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

Tomato, tomahto ... can't we all just get along?

It's the kind of thing that can divide a nation. Or, at the very least, it's the kind of thing that can bring a perfect date between two grammar nerds to a screeching halt. Picture it. You're midway through what has been a nearly perfect first date. Conversation has been interesting, awkward lulls have been minimal and basic hygiene expectations have been met. Then, somewhere between entrees and dessert, the word "alleged" comes up in conversation. Your date pronounces it with three syllables, so the "ed" is left hanging on its own at the end. You smile and politely correct him with your two syllable pronunciation. He smiles back and corrects you. Then, silence. Hastily, you start to assemble an arsenal of grammar rules you're certain will annihilate any potential defense he may have for his three syllable pronunciation. This will end here. You clench your teeth and prepare for battle. Wait a minute, this is That's What They Say, not the Thunderdome. University of Michigan English

When is a door not a door? When it's ajar

Did you own a talking car in the 1980s? The Chrysler New Yorker was one of a handful of models in the mid-80s to feature an electronic voice alert system. We're guessing it launched more than a few Knight Rider fantasies. The car would remind you to fasten your seatbelt or to replenish your wiper fluid. It would let you know if your lights were on or if your engine was overheating. All in a robotic monotone. It would also let you know that "a door is ajar." Given the car's slow-paced voice, it sounded like it was trying to convince you its doors were suitable for storing stewed tomatoes. We hope you sold it before it became sentient and tried to take over the world. Talking cars aside, "ajar" is a peculiar word. Its origin doesn't actually have anything to do with jars. In fact, it starts out in the 16th century as "on char," which means "on the return"of something, like a door.

Dictionaries: Not just for doorstops

There sits the dictionary. A forgotten volume, alone on its rickety pedestal with nothing but a shabby jacket to protect it from dust and shelf ware. All the dictionary ever wanted was to serve you. Think about that time you were cramming for the vocabulary portion of your SAT and just couldn't make sense of "legerdemain." Who was there to offer not only a sentence for context but also a language of origin? Or that time you were preparing for that job interview and wanted to impress with your firm grasp of the English language. Who not only taught you how to pronounce "meretricious" but also advised against using it as a way to describe your past accomplishments? You know who. Most of us are probably guilty of taking the dictionary for granted at some point. We're pretty spoiled by its wealth of information. But maybe that's part of the problem. Maybe the dictionary is smothering you with its languages of origin and etymology, when all you really want is a quick definition and a

If you mutter something you meant to murmur, you're going to have a bad time

Mutter, mumble and murmur may look similar, but don't be fooled. Think of it this way. If someone you're dating tells you they love you for the first time, which would you prefer? 1) "I love you," he murmured. 2) "I love you," she mumbled. 3) "I love you," he muttered. Okay, none of these scenarios instill a lot of confidence when it comes to long-term relationship potential, but one certainly seems worse than the others.

If you mutter something you meant to murmur, you're going to have a bad time

A "crash" course in traffic reports

Some things are inevitable when you're a radio host. It's almost time to go on the air, and you're ready. Your headlines are juicy and your weather forecast is spot on. You've even got a great line to get people to listen to that segment on the mating rituals of the brown marmorated stink bug. Your finger is poised over the microphone button, and then you think, "Maybe I should check the traffic map one last time, just in case." Why not? You've got 30 whole seconds to spare. That's when you see it. A brand new "traffic event" is on its way to transforming a major highway into an unbearable hellscape of back-ups. It will leave listeners sweating in their idle vehicles, gripping their steering wheels as they learn about the stink bug's propensity for Boone's Farm and the Starland Vocal Band. Not on your watch. As you scramble to throw together a reasonably coherent traffic report, you realize there's a decision to make. Do you call the event a "crash" or an "accident?" Fortunately, word

Crime-fighting term is still going gangbusters

Things can now be "going gangbusters" because of a WWII-era radio crime-fighting drama with sirens and gunfire and other loud noises. "Gangbusters is a great word which I had not thought very much about until one of our listeners wrote in and said 'There's an interesting word for you to talk about,'" says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. "Then I started hearing the word everywhere, and realized it was on my radar. Gangbusters goes back to what it sounds like it might go back to, which is a gang buster, someone who busts gangs."

Sometimes it's not what you say, it's how you say it

Pronunciation of the word divisive can be divisive. Michigan Radio listener Connie of Grand Rapids wrote "I had always thought the middle syllable in this word was a long i, as in divided but I am hearing NPR hosts saying it with a short i, as in division. Curzan and Miller admit they use both pronunciations. "What we're seeing here is a shift from what seems to be the standard pronunciation in a relatively short time frame – the last 15 years or so," Curzan says. She checked with the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, of which she's a member, to see how they're voting on this.

Professor confesses: "I'm a jaywalker"

University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan has a confession. "I witness jaywalking on campus all the time and participate in the practice myself. I'm an impatient pedestrian," she admits. "When I lived in Seattle it was very difficult for me, because in Seattle people really do obey the crosswalks, but I struggled." She'd never thought about where the word "jaywalking" came from until a friend's daughter asked about it. "I found out it takes us back to another great word, that I hope we'll be able to revive," she says. "It goes back to jay driver, and that shows up early 20th century, in a citation from 1905 in Kansas. Jay drivers were people who drove on the wrong side of the road," Curzan says.

Don't get caught with your modifiers dangling

We often don't notice dangling or misplaced modifiers in speech, but they can unintentionally create some really funny images. University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan was thinking about the grammar lessons she learned as a kid, and misplaced and dangling modifiers stuck in her head. "In the grammar book that I had – this must have been junior high, late elementary school – there was this sentence: 'Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.'"

Is that really a word or did you just make it up?

What if you've used a word your whole life, and then you find out nobody else uses it and you can't find it in standard dictionaries? Is it still a word? That happened to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan during a guest lecture recently when a student asked how many people need to know a word in order for it to be a real word. It reminded her of a word her family's always used: Plogged. As in "I'm so sorry I haven't responded to your emails, but my email box is plogged."

Back To Top