That's What They Say

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!

Wait...is 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.

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.

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.

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.

Certainly the reading clerk and deputy clerk of the Crown would approve of us bringing these words back.
UK Parliament / Flickr

Every year, the Word Warriors of Wayne State University come out with a list of the top 10 words that deserve to be spoken and written more often.

Chris Williams is with Wayne State University in Detroit and he joined us today.

You can listen to our conversation with him below.

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. 

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. 

Even the Romans had their dog days of summer

Aug 31, 2014
Michigan Radio

Michiganders didn't really get much of a chance to refer to "the dog days of summer" this year, but what you might not realize is that the expression didn't come from sizzling weather, but from the stars.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says people have come up with some very good explanations that relate to dogs on scorching days.

Michigan Radio

It appears vinyl records are causing some folks a bit of grammatical angst.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says one of those people experiencing discomfort about the plural of the word "vinyl" is Michigan Radio's Mike Perini, who happens to be an avid music collector.

Curzan says she was surprised to find quite a debate about the word. It's been in newspapers and blogs.

"There are even t-shirts and magnets that say the plural of vinyl is vinyl," she says.

And suddenly, "sudden" became a noun

Aug 24, 2014

Maybe you've done this: You have an acquaintance who's a specialist of some sort – like a doctor or a mechanic – and you ask for their advice, even though they're not on the job.

That often happens to University of English professor Anne Curzan. She specializes in linguistics, so when someone asks her the origin of a word or why its use has changed, she becomes a language detective.

Recently, a neighbor asked Curzan about how the word "sudden" became a noun, as in "all of a sudden."

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

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