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That's What They Say

On this week's That's What They Say, English Professor Anne Curzan fills us in on the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote.

The fact that this year's selection was the first ever to be held virtually should give you a big clue about the winner. 


If someone tells you to leave your keys on the dash, you probably know right where to leave them -- on top of the panel in your car that displays controls and information, i.e. the dashboard.

A listener recently pointed out to us that the "board" part of this compound sort of makes sense, but what's going on with "dash"?

It's tempting to assume it has something to do with speed, but that's not the case.


You’re probably familiar with the phrase “batten down the hatches,” especially if you’ve ever turned on the Weather Channel before a major storm. 

A colleague of Professor Anne Curzan recently asked us though, can “batten” pair with anything else? Good question.


Last week on That's What They Say, we talked about a peeve over "exasperate" getting used in place of  "exacerbate." This week, we looked at two more words that often get entangled, "trammel" and "trample."

Professor Anne Curzan ran across "trammel" while researching last week's show. While we're very familiar with things like "untrammeled access" or "untrammeled nature," "trammel" on its own raised a flag.

The words "exacerbate" and "exasperate" look and sound very similar. That could explain why people sometimes say "exasperate" when they mean "exacerbate," as our listner Judy Nikolai  has noticed.

"Once or twice I've even heard reporters or interviewees on NPR employ what I believe is this incorrect usage," she says.


Some words sound similar but don't have anything to do with each other. Others sound similar and have everything to do with each other. 

When a listener asked us about "ornery," we had no idea that it fell into the latter category, alongside "ordinary." They do sound similar, but how are they related?


In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, we found ourselves wondering about the history of “aftermath.”

A listener named Sybil Kolon put "aftermath" on our radar a couple of weeks ago. This past week, we noticed people from all over the political spectrum using it in discussions of a post-election world.


Our clocks fell back by an hour Sunday morning. As they did, a much-discussed usage issue once again raised its head.

Though most of us would agree the extra hour of sleep is nice, there’s contention over what we call this particular event.


When it’s “all downhill from here,” there’s some ambiguity about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

A friend of Professor Anne Curzan recently pointed out that the issue with this expression is that it’s almost an auto antonym. That is, a word or expression that can mean its opposite.


Sometimes we get a language question that leads to another question. That question leads to another question, and before we know it, we’ve fallen down a language rabbit hole.

A listener recently asked us if the phrase “apple of my eye” can be plural. The answer is yes. You could call your children “the apples of my eye.” You and your partner could also call your children “the apples of our eyes.”

This got us thinking about other phrases where there’s a question about which part to make plural. Specifically, we started thinking about phrases like “father-in-law” and “brother-in-law.”


Currying favor has everything to do with flattery and horses, and nothing to do with food.

This expression, which means to seek or gain favor through flattery or to use flattery to gain a personal advantage, is an eggcorn that goes back 500 years.


Most people would agree that a lamb would make a terrible escape vehicle. All that bleating would instantly give away even the stealthiest of fugitives.

Fortunately, a spelling discrepancy clarifies that going "on the lam" doesn't mean riding away on a baby sheep. It does make us wonder though, what exactly is a “lam” anyway? 

 

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.


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