That's What They Say

You’ve probably heard of the word eavesdropping, but what about the word easedropping?

“Eavesdropping can be easy, which is why some folks now refer to the act of listening in on other peoples’ conversations as easedropping,” says University of English Michigan Professor Anne Curzan.

Is this an act of lexical wrongdoing? Or is it, perhaps, a stroke of creative genius?

We all admit to being a rabble-rouser once in a while, but no one wants to be a part of the rabble.

It’s even built into the language.

After all, how often do you see the word rabble without the word rouser attached to it?

“Not very often at all,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

Much like some people, there are words that just don’t like to hang out on their lonesome.

Is it “healthy eating” or “healthful eating?” Is there even a difference?

For some people, there is. Anne Curzan, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan, is ready to lead us into the nuanced world of grammarians, where some distinctions are a little more complicated than they seem.

When you say the word controversial, do you say “controver-shall?”

Do you say “frustra-shun” for frustration, or “shtreet” for street?  

If so, you’re not alone. But what the h is going on with those pronunciations? Is this a Michigan thing?

Those are the questions a listener posed for us today, and our own University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is ready to help us sound out an answer. But in order to do that, we’ll have to take a close look at the mechanics of how we say what we say.

We're happy to have an enthusiastic word-nerd audience with lots of suggestions and questions.  

Douglas, who listens to us from Atlanta, wants to know about discomfit vs. discomfort.

He wrote: “I once was discomfited by discomfort, never discomforted by discomfit.”

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan started digging.

Bob from Kalamazoo's been wondering about something: What's going on with "absolutely?" Does it mean yes, no, or something else?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan delved into the question.

"Luckily for us, there was a study in 2007 by Hongyin Tao at UCLA, who used four spoken databases of American English to try to figure out what's going on with 'absolutely.' He looked at two ways 'absolutely' occurs," Curzan says.

"One he called the "dependent absolutely." This is when 'absolutely' occurs before an adjective, as in 'absolutely right,' 'absolutely perfect,' or 'absolutely wrong.'

It’s that time of year when University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is asked for her opinion about all kinds of language disputes.

Curzan is one of about 200 panel members of American Heritage Dictionary, which sends out a user ballot every September.

This year one of the questions is: "How many syllables in the word 'miniature?'

Some people use four syllables, but the word is commonly pronounced with three, as in "mini-ture."

Let's do the shimmy today! Did you know that the name of the move you do with your hips comes from women's undergarments? In fact it might be a corruption of chemise, says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. 

Some think of shimmy as a dance, others as a maneuver to climb up something, but it gets confused with shinny all the time.

"A lot of people do now shimmy up trees, but it was originally shinny up," says Curzan.

Chick. Woman. Lady. Gal. Kitten. Doll. It seems like there are over a hundred names for the opposite of the male sex! I call my mom a woman and my sister a girl. Both are over the age of 25. Why is it so difficult to decide what to call women? I mean girls. I mean …females?

Whether to say girl or woman could depend on who is using the term, says University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan.  

People sometimes get fussy with University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan for saying that the English language is always changing. But why does the English language constantly change? Is there a schedule out there somewhere saying how fast it will change? Why can’t we all keep saying the same things, all the time, forever?

But change is progress, says Curzan, and the language cannot simply stay still, for several reasons. 

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! 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.”