Anne Curzan | Michigan Radio
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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).

Once you start thinking about words that merit spelling reform, it can be hard to stop.

Each year, Professor Anne Curzan asks students in her introductory linguistics classes to decide on one word that should be reformed in terms of spelling.

The students have tournaments and eliminate words until they're left with a winner.

The first winner this year is "bologna."

The student who came up with this one made a convincing argument that the spelling "baloney" should be used for both the lunch meat and the nonsense word -- e.g. "Everything he said was a bunch of baloney."

The winner in Curzan's other class was "minute."

When baby sitters first started baby-sitting, we had no way to talk about what they were doing. That's because at first, all we had was a noun – there was no verb to speak of.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun "baby sitter" was first recorded in 1937. The verb "baby-sit" didn’t come along until 1946.

Linguists call this a back-formation.

A back-formation is when a new word is formed by removing "actual or supposed affixes." In this case, the "er" suffix is removed from the noun "baby sitter" to form the verb "baby-sit."

There are other back formations in the history of English. For instance, we had "editor" before we had "edit,” we had "television" before we had "televise," and we had “diagnosis” before we had “diagnose.”

There used to be a certain level of glitz and glamour associated with being a jet-setter. A jet-setter might attend a fashion show in Paris, then take off for an exclusive party in Dubai.

But today we often hear jet-setter used to describe someone who simply travels a lot, even if it's from one dimly-lit hotel conference room to another for business.

Regardless of the destination, have you ever wondered why we call someone who flies a lot a "jet-setter" and not a "jet sitter?"

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the "jet set" as a social group of "wealthy and fashionable people, especially those who travel widely and frequently for pleasure." After "jet set" comes into the language, "jet-setter" later becomes a way to refer to someone who is part of that social group.

Unless you decided to completely avoid the internet in 2009, there's a good chance you've seen Susan Boyle’s first round performance on Britain’s Got Talent.

The Scottish singer’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” attracted millions of views on YouTube. No one was more surprised than Boyle herself, who told CNN she was “gobsmacked."

Boyle’s description of herself caused a bit of a stir among those unfamiliar with this particular British slang term.

To understand the meaning behind "gobsmacked," it helps to know that a “gob” is a mouth. This word comes from Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It still pops up in other places in British slang – for example, “shut your gob!”

Many would agree that all historic events are historical. But there's some dispute over whether all historical events are historic.

This week's topic comes from a listener named Cyndi who says, "It really 'gets my goat' to hear people use the redundant 'historical' when 'historic' will suffice."

We hadn't given this much thought before Cyndi brought it up, but we had an intuition that there is an accepted distinction between these two words. We assumed that "historical" events are those that simply happened in the past, while "historic" events are remembered and talked about for years to come.

As it turns out, that's in line with many usage guides.

For instance, Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage from the 1920s says that "historical" is the "ordinary" word, while "historic" means "memorable" or assured of a place in history. The AP Stylebook makes a similar case. 

Have you ever peeled the lid off a pudding cup, looked inside and said, “Aha, the proof is right here.”

Unless you were trying to prove that the cup really did contain pudding, we’re going to assume the answer is “no.”

That’s exactly why Michigan Radio marketing director Steve Chrypinski asked us about the expression “the proof is in the pudding.” He says, “What does proving something have to do with a smooth, creamy dessert?”

Many of us use this expression, despite the fact that it doesn’t make much sense. Like other idioms, we use it because we know that it means something like “we’ll know for sure when we see it,” and we assume that others know that too.

The Brits have a way of talking about whining that we might want to import. The word is “whinge,” and a listener named Addeane recently asked us about it:

“Both ['whinge' and 'whine'] seem to mean to complain peevishly. But ‘whinge’ doesn’t seem to be used in the United States. I’ve seen it written in British sources but never heard it spoken. Can you help sort this out?”

We can, and we’ll do it without whinging or whining.

First of all, Addeane is right – it is largely a British/American distinction between “whinge” and “whine.”

“Whine” goes back to the Old English verb “hwinan” which meant to whiz or whistle in the air. By the 13th century, we have evidence of it referring to a low cry or perhaps a shrill sound. This is the kind of whining that an animal or engine might do.

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?

They may not be good for much, but knick-knacks can be fun to collect. But how did they come to be known as "knick-knacks?"

"Knick-knack" is an example of reduplication. That's when all or part of a word is repeated with a slight change, like "zig zag," or "flip flop." In this case, “knack” is the root word.

In its earliest meanings, a "knack" was a trick that could sometimes be deceitful. This word later takes on a more positive meaning when it comes to refer to an ingenious method or skill, and that’s pretty much how we use it now: "He's got a knack for spotting valuable knick-knacks at garage sales."

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.

A shenanigan is a devious trick, according to Merriam Webster, and can also refer to mischief or troublemaking. 

Though the plural form is used much more often, we see the singular form occasionally. It makes it easier to refer to a specific shenanigan: “If you pull that shenanigan with the toilet and the saran wrap again, I’m going to get really angry!”

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about where “shenanigan” comes from. Most dictionaries will say  “origin unknown” or “etymology uncertain.”

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.

At best, "feckless" means weak. It can also mean incompetent, irresponsible or lacking energy or capacity. Originally, it was used to describe both things and people, but now it's used primarily to describe people.

When we first started thinking about this word, we thought it was one of those words like "discombobulated" that has a negative prefix but no corresponding positive word. You can be discombobulated, but you can't be combobulated.

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?"

Good question.

The verb "garnish" comes into English from Old French. Early on it meant to furnish or equip, particularly with arms or provisions. The definition is later expanded to mean to outfit something, maybe clothing, with adornments or decorations. By the 17th century, that something could also be a dish on a table.

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?  It's no wonder a listener named Dan wants to know where the expression "clean as a whistle" comes from.

For many of you, "clean as a whistle” probably means really clean, as in not dirty. For example, "The sink was clean as a whistle after he scrubbed it." Or maybe you'd say something like, "Since she's never even had a speeding ticket, her record is clean as a whistle."

Neither of those examples quite match the historical meaning of this expression. 

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.

"Proceed" and "precede" are related. They both go back to the same Latin root word "cedere" which means to give way or yield or retreat.

"Precede" means to come or go before. It comes into English in the 1400s, most likely as a borrowing from both French and Latin.

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.

Kalen, there's nothing we'd druther do than figure this out.

"Druther" is a mashed together version of the phrase "would rather." If you say "would rather" quickly enough, you can see how these two words blur together as "druther." When someone says "if I had my druthers," they're talking about what they would do if they had their choice or preference in a matter.

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"?

A writer at Buzzfeed recently asked readers to help settle a workplace debate over whether IMHO means "in my humble opinion" or "in my honest opinion."

Since this is the internet, where people will fight about literally anything, things quickly devolved into what will likely be a centuries-long blood feud.

Of the nearly 200,000 people who took part in Buzzfeed's poll, 57 percent voted that the "H" stands for honest. The Detroit Free Press conducted its own poll and got similar results.

So does that mean people in the "humble" camp are wrong? Not necessarily. 

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.

This project is the quintessential labor of love for a language geek and has yielded some interesting ideas for That’s What They Say, including this week’s highly “sensitive” topic.

As it turns out, the New York Times  is sensitive about using “sensitive” to describe things like documents or issues.

The 1999 edition says, “'Sensitive’ means easily hurt or having keen sensibilities. Its use to mean secret, important or diplomatically fragile is jargon.” The 2015 style manual includes the same meaning, but it goes on to say that “in the sense of secret, important or diplomatically fragile, ['sensitive'] is overused.”

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.

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