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 »

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Is it okay to "whinge" on this side of the pond?

The Brits have a way of talking about whining that we might want to import. The word is "whinge," and a listener named Addeane recently asked us about it: "Both ['whinge' and 'whine'] seem to mean to complain peevishly. But 'whinge' doesn't seem to be used in the United States. I've seen it written in British sources but never heard it spoken. Can you help sort this out?"We can, and we'll do it without whinging or whining. First of all, Addeane is right – it is largely a British/American distinction between "whinge" and "whine." "Whine" goes back to the Old English verb "hwinan" which meant to whiz or whistle in the air. By the 13th century, we have evidence of it referring to a low cry or perhaps a shrill sound. This is the kind of whining that an animal or engine might do. By the 1500s "whine" becomes something a human can do, typically one who's complaining about something. For example, someone might whine about having to clean the bathroom or they may whine about what's being served for dinner. The verb "whinge" goes back to the Old English word "hwinsian." Though these two words share a root word, "whinge" has always meant "to complain" and nothing else, while "whine" includes more sounds and meanings. Personally, we're all for incorporating "whinge" into American English. There's just something about it that seems more appropriate for certain instances of peevish complaining.

Some of us just have a knack for collecting knick-knacks

If you have a box filled with items of the "what am I ever going to do with this" variety, we suggest the purchase of a knick-knack shelf. A knick-knack shelf is the perfect place for a figurine of a flamingo wearing a shirt that says "Florida" or a collection of ceramic animals that came free with your tea bags. And how else does one properly display a commemorative royal wedding plate? They may not be good for much, but knick-knacks can be fun to collect. But how did they come to be known as "knick-knacks?" "Knick-knack" is an example of reduplication. That's when all or part of a word is repeated with a slight change, like "zig zag," or "flip flop." In this case, "knack" is the root word. In its earliest meanings, a "knack" was a trick that could sometimes be deceitful. This word later takes on a more positive meaning when it comes to refer to an ingenious method or skill, and that's pretty much how we use it now: "He's got a knack for spotting valuable knick-knacks at garage sales." By the 17th century, a knack could refer to a toy or trinket. This meaning is now obsolete, and that may be because of "knick-knack," which comes into the language right around the same time. In its earliest life a "knick-knack" could be a trick or sleight, but it also comes to refer to a trinket or ornament. When Anne Curzan was researching "knick-knack," she found the synonym "gimcrack." That got us thinking of other words for the fun little trinkets so many of us collect. Curzan remembers her family calling them "tchotchkes." What do you call them?

Bring forth the shenanigans

What better word to describe the kind of mischief you can get up to on the weekend than "shenanigans"? That's precisely why we thought "shenanigan" would be the perfect topic for this long holiday weekend. A shenanigan is a devious trick, according to Merriam Webster, and can also refer to mischief or troublemaking. Though the plural form is used much more often, we see the singular form occasionally. It makes it easier to refer to a specific shenanigan: "If you pull that shenanigan with the toilet and the saran wrap again, I'm going to get really angry!" Unfortunately, we don't know much about where "shenanigan" comes from. Most dictionaries will say "origin unknown" or "etymology uncertain." There are plenty of theories though. On his blog World Wide Words, Michael Quinion talks about how some people say "shenanigan" is Irish, while others say it's from an East-Anglian dialect. Some speculate that it's German, while others say it's Spanish. Something we do know are the types of shenanigans Americans seem to talk about the most. According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, they come in three categories: money, politics and sex. No comment there. What sorts of shenanigans are you up to this weekend?

Getting the "feck" out of "feckless"

Back in May, comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee used a pair of choice words to describe Ivanka Trump. Soon after, a listener named D.C. wrote to us and asked us about one of those words: "What the heck is the story behind the word 'feckless'?" Let's just say we're relieved D.C. didn't ask about the other word Bee used. ListenListening... 4:30Listen to the conversation. At best, "feckless" means weak. It can also mean incompetent, irresponsible or lacking energy or capacity. Originally, it was used to describe both things and people, but now it's used primarily to describe people. When we first started thinking about this word, we thought it was one of those words like "discombobulated" that has a negative prefix but no corresponding positive word. You can be discombobulated, but you can't be combobulated. Similarly, we assumed that someone can be feckless but not feckful. Turns out, that's not entirely true. You can find "feckful" in Merriam-Webster. However, we should note that it's chiefly a Scottish term, and not all dictionaries include it. Another thing we didn't realize is that "feck" can be used on its own. The Oxford English Dictionary includes "feck" as a variant of "effect." If you think about "in effect" as meaning something is in force, it's not hard to see how "feck" could mean force. "Feck" appears in the 1400s and means a couple of things. One meaning is the bulk of something or the greatest share. As a Scottish term, it still has that meaning — you could say something like "it took the feck of a year." Another meaning for "feck" is value. That's where we get "feckless" — without value. "Feckful" and "feckless" both show up in English in the 16th century. Professor Anne Curzan checked on usage for both of these words in the Corpus of Contemporary English and the Corpus of Global English. She found examples for "feckless" but none for "feckful."

Why a garnished wage isn't a paycheck served with parsley

Garnishing a dish with sprigs of fresh parsley, lemon slices and vegetables sliced up to look like flowers can be a lovely way to spruce up a meal. But do you know what's not lovely at all? Having your wages garnished. A listener named Bryan asks, "Why is it that when you 'garnish' a plate of food, you add something to it, but when you garnish someone's wages you take something away?" Good question. The verb "garnish" comes into English from Old French. Early on it meant to furnish or equip, particularly with arms or provisions. The definition is later expanded to mean to outfit something, maybe clothing, with adornments or decorations. By the 17th century, that something could also be a dish on a table. The legal meaning of "garnish" goes back to the 16th century, when it meant to serve notice on someone for the purpose of getting money owed on a debt. From there, it's not hard to see how we get the meaning of taking money by legal authority, as in to garnish someone's wages. Those are the two more familiar verb forms of "garnish," but do you ever use the verb "garnishee"? In the 17th century, the noun form of "garnishee" was used to refer to the person whose money was being garnished. Around that same time, there were also some compounds floating around such as "garnishee summons." The noun "garnishee" was re-interpreted as a verb, and that's how people started to use it. In Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage, he says that "garnishee" is usually reserved for the noun form and "garnish" for the verb. But if you look in standard resources, you will see both "garnish" and "garnishee" for the verb form. Can you think of other words with multiple, seemingly contradictory meanings? Let us know below.

How clean is a whistle, really?

Coaches, referees and gym teachers are probably better authorities than we are, but we've got a feeling that whistles probably aren't very clean. Think about it. It's a small, tight device that you force your hot, moist breath through to produce a sound. That doesn't sound like the foundation for a sterile environment, does it? It's no wonder a listener named Dan wants to know where the expression "clean as a whistle" comes from. For many of you, "clean as a whistle" probably means really clean, as in not dirty. For example, "The sink was clean as a whistle after he scrubbed it." Or maybe you'd say something like, "Since she's never even had a speeding ticket, her record is clean as a whistle." Neither of those examples quite match the historical meaning of this expression. The first thing you should know is that in this case, "whistle" doesn't refer to the device that a gym teacher wears around their neck. Instead, it refers to the actual sound of a whistle – sharp and loud. Now think about what "clean" means when you say something like "the locks were cut clean off." What you're saying is that the locks were cut off entirely and precisely. Also, think about "clean-shaven" or "clean-cut," when "clean" means no unevenness. This is the kind of "clean" in "clean as a whistle." When this expression first came into the language, it meant "completely." Check out this quote from 1849: "A first rate shot. [His] head taken off clean as a whistle." It's a brutal example, but you can see how "clean" in this sense means clean-cut or even. You could also think about a branch cut from a tree, clean as a whistle. At first, "clean as a whistle" was used interchangeably with "clear as a whistle." However, by 1900, the "clean" version is much more common than "clear" – this has only increased over time. What's interesting is that at some point, we decided to focus on "clean" as in "not dirty" as opposed to "clean" as in "completely." English Prof. Anne Curzan says, "As I've often said on the show, idioms mean what idoms mean. If people think that 'clean as a whistle' means really clean, then that's what it means." How do you use this phrase?

Don't proceed until you've nailed the difference between "proceed" and "precede

Some things in English seem intuitive. Take the verbs "proceed" and "precede," for example. They sound so similar, they must be etymologically related, right? A listener name Ron says he was helping his fifth grader study for a spelling test when they came across "precede" and "proceed." "He struggled with why two nearly identical words are spelled so differently," Ron says. "I thought I could provide him with a simple explanation of their origin — I cannot." Don't worry Ron. That's why we're here. "Proceed" and "precede" are related. They both go back to the same Latin root word "cedere" which means to give way or yield or retreat. "Precede" means to come or go before. It comes into English in the 1400s, most likely as a borrowing from both French and Latin. Since English spelling wasn't standardized until well into or even after the Renaissance, there were a lot of variations in the early spellings of "precede." It could be spelled with an "s" and "c," and with both "eed" and "ede." In the end, the "c" and "ede" are what survived standardization. "Proceed" means to go or come forth from or to move forward. This word also comes in from both French and Latin, and once again, there were all sorts of variations in the early spellings. Like its cousin, "proceed" was spelled with "c" or "s," and with "eed" or "ede." This time though, it's the "c" and "eed" spelling that gets standardized.

Don't proceed until you've nailed the difference between "proceed" and "precede

The racy past of "lollygag"

Lollygagging, screwing around, goofing off – whatever you call it, we can all agree there a lot of ways to talk about wasting time in English. Kalen, who previously asked us about "druthers," says "I tell my kids all the time to not lollygag, doodle or dilly dally. They are fun words, to be sure, but where do they come from?" They are most definitely fun words. But watch out for "lollygag." It seems innocent at first, but then things get kind of racy."Lollygag," also known historically as "lallygag," comes into English in the mid-19th century meaning to dawdle. However, at that time, "lollygag" also meant to fool around. Yes, that kind of fooling around. Check out this awesome line that appeared in an Iowa newspaper in 1868: "The lascivious lollygagging lumps of licentiousness who disgrace the common decencies of life by their love-sick fawnings at our public dances." Another great line from 1949 appears in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Lollygagging was grandmother's word for love-making." Today "lollygag" means to idle or dawdle, though we're guessing that some of you may now be having second thoughts about using it. That's OK, we've got other words for wasting time. For example, the verb "doodle" can mean to draw or scribble but in an aimless, time-wasting manner. When you think about it that way, it makes sense that "doodle" can also mean to dawdle. We've also got "dilly-dally." The base word "dally" came in from Old French hundreds of years ago and meant to chat idly. Over time "dally" picked up other meanings such as to toy with things or spend time idly. By the 19th century we get "dilly dally." "Dilly dally" is an example of reduplication. That's when you repeat the form of a word but change the vowel. Other examples of reduplication include "flip flop," "zig zag," and "mish mash." Do you have other words for wasting time? Let us know below.

When having your druthers includes learning about "druthers"

If we had our druthers, we would spend every morning nerding out about language and grammar. Fortunately, we do get the opportunity to flex our language muscles every Sunday. We're also fortunate to have awesome listeners like Kalen, who recently asked us where the phrase "if I had my druthers" comes from. Kalen, there's nothing we'd druther do than figure this out. Listen Listening...4:09 Listen to the conversation. "Druther" is a mashed together version of the phrase "would rather." If you say "would rather" quickly enough, you can see how these two words blur together as "druther." When someone says "if I had my druthers," they're talking about what they would do if they had their choice or preference in a matter. This phrase shows up in various places in popular culture, including, perhaps most famously, Al Capp's long-running comic strip Lil' Abner. In fact, Capp used "druther" in his comic so often, he's sometimes mistaken for having coined the term. While Capp may have helped popularize "druther," the earliest print reference we have so far is actually from 1833. Etymologist Barry Popick tracked down this quote in an issue of American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine: "I'd druther live in the woods anytime by myself than on the best plantation in the country." In this example, "druther" is used as a verb, but it can also be used as a noun. In Mark Twain's 1896 novel Tom Sawyer, Detective Huck Finn says to Tom, "Any way you'd druther have it, that is the way I'd druther have it." When Tom responds to Huck, he uses "druther" as a noun: "There ain't any druthers about it Huck Finn. Nobody said anything about druthers." Over time, we've seen variants of "druthers" such as "ruthers" and "rathers," though those don't seem to be quite as popular. Interestingly, Google Books says that "druthers" has been on the rise since the 1960s — do you use it?

The "H" in IMHO is tearing the internet apart

When it comes to the internet, seemingly innocuous topics are often the grounds for heated debates. Is the dress blue and black or gold and white? Is this voice saying "yanny" or saying "laurel"? A writer at Buzzfeed recently asked readers to help settle a workplace debate over whether IMHO means "in my humble opinion" or "in my honest opinion." Since this is the internet, where people will fight about literally anything, things quickly devolved into what will likely be a centuries-long blood

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