That's What They Say

That's What They Say

From Michigan Radio

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

An extra maître d' serves up a spelling question

When it comes to making a noun plural, there are a few general rules we follow in English. Most are are pretty easy. Slap an "s" on the end of "book" or "dog" or "desk" and suddenly you've got more than one. If the word ends with a vowel followed by a "y", the same rule applies, like "keys" and "boys." If you've got a "y" preceded by a consonant, no sweat. Just trade out the last two letters for "ies" to get "cherries" or "babies" or "buddies." There are other rules, and of course, they all have exceptions. But today we want to talk about pluralizing one word in particular: maître d'.

Why not all language "errors" are indisputably wrong

The possessive "s" could be in danger. At least, that's what linguist Anne Curzan says. Take a listen:

What the devil is it about deviled eggs?

There's no question that deviled eggs are a staple at family reunions and church picnics. But what makes them "deviled"? Maybe it's all the things they can be stuffed with that aren't very good for you. Besides mayonnaise, we've found recipes that include cream cheese , bacon , condensed milk and ranch dressing . That's not a bad guess, but these delectable little goodies actually get their name from a different ingredient.

If only we could all get along like a house on fire

It's almost Valentine's Day, and we here at That's What They Say encourage you to think about the ones you love. Ideally with a Lionel Richie album playing in the background. As you prepare to indulge your significant other or maybe your best friend with cards, candy and flowers, think back to when you first met. If you hit it off right away, some might say the two of you were "like a house on fire."

What does 'next' actually mean? Is 'next' Monday tomorrow, or 8 days away?

A listener named Toby recently wrote to us with the story of a first date that almost didn't happen. He tells us that a mutual friend put him in touch with a woman named Phyllis. Toby gave Phyllis a call on a Thursday and the two made plans to go out for dinner "next Sunday." "In my mind, 'next Sunday' meant a week from the following Sunday, since the earlier Sunday would've been 'this' Sunday," Toby said. A few days later, Toby got a call from Phyllis, who wanted to know why he hadn't come by to pick her up.

What does 'next' actually mean? Is 'next' Monday tomorrow, or 8 days away?

All the newspaper names that are fit to print

Nothing goes better with a Sunday morning than a cup of coffee and a newspaper. Fortunately, in Michigan, we've got a pretty long list of papers to choose from. In Battle Creek, we've got the Enquirer. In Lansing, it's the State Journal. Muskegon has the Chronicle, and Detroit has both the Free Press and the News. With so many different mastheads out there, we couldn't help but wonder where some of these papers get their names.

There oughta be a word, nieces and nephews edition

When we talk about our relatives, there are plenty of gender-neutral terms to cover the bases. We use "grandparents" to talk about both our grandmothers and grandfathers; "parents" takes care of mothers and fathers; "siblings" refers to both brothers and sisters; and a "cousin" can be either male or female. But what about nieces and nephews? There's good news for aunts and uncles who crave a word to speak collectively about the kids they love to spoil. (Support trusted journalism like this in Michigan. Give what you can here .)

The American Dialect Society's pick for 2016 Word of the Year

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, English professor Anne Curzan joined us from Austin, Texas, where she was attending the American Dialect Society's annual meeting. Each year, the ADS gathers to choose a word that best represents "the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year." This year's candidates included "woke", "post-truth" and "normalize." But the ADS decided it couldn't pick just one word to represent 2016, so the winner ended up being a compound. A burning, smelly compound.

Doing the research on 'research'

University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan has been feeling a little self-conscious lately. Curzan was recently talking with some of her students about how much research had been done on a particular topic, when one student raised her hand and asked about her pronunciation of a particular word. Keep in mind, this was a linguistics class, and Curzan tends to instill in her students a super-sensitivity to the various quirks of our language. The student said she'd noticed that Curzan pronounces "research" with the emphasis on the second syllable. She said she only hears that pronunciation in academic settings.

"Reiterate" is your ticket to an endless cycle

If you run with grammar sticklers, you know that saying "irregardless" under any circumstances not considered ironic is a great way to get yourself thrown into exile. While it's true that grammar enthusiasts die a little each time someone utters this persistent double-negative, other words of a similar nature don't seem to draw quite as much ire as "irregardless." For example, what about "reiterate"? Think about the last time you used that one. It was probably to let someone know that you were going to repeat something; e.g., "I like to reiterate that the final paper is due tomorrow." Did anyone correct you when you said it? Did someone give you a slap on the hand with a ruler? Or even just a haughty look? Probably not.

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