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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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What the Blazes? (#1562)

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

Awww_logo_color_square Amanda in Evansville, Indiana, says for some reason her family always referred to their garbage disposal as George, a name that functioned as both noun and verb, as in Just put it in George or You can George it now. Might that be something inherited from her German ancestors? Don't bet on it -- garbage disposals are rare in Germany. Does your family have a name for a household appliance or favorite object?

Emily in San Diego, California, reports her father's side of the family has a word for the back of the knee: nicket. German speakers refer to that part of the body as the Kniekehle, from German words meaning "knee" and  "groove" or "throat." English also has a word for the inner part of the elbow, the chelidon, from a Greek word for "swallow," a reference to the shape of that bird's tail. This anatomical feature is also called the crook of the arm or the inner elbow.

When James from Waco, Texas, was lost while hiking, he wondered Where in the blazes am I?, then wondered about the origin of that expression. It doesn't derive from blaze meaning "to cut into a tree to mark a trail." That term belongs to a family of words that mean "shining" or "white," and refers to cutting away tree bark to reveal the lighter surface underneath -- hence, blazing a trail and trailblazer. The question Where in the blazes? is simply a euphemism for Where in the hell?, the blazes in this case being "the fires of the Devil's domain."

The locals on Cape Cod refer to a newly arrived outsider as a wash-ashore.

When a member of our Facebook Group named Melody jokingly dubbed herself as Highway to Mel -- an homage to the AC/DC song "Highway to Hell," Quiz Guy John Chaneski found a musical hook for this puzzle, which requires blending a person's name into a song to come up with a clever new song title. For example, what Paul McCartney song might be inspired by this clue: "You'd think that people would have had enough of this comedian who accosts people on the street."

Colin lives in Hollywood, California, where he's a professional bagpipe player. But does he play the bagpipe or play the bagpipes? Either is correct, although most bagpipers use the plural form. Bagpipe music consists of a skirl, the "shrill, wailing sound," and the bourdon, or "drone," a term also applied to "the tall, low-pitched stopped pipe on a pipe organ." Before he hangs up, Colin gives us a taste of his skills and skirls. You can see and hear more at his website, including him riding a 10-foot-unicycle while piping, at Kilted Colin.

In Lancashire, England, the dialectal term sprunny is a synonym for "sweetheart."

Marian from Schroon Lake, New York, says her family plays an egg-tapping game after every  Easter egg hunt. Each player takes an egg and taps it against someone else's, hoping that their own egg won't crack. The egg that survives a round of competitive tapping is called the kinger. Her family, which is of German heritage, refers to this action with a term that they suspect might be spelled schtutz or stutz or schutz. This game has a long and widespread tradition throughout Europe, and their version may derive from German schutzen, which means "defend" or "protect." In their book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Bookshop|Amazon), folklorists Iona and Peter Opie described a similar knocking game played in parts of the U.K. with chestnuts. In this game, called conkers, a chestnut that has outlasted another is called a one-kinger.

Catherine in Battle Creek, Michigan, saw a bumper sticker with the Scots phrase Dinna fash, meaning "Don't worry." Dinna in this phrase means "Don't" and fash incomes from a French verb facher, meaning "to make angry. Another version is Dinna fash yourself. Also, to fash one's thumb means to "trouble oneself," and fashious describes something or someone "vexing" or "troublesome." A wealth of information about these terms is available online in The Dictionaries of the Scots Language.

In Norway, the idiom pling i bollen, or literally, "a pinging sound in a bowl," describes someone "empty-headed" or "stupid."

What kind of book is most often requested by people who are incarcerated? The book that prison inmates ask for the vast majority of the time is a dictionary. These books, as well as thesauruses, prove useful for mastering reading skills, writing letters home, and taking college courses. Prison Book Program, based in Quincy, Massachusetts, has an extensive list of organizations across the country that accept used books and provide them to prison inmates, as does the American Library Association. Although dictionaries are in high demand, it's important to check what kind an organization will take, as many accept only paperback versions.

Suzanne from Tallahassee, Florida, is curious about her father's expression: Let's go knock the stink off, meaning something along the lines of "Let's get out of here" or "Let's go shake off the doldrums."

In her essay collection, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Bookshop|Amazon), poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes the defensive action of the so-called vampire squid. When threatened, this creature adopts what's called a pineapple posture, in which its arms and web are spread up over the head and mantle for protection.

Jackie is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but discovered when she moved to Chesapeake, Virginia, that people in her new hometown were puzzled by her use of pony keg to mean "convenience store." It's a term that's closely associated with that southern Ohio city.

What do you call the end of a loaf of bread? There are lots of terms for that last piece, including heel, bread butt, the outsider, the nose, bunce, tumpee, skalk, krunka, or in Spanish codo, meaning "elbow." Sue in Singer's Glen, Virginia, calls it the cubble, but that may well be particular to her own family.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.