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

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."

Are you getting fresh with us?

Two well-known company slogans have raised some grammatical hackles, based on their use or non-use of adverbs. We know Eat Fresh comes from a restaurant. "You won't be surprised I don't have a problem with it, Curzan says, "but when Subway started using the slogan there were some folks who said, "we don't like the grammar of that." "The question was whether fresh was the right form to be used because people said, "I think you should have an adverb – like 'eat right.' Or 'eat well.' It raised this grammatical question of what exactly is fresh doing in Eat Fresh.

Holy moly! Holy Toledo! Holy whatsit?

Expletives may be considered uncouth, but we have to give credit where credit is due: They can also be pretty darn creative. Anne Curzan, an English Professor at the University of Michigan, joins Michigan Radio's Rina Miller once again to help us better understand one of the most prismatic examples of colorful language: the holy moly. The holy in "holy moly!" isn't quite the same usage that we see in, say, the "Holy Bible" or "the High Holy Days." "This use of holy is what the Oxford English Dictionary calls the trivial use of holy," says Curzan. "This starts to happen in the 19th century in English, this trivialization of use. And one of the first examples is 'holy horror!'" Curzan found that holy was increasingly used in phrases to express shock, surprise, and even a touch of irony. "In the mid-19th century you get 'holy Joe,' which was a reference to any religious leader," says Curzan. "[Later], 'holy Willy' was a hypocritically religious person. And then [you get] a 'holy terror.'"

Just truckin' along: the many uses of truck

You may not have much truck with trucks, but that doesn't mean you'll never truck some truck. That sentence might be a little confusing, but it shows something that's easy to forget: the word truck is pretty versatile. It's almost like the Swiss Army Knife of the English language! But how does a word like truck come to mean so many things? What's the story there?

How to sound polite without ever saying "please"

If a stranger is blocking your view in a movie theater, how do you respond? For many folks, the polite response might be, "Would you please move out of the way?" That's because we use the word please to make requests sound polite, but there are times when a simple please just doesn't sound gracious enough. For some people, that sentence might even sound a little aggressive. What's going with our language? Fortunately for us, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is here to help us better understand the delicate ways of polite speech.

It's getting hammy in here

At the behest of a colleague, University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan started poking into the history of ham. The word, that is. "When you think about it, ham-handed is a really weird way to say something is clumsy or awkward," says Curzan. So how does a beloved lunch meat also become an idiom for the ineffectual?

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