That's What They Say Every Sunday, UM English Professor Anne Curzan and Michigan Radio's Rina Miller explore our changing language (word!). Each week, they'll talk about why we say what we say (church!).
That's What They Say

That's What They Say

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Every Sunday, UM English Professor Anne Curzan and Michigan Radio's Rina Miller explore our changing language (word!). Each week, they'll talk about why we say what we say (church!).More from That's What They Say »

Most Recent Episodes

How are things in your metaphorical neck of the woods?

If you're a loyal watcher of the Today Show on NBC, you're probably familiar with weatherman Al Roker's catchphrase: "Here's what's happening in your neck of the woods." That saying doesn't make much sense when you think about it, but it's probably one that you use or hear other people use. Like a lot of sayings in our language, this one is pretty old and used to have a different meaning. When we talk about "neck of the woods" now, the neck is metaphorical and the woods are no longer required.

Neither are great options, but 'floundering' sure beats 'foundering'

If someone asks you a question, and you find yourself struggling to answer, did you flounder? Or did you founder? The answer is "flounder." But these two verbs sound so much alike and have such similar meanings, don't feel bad if you were wrong. In fact, a listener recently asked us if we could clear up the confusion between "founder" and "flounder."

Dat's what da Yoopers say

Few things are more telling of Upper Peninsula lineage than the distinct style of speaking known as "Yooper talk." In her new book Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Grand Valley State University Professor Kathryn Remlinger explores the history and features of of this unique dialect. Remlinger is careful to point out that there isn't just one U.P. dialect, that there are actually many ways of speaking. But there is a way of speaking that sounds undeniably Yooper. Or at least, we want to believe there is.

For Pete's sake, who in the world is Pete?

Sometimes when we're annoyed or exasperated, it feels pretty good to shout out, "Oh, for Pete's sake!" But if we're going to do things for Pete's sake, shouldn't we at least know who he is? Before we get to Pete though, let's start with the basics. A few weeks ago Tyler, a colleague at Michigan Radio, asked where the word "sake" comes from. "I was so glad Tyler asked, because while I knew a little bit about 'for Pete's sake,' I hadn't thought a lot about just the word 'sake.'" English Professor Anne Curzan said.

When "thank you" is your only option

It doesn't seem like coming up with a response to "thank you" should be that complicated. When you think about it though, there are a lot of options, and our response depends on what's happening in the conversation. A listener named Peggy recently wrote to us about a response to "thank you" that she's heard quite a bit while listening to the radio. "Over the past months, I've been noticing that when a radio guest is thanked, rather than the customary 'you are welcome,' they instead respond with 'thank you,'" she writes. As the hosts of a radio show, we're guilty as charged.

'Spitting image' has nothing to do with saliva

If a child looks a lot like one of their parents, people will sometimes say they're the "spitting image" of the parent. But others will say the child is the "spit and image" of their parent. So which is right? That's exactly what a listener from Kansas named Ken wanted to know. "Growing up, I had always heard, or misheard, and repeated the phrase, 'spitting image' — as in, he's the spitting image of his father," Ken writes. Recently, Ken was reading a review for a camera when he saw the phrase "spit and image." Now he wants to know which interpretation is correct.

Taking the "lion's share"

If someone takes the lion's share, it's safe to say there's not going to be much left for everyone else. But why does it have to be the "lion's" share? Why not the tiger's or the bear's? You can blame Aesop for this one.

A brief tangent on "calculus"

Some of you may not remember much from the calculus courses you took in high school or college. But there are other uses for the word "calculus," and they don't involve integrals or derivatives. A listener named Jerry recently wrote to us with a question about one such use: "When and how did the mathematical term 'calculus' come to refer to political thinking?"

What's the matter with 'fact of the matter'?

Last week on That's What They Say, we had so much fun talking about "factoids" we thought we'd answer another fact-related question this week. A couple weeks ago, English professor Anne Curzan gave a talk at Glacier Hills Senior Living Community in Ann Arbor. Following the talk, a woman asked a question Curzan had never considered. She wanted to know, "Why is everyone now talking about the fact of the matter? Why can't they just talk about facts?" Good question.

Make sure you have your 'factoids' straight

Unless you've managed to avoid all forms of media this year, you're probably well aware of the ongoing debate over what constitutes a fact. Frankly, we have no desire to open up that powder keg. However, we thought this would be a good time to talk about "factoids." If someone were to ask you for an example of a factoid, what would you say? Many of us would probably start rattling off parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy or pull up a Buzzfeed list or some other collection of random, interesting facts. Here's an interesting factoid. The word "factoid" used to mean something else.

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