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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.


A Way with Words (Series)

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Beefed It (#1580)

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

Awww_logo_color_square Ever been in a situation where a group makes a decision to do something, then later finds out that no one really wanted to do that thing in the first place, but everyone went along with it rather than rock the boat? There's a term for that! It's called the Abilene Paradox, and there's a funny story about its origin.

A pair of listeners from Memphis, Tennessee, disagree about an expression that means "to conform to a standard" or "to adhere to a rule." Is it toe the line or tow the line? The correct phrase is toe the line. Picture soldiers all standing in rigid formation, with their toes right up to a straight line, or athletes all lining up at the start of a race. Similar phrases from the 19th century include toe the scratch or toe the mark, but toe the line is the one that stuck around.

Jim in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, says that during childhood games of touch football, he and his friends would count out the required three seconds before rushing as Mississippi One, Mississippi Two, Mississippi Three. Other ways of counting seconds, whether for touch football or the time between a flash of lightning and thunder, include One Mississippi, Two Mississippi or One Thousand One, One Thousand Two. In England, this kind of rhythmic counting is sometimes rendered as Piccadilly One, Piccadilly Two. Many English-speaking countries have a whole menagerie of words to choose from, including hippopotamus, chimpanzee, crocodile, and alligator. In France, the word Mississippi is sometimes used, along with crocodile. In Poland, the word for "crocodile" is also used for counting. Swedes sometimes use the Swedish equivalent of One Thousand One. Germans start at the number 20, using Ein-und-zwanzig, Zwei-und-zwanzig, meaning "21, 22," and a similar pattern is used in Hebrew and Danish, although Danes also measure time by counting "barrels of beer."
Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle plays on the phrase Haters gonna hate to describe people who are just going to do what they're going to do. Foollowing that pattern, for example, what phrase would you apply to those teens out there at the mall parking lot, zooming around on their decks and pulling ollies and nollies?

Erica in San Antonio, Texas, asks whether there's a term for the soft noises that people make with their mouths while waiting, such as humming or whooshing, to pass the time. Another example might be that animated Typewriter Guy on Sesame Street who rolls into the frame singing to himself: NOO noo noo noo noo noo noom. Or when you're waiting for someone to figure out a question and you reflexively hum the tune from the final round of the TV game show "Jeopardy!" If the wordless vocalization is meant to communicate something to someone -- say, assuring someone waiting on the other end of a phone line that you're still there -- it's known as phatic communication, which refers to the things we do and say that don't necessarily convey a literal meaning, but instead serve as a kind of social lubrication.

From ancient Greece comes this example of an indefinite hyperbolic numeral such as umpteen, zillion, and fifty-eleven: psammakosioi. Aristophanes coined this term, which was picked up by other ancient writers, and literally means "sand-hundred," as in the vast number of grains of sand on a beach.

Jessica in Indianapolis, Indiana, says her field of software development, rubber duck applies to a situation where you describe a problem you're struggling with to someone else, and in the process of explaining it, you hit upon the solution, without any feedback from the listener -- a conclusion you would also have reached if you'd simply taken the time to explain it simply to an animate object. This strategy of rubber duck programming was first recorded in a book called The Pragmatic Programmer by (Bookshop|Amazon) by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt. Jessica reports that in her office, they also use the term cardboard dog in a similar way. This bit of developer slang appears to have been coined by Texas programmer Stephen J. Baker.

Josh in Binghamton, New York, wonders about the slang term beefed it, meaning to "took a hard fall." It's probably connected to biff, often used in snowboarding and mountain biking, meaning "to fail" or do badly."

What is the letter H doing in the English word ghost? The answer has to do with 15th-century Flemish typesetters working for the English printer William Caxton. They often added an H after an initial hard G to reflect the spelling of cognates in their own language. While many of those spellings didn't stick, the G in ghost did, probably because the term Holy Ghost appeared so often in early printed works. Linguist Arika Okrent explains a host of linguistic conundrums like that in her new, highly accessible book Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme -- and Other Oddities of the English language. (Bookshop|Amazon).

A native German speaker is curious about the English word doofus, which sounds a lot like  German doof, meaning "stupid" or "daft." English doofus first appeared in the 1960s, apparently modeled after goofus, another term for a "dolt" or "stupid person." In the Scots language, dowf or douf means "listless" or "dull." German doof apparently derives from taub, or "deaf," which can also describe something lacking some essential quality, such as "deaf" seeds that don't germinate.

Lana in Evansville, Indiana, says all the women in her family affectionately call each other Gert or Gertie. She has discovered that one of her friends also uses the name Gertie as a term of endearment for the women in her own family. Although in this case it seems to function as a generic term, the female equivalent of the names Joe or Mac, for a couple of decades starting in the 1920s, the name Dirty Gertie was slang for "a promiscuous woman," immortalized in the song "Dirty Gertie from Bizerte," Bizerte being a town in Tunisia.

MaryAnne from Dallas, Texas, says that sometimes when she or her siblings asked her father how much he spent on something he'd answer A buck three-eighty. It's one of many similar expressions that allow the speaker to give an approximate answer or just shrug and dismiss the question altogether, including A dollar three-eighty, buck one-eighty, buck two-eighty, buck three-eighty, buck two-ninety, buck two-ninety-eight, buck two-ninety-five, nickel ninety-five, and eleventy-seven.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.