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'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.


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.


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.


Consider the banana. Actually, consider the top banana, because that's the phrase that someone recently brought to our attention.

Professor Anne Curzan says a friend told her she loves the phrase "top banana" because of its theater etymology. 

"I wanted to nod wisely at that moment, like I knew that piece of information, but in fact, I did not," Curzan says.


You're lying in bed on one of the hottest nights of the year. Fortunately, you've got a nice, quiet fan on top of your dresser to keep you cool while you sleep.

Suddenly, that fan starts making a noise akin to an angry Rottweiler. You try turning it off and on. You try shaking it. You even try pleading with it, but nothing you do will quiet that fan.

It can't be denied. That fan is on the fritz.


Today it's politicians who sometimes get criticized for being wishy-washy, rather than the soup getting criticized as wishy-washy.

Let's back up a bit.

A listener named Sheryl Knox posed an interesting grammar question recently, but what really caught our eye was this line at the end the email: "Why are people so wishy-washy?"

While we can't answer that particular question, we can certainly take a closer look at "wishy-washy."


If you totally don't drink alcohol, you could call yourself a teetotaler.

A listener recently asked us about the spelling of "teetotaler." They wanted to know why the beginning is spelled "tee" and not "tea," like the drink?


Sometimes people send us questions that we avoid trying to answer. We don't do this to be mean.

The problem is, some questions we get have answers that are too long and complicated to explain within the confines of this segment.

This week though, we're throwing caution to the wind. We're finally going to tackle "between you and I."


Have you ever heard someone describe the United States and another English-speaking country as “two countries separated by a common language?”

A listener named Randy Miller wrote to us recently about some of the language differences he encountered while living in England.

There were words like “lorry” and “lift” that many of us already know, but Miller also found there were “embarrassingly different meanings of some words, like suspenders and pants.”

One difference that Miller found particularly striking has to do with the verb “to table.”

Few things can shut down an outdoor swimming pool faster than a good old-fashioned summer thunderstorm.

English professor Anne Curzan is a longtime swimmer who swims in a master’s program. Recently, one of her coaches emailed another swimmer about holding practice at an outdoor pool, as long as it wasn’t “thunderstorming.”


While harps make beautiful music, most of us would agree there’s nothing beautiful about someone harping on something.

Our listener Kalen Oswald recently asked, “If the harp is historically famous for its soothing music, going all the way back to the Old Testament, then why do we say someone is ‘harping’ on us when we are being nagged or irritated?”


We love it when people send us grammar jokes. One that is passed around quite a bit has to do with the construction "where's it at."


Your challenge this week is to try and avoid using the construction "try and."

Why, you ask? Because we get a lot of questions from listeners about this particular construction and whether it's wrong. 

We can try not to use it, but "try and" is very idiomatic. Also, there isn't really a good reason to avoid it.


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