That's What They Say | Michigan Radio
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That's What They Say

Sunday at 9:35 AM

Funner, snuck, and LOL are all things that we're hearing people say these days.

That's What They Say is a weekly segment on Michigan Radio that explores our changing language.University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan studies linguistics and the history of the English language. Each week she'll discuss why we say what we say with Michigan Radio Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth.

That's What They Say airs Sundays at 9:35 a.m. on Michigan Radio and you can podcast it here.

Do you have an English or grammar question? Ask us here!

We get a lot of questions about words that have two pronunciations. This week, we decided to look at two of those words: status and mischievous.


What do knockoffs, nicknames and the word "crummy" have in common?

The answer is not much, except that we've received listener questions about the origins of all three.


When you learned how to spell "secretary," did anyone ever tell you this trick?

"A secretary is someone who keeps a secret."

Though "secretary" probably doesn't turn up much in your day-to-day correspondence, this is still a decent way to avoid spelling it incorrectly. It's also true. 


Some grammarians say “only” is the most misplaced adverb in the English language.

We’re only telling you this because we love you. Or maybe we’re telling you this only because we love you. Maybe we’re telling you only this because we love you.

Actually, we just want you to think about the word “only.” Also, we love you.


Have you been droppin' your gs? Be honest. You probably do say "thinkin'" instead of "thinking" or "goin'" instead of "going" sometimes.

That's true for most speakers of English. In fact, both forms of words with "ng" endings have been around for hundreds of years.


A couple of things can clearly be two things. For many people though, a couple of things can include three or even four things. 

That's because the phrase "a couple of" has some elasticity to it.


Cars, planes, cameras and people have been zooming around for decades with a lower-case "z."

These days, with so many of us working from home, many of us find ourselves doing a different kind of zooming -- one that may require a capital letter.


What do eggs, Old Norse, semitrucks, and cleaners have in common?

Nothing that we know of, except that we talk about all of them in this week's That's What They Say. 


Languages are full of patterns. They're also full of words that break those patterns.

A listener named Dave Gee sent us a question about "eleven" and "twelve" which appear to belong in the pattern-breaking category. 

Auto-antonyms are words that can hold two, generally opposite, meanings at the same time. Once you know what they are, you’ll start to see them everywhere.

“Dust” is a good example. You can remove dust, like dusting a shelf, or you can add dust, like dusting a cake with powdered sugar. 

It's possible for phrases to work this way too.


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.


Sometimes a word slips into our language unnoticed. Before we know it, that word is everywhere.

That's how listener John Van Deusen feels about "one-off."

He says, "I thought I was paying attention, but I don't recall it beginning, and now it's everywhere -- definitely not a one-off usage."

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.


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