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That's What They Say

There’s a rule that makes a clear distinction between “I shall” and “I will.” However, we as speakers don’t seem to respect that line.

Do you know where that line is? Actually, here’s a better question: Did you know this rule existed?

We found out from a fourth grader.

 

 

 


The time has come again for University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan to offer her opinion on another round of language disputes.

Every September the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary send a ballot to panel members, asking about usage issues.

Curzan and around 200 others are tasked with voting "yea" or "nay" on the way we've been using words like "cohort" and "hoi polloi."


Recently, two listeners, including one named Ruth, asked us what's going on with "ruthless." For starters, a ruthless action is one that's clearly without ruth, but can an action also be full of ruth?

The answer is  yes, something can be ruthful, but here's a better question -- have you ever actually used that word?

There's no need to be ruthful if your answer is no. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are over 2,000 instances of "ruthless" and zero instances of "ruthful."

But ruthful wasn't always such a pariah.


A young listener named Cam recently asked us why "Mrs." has an "r" in it, even though it's pronounced "missus."

Great question Cam. Since "Mr." is pronounced "mister," it's pretty easy to understand where that "r" comes from, but the "r" in "Mrs." is a different story.

It starts with "mistress."

We know what you're thinking. All we're going to say is that mistress is a very complicated word, and we only have time for just a tiny bit of its etymology.


Evidence suggests that some people are throwing up their hands, and others are grabbing their dictionaries when confronted by the multiple forms of a word that describes someone who has graduated from a school.

We should point out that this "evidence" is purely anecdotal. But that doesn't mean it's not worth exploring.

So what do you call a former student? 

The conundrum here stems from the fact that there are two forms of the word in question, one masculine and one feminine. 


If you're a loyal watcher of the Today Show on NBC, you're probably familiar with weatherman Al Roker's catchphrase: "Here's what's happening in your neck of the woods."

That saying doesn't make much sense when you think about it, but it's probably one that you use or hear other people use.

Like a lot of sayings in our language, this one is pretty old and used to have a different meaning. When we talk about "neck of the woods" now, the neck is metaphorical and the woods are no longer required.


If someone asks you a question, and you find yourself struggling to answer, did you flounder? Or did you founder?

The answer is "flounder." But these two verbs sound so much alike and have such similar meanings, don't feel bad if you were wrong.

In fact, a listener recently asked us if we could clear up the confusion between "founder" and "flounder."

Few things are more telling of Upper Peninsula lineage than the distinct style of speaking known as "Yooper talk."

In her new book Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Grand Valley State University Professor Kathryn Remlinger explores the history and features of of this unique dialect.

Remlinger is careful to point out that there isn't just one U.P. dialect, that there are actually many ways of speaking. But there is a way of speaking that sounds undeniably Yooper.

Or at least, we want to believe there is.


Sometimes when we're annoyed or exasperated, it feels pretty good to shout out, "Oh, for Pete's sake!" But if we're going to do things for Pete's sake, shouldn't we at least know who he is?

Before we get to Pete though, let's start with the basics. A few weeks ago Tyler, a colleague at Michigan Radio, asked where the word "sake" comes from.

"I was so glad Tyler asked, because while I knew a little bit about 'for Pete's sake,' I hadn't thought a lot about just the word 'sake.'" English Professor Anne Curzan said.


It doesn't seem like coming up with a response to "thank you" should be that complicated. When you think about it though, there are a lot of options, and our response depends on what's happening in the conversation.

A listener named Peggy recently wrote to us about a response to "thank you" that she's heard quite a bit while listening to the radio.

"Over the past months, I've been noticing that when a radio guest is thanked, rather than the customary 'you are welcome,' they instead respond with 'thank you,'" she writes.

As the hosts of a radio show, we're guilty as charged.


If a child looks a lot like one of their parents, people will sometimes say they're the "spitting image" of the parent. But others will say the child is the "spit and image" of their parent.

So which is right? That's exactly what a listener from Kansas named Ken wanted to know.

"Growing up, I had always heard, or misheard, and repeated the phrase, 'spitting image' -- as in, he's the spitting image of his father," Ken writes. 

Recently, Ken was reading a review for a camera when he saw the phrase "spit and image." Now he wants to know which interpretation is correct.

If someone takes the lion's share, it's safe to say there's not going to be much left for everyone else.

But why does it have to be the "lion's" share? Why not the tiger's or the bear's?

You can blame Aesop for this one.


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'. 


Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The possessive “s” could be in danger.

At least, that’s what linguist Anne Curzan says. 

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.


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