Anne Curzan

That's What They Say

Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.

As an expert in the history of the English language, Curzan describes herself as a fount of random linguistic information about how English works and how it got to be that way. She received the University's Henry Russel Award for outstanding research and teaching in 2007, as well as the Faculty Recognition Award in 2009 and the 2012 John Dewey Award for undergraduate teaching.

Curzan has published multiple books and dozens of articles on the history of the English language (from medieval to modern), language and gender, and pedagogy. Her newest book is Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (2014).

When she is not tracking down new slang or other changes in the language, Curzan can be found running around Ann Arbor, swimming in pools both indoor and out, and now doing yoga (in hopes that she can keep running for a few more years to come).

We're happy to have an enthusiastic word-nerd audience with lots of suggestions and questions.  

Douglas, who listens to us from Atlanta, wants to know about discomfit vs. discomfort.

He wrote: “I once was discomfited by discomfort, never discomforted by discomfit.”

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan started digging.

Bob from Kalamazoo's been wondering about something: What's going on with "absolutely?" Does it mean yes, no, or something else?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan delved into the question.

"Luckily for us, there was a study in 2007 by Hongyin Tao at UCLA, who used four spoken databases of American English to try to figure out what's going on with 'absolutely.' He looked at two ways 'absolutely' occurs," Curzan says.

"One he called the "dependent absolutely." This is when 'absolutely' occurs before an adjective, as in 'absolutely right,' 'absolutely perfect,' or 'absolutely wrong.'

Let's do the shimmy today! Did you know that the name of the move you do with your hips comes from women's undergarments? In fact it might be a corruption of chemise, says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. 

Some think of shimmy as a dance, others as a maneuver to climb up something, but it gets confused with shinny all the time.

"A lot of people do now shimmy up trees, but it was originally shinny up," says Curzan.

Chick. Woman. Lady. Gal. Kitten. Doll. It seems like there are over a hundred names for the opposite of the male sex! I call my mom a woman and my sister a girl. Both are over the age of 25. Why is it so difficult to decide what to call women? I mean girls. I mean …females?

Whether to say girl or woman could depend on who is using the term, says University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan.  

People sometimes get fussy with University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan for saying that the English language is always changing. But why does the English language constantly change? Is there a schedule out there somewhere saying how fast it will change? Why can’t we all keep saying the same things, all the time, forever?

But change is progress, says Curzan, and the language cannot simply stay still, for several reasons. 

We read your emails, and we're proving it today by talking about pinkies, other fingers, and humerus bones.

One of you asked about the pinky finger.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discovered the pinky finger comes from the adjective “pinky,” which meant small.

“It at first referred to eyes,” Curzan explains. “So people with pinky eyes … like little squinty eyes.”  

But eventually its meaning moved from our eyes to our little fingers and made its way to the United States at the end of the 19th century.

We have alot to talk about today! it alot or a lot? My auto correct is saying a lot, but my heart is saying alot. What is going on here?!  

A lot, as one word instead of two, has a bit of a history to it, going back to Old English, says University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan.

It goes back to the Old English word hlot – a word you really got to gather a lot of air to say. 

“That combination hl was possible in Old English; a loaf of bread was a hlaf,” says Curzan. 

Today we  will be discussing pooh and all its forms. Not Winnie the Pooh or the other type of pooh you are thinking. No, no. We are talking all about exclamations of today and yesteryear.

Although many of us do not shout out “pooh” when faced with something shocking or aggravating, University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan does.

Numbers, unlike silly language, make sense. They have rigid rules and you can always understand the carefully constructed patterns. Eighteen is related to eight, fourteen is related to four. Umpteenth is related to...wait. What's an umpty?

“Umpty is an indefinite number,” says University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan. “Usually a large number, goes back to 1904. It represents, apparently, the dash in Morse Code.”

Sometimes we wake up on the wrong side of bed, and most of us find the sunshine the next day. But an ancient fellow by the name of Richard Grant White seemed to always be a bit cranky, and he took his crankiness out on language.

There were many words and phrases that White griped about in his 18th century grammar book, Words and Their Uses Past and Present.

There are many words in our language that are just plain fun. But what exactly do they mean? University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan did a deep dive this week into colorful, sassy words. 

Let’s start with the ever-popular term, bumbershoot. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of a bumbershoot?  

It means an umbrella.

We’ve got winning on the brain, but not because our lotto tickets finally paid off. It’s because of sports and Coach Carol Hutchins finding herself as the second-winningest active coach of softball and the winnigest coach in the University of Michigan’s athletic department history.

Winningest has been around since at least the mid-20th century, but winning in the Charlie Sheen sense, has been around even longer, says University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan. 

“Found missing.” “Gone missing.” “Went missing.” If you have ever seen the side of a milk carton you are familiar with these phrases. But these curious expressions just sound wrong … and British.

“This is a Briticism, and I think why Americans are noticing it is that it is absolutely on the increase in American English,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

“Over the last 15 years, the phrase 'go missing', 'went missing' has increased tenfold.”

We all must learn to evolve with the times and begrudgingly accept that words like “ridic” and “selfie” are part of the lexicon. But must our beloved Scrabble be tainted as well? University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan explains Scrabbling in a post-selfie stick world.

"On May 21, 6,500 new words were announced that were going to be added to the Collins Official Scrabble word list and this made headlines in the news," Curzan says. "Including a headline like 'Scrabble Adds Even More Garbage Words to its Dictionary.'"


Sometimes it’s tricky to know if you are putting the right emPHASis on the right SylLAble. Even Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan has had her doubts when it comes to what syllable to stress and when.

“I, for much of my life, at least for as long as I've been using this word, have said “AFFluent.” But, at the university, I will go to talks and talk to colleagues and sometimes they will say “affLOOent,” Curzan says. 

Capitulate, and its often confusing cousin, recapitulate, sound similar, but have completely different meanings. Why is that and how do we sort out all of this confusion? Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan cracked open the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources to find the answers.

“Capitulate, which for most of us means to give in to something, that you capitulate, is one thing,” Curzan explains. “But recapitulating is not giving in again, it’s to summarize something.”

When deciding whether to say “thee” as opposed to “the” [pronounced thuh], it’s about more than just sounding fancy, says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. 

Not too long ago, Curzan received an email outing her for saying “the” [thuh] instead of “thee,” a pet peeve of the listener. But it’s more complicated than one is always right and the other is always wrong. In fact, both pronunciations are legitimate and have their time and place.

Flowers are a popular way to honor Mother's Day, so we decided to take a look at some expressions that seem to have floral origins.

First, there's "a bed of roses."

"This phrase has been around longer than I was expecting," says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

Copy editors around the country are mulling over what to do about the pronoun "they" used as a singular, because the issue just won't go away.

So we decided to revisit the topic, because increasingly "they" is what's used in everyday language.

"The issue is what to do with a noun where the gender is unknown or unspecified.

Take two slices of bread, put something tasty on them, slap the slices together, and you've got a sandwich, right?

Well, you may call it a "sanwich" or "samwich," and you're certainly not alone.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan recently heard someone making fun of a person for saying "samwich," and thought that wasn't very kind.

There are plenty of English words that mean "nonsense."

One of them is "malarkey."  It's certainly fun to say, and it got a lot of attention when Vice President Joe Biden, in his debate with Sen. Paul Ryan: "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey."

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, who specializes in linguistics, says while "malarkey" sounds like it's Irish in origin, there's no clear answer about where it comes from.

Given how common the compound word "child care" is, you would think we could agree on whether to spell it as one word or two.

And that's just the tip of the compound iceberg.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says That's What They Say listener Adam e-mailed a question about "fundraise."  

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan has been thinking about diminutives lately, particularly "ette."

"The word 'cigarette' is clearly more diminutive than 'bullet,' but they actually share the same diminutive suffix," Curzan says. 

"I did an interview recently about suffixes for women – like 'ess,' 'ette,' and 'trix,' and it had me thinking about some etymological facts that not everyone is aware of about the history of 'ette.'

"Even the most euphemistic terms we have for where the toilet is, can sometimes not feel quite euphemistic enough."

That's what University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan said on "That's What They Say." 

And it's true: We have lots of different names for the place where we perform that private function. 

We're humans, and we don't always get along, but there are degrees of disagreement – and some colorful words to describe them, like "brouhaha."

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says the word comes from French.

Have you ever actually had a bee in your bonnet? Yes?

Now we want to know why you were wearing a bonnet in the first place, but we’ll let that go.

We know you spent hours carefully selecting that bonnet, making sure it complemented your calico dress and brought out the blue in your apron, only to have the whole thing ruined by one nasty little bee.

That’s What They Say listener Helga has noticed a disturbing trend.

She’s concerned about how often she’s been hearing “off of.” For example, turning “off of” Division St. onto Huron St.

Helga thinks this is redundant, and she’s not alone. “Off of” has received plenty of criticism online and in style guides.  

There are some people though, who just like to watch the world burn.

We’d like to stress that That’s What They Say is a safe place for word enthusiasts to confide language pet peeves without fear of ridicule or judgment. 

When host Rina Miller worried her frustration with people who say “gantlet” instead of “gauntlet” made her a Miss Snooty Pants, we assured her, she’s not. 

In fact, when it comes to “gauntlet” vs. “gantlet,” Miller isn’t alone.


Valentine’s Day was yesterday, and maybe you’re still aglow from the candle-lit dinner you shared with your beloved at a fancy French restaurant.

Maybe you’re thinking about how, after the cheese plate, the chocolate mousse and a whole lot of wine, you finally got up the nerve to whisper “I love you.”

Just then the music swelled, and you waited with bated breath for your beloved’s response:

You’re sitting on the couch, about to settle in for some serious Netflix binge watching, when you see it.

A huge, hairy spider is skittering across the floor in front of you. As it gets closer, you raise your foot, ready to quash the little beastie in its tracks.

Hold on. You can’t quash a spider, can you? Shouldn’t you squash him? Or maybe you should squish him. What about squooshing him?

Actually, we’re not sure that last one is really a word.