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Let's extinguish a 'burning question'


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.

Metaphorical use of the word "burning" goes back to at least the 1600s. That's when we start to see phrases like "burning shame" and "burning disgrace."

Think about how you feel when you experience true shame. Does your face start to feel hot? Do you sweat? Maybe your ears turn red? Shame may not be able to burn in the literal sense, but it's the kind of emotion that, for some of us, can be accompanied by feelings of heat.

The idea of a "burning question" pops up in the 19th century as one that sparks heated discussion. In other words, there's excitement and passion burning about the question.

With that in mind, think about some of your current burning questions. One question that many listeners have been asking Michigan Radio lately is about the state's roads -- why haven't they been fixed? That's certainly the kind of question that can spark heated public discussion. 

However, we're guessing that you've got some other questions you're dying to have answered that don't have quite as much public appeal.

J.R. implores you not to spoil it.

Maybe your significant other is taking you on a mystery getaway next weekend. While the locale of said getaway is at the top of your personal list of burning questions, it's not likely something that will spark debate among the masses.

That's okay though. We've all got our own burning questions. Especially those of us who haven't gotten around to watching season four of Dallas quite yet.

Former prime time soap operas aside, if you've got burning questions about grammar or language, let us know below.


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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