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).

Those little questions we ask at the end of sentences to confirm what we already know are called "tag" questions – because they tag onto the end of a sentence to turn it into a little question at the end.

It could be something like, "You can speak Chinese, can't you," where you get that little confirmation question at the end.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says we also get invariant tags, like "You can speak Chinese, right?"

Curzan says the tag "right" shows up in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1939.

Are we becoming too lazy to pronounce all of the syllables in a word?  

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says speech economy is nothing new.

For example, the shortening of "probably" to "prolly" is old enough and well-established enough that it already appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Sometimes we have words in our sentences that don't seem to mean anything, but they have to be there.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says the word "do" is a good example.

"It does a lot of work in English, and it's almost invisible work, because it often doesn't mean anything," Curzan says, "but it has to be in the sentence to make it grammatical. 

"The verb 'do' goes all the way back to old English, but its use as an auxiliary verb, as a helping verb, goes back only to the Renaissance. This would be in a sentence like, 'I do not know.'"

Eggcorns are not food for squirrels.

They're reinterpretations of words or phrases that sound like the originals – as in "Would you care for some holiday (hollandaise)  sauce on that turkey? And be sure to try the cold (cole) slaw."

Another eggcorn stirred an Internet hissy fit recently: "firstable," meaning "first of all."

http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/yes-firstable

The post asks "What has the Internet done to our brains?"

Can blame the Web for this?


In Shakespeare's day, if you fell out of favor with someone, you could say that you "fell out of that person's books."

University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan says the expression goes back to the 16th century. Shakespeare used it in "Romeo and Juliet."

"It's when Romeo kisses Juliet, and Juliet says, 'You kiss by the book.' It's possible to read that in a couple different ways," Curzan says. "One is that she's totally smitten, and he kisses in the best way possible, as what you would read about in a book.

A little over a hundred years ago, Americans created a few more ways to say "yes."

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says "yes" is an old English word that goes back about a thousand years. 

 "At the end of the 19th century, we start to see these new versions of 'yes' show up in the U.S.," Curzan says.  "'Yep' is first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1896. In 1905, we have 'yeah' show up, and in 1906, 'yup,'" Curzan says. 

And today, especially on social media, we see lots of "yeps" and "yups." Do they mean the same thing?

Saying you have "a lot" of something is pretty boring.

But when you say you have "gobs" of fun, you're painting a more interesting word picture.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan did some snooping into the background of the word "gob," and found it's borrowed from old French. 

"It comes into English in the 14th century, referring to a mass or a lump," Curzan says. "You'll see that today as in a gob of spit or a gob of mud."

By the 16th century, gob in the plural was coming to refer to a lot of something, as in gobs of money or gobs of food.

We need to talk about our apostrophe problem.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says the pesky punctuation defies the rules.

That's mostly because the rules depend on which style guide you use.

"The biggest problem is when a noun ends in s and we want to make it a possessive, which immediately runs us into the question of whether we use apostrophe-s or just an apostrophe," Curzan says.

"For example: James has a house. So is it James' or James's house?"

Some people aesthetically don't like the look of s's, Curzan says. 

When some people are “jury-rigging,” others are “jerry-rigging.”

So who’s right?  Historically, “jury-rigging” is correct, according to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

"It comes from a jury mast, which was a mast on the ship that was makeshift – constructed quickly," Curzan says.

"Exactly where the jury comes from, we're not sure. Some people say maybe it's a shortening of 'injury.' But 'jury-rigged' shows up in the 19th century."

Animals pop up all over the English language – and at times when we're really not talking about animals. Here's one: "The elephant in the room."  

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says the phrase appears to go back to the 1930s, but didn't mean what it means today. 

"It referred to something that is obvious, but not necessarily relevant to what we're talking about," Curzan says. 

If you’re anxious to hear about this year’s usage ballot of the American Heritage Dictionary, you’re in luck.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is on the panel that gives thumbs-up – or down – to the way we use certain words.

It happens that “anxious” versus “eager” is on the ballot this year.

Curzan says “anxious” is often used to say we’re feeling worried.

“But when I’m anxious to do something, it could mean that I’m actually looking forward to it,” Curzan says.

So “anxious” is an acceptable substitute for “eager.”

With a few tricky English words borrowed from the French, it doesn’t always help us to think about how the French would say it.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says a colleague asked her about the pronunciation of the word “forte.” Is it one syllable, read as “fort,”or two syllables, pronounced “for-tay?”

Curzan says the answer seems to be both.

    

Even competent spellers can trip over the word flier/flyer.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says most dictionaries give both options, so the good news is you’re always right.

“What I was struck by, in many of them, was that if you look up flyer with a “y,” it will say it’s a variety of flier, and then when you look up the spelling with an “i,” you get the definitions,” says Curzan.

“I looked on Google Books, and it turns out the spelling with a “y” is much more common over the last 40 years – yet it is still seen as a variant.”

    

If some one gives you fulsome praise, is that good or bad?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says that question came up during a family game of "Cranium" recently. 

These were the choices:

  1. Excessive or fake praise
  2. Disgusting or offensive
  3. Abundant or copious

That game was stacked, because Curzan happens to be on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which tackled "fulsome" in 2012.

It turns out there's a lot of confusion about what "fulsome" means.

Bupkis. Zip, nada, zilch. 

Those are all words that mean nothing – as in you've got nothing.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says a game of cribbage with her mother led to a discussion about the word bupkis, and where it came from.

"It's such a great word. It's clearly Yiddish," Curzan says. "And then we started talking about other words for 'nothing.' There's zero, which is borrowed from French in the 17th century, but it goes back to Arabic. Nada, which is Spanish, goes back to the 19th century."

Michigan Radio

Cracking up is funny, except when it involves going completely to pieces, but cracking down often isn't funny at all. 

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan hadn't really deeply pondered the many meanings of the word "crack," until Rina Miller mentioned getting a chuckle from a road department's press release about crack sealing, prompting the predictable plumber's butt joke.

What Curzan discovered is that the word goes back to old English, starting as a verb. 

Pierre Metivier / Flickr

Language, language everywhere

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor asked me what the scoop is with the phrase all of a sudden.

“I was thinking about it the other day,” she said, “because I would never say ‘a sudden.’ And I thought, ‘I should ask Anne.’”

A few days later, I was chatting with one of my colleagues over lunch, and he told me he had just learned the slang term thirsty from his students and was wondering if I already knew it.

The emoji is more than just an emoticon on digital steroids.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan take a closer look at emojis and their use in the digital age.

“Emoji or emojis are those little images or icons that you can use while texting or emailing. It includes smiley faces, but also pictures of cars and bells and things like that. So it’s a much richer set of symbols than the emoticons that I think many of us are familiar with” says Curzan.

According to Curzan, Emojis first show up in the late 1990s in Japan, but they quickly moved to the U.S. and eventually the word gets incorporated into English, and in 2013, the Oxford English dictionary chose to include emoji.

People are using emojis to communicate, and Curzan cites their simplicity and the tendency of people to be both playful and creative while using emojis.

What are your favorite emojis to use while texting? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Omar Saadeh - Michigan Radio Newsroom

We soap things with soap and we spice things with spice, so it seems like it should be possible to marinade things in a marinade.

That might not be the case after all.

This week on That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan take a closer look at marinade and marinate.

According to Curzan, people seem to be concerned about the difference, or the confusion, between marinade, the noun, and marinate, the verb.

"The word 'marinade' as a noun, goes back to 1725, when we borrowed it from French," says Curzan. "The verb 'marinate' had been borrowed in from Italian in 1645, so it was already available in the language.

"When 'marinate' came into the language, it was a transitive verb. In other words, it had to have an object, so you 'marinated' things in vinegar, oil, or whatever you were marinating them in."

Curzan says a metaphorical system exists where we talk about ideas as food. For example, an idea might be "hard to swallow," or "half-baked." Other examples include ideas that are "regurgitated."

Are there any food-related metaphors that you use to describe various situations? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Omar Saadeh - Michigan Radio Newsroom

For some folks, it makes a big difference whether you say X is different from Y or X is different than Y.

This week on That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan look at the confusion surrounding the use of "different from" and "different than."

According to Curzan, both forms are correct and it's just a matter of preference.

"Some people think it should be 'different from' because it is a question of exclusion, it's not a question of degree, so if things are different, you're excluding everything else," says Curzan. "Speakers have been using 'different from' and 'different than' since the 17th century. And in British English, speakers have also used 'different to', so we've got 3 different propositions happening there."

Curzan explains that with a noun, many speakers opt to use either one. For example, one might say a psychologist's view will be 'different than' an economist or a psychologist's view will be 'different from' an economist. In these cases the use of either form is correct.

What about the next phrase? Which one is right? 'Someone went missing' or 'someone is missing.'" Curzan says it's another case of British English entering into American English.

Which form do you prefer to use? Different from or different than? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Omar Saadeh - Michigan Radio Newsroom

Uncles have their own adjective in avuncular, but aunts don’t have any such adjective.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan explore adjectives related to family members.  

“Paternal related to fathers, maternal for mothers, fraternal for brothers, sororal, which is not a really common adjective but it’s available in the language related to sisters. You get filial related to sons and daughters, and then parental for parents,” says Curzan.   

She also points out that these adjective that come from Latin often feel more formal than their Germanic synonyms.

“What we are seeing here is a wider pattern in the English language where we have these synonyms where one is borrowed like paternal or maternal and one of them is a native English word. It’s a Germanic word that’s been in English since English has been around. And often the native English word will feel warmer to us. It will feel closer to us and the borrowed one will feel a little bit more formal.”

Listen to the segment above.

You say potato and I say ... well, that depends.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan investigate the  various pronunciation of commonly used words.

The expression 'one off' is not a one of a kind expression.

This week on That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan inquire about the concept of 'one off' and its origins.

According to Curzan, 'one off' first shows up in 1934, and it means 'made or done as only one of its kind', and it's not repeated - it's a one-off product, a one-off event. Its origins are British, but has been in use in American English since the 1980s.

Play ball!

Even when we are not talking about baseball, we are often using the language of baseball.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan explore baseball terminology and the expressions that are commonly used, even though the reference may have nothing to do with baseball.

Greetings!

In emails and letters, we address a lot of people who are not dear to us as
"dear."

On this weekend’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller talks with University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan about greetings and closings used in the age of the email.

The use of "dear" has been the default salutation, going back to the 17th century, when it became the polite form for letters as in "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam," says Curzan, but there are less formal salutations by using words such as ‘hi’ to open an email or letter.

Heads Up!

Sometimes we’re warned to watch our head, but when you think about it, that doesn't seem physically possible.

How can you watch your head?

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan analyze phrases and expressions involving the word ‘head’.

Fuddy duddy!

If you use the word ‘fuddy duddy’, young people might just think you are one.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan talk about the rise of fashionable words.

After using the word in class, Curzan states that her students had no idea what she was referring to. When she asked whether they knew what she was talking about, only a few students knew what a ‘fuddy duddy’ was.

Many writers get tripped up about when the word “its” has an apostrophe and when it does not.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the oftentimes confusing placement of the apostrophe.

The word “it’s” with an apostrophe is a contraction of “it is,” just as “can’t” is a contraction of “cannot.” If “its” is referring to the possession of something, no apostrophe is required. The same is true for the pronouns hers, ours and yours.