That's What They Say

Sometimes you stumble upon an easy, familiar word, and you just can’t remember how to say it.

Take “complex”, for example. You’ve probably heard it pronounced two ways, with stress on either the first or second syllable.

But which one is right? The answer is a bit complex.

What gives you solace?

Maybe it's a hot cup of tea and a good book. Maybe it's a stroll through the woods on an autumn day.

Or maybe it's cat videos. Lots of cat videos.  

What gives us solace is knowing that we have thoughtful, curious listeners who send us great questions, including one from a listener who wanted to know if "solace" can be modified by "some"?

That is, can you take some solace or do you have to take it all?

A few weeks ago, a tweet went viral, because it explained something about adjectives that many people didn’t realize they already knew.


Think about how you would describe someone’s eyes.


Would you describe them as “blue beautiful big eyes"? Probably not. That sounds weird, right?

Some acronyms have become so common as words, that it’s tough to remember what they stood for in the first place.

We’re talking about words where each letter actually stands for its own word. Instead of saying each word individually, we mash the first letters together and say that instead.

Take scuba, for instance. We don’t call it “scuba” diving because some guy named Steve Scuba invented a cool way to stay under water for a long time.

“Scuba” actually stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Language ambiguity can certainly create some confusing situations.

Take this headline from a 1982 issue of The Guardian, for example: “British Left Waffles on Falklands.”

At first, it sounds like the British forgot their breakfast on the Falkland Islands. While we love waffles and certainly agree that accidentally leaving them behind in the South Atlantic would be a bummer, that’s not exactly headline material.

Go back and read the headline again. This time, treat “waffles” as a verb instead of a delicious breakfast treat.

Now does it make sense?

It's difficult to escape the lure of the concession stand.

They’re at the movies, beckoning to you with rainbow-colored boxes of candy and buckets of warm, buttery popcorn.

You’ll find them at circuses and fairs, pulling you in with bags of fluffy, pastel-colored cotton candy and crispy funnel cakes, sweet with cinnamon and sugar.

At baseball games, you don’t even have to get out of your seat to get peanuts or a box of Cracker Jack. The concession stand comes to you.

It’s not a question of if you’ll give in, but when.

We try to keep our language pretty clean here at That’s What They Say, but sometimes things just slip out.

Like when we’re explaining the difference between “they’re”, “their,” and “there” for what feels like the millionth time.

Or when we see "for all intensive purposes" in print, and the writer isn't trying to be ironic.

Sometimes it happens when we stub a toe and it really, really hurts.

In any case, for those of us guilty of occasionally uttering words that would make a sailor blush, the phrase “pardon my French” is a go-to apology.

It’s the kind of thing that can divide a nation.

Or, at the very least, it’s the kind of thing that can bring a perfect date between two grammar nerds to a screeching halt.

Picture it. You’re midway through what has been a nearly perfect first date. Conversation has been interesting, awkward lulls have been minimal and basic hygiene expectations have been met.

Then, somewhere between entrees and dessert, the word "alleged" comes up in conversation.

Did you own a talking car in the 1980s?

The Chrysler New Yorker was one of a handful of models in the mid-80s to feature an electronic voice alert system.

We're guessing it launched more than a few Knight Rider fantasies.

The car would remind you to fasten your seatbelt or to replenish your wiper fluid. It would let you know if your lights were on or if your engine was overheating. All in a robotic monotone.

There sits the dictionary.  

A forgotten volume, alone on its rickety pedestal with nothing but a shabby jacket to protect it from dust and shelf ware.

All the dictionary ever wanted was to serve you.

Think about that time you were cramming for the vocabulary portion of your SAT and just couldn’t make sense of “legerdemain.” Who was there to offer not only a sentence for context but also a language of origin?

Mutter, mumble and murmur may look similar, but don't be fooled.

Think of it this way. If someone you're dating tells you they  love you for the first time, which would you prefer?

1) "I love you," he murmured.

2) "I love you," she mumbled.

3) "I love you," he muttered.

Okay, none of these scenarios instill a lot of confidence when it comes to long-term relationship potential, but one certainly seems worse than the others.

Some things are inevitable when you’re a radio host.

It’s almost time to go on the air, and you're ready. Your headlines are juicy and your weather forecast is spot on.

You’ve even got a great line to get people to listen to that segment on the mating rituals of the brown marmorated stink bug. 

Your finger is poised over the microphone button, and then you think, “Maybe I should check the traffic map one last time, just in case.”

Why not? You've got 30 whole seconds to spare.

That's when you see it.

In 2008, the American Dialect Society voted the "recombobulation area" in the Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee as the most creative word of the year. / Flickr -

Are there words in your vocabulary that make you wonder how they got there? We posed that question on social media and asked our listeners what strange words and phrases they would like to know the origin of.

Luckily for us, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan was nearby to help. She studies linguistics and the history of the English language and is the host of That's What They Say.

Some of the submissions from our listeners include cattywampus, kitty corner, the whole nine yards and more. Some of our listeners have gone through the award-winning "recombobulation area" in Milwaukee

Does an oxford comma clutter up a sentence? The debate rages on.
Rasmus Olsen / Flickr -

Whether you love it or hate it, the oxford comma evokes some pretty strong feelings – both among people who study language and the rest of us. 


Pronunciation of the word divisive can be divisive.

Michigan Radio listener Connie of Grand Rapids wrote “I had always thought the middle syllable in this word was a long i, as in divided but I am hearing NPR hosts saying it with a short i, as in division.

Curzan and Miller admit they use both pronunciations.

“What we’re seeing here is a shift from what seems to be the standard pronunciation in a relatively short time frame – the last 15 years or so," Curzan says.

She checked with the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, of which she’s a member, to see how they’re voting on this.

Professor confesses: "I'm a jaywalker"

May 8, 2016

University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan has a confession.

"I witness jaywalking on campus all the time and participate in the practice myself. I'm an impatient pedestrian," she admits. "When I lived in Seattle it was very difficult for me, because in Seattle people really do obey the crosswalks, but I struggled."

She'd never thought about where the word "jaywalking" came from until a friend's daughter asked about it.

"I found out it takes us back to another great word, that I hope we’ll be able to revive," she says. "It goes back to jay driver, and that shows up early 20th century, in a citation from 1905 in Kansas. Jay drivers were people who drove on the wrong side of the road," Curzan says.

We often don’t notice dangling or misplaced modifiers in speech, but they can unintentionally create some really funny images.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan was thinking about the grammar lessons she learned as a kid, and misplaced and dangling modifiers stuck in her head.

“In the grammar book that I had – this must have been junior high, late elementary school – there was this sentence: ‘Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.’”

What if you've used a word your whole life, and then you find out nobody else uses it and you can't find it in standard dictionaries? Is it still a word?

That happened to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan during a guest lecture recently when a student asked how many people need to know a word in order for it to be a real word.

It reminded her of a word her family's always used: Plogged.

As in "I'm so sorry I haven't responded to your emails, but my email box is plogged."

Are you getting fresh with us?

Apr 10, 2016

Two well-known company slogans have raised some grammatical hackles, based on their use or non-use of adverbs.

We know Eat Fresh comes from a restaurant.  

“You won’t be surprised I don’t have a problem with it, Curzan says, "but when Subway started using the slogan there were some folks who said, “we don’t like the grammar of that."

"The question was whether fresh was the right form to be used because people said, “I think you should have an adverb – like 'eat right.' Or 'eat well.' It raised this grammatical question of what exactly is fresh doing in Eat Fresh.

Holy moly! Holy Toledo! Holy whatsit?

Mar 13, 2016

Expletives may be considered uncouth, but we have to give credit where credit is due: They can also be pretty darn creative.

Anne Curzan, an English Professor at the University of Michigan, joins Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller once again to help us better understand one of the most prismatic examples of colorful language: the holy moly.

The holy in “holy moly!” isn’t quite the same usage that we see in, say, the “Holy Bible” or “the High Holy Days.” 

  Pacifier, binkie, dummy; we have lots of words for that funny little gizmo babies suck on when they’re teething. In the U.S., we use pacifier the most frequently, and while it might seem like the least funny of the set, the way we use it is kind of interesting.

“While we know theoretically that pacifiers can be people too,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, “it’s hard not to associate them with those little rubber gadgets for babies.”

You may not have much truck with trucks, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never truck some truck.

That sentence might be a little confusing, but it shows something that’s easy to forget: the word truck is pretty versatile. It’s almost like the Swiss Army Knife of the English language! But how does a word like truck come to mean so many things? What’s the story there?

If a stranger is blocking your view in a movie theater, how do you respond?

For many folks, the polite response might be, “Would you please move out of the way?” That’s because we use the word please to make requests sound polite, but there are times when a simple please just doesn’t sound gracious enough.  For some people, that sentence might even sound a little aggressive. What’s going with our language?

Fortunately for us, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is here to help us better understand the delicate ways of polite speech.

It's getting hammy in here

Feb 7, 2016

At the behest of a colleague, University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan started poking into the history of ham. The word, that is.

“When you think about it, ham-handed is a really weird way to say something is clumsy or awkward,” says Curzan.

So how does a beloved lunch meat also become an idiom for the ineffectual?

Few words carry the cultural weight of a decade like the 1960s mantra, groovy. It can seem hard to separate the word from the period, but, according to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, the ‘60s were not the birthplace of the groove. Nor has the word always meant what we use it to mean today.

“You’re going to feel a little pinch.” We’ve all heard some variation of this phrase before, either at a doctor’s office or a clinic, and we all know what follows: some type of medically necessitated pain.

But is it just the shot that’s hurting us?

For University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, the answer might be more than just the bloodwork. “Can the words we use actually affect the experience a patient has in terms of pain?” she asks.

The passive voice is infamous as a style choice that we’re supposed to avoid. But for University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, this isn’t a rule that should be set in stone.

“The advice, ‘never use the passive voice,’” says Curzan, “is a bit too sweeping to be entirely helpful.”

It’s easy to take for granted, but we use some pretty curious words for clothing. Blazer? Galoshes? What’s the story there?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, our resident expert on language, puts on her etymology hat to shed some light on what we call what we wear.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan has such a busy schedule, it's sometimes hard to find the time to produce our weekly "That's What They Say" discussion.

That led me to use the expression running from pillar to post, which in turn prompted a "hey, I wonder where that comes from" moment. 

We have lots of those moments, as do our listeners and readers, and that's why TWTS exists.

Where does the pillar to post reference originate?

Like spending a weekend binge-watching House of Cards, some things we do not because it’s the correct thing, but simply because it feels right.

As it turns out, pronunciation can be like this too.

“Sometimes what dictionaries and grammar books tell us is technically correct in the language doesn’t sound quite right,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. “Which can leave us in a bit of a bind.”