Rebecca Kruth | Michigan Radio
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Rebecca Kruth

Weekend Host / Producer

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.

After earning degrees in English and American Studies from Michigan State University, Kruth began her radio career as a newsroom intern at WKAR in East Lansing. She completed additional news internships at WBEZ Chicago and KAJX Aspen.

Kruth first came to Michigan Radio in 2014 as a producer for Morning Edition. She served as a general assignment reporter and fill-in host before becoming the station’s full-time Weekend Edition host in 2016.

When she’s not on the airwaves, Kruth enjoys hiking, Korean food and hunting for vinyl records with her husband James. She’s also Bruce Springsteen’s number one fan.

Amidst some emails, Professor Anne Curzan recently came across a question from a colleague about "amongst" and "whilst."

The colleague wanted to know: "Why did American idiom preserve 'amongst' but drop whilst?"

Fair question, though we're not so sure that American idiom has preserved "amongst." 

In Modern American Usage, lexicographer Bryan Garner addresses "whilst," "amongst," and "amidst." He calls all of them archaisms and goes on to say that "'whilst' reeks of pretension" and "'amongst,' in American English, is pretentious at best."

Garner does note that "whilst" and "amongst" are more common in British English. While that's true, that doesn't necessarily mean they're completely common either. "Among" and "while" are still more common in both British and American English.

A listener named Allen recently wrote to us about a confusing book review.

He was reading the Toledo Blade, when he saw a review of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel "Unsheltered." Under a picture of Kingsolver was the caption "Barbara Kingsolver, one of America's hardiest novelists, stumbled on the lost history of [Mary] Treat."

Allen says he immediately assumed the reviewer was not impressed with Kingsolver's book.

When he read that Kingsolver had "stumbled on" the lost history, Allen thought that the reviewer meant the author had lost her footing and failed at her attempt to write about said history. But that wasn't the case.

A person who owns and manages a restaurant is called a restaurateur. Notice anything strange about that word -- especially when compared to "restaurant"?

If you're wondering why there's no "n" after the second "a" in "restaurateur," you're not alone. A listener recently asked us, why "restaurant" has an "n" but "restaurateur" does not.

This week on That's What They Say, we turn to A.A. Milne's classic children's novel, The House at Pooh Corner

We love this line from a passage in which Piglet has to squeeze himself through a letter box in order to get out of Owl's house: "Piglet squeezed and he squoze, and with one last squoze, he was out."

Maybe it's just us, but we think "squoze" is a pretty great non-standard verb.

Though it's tempting to categorize "squoze" as a newer addition to English, it's actually at least 200 years old, from what we can tell.

prescription drugs
flickr/Charles Williams / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Patients who are prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain only use a quarter of their prescriptions on average, according to a new study.

The study from the University of Michigan looked at 2,392 surgical patients across 33 of the state's health systems.

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.

hospital exterior
Michigan Medicine

Nurses at the University of Michigan say they’ve reached a tentative three-year agreement with Michigan Medicine, ending their threat of a strike.

Just last week U of M nurses voted to authorize their union to call a three-day work stoppage, citing unfair labor practices. Ninety-four percent of the votes were in favor of the authorization.

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. 

Television remote control
flash.pro / Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

If the months leading up to Tuesday's primary election felt like a barrage of political ads, the following likely won't come as a surprise.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network says around $23.6 million in political ads aired on broadcast television ahead of the state's primary. 

 

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.

Running faucet
Melissa Benmark / Michigan Radio

Michigan officials say state agencies will be providing additional help for two communities near Kalamazoo dealing with chemical contamination of the public water system.

The governor's office said Sunday that a state of emergency has been declared for Kalamazoo County over the health concerns in Parchment and Cooper Township, where water test results announced Thursday revealed high levels of substances known as PFAS.

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.

striped safety cones on a road
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

A massive $110 million road construction project kicks off Monday on a nine mile stretch of I-94 in the Jackson area.

The Michigan Department of Transportation plans to reconstruct 1.4 miles of freeway between Lansing Avenue and Elm Road, resurface 3.5 miles between Lansing Avenue and M-60, and resurface four miles between Elm Road and Sargent Road.

There are also plans to redesign the I-94/Cooper Street interchange and replace a bridge that runs over the Grand River.

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. 


damaged road and car
Vicky Ingram

Storms moving across the Upper Peninsula washed out several roads in the Houghton and Hancock areas and created dozens of sinkholes across the Keweenaw Peninsula.

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.


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