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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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Goody Two-Shoes (#1543)

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


A listener shares a tongue twister he learned at the age of five: Theophilus Thistle sifter, while sifting a sieve of unsifted thistles, thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb. Another version goes If Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle sifter, can thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb, see thou, in sifting a sieve full of unsifted thistles, thrust not three thousand thistles through the thick of thy thumb. Sometimes tongue twisters don't have to be lengthy at all. Just try saying Peggy Babcock three times fast.
Barbara from Seattle, Washington, was surprised to hear a friend from Montana use the term jockey box to mean "glove compartment." Heard in much of the Northwestern United States, jockey box is a relic of the days when the drivers of covered wagons kept tools and supplies in a box under the wooden seat. 
She sells seashells by the seashore. The shells she sells are seashells I'm sure, so if she sells seashells on the seashore, then I'm sure she sells seashore shells. Some claim that this tongue twister is about the early life of 19th-century English paleontologist Mary Aning. Although there's scant evidence to back up the notion that this ditty was inspired by Aning's job selling fossils and other curios in a seaside town, it's a good excuse to dig deeper into the life of this remarkable woman. Despite her pioneering contributions to the field of paleontology, Aning received little recognition during her lifetime. Eventually, though, the Royal Society would include her in a list of the ten most influential British women in the history of science.
Marge from Greenfield, Wisconsin, wonders why we refer to someone ostentatiously well-behaved as a goody-two-shoes. The 1765 book, The History of Little Goody Two Shoes tells the story of a poor young girl by the same name whose virtue is at long last handsomely rewarded.
A box of biscuits, a box of mixed biscuits and a biscuit mixer is a tricky tongue twister due to its many consonant clusters.
Inspired by the the short-lived meme OK Boomer, Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a puzzle with similarly dismissive two-word phrases that begin with OK and end with a noun with a final -er. For example, if a friend who is the former mayor of Bangor bangs on about how superior his state is to yours, you might roll your eyes and say OK . . . ? 
Tim in Unadilla, New York, says his grandmother used to say It's a great life if you don't weaken. For some reason, in 1914 this catchphrase exploded on both sides of the Atlantic. Other versions: It's a gay life if you don't weaken and It's a good life if you don't weaken. The idea was that life is great as long as you can keep your health, and that life will also be great if you don't give in to vices. 
Henry James is often credited with the following quotation, or a version of it: Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. If you're ever unsure of the provenance of a quote or want to doublecheck its accuracy, Garson O'Toole's Quote Investigator is the place to start.
Many English words have their roots in Greek and Roman myth. Tantalize derives from the story of King Tantalus, condemned to stand forever in a pool that receded whenever he was thirsty, and beneath a bough of fruit that pulled away whenever he reached for it. Sisyphus was punished by having to push a heavy stone up a hill, only to see it break free and roll back down; from this myth we get the adjective Sisyphean. The handsome youth Narcissus was obsessed with his own reflection in a pond, which inspired both narcissist and the name of the flower narcissus, which blooms alongside bodies of water. Echo was the nymph who pined away for Narcissus until nothing was left of her but her voice. Iris, goddess of the rainbow, gave us both iridescent and the Spanish for "rainbow," arco iris. In The Iliad, the Greek herald Stentor bellowed with a voice as mighty as that of 50 men. From his name we get the adjective stentorian, which describes someone with a powerful voice. Dale Corey Dibbley shares hundreds more examples in From Achilles Heel to Zeus's Shield.  
Byron from Norfolk, Virginia, wonders about the term goldbrick. If gold is valuable, then why would goldbrick refer to someone who's a malingerer or otherwise dead weight? The answer has to do with swindlers who painted worthless bricks and passed them off as gold.
In response to our conversation about language chosen for a tombstone, listeners share proposed epitaphs for themselves and others. If you just can't get enough of epitaphs, you can browse lots of back issues of the scholarly journal Markers, published by the Association for Gravestone Studies.
Bekkah in Wimberly, Texas, says her grandmother would express surprise with the phrase Well, my foot! 
If you're taking the dog for a walk, be sure to talk along a plastic bag to pick up any barker's eggs.
Irv in Putnam Station, New York, recalls his mother used to refer to a dismal, rainy day as a lowry day. What she probably meant is lowering, which describes a dark, foreboding sky, and may derive from a Germanic word that has to do with frowning.
Jennifer in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, has been in recovery from substance abuse for 29 years now, and still recalls some of the slang she heard back in the days when she was using illicit drugs. Her ex-husband used to say Now you got my nose open and Don't get my nose open, which both refer to the idea of enticing someone to do drugs. There are larger senses of this phrase, referring to being excited about something or being sexually aroused or feeling rising anger. This slang term has been around since the 1950s. Jennifer also used the term bonnaroo to mean "really good." In the slang of San Quentin Prison in the 1930s, bonnaroo meant "a preferred job assignment" for prisoners. The Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee takes its name from the 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo by Dr. John, who said the word came from the French-influenced slang of New Orleans, Louisiana, a combination of French bonne, "good," and rue, "street," meaning "best on the street," or in other words, "really good drugs."  
This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.