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!

Have you ever heard of the "needs washed" construction? That's when the verb "need" is followed by a past participle like "washed" or "fixed" without "to be." For example, "That dish needs washed."

Two listeners recently wrote to us about this. One says she started to hear it when she moved to Michigan and the other after moving to northwest Ohio.

Both say it's driving them crazy.

There have been a lot of studies of "needs washed" as a regional feature in American English. While the epicenter seems to be western Pennsylvania, particularly Pittsburgh, it can also be found in portions of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia.

We get tons of great questions about language from our listeners. The problem is we only get to answer one or two per week.

This week, we're doing things a little differently. We give you the That's What They Say lightning round. 

In writing, punctuation makes it easy to see when the writer is quoting someone else. What's interesting is that we've figured out a way to incorporate that punctuation into our speech.

This week's topic comes from a listener who asked about saying "quote" before a quote and "unquote" at the end. He thinks "end quote" makes more sense than "unquote." While there's certainly an argument to be made about which closing is more logical, the truth is that "unquote" is now more popular than "end quote."

Some of us can't resist muttering or shouting our language's strongest words in moments of anger, pain or shock. However, we also realize there are situations that require us to keep our vocabulary clean.

Fortunately, there's a variety of alternatives to choose. From "gosh" and "darn" to "fudge" and "fiddlesticks," there's a G-rated euphemism to suit just about any situation.

When it comes to versatility, we think that "heck" really stands out.

It appears that as of today, there isn't much concern about the phrase "as of."

Perhaps that's because it's such a simple phrase. Two words, two letters each, nothing flashy.

But this is That's What They Say, and when Michigan Radio's chief engineer Bob Skon asked us about the distinction between the phrases "as of today" and "as from today," we had to check it out.

Recently, English Professor Anne Curzan was giving a talk in Washington about reduplication. In reduplication, a form is repeated in a straightforward way, like "no-no" or "boo-boo," or with a vowel change like "flip-flop" or "mish-mash."

During Curzan's talk, someone in the audience raised their hand and said, "You keep using the word 'reduplication.' Isn't that redundant? Why don't you just say 'duplication'?"

Fair question.

Talking about the weather can be about so much more than sunny days and stormy nights.

Last week, we talked about the subtle routines we follow when opening and closing a conversation.

This week, we decided to look at the interesting roles weather can play in those routines.

Even when it comes to the most interesting conversations, there's usually a routine to how they start and how they end.

Think of how your conversations usually start. Generally, you don't just walk up to someone or call them on the phone and immediately start talking about something specific.

You usually say something like "hello" or "hey" or "what's up?" to get things going. Sometimes you might even make your opener a question like, "Hi, how are you?"

Among the many odd things about standard varieties of English is the “s” at the end of “knocks” as in “She knocks on the door.”

If you were to change “she” to “I,” “you,” “we,” or “they,” the “s” would go away, and “knocks” would become “knock.” Why does third person singular tense get an "s" tacked on the end? 

If your life is in shambles, you probably have bigger things to worry about than grammar.

This week's topic comes from a listener who wanted to know the origin of "in shambles."

Soon after we received this question, a co-worker told us she was surprised to learn this phrase, used to refer to a mess or state of disorder, was originally "a shambles."

A few weeks ago on Reddit, someone posted a clip from the Ellen Degeneres Show. The guest was Candice Payne, the Chicago woman who rented hotel rooms for homeless people during last month’s polar vortex.

The post’s headline was, “Ellen gifts $50k to Candice Payne, Chicago woman who help over 122 homeless people during brutal cold winter last week.”

In the comments below the post, one user asked the question, “When did ‘give,’ the verb, give way to ‘gift,’ the noun, becoming the verb?


The words and phrases that pop culture inserts into our everyday language never cease to amaze us here at That's What They Say.

A listener recently wrote to use about one in particular. Laurel wanted to know what we think about "nado" as in the movie "Sharknado."

Last week, we talked about how easy it can be to misinterpret an idiom, especially when a key word sounds very similar to another word.

Before we go any further, look at the following sentence and fill in the blank with the first word that comes to mind:

"Let me tell you, if you think that, you've got another ____ coming."

It's happened to the best of us.

There's a saying that you've been using for as long as you can remember. Then one day, someone informs you, hopefully kindly, that you've actually been saying it wrong this whole time.

Former users of "take it for granite" and "pre-Madonna" know what we're talking about.

There's a set of questions that we as speakers use regularly and that we may not realize have their own special name. They're called tag questions, and they're everywhere.

You probably don't know what a tag question is, do you? You want to learn about tag questions, don’t you? That's probably why you're reading this column, isn't it?

By now you've probably figured out what a tag question is, right?

Sometimes we like to ask people what a particular word or phrase means to them. Sometimes when we do that, we get several completely different answers.

Take “out-of-pocket,” for example.

It's jarring when you discover that a seemingly harmless everyday word or phrase has an offensive origin story.

The Oxford Dictionary's blog has a list of nine words with offensive origins. You probably already know about a few of these, but others such as "no can do" and "long time no see" may come as a surprise.

One that caught our eye is "basket case."

The first citation of "basket case" in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1919, soon after the end of World War I. It came from rumors about soldiers who had lost all of their limbs and had to be transported in a basket. 

If you think about the verb “dive” too hard, it can shake your confidence that you know which past tense to use.  

Let’s say you’re telling someone about a diving competition you participated in yesterday. Do you tell them you dived yesterday, or do you tell them you dove?

Not all verbs cause this sort of confusion.

Regular verbs like “play” have the same past tense and past participle – I play, I played, I have played. Irregular verbs like “drive” are a little trickier – I drive, I drove, I have driven.

For much of its life, “dive” was a regular verb – dive/dived/dived. But in the modern era, we English speakers created an irregular past tense – dove.

There are many things in life worth keeping unsullied or unsoiled.

From our good name to our best dress shirt, it's preferable to keep things safe from both literal and figurative sullying or soiling.

It would seem that "sully" and "soil" have a lot in common. So much so that a listener recently asked if they're related.

In fact, they are.

Sully comes from the French verb "souiller" which means to pollute or stain. That's the same meaning it had when it came into English in 1615, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Early on, "sully" takes on both physical and metaphorical meanings. 

At this point and time, it's pretty clear that the words "awful" and "awesome" aren't interchangeable. But why do their prefixes sound identical?

Our listener Kalen asks: “Why is ‘awesome’ a positive word and ‘awful’ a negative word?”

This is a great example of how two words can start in the same place and end up with quite different meanings.

Since both of these words meant “awe-inspiring” at one point in their lives, we should look at “awe” first.

“Awe” has changed meaning over time, which helps explain why “awful” and “awesome” have changed over time. Early on, “awe” meant fear or dread. Therefore, to be “awe-inspiring” meant to inspire awe or dread.

However, later on “awe” comes to mean respectful fear or reverence – for example, someone could be in awe of the dead. This shift affects “awesome” and “awful.”

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.

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.

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.

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