That's What They Say

Sunday at 9:35 AM

Funner, snuck, and LOL are all things that we're hearing people say these days.

That's What They Say is a weekly segment on Michigan Radio that explores our changing language.University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan studies linguistics and the history of the English language. Each week she'll discuss why we say what we say with Michigan Radio Weekend Edition host Rina Miller.

That's What They Say airs Sundays at 9:35 a.m. on Michigan Radio and you can podcast it here.

We’d like to stress that That’s What They Say is a safe place for word enthusiasts to confide language pet peeves without fear of ridicule or judgment. 

When host Rina Miller worried her frustration with people who say “gantlet” instead of “gauntlet” made her a Miss Snooty Pants, we assured her, she’s not. 

In fact, when it comes to “gauntlet” vs. “gantlet,” Miller isn’t alone.


Valentine’s Day was yesterday, and maybe you’re still aglow from the candle-lit dinner you shared with your beloved at a fancy French restaurant.

Maybe you’re thinking about how, after the cheese plate, the chocolate mousse and a whole lot of wine, you finally got up the nerve to whisper “I love you.”

Just then the music swelled, and you waited with bated breath for your beloved’s response:

You’re sitting on the couch, about to settle in for some serious Netflix binge watching, when you see it.

A huge, hairy spider is skittering across the floor in front of you. As it gets closer, you raise your foot, ready to quash the little beastie in its tracks.

Hold on. You can’t quash a spider, can you? Shouldn’t you squash him? Or maybe you should squish him. What about squooshing him?

Actually, we’re not sure that last one is really a word.

The word “hat” wears many hats in the English language. 

Figuratively speaking, of course. 

So how did one of our favorite winter accessories become part of so many idioms and metaphors?

Hang on to your hats, while we take a closer look.


Getting snarky

Jan 25, 2015

Remember that time you were kind enough to upload some of your fan fiction to your blog for others to enjoy? Merging Game of Thrones with Twilight was obviously a genius move, so you decided to break the cardinal rule of the Internet. 

You read the comments.

It’s not that they were mean. No, that’s not true. Most of them were pretty mean. Still, others were critical but in a slicker, more sarcastic way. 

They’re not words so much as noises: things we grunt, groan or exclaim when something renders us incapable of expressing coherent thoughts.

Like “argh” and “ugh.” Neither sounds like an actual word, but we know when to use them.

“When my Internet goes out, I go ‘Argh!’ because I’m frustrated,” said University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan.

When the Internet comes back on and your Facebook feed is filled with graphic details of your friend's  gastrointestinal virus, that’s when you say “ugh!”

When an adjective already has an “ly” ending, how do we make it into an adverb without turning it into a tongue twister?

University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan has a colleague whose interest has been piqued by this conundrum, so she decided to look into it.

End all, be all ... be all, end all: The ordering of this phrase appears to have become a bit of a free for all.

A That's What They Say listener wanted to know why we appear to be turning this expression around, so University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan did some investigating.

"Hoi polloi" is one of those words that's just fun to say. But some of us may be confused about what the word  means.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan  says "hoi polloi" came into English from Greek in the 17th century.

"It refers to the masses, or the majority, but I think there's something happening where you're starting to see some people use it to refer to the elite," Curzan says. 

She consulted the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which shows current usage. 


Curfews have always been about keeping us safe. What has changed is what we’re being kept safe from.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says the word "curfew" has a long history that goes back to fire.

"The word first comes into English in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman, and the root of it is the word 'cover' and the word 'fire,'" Curzan says. "And for people who know French, 'couvrir' and 'feu' –  and that gives us curfew."

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."

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. 

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."

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