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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.

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Mrs. Astor's Horse (#1530)

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

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The Internet Archive offers a wealth of free books and other publications online, including the 1948 collection of jokes, riddles, and playground sayings called A Rocket in My Pocket: The Rhymes and Chants of Young Americans. 
Gabrielle in Beloit, Michigan, is puzzled about why we refer to the zipper on a pair of pants as a fly. The term originally referred not to the zipper itself, but the flap that goes over it, like the fly that protects the entrance to a tent.
A kid's misunderstanding of the word Pentecost leads to a family celebrating the religious holiday of Polka dots.
Eva in Fairbanks, Alaska, wonders why her grandmother used to say raise the window down when she wanted someone to open that window.
What's the structure that projects out from a building over an entrance, such as at a hospital entrance where patients can be dropped off? Architects call it a port-cochere, or literally, "coach door." 
Quiz Guy John Chaneski is puzzling over theatrical productions from an alternate universe, where the titles of familiar plays include a scrambled word. For example, what's the Shakespearean comedy in which Titania, Oberon, and all the fairies are packing heat?
Nine-year-old Lydia in Madison, Alabama, wonders about the difference between the words immigrate and emigrate.
Michelle from Tallahassee, Florida, says that when she was a kid, she decided on the first day of kindergarten that she would tell her teacher that she went by a different name, so that's what everyone at school called her. Imagine her mother's surprise on Parents' Night when she couldn't find her daughter's desk or any schoolwork with her name on it.
John in Bismarck, North Dakota, wants a word that describes a neutral state of emotion, specifically the midpoint between depression and euphoria. Is that insouciant? Apathy? Zen? Affectless? What's wrong with plain old neutral?
When a bird straightens and cleans its feathers with its own beak, it's preening. If one bird is doing the same thing for another, that action is called allopreening.
Julie in Greenwood, Indiana, says her mother was fond of the expression Mrs. Astor's pet horse, meaning "someone who dresses ostentatiously." The phrase refers to Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, from the ultra-wealthy Astor family, who was known for throwing parties so lavish that even her horse got dolled up. 
The 1948 book A Rocket in My Pocket: The Rhymes and Chants of Young Americans includes a funny rhyme about a donkey who mistakes a zebra for a felonious mule.
In certain ancient traditions, storks were associated with kindness and family devotion. The Hebrew word for this leggy bird is chasidah, meaning "the kindly one," from chesed, or "loving kindness." Storks were also highly regarded in Greek and Roman culture. The Greek word for this bird, pelargos, gave rise to Greek antipelargia, meaning "reciprocal love between parents and children," usually the love of adult children for their parents. The Pelargonia was a law in ancient Greek that required the care of one's elderly parents; the Roman equivalent was the Lex Cicconia. The rare English word antipelargy refers to mutual love between parents and children. Greek pelargos also appears in the name of the flower pelargonium, so named for the beaklike shape of its seed pod, and.also known as storksbill.
Cindy in Spokane, Washington, says her father would bid his loved ones good-bye by saying Tap 'er light. The phrase comes from miners' slang of the early 1900s and is a gentle admonition to take care to avoid cave-ins or prematurely detonating explosives. High-grade, meaning "to select the best items for oneself out of a larger collection of items, is another example of slang from the mines. It's a reference to a worker selecting some of the best ore and pocketing it for himself.
Alex in Amarillo, Texas, says he often hears speakers dropping the sound of the first r in the word forward. It's what linguists call dissimilation, where, when duplicate consonants in a single word, one of them is sometimes dropped for ease of pronunciation. For more about dissimilation, check out this article by Nancy Hall, a professor of linguistics at California State University Long Beach.
Tess in San Antonio, Texas, says her father and grandfather used to pretend to be bogeymen, playfully warning kids to be good lest Ol' Santy Mocus come after them. The word tantibogus is a euphemism for the Devil, and Ol' Santy Mocus may be yet another one. 
This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.