That's What They Say

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

Uncles have their own adjective in avuncular, but aunts don’t have any such adjective.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan explore adjectives related to family members.  

“Paternal related to fathers, maternal for mothers, fraternal for brothers, sororal, which is not a really common adjective but it’s available in the language related to sisters. You get filial related to sons and daughters, and then parental for parents,” says Curzan.   

She also points out that these adjective that come from Latin often feel more formal than their Germanic synonyms.

“What we are seeing here is a wider pattern in the English language where we have these synonyms where one is borrowed like paternal or maternal and one of them is a native English word. It’s a Germanic word that’s been in English since English has been around. And often the native English word will feel warmer to us. It will feel closer to us and the borrowed one will feel a little bit more formal.”

Listen to the segment above.

You say potato and I say ... well, that depends.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan investigate the  various pronunciation of commonly used words.

The expression 'one off' is not a one of a kind expression.

This week on That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan inquire about the concept of 'one off' and its origins.

According to Curzan, 'one off' first shows up in 1934, and it means 'made or done as only one of its kind', and it's not repeated - it's a one-off product, a one-off event. Its origins are British, but has been in use in American English since the 1980s.

Play ball!

Even when we are not talking about baseball, we are often using the language of baseball.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan explore baseball terminology and the expressions that are commonly used, even though the reference may have nothing to do with baseball.

Greetings!

In emails and letters, we address a lot of people who are not dear to us as
"dear."

On this weekend’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller talks with University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan about greetings and closings used in the age of the email.

The use of "dear" has been the default salutation, going back to the 17th century, when it became the polite form for letters as in "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam," says Curzan, but there are less formal salutations by using words such as ‘hi’ to open an email or letter.

Heads Up!

Sometimes we’re warned to watch our head, but when you think about it, that doesn't seem physically possible.

How can you watch your head?

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan analyze phrases and expressions involving the word ‘head’.

Fuddy duddy!

If you use the word ‘fuddy duddy’, young people might just think you are one.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan talk about the rise of fashionable words.

After using the word in class, Curzan states that her students had no idea what she was referring to. When she asked whether they knew what she was talking about, only a few students knew what a ‘fuddy duddy’ was.

Many writers get tripped up about when the word “its” has an apostrophe and when it does not.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the oftentimes confusing placement of the apostrophe.

The word “it’s” with an apostrophe is a contraction of “it is,” just as “can’t” is a contraction of “cannot.” If “its” is referring to the possession of something, no apostrophe is required. The same is true for the pronouns hers, ours and yours.

What the GIF?

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the pronunciation of the word “GIF” and the role of technology in producing new words.

Technology has given us the new word GIF and we have to figure out how to pronounce it. According to Curzan, there is a debate about that.

“A ‘GIF’ is a computer file format used for the compression and storage of digital video images. It’s an acronym for Graphic Interchange Format, which goes back to 1987,” Curzan says.

Upon further investigation by Curzan into the word GIF, she found that the original creator of the word elaborated on the proper pronunciation of GIF.

If you learned to type on a typewriter, you probably learned to put two spaces after a period.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the online debate raging about the number of spaces to place at the end of a sentence.

    

We have found many ways to say curse words without actually saying them.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss euphemisms for taboo words.

The presence of euphemisms shows how impactful words can be. Curzan describes, "Words are enormously powerful and they can do a lot of damage, which is why with some of them, we find ways to get around actually saying them."

One of the first English-language euphemisms for a taboo word was "criminy," which showed up in 1681. Speakers used this word to avoid saying "Christ."

The origins of "gee," as in "gee willikers" or "gee whiz," are less clear. Some linguists believe these euphemisms came from "gee willikens" as a substitute for "Jerusalem," which was a common exclamation of surprise in the 19th century.

Spendthrifts are more spendy than thrifty, so the word spendthrift doesn’t seem to make much sense.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the seemingly oxymoronic word spendthrift.

While thrifty refers to being economical with money, spendthrift means the exact opposite—someone who spends money irresponsibly. Curzan explores the etymology of thrifty to get to the bottom of spendthrift.

Segues are unrelated to segments, although the two words sound similar and are both about parts.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan look into the etymology of segue.

Curzan first explored the origins of the word segment. In the late 16th century, segment comes into English from Latin, meaning “a piece that’s cut or broken off” or “a part of a circle.” Centuries later, segment also becomes a verb, meaning, “to divide into segments.”

The term segue, however, is completely unrelated to the term segment. Rather than Latin, segue finds its way into English through Italian as a musical term.

“Segue first shows up in English in 1740,” Curzan describes. “But for almost 200 years, it’s used primarily as an Italian term, to refer to proceeding from one movement to another in a musical piece without a break.”  

The etymology of "party pooper"

Apr 6, 2014

    

The word "party pooper" is clearly slangy, but maybe it's also a little bit taboo.

This week on That’s What They Say host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan look at the origins of the term party pooper.

Party pooper has been in our lexicon for decades. The expression first shows up in the late 1940s among college students. A few years later, an article in Newsweek acknowledged the popularity of the term, stating, “Party pooper has taken the place of wall flower or wet blanket.”

Despite the prevalence of the term, the origins are still unknown. Curzan explains three possible etymologies.

“One possibility is that the poop in party pooper comes from the verb ‘to poop,’ meaning ‘to tire’ or ‘to exhaust,’” Curzan cites. “This is where we get the expression ‘I’m pooped’ as in ‘I’m tired.’”

    

If you know where the "yoopers" and the "trolls" live, there’s a very good chance that you’re from Michigan.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss some vocabulary that is unique to the state of Michigan.

Since its recent addition to the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, yooper, a term referring to people from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has gotten a lot of attention. However, there are plenty of other fun Michigan words that are not making headlines.

While yooper refers to residents of the Upper Peninsula, those that live south of the Mackinac Bridge may be lightheartedly referred to as trolls since they are “under the bridge.”

There are not enough proverbs in the world for everything that is proverbial.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan examine the overuse of the word proverbial.

The term proverbial first appears in the English language in 1475. At this time, a proverbial saying is a proverb itself. However, by the late 16th century, proverbial is used to describe sayings that are well-known, or merely similar to proverbs.

Nowadays, this usage continues. Curzan looked in the Corpus of Contemporary American English to find some examples.

Pages