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A Way with Words, a fun show about language examined through history, culture, and family. Credit:
A Way with Words, a fun show about language examined through history, culture, and family.

A Way with Words is an upbeat and lively hour-long public radio show about language examined through history, culture, and family. Journalist/author Martha Barnette and linguist/lexicographer Grant Barrett talk with callers from around the world about slang, new words, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, jokes and riddles, and speaking and writing well. They settle disputes, play word quizzes, and discuss language news and controversies.

There are no carriage fees. You can begin carrying the program right away. Email or call Grant Barrett for details: grant@waywordradio.org, 646 286 2260.


A Way with Words (Series)

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Chopped Liver (#1500)

From A Way with Words | Part of the A Way with Words series | 54:00

Choppedliver_small There's a proverb that goes Beloved children have many names. That's also true for pets, and listeners are discussing that process on Facebook.

Gary in Denton, Texas, is looking for a word for the pout that precedes a baby's wail. The Germans have a word for that: Schippchen, which means little shovel, and refers to the shape of that wet, protruding lower lip.

The phrase the land of the living goes all the way back to passages in the Bible like Psalm 52:5. Since at least the 1700s, this expression has been used to denote the realm of those still alive.

In the 1940s, the noun munge was student slang for crud or filth, then later became a verb denoting the action of messing with data in a way that might produce the equivalent of trash or rubbish. Over time, munge, which was sometimes spelled mung, lost its negative connotation and simply meant to manipulate data, as in to munge the numbers. Another computing-related term is kludge, which means to come up with a jerry-rigged solution, and may derive from a German word meaning clever.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a brain-stretching challenge to think of the longest word that begins and ends with a particular pair of letters. For example, what's the longest word you can think of that starts with A and ends with A?

Jessica in Omaha, Nebraska, was excited to discover an arrowhead, then puzzled when archaeologists told her that its age was probably between 6000-3000 BP. Why do some scientists measure time with the designation BP, or Before Present, instead of BC or BCE? The reason has to do with the advent of carbon dating techniques.

Obstetricians use the term multip as shorthand for multiparous, the adjective describing a woman who has given birth to more than one child. A woman who is nulliparous has not given birth at all, and a primipara has given birth only once.

Why is California governor Jerry Brown sometimes called Governor Moonbeam? This ethereal moniker was bestowed by the great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko to suggest a kind of hippie-dippie, insubstantial, lack of practicality.

Cartoonist Sarah Anderson has a very funny take on the multiplicity of names we give our cats.  

Clementine, a young caller from Omaha, Nebraska, wonders why we use the term run-of-the-mill to describe something ordinary. The expression originates world of manufacturing, where a run of the mill is the entire run of things being produced, whether it's lumber or bricks, including defective products. This sense of the word run as an overall production process also appears in the expression run of the mine and run of the kiln. (In the process of discussing this last one, we're surprised to learn from each other that's there's more than one way to pronounce the word kiln!)    

During a discussion in our Facebook group, a listener shares that her cat's name evolved from Poor Nameless Cat to PNC to Pansy.

What shall we call those drivers who take so much time when the left-turn light changes to green that you miss your chance to go and sit through another red light? Our conversation about that prompted a whole slew of emails from listeners who've clearly had time in traffic to think about it. Their suggestions include lane loafer, lane lingerer, lazy lefty, left-turn loiterer, lane loiterer, left-lane loiterer, laneygaggers, light laggers, light lingerers, light malingerers. There were also punny offerings, such as phonehead and light-wait. Another suggestion, playing on the term rubbernecker, was bottlenecker.

A Fort Worth, Texas, man remembers putting monkey blood on cuts and scrapes, and wonders about its name. It's not really monkey's blood; it's a bright red substance variously known as Mercurochrome or Merthiolate, also known as Thiomersal. In parts of the Spanish speaking world, that substance is also called sangre de mono or sangre de chango, both of which literally mean monkey blood.

A San Diego, California, man tweets his request for a term for what a dog does when she's happily writhing around on the grass. How about shnerking? Other terms people use for it are stink bathing, mole diving, itchy-scratchies, flea smothering, scruffling, or being a grass shark.

Does the expression to be roped into doing something carry a negative connotation? It all depends on the context.

Following up on our conversation about unconventional forms of diet and exercise, Martha shares an exercise regimen that turns into a paraprosdokian.

A woman in Reno, Nevada, wonders about the expression What am I, chopped liver? Chopped liver is a traditional Jewish dish that's always a side item, never the main course. Speaking of traditional Jewish foods, the term schmaltzy, meaning overly sentimental, derives from the Yiddish term shmalts, which means chicken or goose fat.

In our online discussion about the variety of things we call our pets, one woman shares how her pet's name went from Lucy to Queen of the Universe. Sounds like a perfectly natural progression to us!

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.