That's What They Say

If something is inflammable, it is no longer entirely clear whether we can set it on fire, or we can’t.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan take on the prefix “in-.”

There are two types of “in-” prefixes, and although they sound the same, they have different meanings. The first “in-” means “in or into,” like the examples income and inland. The second “in-” means “not,” as in the words inedible or incomprehensible.

The term inflammable uses the “in or into” meaning of the prefix. Consequently, something that is inflammable can be put into flame.

However, the prefix has caused some confusion.

The contraction of the word “of” to o’ is considered highly informal, but the phrase “o’clock” is somehow different. 

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss how we talk about time.

The expression “o’clock” comes from “of clock” as in “according to the clock,” says Curzan.

It might seem like an antiquated phrase, but "o'clock" is still used quite a lot.  But, there is something else on the rise and that is the use of a.m. and p.m.

If a "preventive" measure is the same thing as a "preventative" measure, it seems hard to justify having both words.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss words with multiple endings.

In this case of preventive and preventative, preventive is used more often.  So is the shorter ending always more common?

“If we look at the ‘ive’ ending as in preventive, versus the ‘ative’ ending as in preventative, it’s not always the case that the shorter one wins,” Curzan argues.  

When looking at the terms exploitative and exploitive, Curzan found that the “ative” ending is four times more common than the “ive” ending.  Nevertheless, both of these terms are in dictionaries, making either usage correct.


It seems like it should be straightforward to figure out if the subject of your sentence is singular or plural, but sometimes it’s just not.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan joins Weekend Edition Host Rina Miller to discuss subject-verb agreement issues.

If the subject of a sentence is you or someone you know, the corresponding verb is sometimes singular and sometimes plural. Which is correct?

The appropriate verb may depend on the sentence’s meaning. If the subject implies either you or someone you know, but not both, the verb should be singular. If the subject may refer to both you and someone you know, a plural verb is acceptable.

“It gets a little more complicated if one of those nouns is singular and one of them is plural,” Curzan warns. “Then you employ the proximity rule.”

The expression for all intents and purposes has become, for some folks, an expression about purposes that are intensive.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan and Host Rina Miller discuss eggcorns, or new expressions developed when the original sayings are misheard or misinterpreted.

Linguists at the Language Log coined the term eggcorn to describe these modified phrases in 2003.

“The term eggcorn comes from the reshaping of the word acorn,” Curzan explains. “When people hear acorn, some people reinterpret it as eggcorn because it’s kind of shaped like an egg and it has a seed.”

The acronym YOLO has gotten a new lease on life with the "YOLO flip."

This week on That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan reveal words to know for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.   

YOLO, an acronym that means “you only live once,” was popularized in 2011. Now the acronym has taken on a new meaning with the YOLO flip, a snowboarding term for the “cab double cork 1440.”

Swiss snowboarder Iouri Podladtchikov, also known as I-Pod, named the move after landing it at the 2013 X-Games.

Maybe polar vortex has not been a welcome addition to all of our vocabularies, but there are some other great weather words out there.

In this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss regional words to describe the weather.

Depending on where we live, we use different names for a "light snow." According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, some speakers call this a skiff or a skift. However, in the Midwest and on the East Coast, people are more likely to use the terms dusting or flurry.

The pronoun who is for people and the pronoun that is for things, except when it’s the other way around.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the confusing usage of who, that, and which.

Students are often taught that is for inanimate objects while who is for people. However, standard grammar books allow some variation on this rule.

In fact, the word that has referred to people for hundreds of years.

“You can go back to early translations of the Lord’s Prayer” Cruzan describes. “You will get ‘Our father, thou that art in heaven.” In this example, that refers to a person.

If the whole comprises the parts, it seems like the parts should not be able to comprise the whole.

This week on That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan take on the verb comprise used to mean compose.

In the 15th century, comprise meant “to seize” or “to comprehend.” From there, comprise took on the definition “to include.” With this meaning, a big part comprises smaller parts.

However, by the 18th century, comprise also meant compose, allowing small things to comprise a larger thing. Ever since this change, the two words have often been used interchangeably.

People’s names show up in the English language in surprising places, such as "pasteurized milk" and "ham sandwiches."

University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan and Weekend Edition host Rina Miller discuss eponyms, or words that are derived from proper names, on this week’s edition of That’s What They Say.

The verb pasteurized is an eponym. It comes into the English language in 1881 from the name Louis Pasteur, who invented the pasteurization process.

Sandwich is also an eponym.

“We think that the word comes from John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He was a gambler, and once he spent 24 hours at the table gambling, and all he had to eat was meat between two slices of bread," Curzan explains.  Thus, the sandwich was named after him.  

The adjective ritzy is yet another eponym. Unrelated to the crackers, ritzy came from hotels.

Writers online, and now speakers in informal speech, are using "because" in innovative ways.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan talk about the American Dialect Society's 24th Annual Words of the Year vote. 

Curzan says, “It used to be that because had to be followed by a clause. So, I would say, ‘I don’t want to go outside because it’s really cold.’ And now I can say, ‘I don’t want go outside because  cold.’”

More words of the year include: selfie, Obamacare, and slash.

Click here for more on the Word of the Year for 2013.

We may think there is a “t” sound in the word hearty, as in hearty welcome, but in fact, for most of us, there isn’t.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss some surprising homophones, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently.

The expression party hearty originally had a “t,” but it also became understood as party hardy. Nowadays, both words can be used.

“One of the issues is that hearty with a “t” and hardy with a “d” sure sound a lot alike when you say them,” Curzan describes. But why do these words sound similar?

These words are homophones because of the alveolar flap, a sound made when a tongue hits the alveolar ridge.

“The alveolar ridge is the ridge behind your top teeth,” Curzan explains. “When you make the sound ‘tuh’ or ‘duh,’ your tongue hits that ridge.”

It seems hard to believe that we as speakers can tolerate a word meaning two opposite things at the same time.

Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan reveal some auto-antonyms, or words that mean their opposites, on this week’s edition of That’s What They Say.

Curzan begins with an example that Jesse Sheidlower, the North American Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, shared with her.

In the sentence, “Mary and her partner had just moved in upstairs, and their boxes lay on the kitchen floor still unpacked,” unpacked is an auto-antonym. It should mean there’s nothing in the boxes, but it actually means the boxes are full.  

“For many of us, in that sentence unpacked means un-unpacked,” Curzan explains.  

The list of auto-antonyms continues. The verb dust can mean “to put dust or sugar on” or “to take dust off.” Similarly, the verb sanction can mean “to permit or to allow with legal authority” or “to impose a penalty on,” which suggests not permitting.

Most of the time the final -ed on words is not pronounced as its own syllable, but then every once in a while, it is.

This week on That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss tricky -ed endings and the history of this suffix’s pronunciation.

Historically, -ed was always pronounced as its own syllable. In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift voiced his desire to preserve the final -ed  in his book, A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. Swift wrote, “By leaving our a vowel to save a syllable, we form so jarring a sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondered how it could ever obtain.”

Nowadays, we rarely pronounce -ed  separately. But what about problematic words that can be pronounced either way, like beloved?

“Usually when it is an adjective, you would say it as two syllables,” Curzan explains regarding beloved. “But if it’s a noun, you would say belov-ed and pronounce it as its own syllable.”

Parsing used to be restricted to sentences, but now we can parse all kinds of things.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan talk about the verbs to parse and to vet.

Parsing originally came from the Latin noun pars, meaning “parts”  as in “parts of speech.” When parse appeared in the English language in the 16th century, it referred to analyzing a sentence syntactically by breaking the phrase down to its parts of speech.

However, by the 18th century, parse came to mean “examining something closely by breaking it into component parts,” or even “to understand.” Now, parse has yet another definition to computer programmers, meaning “examining strings.”

“Because language change.” Is this a sentence? 

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the changing use of because and slash.

On Tuesday, an article  in The Atlantic by Megan Garber brought attention to a new usage of because. Because can now be followed by a noun, adjective or gerund like in the phrase, “Because Internet.”  

“Because is traditionally a subordinating conjunction, so it requires a clause after it, as in, ‘I’m late because I was watching videos on YouTube,’” Curzan describes. “Or it can be a compound preposition, like, ‘I’m late because of the traffic.’”  

Today, thanks to the evolution of language on the Internet, people are writing and saying phrases like: “I’m late because YouTube,” “I’m not going out because tired,” or “I’m late because running.”

Most people agree that a myriad is a lot, but there’s less agreement about how to use myriad correctly.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan examine three words that mean a lotmyriad, plethora and ton.

When choosing between myriad possibilities and a myriad of possibilities, which phrase is correct?

Myriad of is older than myriad with the noun,” Curzan explains. “Myriad comes into English in the 16th century when the word originally means 10,000, a specific number.” The word changed from referring to 10,000 of something, to meaning a countless number of something.

When myriad first appeared in English, it was always plural and followed by of, such as many myriads of men. Then, in 1609, the singular form of myriad was first used, followed again by of. This allowed for phrases like a myriad of bubbles. Finally, in the 18th century, the noun was first dropped from the phrase. At that time, the saying myriad beauties was then considered correct.

Today, both phrases are used. Although myriad of is a bit more common than myriad followed by a noun, either expression can be used.

Texting has changed the conventions of punctuation, and given the period entirely new emotional clout.

Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the evolution of written conversation on this week’s edition of That’s What They Say.

Curzan and her students have been investigating how electronic conversations work. Those via text or email. One significant change they found is the "power period," which creates the difference between okay (without a period) and okay (with a period).

“Without a period, that’s the neutral or unmarked okay,” Curzan explains. “The okay with a period is a little bit abrupt, a little bit more serious and maybe even a little bit angry.”

There is one word that lots of people hate—moist. What makes this an icky word?

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan talk about icky words and why we dislike them.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why people detest the term moistMoist-haters often claim the problem is the way the word sounds, yet they don’t have the same reaction to similar sounding words like foist. The sexual connotation of moist probably adds to the discomfort the term creates.

In the spring of 2012, the New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog ran a contest that allowed participants to vote for a word to drop from the English language. As expected, about 1 in 10 people voted to throw out moist.

Sometimes saying something or someone is nice is not a compliment.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the words nice and silly, and how their meanings have changed over time.

Although the word nice tends to be a compliment today, this wasn’t true during the 14th century. Originally, nice was borrowed from French, meaning silly or foolish. Years later, nice meant dissolute or extravagant in dress. From there, the word went on to mean finely dressed or precise about looks. And then, precise about looks changed to precise about reputation.

As time goes on, nice meant something like  to have a refined taste. From here, the positive connotations continued with the idea of being cultured, respectable and agreeable. Finally, after this confusing history, nice remains a term of approval today.  

The verbal section of the SAT focuses on English words, but studying Latin and Greek can help students prepare for the test.

On this edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan discuss the origins of academic language in English.

Before the Renaissance, English was considered a rude and unworthy language compared to Latin and French. However, when perceptions of English changed the language needed to adapt.

“People decided English could and should be used for registers like scientific writing, medical writing and high literature,” Curzan explains. To handle these academic registers, English borrowed words from Latin and Greek.  

We’re being redundant to say we got home safe and sound, yet we say it all the time.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan discuss the origins of repetitive expressions.

Phrases like safe and sound are a result of the history of borrowing in the English language.

“Sometimes we get expressions where people want to make sure that other people understand a borrowing,” Curzan explains. In this case, safe was borrowed from French while sound is a native English term. The two words were originally used together for clarity, and the expression stuck to this day.

Part and parcel - is a similar expression. Both words mean an essential part of, but they have different origins—part comes from Latin and parcel comes from French. Since listeners may have only known one of the two words, they were paired together.

The word orient was back-formed from the word orientate. But do these phrases mean the same thing?

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan discuss the difference between orient and orientate, and other back-formed words.

The difference is more than whether the speaker is American or British.

“For me orient is about direction, I’m orienting myself as to whether I’m facing north or south,” Curzan explains.

“I hear orientate on campus. If I orientate someone, I’m getting them used to campus and telling them how to get things done there.”

It's that time again! The time of year when editors at The American Heritage Dictionary send out ballots filled with questions asking what is acceptable, or not, in English.

On this edition of That’s What They Say, Host, Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor of English, Anne Curzan talk about some of the questions that came up on the usage ballot this year.

Question #1:

It is okay to use nauseous as causing nausea? Example: That was a nauseous rollercoaster.

Curzan says, “At this point nauseous means feeling nauseated not causing nausea. I think nauseous can sometimes mean offensive, but for the most part I think it means that we feel terrible.”

Question #2:

It seems hard to believe that if you put 8 buffaloes in a row, you can get a grammatical sentence.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan talk about homonyms, or words that sound the same but have different meanings. 

Obviously, saying buffalo 8 times in row does not sound like a sentence. But, technically the sentence is grammatically correct although not readily understandable. It helps to recognize that we are talking about buffalo the animals that happen to be from the city of Buffalo. These buffalo sometimes buffalo as a verb. The verb buffalo can mean to outwit, bully, or trick.

If we substitute buffalo for the words bison and trick, the sentence will go like this:

When an etymology sounds too clever to be true, it often isn’t true. On this edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Anne Curzan reveal the truth behind the most colorful false etymologies.

The word posh has a particularly lavish false etymology. The story goes that the word originated from ships traveling between Britain and India. On the ships, posh referred to the cabins on the cooler and therefore the more comfortable side of the boat: Port Outward Starboard Home. On the ticket, they would simply write P.O.S.H. for abbreviation. However, this story is not true. Although Curzan is not positive of the exact etymology of the word, it is likely that it came from posh meaning money or posh meaning dandy at an earlier point in English.

One of the best known false etymologies in the English Language comes from a very taboo word. Let’s just call it the F-word. According to Curzan, people think this word comes from one of two acronyms. They are:  “Fornication under Consent of the King” and “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.” However, Cruzan can say with certainty that neither of acronyms form the origin of the F-word. The word probably originates from the Europe to a verb meaning to strike.

It seems like if you, or your clothes, or your hair can be disheveled, it should be possible for them to be sheveled.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan discuss negative words without a positive counterpart.

Curzan explains, “The word gruntled, which was back-formed from the word disgruntled - people assumed if you could be disgruntled you could be gruntled -  goes back to 1938. The word wieldy has also been around for quite a long time. Consulate meaning something like comforted, existed in the 15th century through the 19th century it’s now obsolete. So, it’s not that some of the words have never existed, but they are certainly not common compared with their negative counterparts. And then a word like sheveled doesn’t seem to have ever existed.”

It’s odd when you stop to think about it that everyone who graduates from college is a bachelor of something.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan discuss opaque abbreviations, and often forgotten acronyms.

“The B in BA stands for bachelor, and it’s the same word we use to refer to an unmarried man,” says Curzan.

“The word [bachelor] goes back to the 13th century in English. It used to refer to a knight, a young man, and could refer to a young man who had achieved the lowest rank of something. From there it’s come to mean someone who has achieved the lowest rank from university, the lowest degree.”

Of course back then those would have been all men, but now we have lots of women who are Bachelors of Arts, or Bachelors of Science.

Then there’s the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. that many people mix up. The latter, exempli gratia (e.g.) means “for example.” And, id est (i.e.) means “that is” as in "that is to say." Thanks to us you will never mix those two up again. 

Let’s turn now to acronyms once learned and quickly forgotten. LASER is the acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.  And, RADAR stands for Radio Detection and Ranging.

Finally, here’s an acronym you will want to talk about this week with friends, and that's SNAFU, which stands for Situation Normal All F’d Up.  

Thanks for joining us for another enlightening edition of “That’s What They Say.”

You can play your opponent in a tennis match, but can you verse them? Surprisingly, use of the term verse in reference to challenging another person only became commonplace in the past three decades. 

Host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Anne Curzan, discuss this process of reinterpreting words into new forms with altered meanings, called back-forming, on this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say.”

“Back-forming is when we take a word that’s in the language, we reinterpret it, often as having a suffix or a prefix, and then we create a new word,” Anne Curzan explains.

Televise or laze are prime examples of this process, as these words were created for convenient use from their parent words, television and lazy, respectively. Some of these back-forms are actually pretty old and not particularly liked, such as the back-form enthuse, derived from the root enthusiasm. One back-form whose likeness will probably go undisputed, however, is the word recombobulation, as Anne Curzan explains.

  Everybody does it. When a conversation begins to lack, we fill the silence with a simple “You know,” or “I mean.”

These phrases are often viewed as meaningless, but on this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan explains how these harmless phrases are actually doing more in speech than you may think.

Although at times overused the words “you know” actually has a significant purpose, as Anne Curzan explains:

“So these little words or phrases that sit at the margins of discourse, and help to organize it, are something that linguists call discourse markers. ‘You know’ and ‘I mean’ are two very common ones. They can help to signal to a listener what’s about to happen in the conversation.”

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