gasoline, throw a match at it and watch it burn.

However, that's not to say there isn't something about a burning question that's hot.

The courtroom may not be the best place to ponder grammar and language issues. If you do find yourself in a courtroom, it's likely you've got bigger problems on your hands -- especially if you're the defendant.

Assuming you're a word nerd like us though, you may find yourself distracted by a grammatical question regarding the verb "to plead." 

There's no mystery when it comes to the present tense -- "I plead not guilty." But if someone asks you about your plea later, do you tell them you "pleaded" not guilty or "pled" not guilty?


There was a Sunday not so long ago when a listener noticed our own Professor Anne Curzan say "the days where" instead of "the days when." 

Judy wrote to us that she enjoys listening to the show and, for the most part, agrees with Curzan's approach to language and usage.

However, she goes on to reference our show about muckety-mucks and big wigs. Curzan said big wigs went back "to the days where in court, lawyers and the judge would have big wigs."

Judy was not impressed.


There are a few different ways to talk about retaliating against someone in equal terms. There's "an eye for an eye," "a tooth for a tooth," and "measure for measure," among others. 

These phrases are all pretty transparent. If you take my eye, I'll take your eye. If you make that move, I'll make this move.

But what about "tit for tat?" One of English professor Anne Curzan's colleagues recently asked us about this one, and it's no wonder -- the meaning isn't nearly as obvious.


Let's say you're sending someone an email, maybe to thank them for visiting you in the hospital. Would you say "I appreciate you taking the time to stop by" or "I appreciate your taking the time to stop by"?

Believe it or not, some people have pretty strong feelings about which of these sentences is correct. For many of us though, it's the kind of thing that gives us pause.


When it comes to spelling, we've all got a word or two that makes us absolutely bonkers.

It's no wonder. We've got a slew of silent letters. Instead of an f, we sometimes use "gh" or "ph." There are letters like c and k that make the exact same sound, except when they don't.

Let's face it, English isn't exactly known for consistency.

On the page, it looks like "indict" and "edict" should sound a lot alike. And yet, when you say these two words out loud, it's like being trapped in an episode of the Patty Duke Show

Don't feel embarrassed if you've ever mispronounced "indict" to sound more like "edict" or "verdict." Your only fault was the assumption that English always makes sense.

Why does our language insist on making things so complicated? In this case, the answer comes with some interesting stories about the history of spelling.


English doesn't use very many infixes, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. 

Here's the thing: they're out there, but most of them aren't fit for print or our airwaves. We'll come back to that. 

Wondering what exactly an infix is? Here's a hint -- they're related to a pair of other grammatical elements that may a bit more familiar. 


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