That's What They Say

Let the creation of 'sniglets' begin!

Feb 24, 2013

With the amount of words used everyday for description and communication, it's difficult to believe that there are holes in our vocabulary where certain real events, actions or items cannot be described. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses these "lexical gaps" with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan.

"It [lexical gap] is a space in the lexicon, in the vocabulary, where we don't have one word to describe something. So, for example, we don't have one word in English to talk about 'spicy-hot.' If you say 'The dish is hot,' people will say, 'Is it spicy-hot, or hot-hot, or temperature-hot?' Because 'hot' is ambiguous, we don't have a word that differentiates," says Curzan.

Other such lexical gaps which cause confusion in every day language  include the ambiguity behind what to call the first decade of the 21st century, or a male-lover. Sometimes, the only way to overcome this gap is to create a "sniglet," as Anne Curzan explains.

"Rich Hall, who was a comedian on HBO's Not Necessarily the News, came up with the word 'sniglet,' which was a word that should be a word, and should be in the dictionary. And he  came up with lots of 'sniglets' including 'musquirt,' which is the liquid in the mustard bottle that comes out before the mustard does."

--Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Politeness conventions

Feb 17, 2013

We've all experienced it: we're out at a restaurant, or a grocery store, and after we're done with our meal or our shopping we give the clerk a cordial "thank you," only to receive a response of "no problem." On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller talks politeness conventions with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan.

"'No problem' as a response to 'thank you' seems to start in the mid-twentieth century," explains Curzan.

"There are people who think that's rude...I think what we're seeing here is a change in politeness conventions, where people are trying to indicate that 'You weren't imposing on me, it was no problem.' Whereas if you say 'You're welcome,' there's actually an indication that 'It was an imposition, but I was happy to do it.'"

In addition to the evolvement of politeness conventions, there have also been developments in what host Rina Miller calls "the language of courtesy," such as introductions like "Pleased to meet you," and "How do you do?"

If you 'fizzle,' at least be smooth about it

Feb 10, 2013

On this week's "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller speaks with Professor Anne Curzan from the University of Michigan about the "adorkable" slang of today's college students.

One can surmise the meaning of "adorkable" as a combination of "adorable" and "dork." Curzan says that this process of blending words to fill another undefined meaning is fairly common.

"It describes something that we didn't know we needed to describe until we had this word, and then suddenly it fills this need. This process of blending, where we take two words and "smush" them together, is pretty common in slang," says Curzan.

Suddenly with this process of blending, any action suddenly has a definitive word to go with it, as Curzan explains.

"This week, students taught me the word 'hangry' which they said is when you're so hungry that you get really cranky and angry."

Stand by your gooma

Feb 3, 2013

On this week's "That's What They Say," Michigan Radio's Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss how the misinterpretation of older words and their meanings led to the modern pronunciations and definitions of words such as "woodchuck" and "bridegroom."

"Linguists call that 'folk etymology,'" says Curzan. "Where speakers come up with an etymology on their own, and then what they think the etymology is affects the shape of the word."

One such example is the word "bridegroom."

"It was not always 'groom', it was actually in Old English a 'bridegoom', and 'goom', or 'gooma', was an Old English word for 'man.' So it was the 'bride's man,'" says Curzan.

Curzan also discusses the mystery of the origin of popular sayings, such as "the whole nine yards" and "rule of thumb."

Persnickety, and other pronunciation problems

Jan 27, 2013

This week on “That’s What They Say” Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss certain words that give people problems with pronunciation.

Everyone’s favorite word when being detailed, “persnickety” was originally spelled and pronounced “pernickety."

“'Pernickety’ goes back to 1808, and by 1892 we have evidence of speakers putting in the ‘s’ and saying ‘persnickety,’” says Curzan.

Other words that give people problems, such as “nuclear”, are usually mispronounced through analogy of other words that sound similar.

“Speakers are making ‘nuclear’ sound more like words such as ‘particular’, ‘circular’, ‘vascular’, ‘molecular’. We have a lot of those ‘cular’ words, not a lot of words that end with ‘clear,’” she says. 

-Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Is 'actually' the new 'like?'

Jan 20, 2013

This week on "That's What They Say," Michigan Radio's Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the surging use of the word "actually" in recent years, and whether or not it has become the new "like."

Now part of everyday speech, Anne Curzan says the word "actually" in fact came to the forefront of American speech only just in the past century.

"It turns out the word 'actually' has more than doubled in usage over the 20th century."

But in recent years, the spoken use of "actually" has become even more pronounced.

"Between 1990 and today, so a little over 20 years, 'actually' has tippled its usage in spoken language, so it's no wonder that we're noticing it, and feeling like its everywhere," she says.

This time on “That’s What They Say” Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss adding an ‘s’ to words like ‘anyway’ and ‘toward.’

Miller says one of her pet peeves is adding an ‘s’ to words like backward, forward and toward, but Curzan says it is okay to do so.

“The toward/towards is mostly a British/American distinction. Brits will tend to use the ‘s’, ‘towards,’ Americans no ‘s’, ‘toward.’” Curzan says. “But at this point we are seeing the British ‘towards’ in a lot of American writing.”

Yet a lot of people cringe at the word “anyways.” Is that a word? Curzan says yes.

“The word actually goes pretty far back in English, used slightly differently. Used in a way that someone might say, ‘if he is in anyways involved,’ it’s more recently that people use anyways in a conjuctive role, to mean ‘in any case,’ and that’s the one that no one likes,” Curzan says.

For this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan spoke with us from Boston, where she was attending the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting, whose 200 members voted on their “Word of the Year.”

Rina Miller:         So the winner is?

This week on That’s What They Say, Anne Curzan, English professor of the University of Michigan and Weekend Edition host Rina Miller discuss the origins of holiday words.

Here are a few:  

Mistletoe used to be called “mistleton.” “Ton” meant “twig” in old English.

The “yule” in the word “yuletide” refers to Christmas or the months of December and January, and “tide” means “a period or extent of time.” Therefore, “yuletide” means the “time of Christmas.”

And the “nog” in egg nog refers to strong ale.

Curzan and Miller also discuss how to pronounce the word “poinsettia” and Curzan explains that Santa’s reindeer named vixen is actually names after a female fox or a sexy woman.

Fan-freaking-tastic

Dec 16, 2012

This week on That’s What They Say, Anne Curzan, English professor of the University of Michigan and Weekend Edition host Rina Miller discuss the moving ‘n’ and infixing words.  

The moving ‘n’ is usually found in words like “a whole nother.”

Curzan says “nother” is a lot older than some may think.

“You can find in English back in the 14th century in expressions like ‘no nother’ which would have meant ‘no other’,” Curzan says.

But “a whole nother” isn’t the only example of the moving ‘n’.

“For example an ‘apron’ used to be a ‘napron’,” Curzan says. “Napron is related to napkin. But if you say napron, you can reinterpret that as an napron, an apron.”

Curzan and Miller also discuss the idea of infixing with words like “fan-freaking-tastic” and “absa-freaking-lutely.”

The English language is constantly changing. How do English teachers keep up?

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller recently got a letter from a listener, Bill, from Eaton Rapids who asks why there isn’t a difference between researching English change and teaching language usage.

“I think there is a difference,” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

She believes teachers can teach the standard language usage and talk about language change with their students.

“And I think maybe one way to help think about this, is I often talk about it as a repertoire, and the bigger the repertoire we have as speakers and writers, the more versatile we are. So what I’m trying to do is to make sure that students have in that repertoire the standard, formal written variety and perhaps the formal spoken variety so they can use it when they need to or want to. But if they have other varieties in there too, all the better,” Curzan said.

Listen to the full interview above to hear why it’s okay to use ain’t in writing. Also, Curzan explains how people in the 19th century “hated” the English passive progressive construction, “the house is being built," but now it is completely standard. An example of why people should not be too quick to judge a certain form, as it might become popular years from now.

Merriam Websters’s definition of retronym is a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun. “Film camera” is a retronym.

Every Sunday, Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan a professor of English at the University of Michigan, specializing in linguistics.

In many cases the retronym is formed in response to technological advances.

“We now specify a land line because when you say phone people may assume it’s a cell phone and we need to now, talking about a phone, say a land line,” said Curzan.

Why do some people say, “I could care less” to mean they don’t care? It doesn't make sense. The expression is, "I couldn't care less," right?

“What has happened here, as far as I can tell, is that speakers are no longer parsing this phrase for every word. And this is what happens with idioms. Idioms take on a meaning that surpasses their parts,” says Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

“I think the ‘less’ there feels negative to speakers. It already says, ‘I don’t care,’ so for them, ‘I could care less -- I couldn’t care less,’ they mean the same thing,” she says.

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller asks Curzan to explain this idiom, “Butter would not melt in her mouth.”

Merriam Webster has one pronunciation for the word lackadaisical, but often people pronounce it laxadaisical.

“I would guess that what’s happened here is that speakers have reinterpreted lackadaisical as related to lax. And once they do that they change the pronunciation of lackadaisical to laxadaisical” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

Curzan says in surveys she’s done, half the people say lackadaisical and half say laxadaisical, but it doesn’t seem to be because of generation differences.

It’s seems that the combination of the letter K and S is what causes the confusion. Another mix-up can be found in words like especially and espresso.

Less vs. fewer

Nov 4, 2012

“There are people who cringe at the grocery store when they see the sign '10 items or less,'” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

It seems as though the rule for less vs. fewer is becoming less clear.

She said, “The rule is that with nouns that are countable we should use fewer. And with nouns that we can’t count, such as water, we should use less.

“Ten items, clearly you can count them because there are ten, so it should be fewer. If you have money it would be less money, but fewer dollars.”

The principles are the same with amount vs. number, so amount for an uncountable noun, and number for a countable noun.

Um, yeah, no, hmm...

Oct 28, 2012

Discourse markers are the little words at the beginning and ends of sentences that help people organize conversation and relate to listeners.

“I noticed ‘yeah, no,’ ‘no, yeah’ and ‘no, I know,’ where no seems to mean yes,” said Anne Curzan, an English Professor at the University of Michigan.

‘Yeah, no’ does a few things. It helps people agree with another person who has made a negative statement.

It is what is, says Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan.

She spoke with Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller about the clichés she has been hearing lately and how they came into being.

“'To throw something,' or 'to throw someone under the bus,' it looks like that is first cited reliably about 1991 and has taken off since then,” said Curzan.

She finds clichés to be much like fashion--usage depends on repeated exposure to the phrases and often they develop momentum all on their own.  

Though it may be underlined in red immediately after I type it, “irregardless” is indeed a word.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, confirms its legitimacy ; but its usage, she warns, only invites contempt.

“A year ago I was talking with someone, and I said, ‘You know, people use it, it’s in most dictionaries.' And you could see that his respect for me and my scholarly perspective was shaken,” says Curzan.

The word comes from a blend of “irrespective and regardless.”

Open The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and you will inevitably find Usage Notes under certain words. These notes warn readers there might be problems or controversies involving grammar, diction, or writing style.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics is 1 of 200 panelists asked to comment on the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.

If you listen carefully you can hear sentences with a double "is" all the time.

President Obama does it. “The fact of the matter is is that…,” he said at the House Republican Conference on January 29, 2010.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

What's the right way to use bad, or badly?

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

Linguists call "feel" a linking verb, which requires an adjective to follow it. Curzan says that's where people get confused.

"I feel happy, I feel bad, but people get confused because with other verbs you'd get an adverb there, I feel bad, I cook badly," Curzan said.

This week “anxious” and “eager” go head-to-head, plus the overstated use of the word “literally.”

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

“There are people who think that anxious should always mean worried, should be linked with the noun anxiety, and not mean that you’re looking forward to something,” said Curzan.

“You can say, I’m anxious about the test, but you shouldn’t say I’m anxious to read that book,” she said.

Curzan says “anxious” has been used to mean “eager” since about the 18th century.

Listen above to hear two other words that are often interchangeable, "disinterested” and “uninterested. Plus, the interesting use of “literally.”

You may have noticed more people are saying “you guys” to refer to just about everyone.

“Some speakers use ‘you guys’ but it depends on where you’re from,"  says Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics. "Southerners often use ‘y'all,’ which I think is a very useful pronoun. And in Texas, for some speakers, ‘y’all’ has become singular, and the plural is ‘all y’all.’  In parts of the East Coast, you get ‘youz,’ or ‘youz guys.’ In Pittsburgh they have ‘yinz,’ or ‘younz.'"

Taboo words can be so powerful they won’t be uttered.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

According to Curzan, taboo words tend to cluster around matters such as sex, death, and religion. In fact “occupy” used to be one of those words.

“In the 17th and 18th century this word  fell out of use because it had sexual connotation,” said Curzan.

Listeners have pointed out that more people are using the word "so" in speech.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

Curzan says, "These little words are called discourse markers. They're the words that help us organize conversations. Words like so, well, and you know, I mean."

When you say the words soften or often, do you pronounce the "t"?

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore the reintroduction of the silent letters. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

The words "soften" and "often" have gone through some pronunciation changes, says Curzan.

If something can happen “on purpose,” then why not “on accident.” If you’re over 40, you probably say, “by accident.”

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore prepositions and other grammar oddities. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore gender stereotypes in job titles for women and men. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

Curzan says the stereotypes come from our understanding of who does certain jobs.

This week on That’s What They Say, we find out whether it’s okay to go "grammando" during a casual conversation. Grammando is a new word used to describe people who correct other people’s grammar, and Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics, kind of loves it.

Curzan, who first came across the word back in March, said that in the online age, fussy bloggers sometimes use grammar as a way to discredit one another.

English is evolving, and to keep up with the times, some nouns are becoming verbs.  One such noun-verb is "impact."

"Linguists call this 'functional shift,' when a word moves from one part of speech to another," said Anne Curzan, a professor of English specializing in linguistics at the University of Michigan.

Although this isn't a new phenomenon, technology seems to be having an influence on the switch.  With search engines came the phrase "to Google something," and now we can "friend" or "un-friend" others. 

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