That's What They Say

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.

" 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.


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.

Why do some people say, “I could care less” to mean they don’t care? It doesn't make sense. The expression is, "I couldn't care less," right?

“What has happened here, as far as I can tell, is that speakers are no longer parsing this phrase for every word. And this is what happens with idioms. Idioms take on a meaning that surpasses their parts,” says Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

“I think the ‘less’ there feels negative to speakers. It already says, ‘I don’t care,’ so for them, ‘I could care less -- I couldn’t care less,’ they mean the same thing,” she says.

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller asks Curzan to explain this idiom, “Butter would not melt in her mouth.”

Merriam Webster has one pronunciation for the word lackadaisical, but often people pronounce it laxadaisical.

“I would guess that what’s happened here is that speakers have reinterpreted lackadaisical as related to lax. And once they do that they change the pronunciation of lackadaisical to laxadaisical” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

Curzan says in surveys she’s done, half the people say lackadaisical and half say laxadaisical, but it doesn’t seem to be because of generation differences.

It’s seems that the combination of the letter K and S is what causes the confusion. Another mix-up can be found in words like especially and espresso.

Less vs. fewer

Nov 4, 2012

“There are people who cringe at the grocery store when they see the sign '10 items or less,'” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

It seems as though the rule for less vs. fewer is becoming less clear.

She said, “The rule is that with nouns that are countable we should use fewer. And with nouns that we can’t count, such as water, we should use less.

“Ten items, clearly you can count them because there are ten, so it should be fewer. If you have money it would be less money, but fewer dollars.”

The principles are the same with amount vs. number, so amount for an uncountable noun, and number for a countable noun.

Um, yeah, no, hmm...

Oct 28, 2012

Discourse markers are the little words at the beginning and ends of sentences that help people organize conversation and relate to listeners.

“I noticed ‘yeah, no,’ ‘no, yeah’ and ‘no, I know,’ where no seems to mean yes,” said Anne Curzan, an English Professor at the University of Michigan.

‘Yeah, no’ does a few things. It helps people agree with another person who has made a negative statement.

It is what is, says Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan.

She spoke with Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller about the clichés she has been hearing lately and how they came into being.

“'To throw something,' or 'to throw someone under the bus,' it looks like that is first cited reliably about 1991 and has taken off since then,” said Curzan.

She finds clichés to be much like fashion--usage depends on repeated exposure to the phrases and often they develop momentum all on their own.  

Though it may be underlined in red immediately after I type it, “irregardless” is indeed a word.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, confirms its legitimacy ; but its usage, she warns, only invites contempt.

“A year ago I was talking with someone, and I said, ‘You know, people use it, it’s in most dictionaries.' And you could see that his respect for me and my scholarly perspective was shaken,” says Curzan.

The word comes from a blend of “irrespective and regardless.”

Open The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and you will inevitably find Usage Notes under certain words. These notes warn readers there might be problems or controversies involving grammar, diction, or writing style.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics is 1 of 200 panelists asked to comment on the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.

If you listen carefully you can hear sentences with a double "is" all the time.

President Obama does it. “The fact of the matter is is that…,” he said at the House Republican Conference on January 29, 2010.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

What's the right way to use bad, or badly?

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

Linguists call "feel" a linking verb, which requires an adjective to follow it. Curzan says that's where people get confused.

"I feel happy, I feel bad, but people get confused because with other verbs you'd get an adverb there, I feel bad, I cook badly," Curzan said.

This week “anxious” and “eager” go head-to-head, plus the overstated use of the word “literally.”

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

“There are people who think that anxious should always mean worried, should be linked with the noun anxiety, and not mean that you’re looking forward to something,” said Curzan.

“You can say, I’m anxious about the test, but you shouldn’t say I’m anxious to read that book,” she said.

Curzan says “anxious” has been used to mean “eager” since about the 18th century.

Listen above to hear two other words that are often interchangeable, "disinterested” and “uninterested. Plus, the interesting use of “literally.”