A Way with Words

Series produced by A Way with Words

Caption: Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette
Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette 

A Way with Words is a lively hour-long public radio show about language, on the air since 1998. Author Martha Barnette and dictionary editor Grant Barrett take calls about slang, grammar, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, and speaking and writing well.

Co-host/producer Martha Barnette has a background in Latin and ancient Greek. She’s a stickler for grammatical rules, and makes a point of explaining them with little anecdotes and tricks that make those rules clear and easy to remember. Raised in the South, she has a warm and accessible on-air presence. Despite that down-home charm, when she and her co-host get into a grammatical tussle, those white gloves come off.

She is the author of three books on word origins, including Ladyfingers & Nun’s Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names (1997), which was chosen by the Los Angeles Times for its “100 Best Books of the Year” list. Her other etymological books are A Garden of Words (1992) and Dog Days and Dandelions (2003).

Martha holds a degree in English from Vassar College, did graduate work in classical languages at the University of Kentucky, and studied Spanish in Costa Rica at the ILISA School. She’s worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, an editorial writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal, and as a medical reporter for the Louisville Times. Her first book, The Bill Schroeder Story (1987), chronicled the ordeal of the world’s longest-living artificial heart patient. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications, from the New York Times to Bark.

Martha has co-hosted A Way with Words since 2004.

A Kentucky native, she now lives in San Diego, where she is a sought-after public speaker. Her web site is MarthaBarnette.com.

Co-host/producer Grant Barrett is an American lexicographer and dictionary editor specializing in slang and new words. Whether he’s scouring obscure corners of the Internet, mining electronic databases, or digging through the library stacks, Grant ferrets out new and surprising terms that make our language colorful. He’s editorial director of the online dictionary Wordnik, compiler and editor of the Official Dictionary of Unofficial English (2006, McGraw-Hill) and of the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004, Oxford University Press), and is well-known for his award-winning online Double-Tongued Dictionary, which tracks slang, jargon, and neologisms from the fringes of English.

Besides being a widely quoted language authority, Grant has written on language for such newspapers as the Washington Post and the New York Times, has contributed to the British book series The Language Report, and is a public speaker about dictionaries and slang. He also writes a fortnightly column about English-language slang for the 1.2-million-circulation Malaysia Star and has worked as a business and music journalist.

He serves as vice president of the American Dialect Society, an academic organization devoted since 1889 to the study of English in North America. He is also editor of “Among the New Words” column of the society’s journal American Speech, head of its new words committee and a member of the journal’s editorial board, and helps organize the society’s annual “word of the year” vote. He is a member of the Dictionary Society of North America and the Linguistic Society of America. Grant holds a degree in French from Columbia University and has studied at the Université Paris Diderot.

Grant was an editor of the four-volume Historical Dictionary of American Slang (2003-2006, Oxford University Press) and has contributed as a lexicographer to the Cambridge Dictionary of American English (second edition, 2008), the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary (2008), the Collins British English Advanced Dictionary (2008), Collins Cobuild English/Japanese Dictionary of Advanced English (2008), the Collins Spanish Intermediate Dictionary (2008), the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (first edition, 2004), the New Oxford American Dictionary (2001, first edition, and 2005, second edition), the Concise Oxford American Thesaurus (2006), and the Concise Oxford American Dictionary (2006).

Grant first worked in radio in 1988 and has co-hosted A Way with Words since January 2007.

Though born and raised in Missouri, and having been a long-time resident of New York City, Grant now lives in San Mateo, California, with his wife, a linguist, and their infant son. Visit Grant’s blog, The Lexicographer’s Rules.

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Co-host/producer Martha Barnette has a background in Latin and ancient Greek. She’s a stickler for grammatical rules, and makes a point of explaining them with little anecdotes and tricks that make those rules clear and easy to remember. Raised in the South, she has a warm and accessible on-air presence. Despite that down-home charm, when she and her co-host get into a grammatical tussle, those white gloves come off.

She is the author of three books on word origins, including Ladyfingers & Nun’s Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names (1997), which was chosen by the Los Angeles Times for its “100 Best Books of the Year” list. Her other etymological books are A Garden of Words (1992) and Dog Days and Dandelions (2003).

Martha holds a degree in English from Vassar College,...

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193 Pieces

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The months of September, October, November, and December take their names from Latin words meaning "seven," "eight," "nine," and "ten." So why don'...

Bought by WYAP, WCMU, Spokane Public Radio, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WRIR and more


  • Added: May 20, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 6
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In the military, if you've "lost the bubble," then you can't find your bearings. The term first referred to calibrating the position of aircraft an...

Bought by WYAP, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WCMU, KTXK, and Spokane Public Radio


  • Added: May 13, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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How do actors bring Shakespeare's lines to life so that modern audiences immediately understand the text? One way is to emphasize the names of peop...

Bought by KTXK, WYAP, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WCMU, and WRIR


  • Added: May 06, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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Restaurant jargon, military slang, and modern Greek turns of phrase. Some restaurants now advertise that they sell "clean" sandwiches. But that doe...

Bought by WYAP, KTXK, WCMU, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, and WRIR


  • Added: Apr 29, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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Stunt performers in movies have their own jargon for talking about their dangerous work. They refer to a stunt, for example, as a gag. Across the c...

Bought by KTXK, WYAP, WCMU, and KNVC Carson City Community Radio


  • Added: Apr 22, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 4
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Hundreds of years ago, the word girl didn't necessarily mean a female child. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the term "girl" could refer to a child...

Bought by KTXK, WRIR, WYAP, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, and WCMU


  • Added: Apr 15, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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This week on "A Way with Words”: The language we use to cover up our age, and covering up a secret message. Do you ever find yourself less-than-spe...

Bought by KTXK, WRIR, WEZU, WYAP, KNVC Carson City Community Radio and more


  • Added: Apr 09, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 7
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We asked for your thoughts about whether cursive writing should be taught in schools -- and you replied with a resounding "Yes!" Here's why: Cursiv...

Bought by KTXK, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WRIR, WYAP, and WEZU


  • Added: Apr 02, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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Questions from young listeners and conversations about everything from shifting slang to a bizarre cooking technique. Kids ask about how to talk ab...

Bought by WCMU, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, and WEZU


  • Added: Mar 26, 2019
  • Length: 25:59
  • Purchases: 3
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Choosing language that helps resolve interpersonal conflict. Sometimes a question is really just a veiled form of criticism. Understanding the diff...

Bought by WRIR, WRFA-LP, WEZU, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, and WCMU


  • Added: Mar 26, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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If someone urges you to spill the tea, they probably don't want you tipping over a hot beverage. Originally, the tea here was the letter T, as in t...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WYAP, WEZU, WCMU, KNVC Carson City Community Radio and more


  • Added: Mar 18, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 6
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A wingnut is a handy, stabilizing piece of hardware. So why is it a pejorative term for those of a certain political persuasion? Also, is there som...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WYAP, WEZU, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, and WCMU


  • Added: Mar 12, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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When you had sleepovers as a child, what did you call the makeshift beds you made on the floor? In some places, you call those bedclothes and blank...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WYAP, WEZU, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WCMU and more


  • Added: Mar 04, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 6
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The words we choose can change attitudes--and change lives. A swing-dance instructor has switched to gender-neutral language when teaching couples....

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WYAP, WEZU, WCMU, and KNVC Carson City Community Radio


  • Added: Feb 26, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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Jacuzzi and silhouette are eponyms – that is, they derive from the names of people. An Italian immigrant to California invented the bubbly hot tub ...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WYAP, WEZU, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WCMU and more


  • Added: Feb 18, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 6
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The emotional appeal of handwriting and the emotional reveal of animal phrases. Should children be taught cursive writing in school, or is their ti...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WRIR, WYAP, WEZU, and WCMU


  • Added: Feb 12, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 5
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If you speak both German and Spanish, you may find yourself reaching for a German word instead of a Spanish one, and vice versa. This puzzling expe...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WYAP, WEZU, WCMU and more


  • Added: Feb 04, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 6
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Chances are you recognize the expressions Judgment Day and the root of all evil as phrases from the Bible. There are many others, though, some of w...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WRIR, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WYAP, WEZU and more


  • Added: Jan 29, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 6
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The anatomy of effective prose, and the poetry of anatomy. Ever wonder what it'd be like to audit a class taught by a famous writer? A graduate stu...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, WSLR, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WYAP, WEZU and more


  • Added: Jan 21, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 7
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This week on "A Way with Words": Grant and Martha discuss the L-word--or two L-words, actually: liberal and libertarian. They reflect different pol...

Bought by KTSW 89.9, KNVC Carson City Community Radio, WYAP, WEZU, WCMU and more


  • Added: Jan 14, 2019
  • Length: 54:00
  • Purchases: 6