A Way with Words — language, linguistics, and callers from all over

50 EpisodesProduced by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, produced by Stefanie Levine

A fun weekly radio show about language seen through culture, history, and family. Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett talk with callers who have questions and stories about linguistics, old sayings, word histories, etymology, regional dialects, slang, new words, word play, word games, grammar… read more

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Hair on Your Tongue - 11 February 2019

February 11th, 2019


If you speak both German and Spanish, you may find yourself reaching for a German word instead of a Spanish one, and vice versa. This puzzling …

Train of Thought - 4 February 2019

February 4th, 2019


Chances are you recognize the expressions Judgment Day and the root of all evil as phrases from the Bible. There are many others, though, some of which may surprise you: the powers that be and bottomless pit first …

Colonial English - 28 January 2019

January 28th, 2019


The anatomy of effective prose, and the poetry of anatomy. Ever wonder what it'd be like to audit a class taught by a famous writer? A graduate student's essay offers a taste of a semester studying with author Annie …

Pig Latin (Rebroadcast) - 21 January 2019

January 21st, 2019


This week on "A Way with Words": Grant and Martha discuss the L-word--or two L-words, actually: liberal and libertarian. They reflect different …

Whistle in the Dark (Rebroadcast) - 14 January 2019

January 14th, 2019


Echoes of the Greatest Generation, and a tasty bite of history. The language and melodies of military marching songs can connect grown children with …

Fickle Finger of Fate (Rebroadcast) - 7 January 2019

January 7th, 2019


Clean cursing for modern times, more about communicating after a brain injury, and 1970's TV lingo with roots in the Second World War. A young woman …

Stars and Garters (Rebroadcast) - 31 December 2018

December 31st, 2018


Novelist Charles Dickens created many unforgettable characters, but he's also responsible for coining or popularizing lots of words, like "flummox" …

Space Cadet - 24 December 2018

December 24th, 2018


We have books that should be on every language lover's wish list, plus a couple of recommendations for history buffs. Plus: how did the word …

Howling Fantods - 17 December 2018

December 17th, 2018


Are there words and phrases that you misunderstood for an embarrassingly long time? Maybe you thought that money laundering literally meant washing …

Cootie Shot - 10 December 2018

December 10th, 2018


Perfect sentences and slang that tickles your mind. A new book of writing advice says that a good sentence "imposes a logic on the world's weirdness" and pares away options for meaning, word by word. Plus, your musician …

Boss of Me (Rebroadcast) - 3 December 2018

December 3rd, 2018


If you want to be a better writer, try skipping today's bestsellers, and read one from the 1930's instead. Or read something besides fiction in order to find your own metaphors and perspective. Plus, just because a …

Spur of the Moment (Rebroadcast) - 26 November 2018

November 26th, 2018


A caller with a 25-year-old parrot wonders: How much language do birds really understand? Plus, Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo. Well . . .  you can …

Bottled Sunshine - 19 November 2018

November 19th, 2018


If you catch your blue jeans on a nail, you may find yourself with a winklehawk. This term was adapted into English from Dutch, and means "an L-shaped tear in a piece of fabric." And: What's your relationship with the …

Care Package - 12 November 2018

November 12th, 2018


Sending someone a care package shows you care, of course. But the first care packages were boxes of food and personal items for survivors of World War II. They were from the Committee for American Remittances to Europe, …

Hell for Leather (Rebroadcast) - 5 November 2018

November 5th, 2018


Victorian slang and a modern controversy over language and gender. In the early 1900's, a door-knocker wasn't just what visitors used to announce their arrival, it was a type of beard with a similar shape. And in the …

Ding Ding Man - 29 October 2018

October 29th, 2018


In 1803, a shy British pharmacist wrote a pamphlet that made him a reluctant celebrity. The reason? He proposed a revolutionary new system for …

Take Tea for the Fever - 22 October 2018

October 22nd, 2018


Silence comes in lots of different forms. In fact, says writer Paul Goodman, there are several kinds: There's the noisy silence of "resentment and …

Sun Dog - 15 October 2018

October 15th, 2018


A clever pun can make the difference between a so-so phrase and a memorable one. The phrase "the last straw" refers to an old fable about too many …

Oh For Cute - 8 October 2018

October 8th, 2018


A stereotype is a preconceived notion about a person or group. Originally, though, the word stereotype referring to a printing device used to produce lots of identical copies. If you suspect there's a connection, you're …

Coinkydink - 1 October 2018

October 1st, 2018


Sometimes it's a challenge to give a book a chance: How many pages should you read before deciding it's not worth your time? There's a new formula to …

Sweet Dreams (Rebroadcast) - 24 September 2018

September 24th, 2018


In deafening workplaces, like sawmills and factories, workers develop their own elaborate sign language to discuss everything from how their weekend went to when the boss is on his way. Plus, English speakers borrowed …

Gangbusters (Rebroadcast) - 17 September 2018

September 17th, 2018


Sensuous words and terms of endearment. Think of a beautiful word. Now, is it simply the word's sound that makes it beautiful? Or does its appeal …

XYZ PDQ (Rebroadcast) - 10 September 2018

September 10th, 2018


How often do you hear the words campaign and political in the same breath? Oddly enough, 19th-century grammarians railed against using campaign to …

Hang a Ralph (Rebroadcast) - 3 September 2018

September 3rd, 2018


The names of professional sports teams often have surprising histories -- like the baseball team name inspired by, of all things, trolley-car …

You Bet Your Boots (Rebroadcast) - 27 August 2018

August 27th, 2018


You may have heard the advice that to build your vocabulary you should read, read, and then read some more--and make sure to include a wide variety …

Pink Slip (Rebroadcast) - 20 August 2018

August 20th, 2018


This week on "A Way with Words": The language of political speech. Politicians have to repeat themselves so often that they naturally develop a …

Criss Cross Applesauce (Rebroadcast) - 13 August 2018

August 13th, 2018


How do languages change and grow? Does every language acquire new words in the same way? Martha and Grant focus on how that process happens in English and Spanish. Plus, the stories behind the Spanish word "gringo" and …

Whistle Pig (Rebroadcast) - 6 August 2018

August 6th, 2018


The stories behind slang, political and otherwise. The dated term "jingoism" denotes a kind of belligerent nationalism. But the word's roots lie in …

Up Your Alley - 30 July 2018

July 30th, 2018


Martha and Grant have book recommendations, including a collection of short stories inspired by dictionaries, and a techno-thriller for teens. Or, …

Piping Hot - 23 July 2018

July 23rd, 2018


The game of baseball has always inspired colorful commentary. Sometimes that means using familiar words in unfamiliar ways. The word "stuff," for …

Copacetic (Rebroadcast) - 16 July 2018

July 16th, 2018


Brand names, children's games, and the etiquette of phone conversations. Those clever plastic PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes -- but …

Mustard on It (Rebroadcast) - 9 July 2018

July 9th, 2018


When does a word's past make it too sensitive to use in the present? In contra dancing, there's a particular move that dancers traditionally call a …

Proof in the Pudding (Rebroadcast) - 2 July 2018

July 2nd, 2018


Have you ever offered to foster a dog or cat, but wound up adopting instead? There's an alliterative term for that. And when you're on the job, do niceties like "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" make you sound too formal? Not …

We have an attitude — 27 June 2018

June 27th, 2018


In the 11 years Martha and I have been doing A Way with Words together, we’ve developed an attitude.

It’s a positive attitude. It’s who we really are.

It’s the attitude we take toward language, linguistics, and the …

Mimeographs and Dittos - 25 June 2018

June 25th, 2018


How colors got their names, and a strange way to write. The terms "blue" and "orange" arrived in English via French, so why didn't we also adapt the …

Spicy Jambalaya - 18 June 2018

June 18th, 2018


Teen slang from the South, and food words that are tricky to pronounce. High schoolers in Huntsville, Alabama, give Martha and Grant an earful about …

A request from Martha — 13 June 2018

June 13th, 2018


A request from Martha. - 13 June 2018

Have you ever wanted to know who we really are? How Grant and I really see ourselves?

Well, for one thing, we …

Chopped Liver — 11 June 2018

June 11th, 2018


There's a proverb that goes "Beloved children have many names." That's at least as true when it comes to the names we give our pets. "Fluffy" becomes "Fluffers" becomes "FluffFace" becomes "FlufferNutter, Queen of the …

Busted Melon (Rebroadcast) - 4 June 2018

June 4th, 2018


When writing textbooks about slavery, which words best reflect its cold, hard reality? Some historians are dropping the word "slave" in favor of …

Truth and Beauty - 28 May 2018

May 28th, 2018


Vocabulary that trickles down from the top of the world. Malamute, kayak, and parka are just some of the words that have found their way into English …

Jump Steady (Rebroadcast) - 21 May 2018

May 21st, 2018


Secret codes, ciphers, and telegrams. It used to be that in order to transmit information during wartime, various industries encoded their messages letter by letter with an elaborate system--much like today's digital …

Dessert Stomach - 14 May 2018

May 14th, 2018


Funny cat videos and cute online photos inspire equally adorable slang terms we use to talk about them. When a cat leaves its tongue out, that's a blep. A boop is a gentle tap on its nose. Also, when is a salamander not …

Scat Cat (Rebroadcast) - 7 May 2018

May 7th, 2018


The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma! Grant and Martha try to suss out the backstory of why some people spell that word with an "n." At …

Far Out, Man - 30 April 2018

April 30th, 2018


An Ohio community is divided over the name of the local high school's mascot. For years, their teams have been called the Redskins. Is that name …

Beat the Band (Rebroadcast) - 23 April 2018

April 24th, 2018


This week on "A Way with Words": This week on "A Way with Words": Can language change bad behavior in crowded places? The Irish Railway system has launched ad campaign to encourage passengers to be more generous at …

Brollies and Bumbershoots - 16 April 2018

April 16th, 2018


If you think they refer to umbrellas as bumbershoots in the UK, think again. The word bumbershoot actually originated in the United States! In …

Cool Your Soup - 9 April 2018

April 9th, 2018


According to Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, it's important to master the basics of writing, but there comes a time when you have to strike out on …

Put on the Dog - 2 April 2018

April 2nd, 2018


A young patron's sense of wonder prompts a moving tweet by a staffer at the Toronto Public Library.

The phrases to put on the dog and putting on the …

Fighting Artichokes (Rebroadcast) - 26 March 2018

March 26th, 2018


What’s in a mascot name? Maybe you’re a fan of the Banana Slugs, or you cheer for the Winged Beavers. Perhaps your loyalty lies with the Fighting Artichokes. There are some strange names for sports team out there. But …

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