That's What They Say Funner, snuck, and LOL are all things that we're hearing people say these days.That's What They Say is a weekly segment on Michigan Radio that explores our changing language.University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan studies linguistics and the history of the English language. Each week she'll discuss why we say what we say with Michigan Radio Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth.That's What They Say airs Sundays at 9:35 a.m. on Michigan Radio and you can podcast it here.
That's What They Say

That's What They Say

From Michigan Radio

Funner, snuck, and LOL are all things that we're hearing people say these days.That's What They Say is a weekly segment on Michigan Radio that explores our changing language.University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan studies linguistics and the history of the English language. Each week she'll discuss why we say what we say with Michigan Radio Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth.That's What They Say airs Sundays at 9:35 a.m. on Michigan Radio and you can podcast it here.More from That's What They Say »

Most Recent Episodes

If "freeze" becomes "froze," why can't "squeeze" become "squoze?"

This week on That's What They Say, we turn to A.A. Milne's classic children's novel, The House at Pooh Corner. We love this line from a passage in which Piglet has to squeeze himself through a letter box in order to get out of Owl's house: "Piglet squeezed and he squoze, and with one last squoze, he was out." Maybe it's just us, but we think "squoze" is a pretty great non-standard verb.Though it's tempting to categorize "squoze" as a newer addition to English, it's actually at least 200 years old, from what we can tell. Some of you may remember "squoze" getting a lot of attention in 1985. That's because former President Ronald Regan used "squoze" during a news conference in which he was discussing the skin cancer that was removed from his nose: "I picked at it and squoze it and so forth and really messed myself up a little." Incidentally, there was also a drink mix in the 1970s called Squoze. Its mascot was half of a piece of sugar who claimed Pillsbury squoze him in half to give Squoze "half the calories of most pre-sweetened drink mixes." Unfortunately, Squoze didn't have the staying power of Kool-Aid, so all we can do is hope that the maimed piece of sugar went on to lead a full and productive life. Presidents and pre-sweetened drink mixes aside, let's take a look at "squeeze." This word comes into English around 1600 and appears to be an alteration of an earlier verb, "quease" which meant "to press." When we look at a verb like "freeze" which becomes "froze" in the past tense, it's not hard to see how we followed the pattern and came up with "squoze." However, there are plenty of other verbs that don't follow this structure. There's "please" and "pleased," "ease" and "eased," "sneeze" and "sneezed," etc. That said, we think "snoze" instead of "sneezed" is another really great non-standard verb. Are there any non-standard verbs that you like to use?

If you could change the spelling of just one word...

Once you start thinking about words that merit spelling reform, it can be hard to stop. Each year, Professor Anne Curzan asks students in her introductory linguistics classes to decide on one word that should be reformed in terms of spelling. The students have tournaments and eliminate words until they're left with a winner.The first winner this year is "bologna." The student who came up with this one made a convincing argument that the spelling "baloney" should be used for both the lunch meat and the nonsense word — e.g. "Everything he said was a bunch of baloney." The winner in Curzan's other class was "minute." To distinguish the "minute" that means 60 seconds from the "minute" that means very small, Curzan's student argued that the former should be spelled "minit." Curzan's students came up with some other words that definitely merit discussion, including "epitome," "surprise," and "berserk." If you could change the spelling of one word, what would it be?

Adventures in baby-sitting ... and linguistics

When baby sitters first started baby-sitting, we had no way to talk about what they were doing. That's because at first, all we had was a noun – there was no verb to speak of. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun "baby sitter" was first recorded in 1937. The verb "baby-sit" didn't come along until 1946. Linguists call this a back-formation. A back-formation is when a new word is formed by removing "actual or supposed affixes." In this case, the "er" suffix is removed from the noun "baby sitter" to form the verb "baby-sit." There are other back formations in the history of English. For instance, we had "editor" before we had "edit," we had "television" before we had "televise," and we had "diagnosis" before we had "diagnose." Now that the verb has been around for at least 70 years, babies aren't the only things we find ourselves baby-sitting. We can baby-sit the tea kettle while we wait for it to whistle, or we can spend the whole weekend baby-sitting the television. Sometimes we even baby-sit adults. You'll notice in this article that in the verb form, we use a hyphen, "baby-sit," and in the noun form, "baby sitter," we separate the two words. That's because we follow AP Stylebook guidelines. If that's not your preference, don't worry – not everyone agrees. For instance, Merriam-Webster and lexicographer Bryan Garner both avoid the hyphen and simply squish the two words together for both the noun and the verb, "babysit" and babysitter" while the American Heritage Dictionary includes both the hyphen and squished-together versions. What's your preference?

If only we could all be "jet-setters" - the fun kind, that is

There used to be a certain level of glitz and glamour associated with being a jet-setter. A jet-setter might attend a fashion show in Paris, then take off for an exclusive party in Dubai. But today we often hear jet-setter used to describe someone who simply travels a lot, even if it's from one dimly-lit hotel conference room to another for business. Regardless of the destination, have you ever wondered why we call someone who flies a lot a "jet-setter" and not a "jet sitter?" The Oxford English Dictionary defines the "jet set" as a social group of "wealthy and fashionable people, especially those who travel widely and frequently for pleasure." After "jet set" comes into the language, "jet-setter" later becomes a way to refer to someone who is part of that social group. The OED first cites the noun "jet set" in 1949. Here's an example from 1964: "The jet set has rediscovered St. Tropez." In the late 1950s, we start to see "jet-setter," as in this example: "...all of those jet-setters kicking up their heels in the South of France." Not an accurate representation of Anne Curzan's work travels. People have called our own Professor Anne Curzan a jet-setter because of her frequent travels for work. As such, she says she's had to reconsider how she thinks of the term. "[People] will say, 'Oh, what a jet-setter you are.' Then I'll think 'Huh. I'm not going to the South of France to play,'" Curzan says. Should "jet-setter" be used exclusively to refer to someone who travels frequently for pleasure? Or can it also refer to someone who simply travels a lot, for business or otherwise? Let us know at

When a word leaves you "gobsmacked"

Unless you decided to completely avoid the internet in 2009, there's a good chance you've seen Susan Boyle's first round performance on Britain's Got Talent. The Scottish singer's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" attracted millions of views on YouTube. No one was more surprised than Boyle herself, who told CNN she was "gobsmacked."Boyle's description of herself caused a bit of a stir among those unfamiliar with this particular British slang term. To understand the meaning behind "gobsmacked," it helps to know that a "gob" is a mouth. This word comes from Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It still pops up in other places in British slang – for example, "shut your gob!" If you say that you were "gobsmacked," it means that you were so surprised or astonished, it was as though someone had smacked you in the mouth. It's similar to calling something "jaw-dropping." Interestingly, "gobsmacked" isn't really that old. During the Susan Boyle frenzy in 2009, Ben Zimmer wrote an article that dated it back to 1956. Since then, the Oxford English Dictionary has updated its entry for this word with evidence that dates it back to 1935. While Professor Anne Curzan was researching "gobsmacked," she came across some great synonyms, including "flabbergasted." As a verb, we have evidence of "flabbergast" as early as 1773. At that time, it was identified as new slang. There are different theories as to where this term that's so fun to say comes from. Michael Quinion goes over a few on his blog, World Wide Words. One possibility is that "flabbergast" was a regional dialect word that got picked up into broader slang. Another possibility is that it's a blend of "aghast" and "flabby" – basically, you're so excited that you shake.

Historical events don't have to be historic

Many would agree that all historic events are historical. But there's some dispute over whether all historical events are historic. This week's topic comes from a listener named Cyndi who says, "It really 'gets my goat' to hear people use the redundant 'historical' when 'historic' will suffice." We hadn't given this much thought before Cyndi brought it up, but we had an intuition that there is an accepted distinction between these two words. We assumed that "historical" events are those that simply happened in the past, while "historic" events are remembered and talked about for years to come. As it turns out, that's in line with many usage guides. For instance, Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage from the 1920s says that "historical" is the "ordinary" word, while "historic" means "memorable" or assured of a place in history. The AP Stylebook makes a similar case. However, Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that these two variants have overlapped for most of their history, so you'll find these words used interchangeably quite often. Interestingly, "historic" and "historical" actually do have very parallel histories. They both show up in the 1500s as a way to say "belonging to history." By the mid to late 1700s, both could refer to something that was of particular importance. According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, these two adjectives do tend to distribute along the distinctive lines laid out in style guides. For example, a "historic agreement" is one that history will remember, while a "historical novel" is a novel that simply takes place in the past. Do you make a distinction between "historic" and "historical" or do you use them synonymously?

If the proof is in the pudding, it's going to get sticky

Have you ever peeled the lid off a pudding cup, looked inside and said, "Aha, the proof is right here." Unless you were trying to prove that the cup really did contain pudding, we're going to assume the answer is "no." That's exactly why Michigan Radio marketing director Steve Chrypinski asked us about the expression "the proof is in the pudding." He says, "What does proving something have to do with a smooth, creamy dessert?" Many of us use this expression, despite the fact that it doesn't make much sense. Like other idioms, we use it because we know that it means something like "we'll know for sure when we see it," and we assume that others know that too. Originally, the expression was "all the proof of the pudding is in the eating" which actually made some sense. In this case "proof" means "the test of." In other words, we'll know if the pudding is any good when we eat it. It's worth noting that in 1605, when we see the first printed example of this idiom, "pudding" referred to a kind of sausage, not the smooth creamy dessert we know today – think black pudding or haggis. Over time, the expression was shortened to "the proof of the pudding" as we see in this example from a 1990 issue of Parenting magazine: "The proof of the pudding is that some of our students break into print even before they finish the course." At some point – probably around the 1920s, according to World Wide Words blogger Michael Quinion – people began to re-understand the phrase as "the proof in the pudding." By the 1950s, this version had become quite common. Quinion is mournful that this expression lasted so long "only to be corrupted by modern times." That got us thinking though, is "the proof of the pudding" any less opaque than "the proof in the pudding"? As Professor Anne Curzan is fond of saying, idioms mean what idioms mean. What do you think?

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?

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