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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).

Some of you may not remember much from the calculus courses you took in high school or college.

But there are other uses for the word "calculus," and they don't involve integrals or derivatives. 

A listener named Jerry recently wrote to us with a question about one such use:

"When and how did the mathematical term 'calculus' come to refer to political thinking?"


Last week on That's What They Say, we had so much fun talking about "factoids" we thought we'd answer another fact-related question this week.

A couple weeks ago, English professor Anne Curzan gave a talk at Glacier Hills Senior Living Community in Ann Arbor. Following the talk, a woman asked a question  Curzan had never considered.

She wanted to know, "Why is everyone now talking about the fact of the matter? Why can't they just talk about facts?"

Good question. 


Unless you've managed to avoid all forms of media this year, you're probably well aware of the ongoing debate over what constitutes a fact.

Frankly, we have no desire to open up that powder keg. However, we thought this would be a good time to talk about "factoids."

If someone were to ask you for an example of a factoid, what would you say? Many of us would probably start rattling off parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy or pull up a Buzzfeed list or some other collection of random, interesting facts.

Here's an interesting factoid. The word "factoid" used to mean something else.


There's nothing like a brand new car.

They're clean and shiny. The seats are free from stains and potato chip crumbs. The carpet isn't caked with dirt or piled high with fast food bags. And of course, there's that great smell.

Unfortunately, the newness wears off. This reality of car ownership will never feel more harsh than the first time you walk outside and find a ding in  one of your formerly pristine doors.

The thing you have to remember is that "ding" used to be a much more violent action than it is today.


A listener recently wrote to us with a seasonably appropriate question. Tom from Grand Rapids asks:

"I feel really passionate about supporting farmers and eating locally grown produce. 

Written instructions are clearly written down, and oral instructions are clearly spoken. That leaves us with the question, what are verbal instructions? And just what does verbal mean anyway?

Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth remembers being a little confused by "verbal" back in high school when her classmates started talking about the SAT.

"I didn't understand what the verbal portion of the exam was. I thought, 'Oh, is that part of the exam where they talk?' I didn't take the SAT, so I didn't know," she said.

This perfectly captures the issue with verbal. Is it about language that is spoken out loud, or is it just about words in general?


A listener recently wrote an email about how everyone in her industry says "hone in" instead of "home in."

"Does this equivocation mean that it’s perfectly That’s-What-They-Say acceptable to understand ‘hone in’ as ‘home in,’ and to hear it without cringing?” she asked. 

Our own Professor Anne Curzan had already put a lot of thought into “home in” and “hone in” before we received this email. In fact, she admits that knowing which was correct used to be a point of pride. 


If you say something is coming down the pike, that means it's going to happen sometime soon. But what is this "pike" you speak of?

The answer might be found in your summer travel plans. Especially if you're from Michigan and you understand that summer just isn't complete without a trek down the Ohio Turnpike for a day at Cedar Point.

So, "pike" in "coming down the pike" is simply a shortening of turnpike. That got us wondering though, where does "turnpike" come from?

For starters, it's old. Really old. 


It sure seems like when something is done, it should also be finished.

Some of our best questions come from our listeners.

In December 2015 the Washington Post announced it was finally dropping the hyphen from "e-mail," two years after the New York Times and four years after the Associated Press Stylebook

While it's surprising that the Post waited so long to let go of a hyphen as obsolete as America Online's free trial CDs, the decision itself wasn't unprecedented.


How many dashes is too many? For some of you — especially those who are writers — that may be a rhetorical question. 

OK, have you ever stopped to think about how many times in a single day you say "OK"?

If you're like millions of others around the world, that number is probably more than you can count on your fingers and toes.

The ubiquity of "OK" is undeniable. It's used as a noun, a verb, an adverb, an interjection and a signal of agreement, not to mention the basis for one of the most famous self-help books of all time.

Believe it or not, we're coming up on the 178th anniversary of "OK," so we thought we'd take a look at the origin of this globally-recognized word.


When it comes to making a noun plural, there are a few general rules we follow in English. 

Most are are pretty easy. Slap an "s" on the end of "book" or "dog" or "desk" and suddenly you've got more than one. If the word ends with a vowel followed by a "y", the same rule applies, like "keys" and "boys."

If you've got a "y" preceded by a consonant, no sweat. Just trade out the last two letters for "ies" to get "cherries" or "babies" or "buddies."  

There are other rules, and of course, they all have exceptions. But today we want to talk about pluralizing one word in particular: maître d'. 


There's no question that deviled eggs are a staple at family reunions and church picnics. But what makes them "deviled"?

Maybe it's all the things they can be stuffed with that aren't very good for you.

Besides mayonnaise, we've found recipes that include cream cheese, bacon, condensed milk and ranch dressing.

That's not a bad guess, but these delectable little goodies actually get their name from a different ingredient. 


It's almost Valentine's Day, and we here at That's What They Say encourage you to think about the ones you love. Ideally with a Lionel Richie album playing in the background.

As you prepare to indulge your significant other or maybe your best friend with cards, candy and flowers, think back to when you first met.

If you hit it off right away, some might say the two of you were "like a house on fire."


A listener named Toby recently wrote to us with the story of a first date that almost didn't happen.

He tells us that a mutual friend put him in touch with a woman named Phyllis. Toby gave Phyllis a call on a Thursday and the two made plans to go out for dinner "next Sunday."

"In my mind, 'next Sunday' meant a week from the following Sunday, since the earlier Sunday would've been 'this' Sunday," Toby said. 

A few days later, Toby got a call from Phyllis, who wanted to know why he hadn't come by to pick her up.


Nothing goes better with a Sunday morning than a cup of coffee and a newspaper. Fortunately, in Michigan, we've got a pretty long list of papers to choose from.

In Battle Creek, we've got the Enquirer. In Lansing, it's the State Journal. Muskegon has the Chronicle, and Detroit has both the Free Press and the News. 

With so many different mastheads out there, we couldn't help but wonder where some of these papers get their names.


When we talk about our relatives, there are plenty of gender-neutral terms to cover the bases.

We use "grandparents" to talk about both our grandmothers and grandfathers; "parents" takes care of mothers and fathers; "siblings" refers to both brothers and sisters; and a "cousin" can be either male or female.

But what about nieces and nephews? 

There's good news for aunts and uncles who crave a word to speak collectively about the kids they love to spoil.

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On this week's edition of That's What They Say, English professor Anne Curzan joined us from Austin, Texas, where she was attending the American Dialect Society's annual meeting.  

Each year, the ADS gathers to choose a word that best represents "the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year."

This year's candidates included "woke", "post-truth" and "normalize." But the ADS decided it couldn't pick just one word to represent 2016, so the winner ended up being a compound.

A burning, smelly compound.

University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan has been feeling a little self-conscious lately.

Curzan was recently talking with some of her students about how much research had been done on a particular topic, when one student raised her hand and asked about her pronunciation of a particular word.

Keep in mind, this was a linguistics class, and Curzan tends to instill in her students a super-sensitivity to the various quirks of our language.  

The student said she'd noticed that Curzan pronounces "research" with the emphasis on the second syllable. She said she only hears that pronunciation in academic settings. 


If you run with grammar sticklers, you know that saying "irregardless" under any circumstances not considered ironic is a great way to get yourself thrown into exile.

While it's true that grammar enthusiasts die a little each time someone utters this persistent double-negative, other words of a similar nature don't seem to draw quite as much ire as "irregardless." 

For example, what about "reiterate"?

Think about the last time you used that one. It was probably to let someone know that you were going to repeat something; e.g., "I like to reiterate that the final paper is due tomorrow."

Did anyone correct you when you said it? Did someone give you a slap on the hand with a ruler? Or even just a haughty look? Probably not.


One of the best things about studying the history of English is digging up words that, for the most part, have died out of the language but still pop up in funny places.

For example, let's take a look at "wer" and "wif", the Old English words for man and woman.

Etymologically, "wer" is related to "vir", which is Latin for man. "Vir" shows up in modern English in words like "virile" and "virility."

However, "wer" has pretty much vanished from modern English. Except for one word.


Despite the diligent tutelage of our Speak and Spells, there are plenty of spellings that continue to elude us.

However, while we sometimes complain about the vagaries of English spelling, would we actually change the spelling of any of the words?

University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan recently put the question to her students, who decided they would change up “supersede.”

Obviously, since it’s already typed out here on the page, we can’t really ask you how you think “supersede” is spelled.

Be honest though, when you saw it, did it look strange to you?


When to use “who” and when to use “whom” is one of those grammar conundrums that just won't die.

Once you learn the rule, it’s not too hard to distinguish between the two.

“Who” is the subject that does an action, while “whom”is the object that receives an action. For example, “who” speaks to “whom.”

Pretty simple, right?

Unfortunately, learning the rule doesn’t mean you’ll escape tricky cases.


If your job involves a cubicle, a computer and any sort of decor that's best described as motivational graphic art, there's a good chance you've had some experience with business jargon.

Maybe you've been asked to circle back around after a conference call or close the loop on an email discussion. Perhaps you've bypassed low-hanging fruit to focus on mission-critical action items.

Or, just maybe, you've implemented corporate best practices to leverage your company's core competencies in order to achieve synergy. 

Sunday evening is a great time to relax, binge-watch something on Netflix and come to terms with the fact that Monday is coming and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

It’s also a great time to revisit the list of errands you promised yourself you’d run this weekend but couldn’t quite get to due to a particularly riveting season of "Scandal."

But now the dry-cleaning still needs to be picked up, there’s a stack of packages still waiting to go to the post office and the car is still in desperate need of an oil change. Pretty mundane stuff, right? No wonder you opted for Kerry Washington. 

A listener recently asked why it is that we “run” errands. We think that’s a good question, and it got us wondering about the word “errand” in general.


The semicolon isn’t the most common punctuation mark; however, it does manage to stir up some pretty some strong and divisive feelings.

Writers like Charles Dickens and Ben Johnson were both big fans of the mark; they felt it was nuanced and sophisticated.

However, plenty of other writers have thrown shade at the semi-colon.

The mark has been called “odious," “unnecessary," and “sissified." Kurt Vonnegut once said that all semicolons do is “show that you’ve been to college.” 


Is there really any wrong way to eat cake? It's doubtful.

We’re happy to eat it covered in chocolate frosting, or layered with custard and berries, or even upside down with pineapple slices.

That’s why it’s a little confusing when someone tells us, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

If you have cake, eating it seems like a reasonable expectation. Frankly, we’re troubled at the thought of letting a perfectly good piece of cake going to waste.


Silent letters are easily one of the more frustrating features of the English language. Just ask any elementary student.

These letters and their penchant for being seen and not heard have been making our lives difficult since we first started learning how to read.

Think about the first time you encountered the silent "k" while reading out loud. Who doesn't have at least one embarrassing story involving a "kuh-nife" or a "kuh-night"?

Lexical trappings aside, a young That's What They Say listener wanted to know the point of having silent letters in English in the first place. Great question.


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