That's What They Say

Calling speech “rhetoric” nowadays is often viewed as an insult, rather than as a compliment. Especially in relation to politics, “rhetoric” is used almost exclusively as a negative term.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Anne Curzan, and host Rina Miller discuss the confusion with the word “rhetoric” in public discourse.

According to Curzan, the historical definition of rhetoric is “the art of using language effectively in order to persuade others.” Rhetoric is viewed today as positive in some circles. It’s an art form for those who can speak well, and persuade others with conviction. However, more and more this former art has been viewed in a more negative light.

“By the 17th century, we start to see some use where people are using ‘rhetoric’ to talk about sort of overblown speech, speech that is big words, but maybe not backed up...from there it gets more and more negative, and I think now you’ll hear people use it to talk about words that seem empty to them. It’s just rhetoric," explains Curzan.

So when did “rhetoric” become so closely, and negatively tied with politics? Anne Curzan says:

When you give someone "leeway" or tell someone to "pipe down," you may not realize you're using the language of sailors.

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 all that sailing has given to the English language.

The more obvious ones for example are: “taking the wind out someone’s sails, being dead in the water, rocking the boat.”

But, did you know the term “to bail something out” is actually a nautical expression?

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 irksome “ess” added to the end of nouns to indicate a female in words like authoress, actress and governess.

These “ess” words are ubiquitous in the English language. But do we really need them? And does the distinction in fact diminish the word’s meaning? This practice in linguistics is called markedness.

Markedness is about an asymmetry in, for example, a pair of words where one is a more neutral term - the dominant term, and one is marked somehow - it’s specialized,” says Anne Curzan.

Examples include authoress versus the unmarked author, or actor versus actress. In these examples, there’s arguably no difference between the marked and neutral term beside the "ess" added to indicate the noun is female. However, as Curzan explains, history has had a pejoration of the marked word due to sexism in the past.

Do you say “a historical event,” or “an historical event?”

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan and host Rina Miller discuss this confusing speech convention. As Professor Curzan points out, the inclination to use either “a” or “an” depends on the pronunciation of the “h” at the beginning of “historical.”

“Most American English speakers pronounce ‘h,’” says Curzan. “We’re not ‘h-droppers.’ In Britain a lot of the urban varieties of British English drop the ‘h,’ even in words like house you get ouse. But at the beginning of words in American English we tend to pronounce the ‘h’… so we’ll say a history.”

The issue when pronouncing historical, however, is that the stress has moved to the second syllable. This makes for a lighter-sounding “h,” and can change the article of the word.

“For speakers with a lightly pronounced ‘h,’ they will say ‘an historical,’” says Curzan. “It may be seen as a more proper pronunciation.”

It’s very interesting to consider some people add an extra syllable to certain words when speaking.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan discuss how this difference in pronunciation is fairly new - linguistically speaking.

The word "interesting" is pronounced today with either three or four syllables. Anne Curzan explains the four syllable pronunciation, which often annoys the three-syllable camp, is actually the more traditional pronunciation.

“If you look in the online Oxford English Dictionary…it only has a four syllable pronunciation. If you look in modern standard dictionaries from the last ten years, they will show multiple pronunciations, three and four syllables," says Curzan.

The process of losing a syllable is not rare  in the English language.

There's no quelling semantic change

Jun 2, 2013

Don’t get too flattered if an admirer calls you unique. In today’s spoken language unique doesn’t mean one of a kind at all.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan discuss the semantic changes that strengthen or weaken the meaning of words.

Anne Curzan points out the strength of unique has weakened over time so that one object can be more unique than another.

“For most of its history in English unique has meant one of a kind, or having no peer...if you listen to actual usage, you’ll hear people say that something is more unique than something else, or really unique…at this point for a lot of speakers, unique means unusual," says Curzan.

The word unique is not unique in the weakening of its definition over time. Curzan explains that the word “quell” has also undergone significant semantic change.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan revisit regional variations in spoken English and offer up even more fun and often puzzling expressions. 

“For people who are from parts of New York or New Jersey, they will stand on line rather than in line...and for the people who say that makes no sense, the answer is that prepositions don’t always make sense and this is just regional variation," says Curzan.

Another expression that may not make sense to most of us is: drinking a cabinet.

“If you’re from Rhode Island you can drink a cabinet…in Rhode Island, a cabinet is a milkshake," Curzan explains.

Okay, so what to you call those balls of dust hiding underneath the bed? Dust bunnies or woofinpoofs?

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)  has documented over 170 different variations for those balls of lint. And, some variations take on hilarious names.

For most of us, the Microsoft Word spell checker is a godsend. It helps correct our failed attempt for spelling words like vinaigrette or renaissance.

However, Word's grammar checker is a whole different story. Mostly because of that cursed green squiggly line under a word that signals we've made a grammar error. One of the most frequent and frustrating corrections involves the correct use of that or which.

University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan and host Rina Miller discuss these unspoken grammar rule snafus on this edition of  "That's What They Say."

"The grammar checker is trying to enforce a rule about that and which, which English speakers have never followed, as far as we can tell," says Curzan.

The comma problem

May 12, 2013

The comma may be a very small  punctuation mark, but people often have very strong feelings about how it should, and should not be used.

On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan discuss the Oxford comma, semicolons and breaking rules.

Listen to the full segment above.

Graduate, then commence onward

May 5, 2013

Where are you graduating from? Or are you just graduating? On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss the mishaps with the proper use of "graduation."

There's been a good amount of change around the verb graduate, explains Curzan.

"It used to be that the University was supposed to graduate you...in the nineteenth century we started to get that students could graduate from the university."

Before you graduate from a university, or just graduate, you've got to matriculate. But what does matriculation actually mean?

"Matriculation technically means, 'to enroll in or at,' and you'll often see it used that way, but there appears to be some confusion. People sometimes use matriculate to mean graduate," says Curzan.

Redundancies in everyday speech

Apr 21, 2013

If a gift is "inherently free," isn't it just free? On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss those often annoying redundancies in the English language.

Other redundancies include the clunky "hot-water heater" in your basement, or perhaps that "plan going forward" that you've been anticipating. It's obvious that this trait in the English language just isn't logical, and Anne Curzan agrees.

"They aren't logical, and I'm not going to sit here and make an argument that they are logical," explains Curzan. "But what I am going to say is that languages aren't always logical, that I think we sometimes think they should be completely logical. But human languages are sometimes logical, and sometimes not."

So we know that our language is rife with illogical redundancies in both grammar and speech, but can these redundancies actually be helpful?

Are you a 'pop' or 'soda' person?

Apr 14, 2013

Maybe you're the type that likes both in conjunction, or perhaps not at all. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan talk about variations of speech based on region, called distinctive regionalisms, and how the lines between these colloquial regions aren't as blurred as you may think.

Perhaps the most noticeable of these distinctive regionalisms, especially for Michiganders, regards the phrasing we use when referring to soft drinks. Here in the Midwest, a lot of people say "pop," explains Curzan.  "A lot of the rest of the country says 'soda.' You're going to find that on the East Coast and on the West Coast."

But distinctive regionalisms don't stop at fizzy beverages. Based on where you're from, telling time may even be different.

According to Curzan, "New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware: we're the "quarter-of" speakers. The "quarter-till" speakers: West Virginia, western Virginia, North Carolina, parts of Georgia."

When dealing with big meat and veggie filled sandwiches, "much of the U.S. calls that a sub," explains Curzan. "But in New England, it's a 'grinder.' In much of New York and New Jersey, it's a 'hoagie,' or a 'hero' in Pennsylvania."

Amid all these different variations, a distinctive regionalism dictionary, if one exists, might be needed.

Enormous ambiguity when using 'enormous'

Apr 7, 2013

In talking about size, should one use "enormity," or "enormous"? For most of us, these two words used to describe the large scope of a situation seem synonymous. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses with Professor Anne Curzan how these supposed synonyms differ in their meanings.

So if "enormity" and "enormous" are not synonymous, can "enormity" still be used to describe a big problem? According to Curzan, "You can, if you use 'enormity' to describe a problem, and are making some sort of moral judgment about it. It's another thing if you're talking about a topic or a building, and you're talking about size without making a moral judgment."

It comes down to the enormity of the moral implications of a situation, versus the enormousness, or the size or scope of the situation itself. The two words, however, have the same linguistic roots, and both definitions have remained similar throughout history.

"Enormity" and "enormousness," says Curzan, go back to the same root in Latin, meaning "unusual."

"And when both words come into English in about the 16th century, they refer to something outside the ordinary," Curzan explains.

The modern distinction then comes from the current usage of the two words, right?

No French needed to pronounce 'fiancée'

Mar 31, 2013

We've all been there: You come across a word in a written text and realize, to your embarrassment, that you haven't a clue how to pronounce it. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss why the pronunciations of those tricky little words cause us the most strife.

What should you do when you come across one of these words? As Anne Curzan did when she encountered with the word "islet" during one of her lectures at the University of Michigan, just ask the audience.

"So I get up to the word, and I think, 'Well I could just mumble it or something,' but then I think, 'Well that's not appropriate.' So then I turn to the class and I say, 'How do you all pronounce that word?' And they say, 'We don't.'"

On this week's edition of "That's What They Say," we explore why the word seldom is fading from use. Host Rina Miller talks with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan.

Language change is similar to fashion trends, says Curzan. And it seems the use of "almost never" is replacing the word seldom. 

"When you think about it, 'almost never' is not a very efficient replacement for 'seldom,' but it's what came into fashion, and 'seldom' is out of fashion and 'infrequently' had its moment of fashion," Curzan says. 

Analogy is another reason for language change. For example, Curzan says "oxen" will most likely change to "oxes" because other nouns take "s" and through analogy people will start to use "s" to make ox plural. 

Listen to the full interview above. 

Spelling bees just got a whole lot easier: simplified spelling

Mar 17, 2013

On this week's edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses our resistance to change the spelling of certain English-language words with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan.

Curzan says that this resistance comes hand-in-hand with complacence.

"In the end, people are quite attached to the spellings that they know. They've spent a lot of time learning those spellings, and we're used to the way they look," says Curzan.

So when it's suggested that "have" drop the e to "hav," and that "dogs" be spelled phonetically, "dogz," our comfort level drops out of equilibrium. But is there a happy medium between maintaining our comfy spelling rules and making spelling in English simpler? According to Curzan, such conventions have already been successfully implemented.

"Noah Webster, when he created his American Dictionary in the early 19th Century, he believed we should have an American language," explains Curzan, "and part of having an American language was having American spelling that would be different from British spelling."

You're gonna wanna see this...

Mar 10, 2013

This time on "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan discuss the colloquial "gonna" and "wanna," and how these words are not just mispronunciations of their original verbs, but are developing their own distinct meanings.

"If you think about the verb 'go' as a main verb, it has directionality to it. So I could say 'I'm going to swim,' which would imply some kind of direction," explains Curzan. "But if I say 'I'm gonna swim,' that means at some point in the future, I'm gonna swim."

Curzan says that this evolution of the meaning of the verbs is due to the lack of definitive future-tense construction in the English language.

"Interestingly in English, some people would say that we don't have future-tense because we only have one tense marker, which is 'ed' for the past-tense. To talk about the future, we use these little auxiliary verbs like 'will,' which also used to be a main verb. Now 'go' is becoming an auxiliary verb. So this is now one of the ways we talk about the future," Curzan says.

Let's face it: profanities and taboo words are sometimes appropriate (and maybe even fun) to use. But does the same level of use apply to politicians or others constantly in the media spotlight?

On this week's edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses the convention of taboo words and profanities in everyday language with Professor Anne Curzan, specifically in response to John Boehner's recent remarks about the Senate.

Quote from Boehner:

"We have moved the bill in the House twice. We should not have to move a third bill, before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something."

The word "ass" is usually not spoken in front of the public eye; it's taboo. Following Boehner's statement, however, this word is coming out of the woodwork, as Anne Curzan describes.

"...you could sense that people were interested in what Boehner said, but also in how he said it. They were interested in that word."

Is it more acceptable than other profanities used by past politicians?

"When Vice President Joe Biden, and Vice President Dick Cheney both dropped 'f-bombs' in fairly public places, everybody referred to it as the 'f-word.' Nobody wanted to say the word, because that's a taboo word that we don't say," explains Curzan.

Let the creation of 'sniglets' begin!

Feb 24, 2013

With the amount of words used everyday for description and communication, it's difficult to believe that there are holes in our vocabulary where certain real events, actions or items cannot be described. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses these "lexical gaps" with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan.

"It [lexical gap] is a space in the lexicon, in the vocabulary, where we don't have one word to describe something. So, for example, we don't have one word in English to talk about 'spicy-hot.' If you say 'The dish is hot,' people will say, 'Is it spicy-hot, or hot-hot, or temperature-hot?' Because 'hot' is ambiguous, we don't have a word that differentiates," says Curzan.

Other such lexical gaps which cause confusion in every day language  include the ambiguity behind what to call the first decade of the 21st century, or a male-lover. Sometimes, the only way to overcome this gap is to create a "sniglet," as Anne Curzan explains.

"Rich Hall, who was a comedian on HBO's Not Necessarily the News, came up with the word 'sniglet,' which was a word that should be a word, and should be in the dictionary. And he  came up with lots of 'sniglets' including 'musquirt,' which is the liquid in the mustard bottle that comes out before the mustard does."

--Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Politeness conventions

Feb 17, 2013

We've all experienced it: we're out at a restaurant, or a grocery store, and after we're done with our meal or our shopping we give the clerk a cordial "thank you," only to receive a response of "no problem." On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller talks politeness conventions with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan.

"'No problem' as a response to 'thank you' seems to start in the mid-twentieth century," explains Curzan.

"There are people who think that's rude...I think what we're seeing here is a change in politeness conventions, where people are trying to indicate that 'You weren't imposing on me, it was no problem.' Whereas if you say 'You're welcome,' there's actually an indication that 'It was an imposition, but I was happy to do it.'"

In addition to the evolvement of politeness conventions, there have also been developments in what host Rina Miller calls "the language of courtesy," such as introductions like "Pleased to meet you," and "How do you do?"

If you 'fizzle,' at least be smooth about it

Feb 10, 2013

On this week's "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller speaks with Professor Anne Curzan from the University of Michigan about the "adorkable" slang of today's college students.

One can surmise the meaning of "adorkable" as a combination of "adorable" and "dork." Curzan says that this process of blending words to fill another undefined meaning is fairly common.

"It describes something that we didn't know we needed to describe until we had this word, and then suddenly it fills this need. This process of blending, where we take two words and "smush" them together, is pretty common in slang," says Curzan.

Suddenly with this process of blending, any action suddenly has a definitive word to go with it, as Curzan explains.

"This week, students taught me the word 'hangry' which they said is when you're so hungry that you get really cranky and angry."

Stand by your gooma

Feb 3, 2013

On this week's "That's What They Say," Michigan Radio's Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss how the misinterpretation of older words and their meanings led to the modern pronunciations and definitions of words such as "woodchuck" and "bridegroom."

"Linguists call that 'folk etymology,'" says Curzan. "Where speakers come up with an etymology on their own, and then what they think the etymology is affects the shape of the word."

One such example is the word "bridegroom."

"It was not always 'groom', it was actually in Old English a 'bridegoom', and 'goom', or 'gooma', was an Old English word for 'man.' So it was the 'bride's man,'" says Curzan.

Curzan also discusses the mystery of the origin of popular sayings, such as "the whole nine yards" and "rule of thumb."

Persnickety, and other pronunciation problems

Jan 27, 2013

This week on “That’s What They Say” Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss certain words that give people problems with pronunciation.

Everyone’s favorite word when being detailed, “persnickety” was originally spelled and pronounced “pernickety."

“'Pernickety’ goes back to 1808, and by 1892 we have evidence of speakers putting in the ‘s’ and saying ‘persnickety,’” says Curzan.

Other words that give people problems, such as “nuclear”, are usually mispronounced through analogy of other words that sound similar.

“Speakers are making ‘nuclear’ sound more like words such as ‘particular’, ‘circular’, ‘vascular’, ‘molecular’. We have a lot of those ‘cular’ words, not a lot of words that end with ‘clear,’” she says. 

-Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Is 'actually' the new 'like?'

Jan 20, 2013

This week on "That's What They Say," Michigan Radio's Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the surging use of the word "actually" in recent years, and whether or not it has become the new "like."

Now part of everyday speech, Anne Curzan says the word "actually" in fact came to the forefront of American speech only just in the past century.

"It turns out the word 'actually' has more than doubled in usage over the 20th century."

But in recent years, the spoken use of "actually" has become even more pronounced.

"Between 1990 and today, so a little over 20 years, 'actually' has tippled its usage in spoken language, so it's no wonder that we're noticing it, and feeling like its everywhere," she says.

This time on “That’s What They Say” Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss adding an ‘s’ to words like ‘anyway’ and ‘toward.’

Miller says one of her pet peeves is adding an ‘s’ to words like backward, forward and toward, but Curzan says it is okay to do so.

“The toward/towards is mostly a British/American distinction. Brits will tend to use the ‘s’, ‘towards,’ Americans no ‘s’, ‘toward.’” Curzan says. “But at this point we are seeing the British ‘towards’ in a lot of American writing.”

Yet a lot of people cringe at the word “anyways.” Is that a word? Curzan says yes.

“The word actually goes pretty far back in English, used slightly differently. Used in a way that someone might say, ‘if he is in anyways involved,’ it’s more recently that people use anyways in a conjuctive role, to mean ‘in any case,’ and that’s the one that no one likes,” Curzan says.

For this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan spoke with us from Boston, where she was attending the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting, whose 200 members voted on their “Word of the Year.”

Rina Miller:         So the winner is?

This week on That’s What They Say, Anne Curzan, English professor of the University of Michigan and Weekend Edition host Rina Miller discuss the origins of holiday words.

Here are a few:  

Mistletoe used to be called “mistleton.” “Ton” meant “twig” in old English.

The “yule” in the word “yuletide” refers to Christmas or the months of December and January, and “tide” means “a period or extent of time.” Therefore, “yuletide” means the “time of Christmas.”

And the “nog” in egg nog refers to strong ale.

Curzan and Miller also discuss how to pronounce the word “poinsettia” and Curzan explains that Santa’s reindeer named vixen is actually names after a female fox or a sexy woman.

Fan-freaking-tastic

Dec 16, 2012

This week on That’s What They Say, Anne Curzan, English professor of the University of Michigan and Weekend Edition host Rina Miller discuss the moving ‘n’ and infixing words.  

The moving ‘n’ is usually found in words like “a whole nother.”

Curzan says “nother” is a lot older than some may think.

“You can find in English back in the 14th century in expressions like ‘no nother’ which would have meant ‘no other’,” Curzan says.

But “a whole nother” isn’t the only example of the moving ‘n’.

“For example an ‘apron’ used to be a ‘napron’,” Curzan says. “Napron is related to napkin. But if you say napron, you can reinterpret that as an napron, an apron.”

Curzan and Miller also discuss the idea of infixing with words like “fan-freaking-tastic” and “absa-freaking-lutely.”

The English language is constantly changing. How do English teachers keep up?

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller recently got a letter from a listener, Bill, from Eaton Rapids who asks why there isn’t a difference between researching English change and teaching language usage.

“I think there is a difference,” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

She believes teachers can teach the standard language usage and talk about language change with their students.

“And I think maybe one way to help think about this, is I often talk about it as a repertoire, and the bigger the repertoire we have as speakers and writers, the more versatile we are. So what I’m trying to do is to make sure that students have in that repertoire the standard, formal written variety and perhaps the formal spoken variety so they can use it when they need to or want to. But if they have other varieties in there too, all the better,” Curzan said.

Listen to the full interview above to hear why it’s okay to use ain’t in writing. Also, Curzan explains how people in the 19th century “hated” the English passive progressive construction, “the house is being built," but now it is completely standard. An example of why people should not be too quick to judge a certain form, as it might become popular years from now.

Merriam Websters’s definition of retronym is a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun. “Film camera” is a retronym.

Every Sunday, Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan a professor of English at the University of Michigan, specializing in linguistics.

In many cases the retronym is formed in response to technological advances.

“We now specify a land line because when you say phone people may assume it’s a cell phone and we need to now, talking about a phone, say a land line,” said Curzan.

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