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

100 EpisodesProduced by A Way with WordsWebsite

A Way with Words is a fun and funny radio show and podcast about language. Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett talk with callers from around the world about linguistics, slang, new words, jokes, riddles, word games, grammar, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, bo… read more

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Walkie Talkie - 27 January 2020

January 27th, 2020


One of the most powerful words you'll ever hear -- and one of the most poignant -- isn't in dictionaries yet. But it probably will be one day. The …

Tiger Tail - 20 January 2020

January 20th, 2020


You may have a favorite word in English, but what about your favorite in another language? The Spanish term ojala is especially handy for expressing …

Gee and Haw (Rebroadcast) - 13 January 2020

January 13th, 2020


The highly specialized vocabulary of people who work outdoors, like farmers and fishermen, can bring us closer to the natural world. Also, a woman …

Gung Ho (Rebroadcast) - 6 January 2020

January 6th, 2020


The stories behind symbols and expressions around the world. The peace symbol popular during 1960's antiwar demonstrations had been around for …

Crusticles and Fenderbergs (Rebroadcast) - 30 December 2019

December 30th, 2019


A second-generation Filipino-American finds that when he speaks English, his personality is firm, direct, and matter-of-fact. But when he speaks with family members in Tagalog, he feels more soft-spoken, kind, and …

Clever Clogs - 23 December 2019

December 23rd, 2019


Ribbon fall. Gallery forest. You won't find terms like these in most dictionaries, but they and hundreds like them are discussed by famous writers in the book Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape. The book is …

Son of a gun! - a special minicast from Grant

December 19th, 2019


Today I shoot holes in a story that just won’t die that about "son of a gun" and babies born aboard sailing ships.


Podcast listeners like you will …

Little Shavers - 16 December 2019

December 16th, 2019


The word "hipster" might seem recent, but it actually originated in the 1930s, and referred to jazz aficionados who were in the know about the best …

Electrifying! - a special minicast from Martha

December 12th, 2019


Martha here with a special minicast of A Way with Words. Today I want to tell you an electrifying story — and make a request for you to support A Way …

Bug in Your Ear - 9 December 2019

December 9th, 2019


Is there something inherent in English that makes it the linguistic equivalent of the Borg, dominating and consuming other languages in its path? No, …

Bun in the Oven (Rebroadcast) - 1 December 2019

December 2nd, 2019


Family words, and words about being in a family way. How many different ways ARE there to say you have a baby on the way? Sure, you can say you're pregnant, or that you're great with child. But there are lots of other …

The Black Dog - 25 November 2019

November 25th, 2019


Books were rare treasures in the Middle Ages, painstakingly copied out by hand. So how to protect them from theft? Scribes sometimes added a curse to the first page of those books that was supposed to keep thieves away …

Flying Pickle (Rebroadcast) - 18 November 2019

November 18th, 2019


How would you like to be welcomed to married life by friends and neighbors descending on your home for a noisy celebration, tearing off the labels of …

The Last Straw (Rebroadcast) - 11 November 2019

November 11th, 2019


Books for word lovers, plus the stories behind some familiar terms. Want a gift for your favorite bibliophile? Martha and Grant have recommendations, …

Beside Myself - 4 November 2019

November 4th, 2019


The new Downton Abbey movie is a luscious treat for fans of the public-television period piece, but how accurate is the script when it comes to the …

Hidden Treasures (Rebroadcast) - 28 October 2019

October 28th, 2019


Civil War letters and the opposite of prejudice. A new online archive of Civil War letters offers a vivid portrait of the everyday lives of enlisted …

Skookum - 21 October 2019

October 21st, 2019


So you've long dreamed of writing fiction, but don't know where to begin? There are lots of ways to get started -- creative writing classes, local writing groups, and books with prompts to get you going. The key is to …

Butterflies in the Stomach (Rebroadcast) - 14 October 2019

October 14th, 2019


If you're not using a dictionary to look up puzzling words as you read them, you're missing out on a whole other level of enjoyment. Also, when …

Life of Riley - 7 October 2019

October 7th, 2019


Unwrap the name of a candy bar, and you just might find a story inside. For instance, one chewy treat found in many a checkout lane is named after a family's beloved horse. And: 50 years ago in the United States, some …

Catch You on the Flip Side (Rebroadcast) - 30 September 2019

September 30th, 2019


Some countries have strict laws about naming babies. New Zealand authorities, for example, denied a request to name some twins Fish and Chips.  Plus, Halley's Comet seen centuries before English astronomer Edmund Halley …

Off the Turnip Truck - 23 September 2019

September 23rd, 2019


It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when people disagreed over the best word to use when answering the phone. Alexander Graham Bell suggested answering with Ahoy! but Thomas Edison was partial to Hello. A …

Loaded For Bear - 16 September 2019

September 16th, 2019


One way to make your new business look trendy is to use two nouns separated by an ampersand, like Peach & Creature . . . or Rainstorm & Egg. A tongue-in-cheek website will generate names like that for you. And: …

All Verklempt (Rebroadcast) - 9 September 2019

September 9th, 2019



Of all the letters in the alphabet, which two or three are your favorites? If your short list includes one or more of your initials, that's …

Hunk Waffle (Rebroadcast) - 2 September 2019

September 3rd, 2019


Decisions by dictionary editors, wacky wordplay, and Walt Whitman's soaring verse.  How do lexicographers decide which historical figures deserve a mention or perhaps even an illustration in the dictionary? The answer …

Pants On Fire (Rebroadcast) - 26 August 2019

August 26th, 2019


A highly anticipated children's book and the epic history behind a familiar vegetable. Fans of illustrator Maurice Sendak are eagerly awaiting the publication of a newly discovered manuscript by the late author. And …

Frozen Rope (Rebroadcast) - 19 August 2019

August 19th, 2019


Where would you find a sports commentator talking about high cheese and ducks on a pond? Here's a hint: both terms are part of what make the language …

Flop Sweat (Rebroadcast) - 12 August 2019

August 12th, 2019


Gerrymandering is the practice of redistricting to tip the political scales. Originally, though, this strategy was called "GARY-mandering" with a …

Smile Belt (Rebroadcast) - 5 August 2019

August 5th, 2019


The only time you'll ever see the sun's outer atmosphere is during a full solar eclipse, when sun itself is completely covered. That hazy ring is …

Mrs. Astor's Horse - 29 July 2019

July 29th, 2019


"What has a head like a cat, feet like a cat, a tail like a cat, but isn't a cat?" Answer: a kitten! A 1948 children's joke book has lots of these to share with kids. Plus: an easy explanation for the difference between …

A Shoo-In (Rebroadcast) - 22 July 2019

July 22nd, 2019


This week it’s butterflies, belly flowers, plot bunnies, foxes, and cuckoos. Also, writing advice from Mark Twain and a wonderful bit of prose from …

At First Blush - 15 July 2019

July 15th, 2019


Book recommendations and the art of apology. Martha and Grant share some good reads, including an opinionated romp through English grammar, a …

Noon Of Night (Rebroadcast) - 8 July 2019

July 8th, 2019


Pranks, cranks, and chips. As a kid, you may have played that game where you phone someone to say, "Is your refrigerator running? Then you better go catch it!" What's the term for that kind of practical joke? Is it a …

Gift Horse - 1 July 2019

July 1st, 2019


The edge of the Grand Canyon. A remote mountaintop, or a medieval cathedral. Some places are so mystical you feel like you're close to another dimension of space and time. There's a term for such locales: thin places. …

Naked as a Jaybird (Rebroadcast) - 24 June 2019

June 24th, 2019


What's the best way for someone busy to learn lots of new words quickly for a test like the GRE? Looking up their origins can help. Or record yourself reading the words and definitions and play them back while you're …

Had the Radish - 17 June 2019

June 17th, 2019


This week on A Way with Words: Your first name is very personal, but what if you don't like it? For some people, changing their name works out great, …

Hot Dog, Cold Turkey (Rebroadcast) - 10 June 2019

June 10th, 2019


Why do we call a frankfurter a "hot dog"? It seems an unsettling 19th-century rumor is to blame. Also, if someone quits something abruptly, why do we …

Abso-Bloomin-Lutely - 3 June 2019

June 3rd, 2019


The autocomplete function on your phone comes in handy, of course. But is it changing the way we write and how linguists study language? Also, …

Skedaddle (Rebroadcast) - 27 May 2019

May 27th, 2019


The months of September, October, November, and December take their names from Latin words meaning "seven," "eight," "nine," and "ten." So why don't their names correspond to where they fall in the year? The answer lies …

Coast is Clear (Rebroadcast) - 20 May 2019

May 20th, 2019


In the military, if you've "lost the bubble," then you can't find your bearings. The term first referred to calibrating the position of aircraft and submarines. And the phrase "the coast is clear" may originate in …

Niblings and Nieflings - 13 May 2019

May 13th, 2019


How do actors bring Shakespeare's lines to life so that modern audiences immediately understand the text? One way is to emphasize the names of people and places at certain points. That technique is called billboarding. …

Gone to Seed (Rebroadcast) - 6 May 2019

May 6th, 2019


Restaurant jargon, military slang, and modern Greek turns of phrase. Some restaurants now advertise that they sell "clean" sandwiches. But that doesn't mean they're condiment-free or the lettuce got an extra rinse. In …

Kite in a Phonebooth - 29 April 2019

April 29th, 2019


Stunt performers in movies have their own jargon for talking about their dangerous work. They refer to a stunt, for example, as a gag. Across the …

Hell's Half Acre (Rebroadcast) - 22 April 2019

April 22nd, 2019


Hundreds of years ago, the word girl didn't necessarily mean a female child. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the term "girl" could refer to a child …

Steamed Bun (Rebroadcast) - 15 April 2019

April 15th, 2019


This week on "A Way with Words”: The language we use to cover up our age, and covering up a secret message. Do you ever find yourself less-than-specific about your age? Listeners share some of their favorite phrases for …

Kids Are Asking - 11 April 2019

April 11th, 2019


Questions from young listeners and conversations about everything from shifting slang to a bizarre cooking technique. Kids ask about how to talk about finding information on the internet, how tartar sauce got its name, …

Strawberry Moon - 8 April 2019

April 8th, 2019


We asked for your thoughts about whether cursive writing should be taught in schools -- and you replied with a resounding "Yes!" Here's why: Cursive …

Charismatic Megafauna (Rebroadcast) - 1 April 2019

April 1st, 2019


Choosing language that helps resolve interpersonal conflict. Sometimes a question is really just a veiled form of criticism. Understanding the …

Spill the Tea - 25 March 2019

March 25th, 2019


If someone urges you to spill the tea, they probably don't want you tipping over a hot beverage. Originally, the tea here was the letter T, as in …

Knuckle Down (Rebroadcast) - 18 March 2019

March 18th, 2019


A wingnut is a handy, stabilizing piece of hardware. So why is it a pejorative term for those of a certain political persuasion? Also, is there …

Dirty Laundry - 11 March 2019

March 11th, 2019


When you had sleepovers as a child, what did you call the makeshift beds you made on the floor? In some places, you call those bedclothes and …

Lie Like A Rug (Rebroadcast) - 4 March 2019

March 4th, 2019


The words we choose can change attitudes--and change lives. A swing-dance instructor has switched to gender-neutral language when teaching couples. …

Keep Your Powder Dry - 25 February 2019

February 25th, 2019


Jacuzzi and silhouette are eponyms – that is, they derive from the names of people. An Italian immigrant to California invented the bubbly hot tub called a jacuzzi. And the word silhouette commemorates a penny-pinching …

One Armed Paper Hanger - 18 February 2019

February 18th, 2019


The emotional appeal of handwriting and the emotional reveal of animal phrases. Should children be taught cursive writing in school, or is their time …

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 …

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