Anne Curzan | Michigan Radio
WUOMFM

Anne Curzan

Contributor, That's What They Say

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.

As an expert in the history of the English language, Anne 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.

Anne 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). She has also created three audio/video courses for The Great Courses, including "The Secret Life of Words" and "English Grammar Boot Camp."

When she is not tracking down new slang or other changes in the language, Anne 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).

Listening to someone talk about the incidence of particular types of incidents could leave anyone feeling baffled. We've even had a listener ask us whether people have started using "incidence" as a hybrid of "incident" and "instance."

We don't think so. However, since we're talking about homophones here, it's likely people are just confused. 


As stories of police brutality and anti-police brutality protests continue to dominate the headlines, you may have noticed some people placing the blame on “a few bad apples.”

However, as a listener named Louis Finkelman recently wrote to us, this expression “has changed its meaning 180 degrees in the past few decades.”

Were you aware that "unawares" is a thing people say? 

Maybe you've seen it recently it in relation to COVID-19 – things like "The governor's announcement caught some people unawares," and "We have no excuse to be caught unawares in an outbreak.

We wanted to know, where did that "s" come from?


In the weeks and months that have turned our world upside down, we've been watching headlines for words and phrases that keep coming up.

One we've noticed in coverage of COVID-19 is "cut and dried." Now, there are plenty of things we can literally cut and dry, including flowers, meat, and wood.

You know what's not always cut and dried though? Issues and answers. Metaphorically speaking, of course.


In a game of pool, if it's your turn and the cue ball is behind the eight ball, you're in trouble. But what does it mean to be "behind the eight ball" off the table?

This week's topic comes from a listener named Clem Hawes. He says, "This [phrase] does not mean that you're behind in a temporal sense, but now I hear formulations such as 'X was behind the eight ball in responding to the pandemic,' meaning slow or inactive."


Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued another extension to Michigan’s stay-at-home order this past week. This time, through the end of May.

That may or may not explain why people have been sending us questions about what it means to go "stir crazy" lately.


Tides rise and fall. Believe it or not, we can tie tides to the discussions of loans and toilet paper during this strange time, when so many of us are being asked to stay at home.

This past week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order until May 15th. That means an extension of the cabin fever making the rounds.

Symptoms of cabin fever include irritability, restlessness, and anxiety. It's treatable with long walks or runs, jigsaw puzzles, Zoom meetups with friends, or anything else that keeps you from climbing the walls.


The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a lot of questions about testing for the novel coronavirus – including some that are grammar-related.

A listener named Alan Ardanowski asked: "If someone gets a positive test result for COVID-19, do they test 'positive' or test 'positively?'"


Governor Gretchen Whitmer extended Michigan's stay-at-home order this past week. That has many of us wondering when we'll return to normalcy. 

However, others might be wondering when we'll return to normality.

The "normality" vs. "normalcy" debate is an old one. Given these strange times though, what's old is new again.


We've been taking a look at some of the words that have been popping up in headlines in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

This week we thought we'd talk about the phrase "flying by the seat of our pants," since that's the state that so many of us find ourselves in during these unprecedented times.


To combat the spread of COVID-19, we're staying home and staying safe here in Michigan. Being cooped up though, especially as the weather gets nicer, has some of us feeling like we're going bonkers.

As such, we thought we'd give you something else to think about by taking a look at the word "bonkers."


At a time when so many of us are being asked to hunker down in our homes, we've been getting questions from listeners about the word "hunker."

Suffice to say, we'll be hearing this one a lot more in the weeks and months to come.


The phrase "head honcho" is used to refer to people at the top: CEOs, presidents, directors and such.

However, "honcho" on its own means "leader." In other words, the head of something. That means, as is often the case in English, this commonly used phrase is redundant.

 


When we say we don't know jack about something, it's not immediately clear that we're toeing the line with taboo territory.

Allow us to explain.


It’s tempting to parse the word “ramshackle” into two separate words, “ram” and “shackle.”

A listener named Brian Van Drie wrote to us about how this word makes him think of “a ram that is actually shackled and is making a mess of anything it can reach.”

We love that explanation. Unfortunately, it's not right.


Almost as long as there's been email, there's been the question of what the plural of "email" should be. 

A listener named Steve Roznowski reminded us of this recently, when he pointed out that Professor Anne Curzan says "emails." Roznowski says he uses "email" for both the plural and singular form.


We can be fined for "reckless" driving. So why aren’t we praised for "reckful" driving?

Our listener, Andrew Conkling, recently pointed out to us the confusing nature of “reckless”:

"I was describing the word to my 6-year-old yesterday as he was demonstrating the definition and realized it’s a hard word to parse. There is no 'reckful,' there isn’t a 'reck.' How did we get settled with just that form?"

 

 


We get a lot of questions about the redundancy in "irregardless." However, a listener named Graham Liddell recently asked us about an instance of redundancy that we don't hear many people making a fuss about:

"Why is it 'a friend of his' and not 'a friend of him'? Why 'a favorite movie of hers' and not simply 'a favorite movie of her'? 'A bad habit of Steve's' and not 'a bad habit of Steve'?" 

This question points to an irregularity in our language: the double possessive.


This week, That's What They Say is taking some inspiration from the Simpsons. Specifically, we were amused by a clip in which Mr. Burns tells Smithers how much he's enjoying "so-called iced cream."

Unless you're the same age as Springfield's oldest resident, you're probably more likely to enjoy "ice cream" over "iced cream."

Frankly, we're happy to eat it no matter what you call it. Especially if it's mint chocolate chip.


We'd like to address some concerns regarding the word "gambit." However, to do that, we're going to have to address the word "gamut" too.

That's because many of us have a tendency to say "run the gambit," when what we mean is "run the gamut."

Since these are both relatively rare words, it's not surprising that we sometimes get them confused. Learning their origin should help you keep them straight.


This week, English Professor Anne Curzan joined us from New Orleans, where members of the American Dialect Society gathered to make their annual "Word of the Year" selection.

This year was special. That's because not only did the ADS choose a word to represent the past year, members also chose a word to represent the past decade.


Breaking up is hard to do.

That's according to Neil Sedaka's signature song anyway. Maybe that's why we didn't start doing it until the 20th century.

Actually, that's not quite true. We've been breaking things up for centuries. It's the idea of breaking up a relationship that's fairly new.


A listener named Scott Overton recently wrote to us about a question he came up with while working on an old house.

"[I'm] listening to your podcast as I try to keep all my fingers on," he says. "What came first, the coping saw or 'I'll cope with it?'"

Scott, thanks for listening and for sending us a great question. Also, please don't sacrifice any limbs on our behalf!


If you're head over heels about someone, it's clear that you've stumbled into a metaphorical somersault of love.

Wouldn't "heels over head" make more sense though?

Generally speaking, our heads are over our heels most of the time, even when we're not in a state of unconstrained infatuation.


We can talk about sending emails back and forth. But why does it sound odd to talk about sending them forth and back?

It may not sound right, but some would argue that "forth and back" makes more sense. So why is the order flipped?

Based on the evidence, the phrase "based on" is getting challenged by the phrase "based off."

This is an issue English Professor Anne Curzan has been hearing about from her colleagues. They say  "based on" is correct, but their students tend to use "based off" or "based off of."

Curzan says this is a losing battle.


The word "fraught," when used alone, is fraught with questions. At least, for some speakers of English.

A couple of listeners have written to us recently, wanting to know if "fraught" can stand on its own. For example, "The situation is now fraught."

Both listeners were under the impression that the word "fraught" should be used with "with," as in, "I was fraught with emotion."


"In the meantime" is a good phrase to use when you're talking about the time between two events. But can you leave out "in the" and just say "meantime?"

A listener named Keisha Nelson tells us that that recently, she's both read and heard "meantime" used on its own.

Unless you've managed to avoid all sources of media, you've probably heard or read the word "whistleblower" once or twice in the past couple of months.

Whistleblowers have been making headlines a lot lately, both in sports and in politics.


Pages