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A Way with Words, a fun show about language examined through history, culture, and family. Credit:
A Way with Words, a fun show about language examined through history, culture, and family.

A Way with Words is an upbeat and lively hour-long public radio show about language examined through history, culture, and family. Journalist/author Martha Barnette and linguist/lexicographer Grant Barrett talk with callers from around the world about slang, new words, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, jokes and riddles, and speaking and writing well. They settle disputes, play word quizzes, and discuss language news and controversies.

There are no carriage fees. You can begin carrying the program right away. Email or call Grant Barrett for details: grant@waywordradio.org, 646 286 2260.


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One-Armed Paper Hanger (#1518)

From A Way with Words | Part of the A Way with Words series | 54:00

4252178847_0c74cfd289_m_small The word piecemeal means bit by bit. If you pay back a debt piecemeal, you repay it a little at a time. The -meal in piecemeal is an old term that means a measure of time, or by a specified portion. In Middle English, this element appears in several words, such as littlemeal, meaning little by little; pennymeal, meaning penny by penny; and dropmeal, meaning drop by drop. They're all the etymological kin of the term meal, meaning a fixed portion of time for eating food.

The word mall, as in shopping mall, has traveled a long and winding path, beginning with the Italian game of pallamaglio, which was played with a ball and a mallet. The name of the game found its way into French as pallemaille, which in turn became English pall mall. Pall Mall is now the name of a street in central London where the game was once played, and The Mall, which was also once the site of such games, is now a tree-lined promenade leading to Buckingham Palace. In the 1950s, the word mall was applied to streets that were closed off to make shops convenient for pedestrians. Later mall was used to denote complexes built specifically for shopping and located outside of urban centers.

A tantony pig is the runt of the litter. This term derives from the name of St. Anthony of Egypt, patron saint of swineherds.

Elizabeth in Burlington, Texas, says she always referred directly to her grandparents using their last names, as in Grandma and Grandpa Bell, or Grandma and Grandpa Van Hoose, but her husband calls his own grandparents Nanaw and Pawpaw. The Dictionary of American Regional English lists at least 100 different names for grandmothers, including Big Mama, Mamaw, Gram, Nana, Grammy, and at least that many names for grandfathers.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has whipped up a puzzle about swapped initialisms. Try this one: My TV is so good you can see the beds of sweat on some of those American League players when they get up to bat. Thanks to  ______ I can see how stressed the ______ is.

Orion in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, grew up in rural West Virginia on something called Lick Run Road, not far from Mud Lick Road, Turkey Lick Road, and Sanders Run Road. Why do the words lick and run appear in these types of place names? James Hall wrote about animals visiting salt licks in his book Letters from the West. In Kentucky, Big Bone Lick is now a tourist attraction; thousands of years ago, large animals were attracted by its salt deposits.

A listener confesses that for decades she misunderstood the expression take it with a grain of salt, meaning retain a healthy dose of skepticism, as take it with a grand assault. Such mishearings of a word or phrase that nevertheless make some sense are jokingly called eggcorns. The Eggcorn Database has a collection them, including from the gecko for from the get-go, and in the feeble position for in the fetal position.

Jocelyn in Richmond, Virginia, is curious about the expression busier than a one-armed paper hanger, meaning extremely busy. Perhaps the earliest version of this phrase comes from a 1908 short story by O. Henry: as busy as a one-armed man with the nettle rash pasting on wallpaper, which would be very busy indeed. In other versions, the embattled paper hanger is battling hives, the itch, the crabs, or the seven-year-itch. Other picturesque English phrases for such bustling activity include busy as a beaver, busy as a bee, busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, busier than flies in a tarpit, busier than a bee in a tar bucket, busier than a bee on a buzzsaw, busier than a cranberry merchant, busier than a one-eyed cat watching three mice holes. Other phrases using busier than or busy as can indicate the opposite, as in busier than a pickpocket in a nudist camp, busy as a hen with one chick, busy as a puppy, and busy as a hibernating bear.

Paul in South Bend, Indiana, notes that the French equivalent of the phrase have other fish to fry, meaning to have other things to do, is avoir d'autre chats a fouetter, or literally, to have other cats to whip. In Italian, a similarly creepy phrase that means the same thing is to avere altre gatte da pelare, or to have other cats to skin.To have a frog in one's throat means to have difficulty speaking; in French, the expression is avoir un chat dans la gorge, or to have a cat in the throat. English also has several expressions reflecting a less-than-humane attitude toward felines, including there's more than one way to skin a cat, there's not enough room to swing a cat, or to let the cat out of the bag. Dogs don't fare much better in some English sayings, such as to stick around until the last dog is hung and there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with pudding. All of these expressions reflect a time when people had different attitudes toward the kinds of animals we now regard as pets.

Should cursive handwriting be taught in schools? There are compelling arguments on both sides, a handwritten letter or note may carry additional emotional power.

To have a yen for something means to yearn for it. It comes from a Chinese word that has to do with the craving on an addict. This type of yen has nothing to do with the Japanese unit of currency.

A high-schooler in Indianapolis, Indiana, wonders why the word number is abbreviated as No. when there's no letter O in the word. The answer lies in the Latin word numero, which is the ablative form of the Latin word for number, numerus.

Alexander Chee's essay in The Morning News about studying writing with Annie Dillard includes a memorable description of how it felt to get back papers that she'd marked up.

Steve in Neenah, Wisconsin, says he'd not heard the term suss out in a long time, but then suddenly he was hearing again it in several different places. What he's experiencing is the Frequency Illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or Blue Car Syndrome.

During the reign of France's Louis XIV, you could wear a commode on your head. Commode referred to a wire frame worn on the head to support an elaborate headdress.

Melinda in Indianapolis, Indiana, shares a bit of wordplay in which someone is invited to repeat such phrases as I'm a brass lock and I'm a brass key, all leading up to a punchline in which the repeater is tricked into saying something silly or self-deprecating. Folklorists sometimes refer to this type of verbal prank as an insidious ruse.

An aglu, also spelled agloo, is a seal's breathing hole in a sheet of ice.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.