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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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Love Bites (#1569)

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

Awww_logo_color_square On our Facebook group, listeners play a game imagining what kind of plants might grow in a garden tended by various types of people. For example, a veterinarian might plant dogwood and catnip, and an ophthalmologist could plant irises. What might a nurse plant?


Pearline from Fort Worth, Texas, wonders why anyone would ever advise that You can't have your cake and eat it too. Like so many English phrases, it doesn't pay to analyze the literal meaning too closely.


Ron from Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, shares a family word he learned from his college roommate: asyou. The word asyou denotes "the second or third stair on the staircase" -- in other words, the stair where you put things to remember to take them with you as you go upstairs.


What's the origin of the slang term book it!, meaning "depart quickly"? Since slang terms often cross-pollinate, it's possible that by the 1960s and 1970s this expression formed at the confluence of three other slang terms: bookity-bookity, first used in the 1860s to suggest the sound of running hooves; to boogie, meaning "to dance" or "move quickly"; and bug out, a slang term from the 1950s, meaning "to leave in a hurry."


After studying the periodic table, Quiz Guy John Chaneski has concocted a brain teaser about names for the elements. For example, which elements are named for the sun and moon respectively?


Jenny from Portland, Oregon, is fascinated by the language of falconers. In falconry, the word bate means "to flap the wings impatiently." A similarly spelled verb, which has nothing to do with falconry, figures in the expression to wait with bated breath, meaning "to hold one's breath in watchful anticipation." This bate is a shortened form of the verb abate, meaning "to put an end to." Both the bate from falconry and the bate in bated breath share a common ancestor in the Latin word battuere, which means "to beat" or "to knock." Another word that does come from falconry is the verb to bat as in to bat one's eyes. It's formed from the bate that refers to flapping.


Tim and Allison Moyer of Ingram, Texas, care for lots of feral cats in their neighborhood, and refer to them by various names. Often they eventually shorten those names to just initial letters. For example, Calico Kitty becomes simply CK. Is there a word for such shortenings besides initialism? The Moyers like to call them acronames.


The word filibuster has a colorful etymology. It goes back to a Dutch word, vrijbuiter, which means "plunderer," or "robber," the source also of the English word freebooter, or "pirate," and a linguistic relative of English booty, or "spoils." In Spanish, the Dutch term morphed into filibustero, and this term was later Anglicized as filibuster. Eventually, filibuster came to apply to the practice of Congressional representatives "hijacking legislation" with lengthy speeches.


Maggie in Spring Valley, New York, recalls her father's advice: Don't go visiting with one arm longer than the other. In other words, don't arrive as a guest without some small gift for your hosts. The original expression appears to come from Ireland, where it appeared in the 1850s as Don't go visiting with one arm as long as the other. A similar idea is expressed in the admonition Ring the door with your elbow.


On our Facebook group, listeners are playfully crowdsourcing what people in different professions might punningly  plant. For example, what kind of fruit tree might twins cultivate? What type of flower might be planted by a professional mime?


A New York Times article about that trendy accessory, the brooch, prompts a question: How do you pronounce brooch? Does it rhyme with pooch or coach? It's more commonly pronounced to rhyme with coach, although some dictionaries do countenance the other pronunciation as well.
Broach goes back to a Latin word that means "long needle," and arrived in an Old French word for "needle," broche. That's also where we get the notion of broaching a subject, from the idea of piercing or penetrating something with a sharp instrument. Is there a word you have to keep looking up again and again because you can't remember how it's pronounced? How about the word askance?


The language of guided meditation prompts a call from Laura Davidson of San Jose, California, Is there a special reason those leading a guided meditation or yoga class so often speak in present participles, using phrases like sitting comfortably and breathing deeply, rather than using simple imperatives such as Sit comfortably and Breathe deeply? This kind of discourse, known as the politeness progressive, has the effect of inviting listeners to an experience and allowing each individual lots of leeway to find what actions, positions, and states of mind work best and feel most comfortable for them.


On our Facebook group, members are jokingly linking professions with plants in the garden: What kind of herb might a clockmaker grow?


Erin in Austin, Texas, wants to know: Why do we say two people in contentious disagreement are at loggerheads?


Jase in Austin, Texas, knows that hickey means a "love bite" or "mark left on the skin," and doo-hickey refers to a small object that the speaker can't recall the name of, but why would anyone refer to a hickey in the power grid during a power outage across his state. It turns out that hickey used in that last sense is particular to journalist Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune. In printer's slang, a hickey is a blemish of some sort.


This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.