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

Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, produced by Stefanie Levine
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Brollies and Bumbershoots - 16 April 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 Britain, it's a brolly. Plus, a man who works a ski resort shares the vocabulary he and coworkers use to describe grooming the snow. And there's more than one way to pronounce the name of the bread that you pile with lox and cream cheese. Also: strong like bull, whistle britches, long suit and strong suit, homey and homely, wet behind the ears, and dead nuts.


If you think they refer to umbrellas as bumbershoots in the UK, think again. The word bumbershoot actually originated in the United States; in Britain, it's a brolly.  You'll learn that and much more about the differences between British English and American English in the marvelous new book The Prodigal Tongue, by linguist Lynne Murphy.

A middle-school teacher and her students in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, have a question about one girl's pronunciation of the word bagel. Is this round yeast roll with a hole in the middle pronounced BAY-gul or BAG-ul? Although most people pronounce it with a long a, a growing number are pronouncing it to rhyme with waggle.

A ski slope groomer in Stowe, Vermont, says he and his colleagues vehicles that make corduroy, the packed, ridged surfaces of snow that are perfect for skiing. Another term for corduroy, or someone who wears it, is whistle britches, because of the sound they make when the wearer is walking.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz similar to the board game Tribond, in which the object is to figure out the bond that links three things. For example, what's the common bond that links the words playground, trombone, and microscope?

In The Prodigal Tongue, linguist Lynne Murphy recounts the story of a friend from the US who was confused when her physician inquired about her waterworks. In Britain, that's a slang term for urinary tract.

The terms long suit and strong suit, are both used metaphorically to refer to a particular strength someone possesses. Both expressions arose from card playing.

In the US, if you're ambivalent about something, you're said to be of two minds. In the UK, however, they use a different preposition -- they're said to be in two minds. Also, Americans talk about brainstorms, which in Britain are called brain showers.

A woman in Bowling Green, Kentucky wonders: How did the phrase wet behind ears come to describe someone who's inexperienced?

Martha shares a quote from author Madeleine L'Engle about how growing up means accepting vulnerability.

An Escanoba, Michigan, construction worker who specializes in plumbing and pipefitting says that when he and his co-workers finish a job just so, they say approvingly Dead nuts! But he wonders if there's anything obscene about that expression.

In the US, if you step on a Lego, you scream bloody murder; in the UK, you step on a piece of Lego and scream blue murder. Also, in the US, you eat scrambled eggs; in the UK, it's scrambled egg.

The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by linguist Lynne Murphy is a trove of information about differences between these two versions of English. Murphy's blog, Separated by a Common Language, is another great source, and you can take online quizzes to test your knowledge of the two.

A woman in Omaha, Nebraska, wonders about the difference between the adjectives homey and homely. In the UK, the word homely is a positive term that means cozy.

If you're in England and want some cream cheese to go with your bagel, ask for Philadelphia.

The word bougie evolved from bourgeois, meaning characteristic of the middle class. Bougie often has a derogatory sense, but not always.

Bert Vaux, the linguist whose data was the basis of the wildly popular New York Times Dialect Quiz, is collecting more data about American English, and invites you to take a survey. The answers will help inform a new app he's working on.

A woman in Fairbanks, Alaska, says she's been described as strong like ox, smart like streetcar. Is that a compliment? Other variations include strong like bull and smart like tractor or smart like dump truck. The phrase strong like bull was likely popularized by the character of Uncle Tonoose on the 1950s sitcom, The Danny Thomas Show.

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


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2018-04-16 06:59:00 UTC

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