A Way with Words is an upbeat and lively hour-long public radio show about language examined through history, culture, and family. Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett talk with callers from around the world about slang, grammar, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, and speaking and writing well. They settle disputes, play word quizzes, and discuss language news and controversies. The show is heard by more than a quarter-million listeners each week over the air and by podcast.
Some interesting episodes
- When Is a Milkshake Not a Milkshake?
We asked you to tell us about odd regional food names, and boy did you oblige! Martha reads some of your letters about whoopie pies, hot tamales, pretzel salad, coolers, and the frappe vs. milkshake controversy.
- Reading the OED from A to Z
Word nerd Ammon Shea quit his job as a furniture mover in New York City to spend an entire year reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary. The result, in addition to eyestrain, headaches, and skeptics’ puzzlement, was Shea’s new book, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages. Martha talks about what he learned along the way.
- Paper to Pixels, Pages to Screens
You’ve just read a terrific paperback novel. Would you feel any differently about it if you’d the same words on the glowing screen of an electronic book? Martha and Grant discuss the social and psychological implications of books that run on batteries.
- Dangerous Books You Should Read
Discover the joys (and temptations!) of two new books of collected wisdom: “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred Shapiro, and James Geary’s “Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists.” Grant explains why leafing through such books can be rewarding—but hazardous to your time management.
- Pie in the Sky
Looking for a book to read with the kids, or maybe a guide to becoming a better writer? Why are leg cramps called charley horses? And where’d we get a phrase like pie in the sky? If you happen to be tall, you’ve no doubt heard plenty of clueless comments from strangers. A listener who’s 6-foot-8 shares his favorite snappy comebacks. Plus, a word quiz for math lovers, bathroom euphemisms, johnny-on-the-spot, and the biggest palmetto bugs in the land!
- Fake English
Everyone knows you don’t start a sentence with but. But why? Also, how voice recognition technology is changing the way we think and write and what English sounds like to foreigners. Plus, where cockamamie comes from, oddly translated movie titles, trucker slang, patron vs. customer, hash marks, pungling, paralipsis, and more.
- See the Elephant
If you’ve “seen the elephant,” it means you’ve been in combat. But why an elephant? Martha and Grant also discuss some odd idioms in Spanish, including one that translates as “your bowtie is whistling.” And what names do you call your grandparents?
- Of Pupae and Pupils
A question from a listener on the A Way with Words Facebook page has Martha musing about the entomological and etymological connections between the word pupil and the pupal stage of an insect’s life.
- Nerd vs. Geek
Books that make great gifts for language-lovers, the difference between a nerd and a geek, and talk about a new term, “poutrage,” and what do you call the crust in the corners of your eyes after a night’s sleep?
- Tweet Nothings
How much humor and personality can you pack into a 140-character update? A lot, it turns out. Martha and Grant talk about funny Twitter feeds. Also this week, the origins of skosh and can’t hold a candle, why dragonflies are sometimes called snake doctors, whether the word pre-plan is redundant, and how technology is affecting the experience of reading.
- Word Up!
What would you serve a plumber who comes over for dinner? How about …leeks? The hosts play a word game called “What Would You Serve?” Also, can you correct someone’s grammar without ruining a new relationship? And is there an easy way to remember the difference between who and whom?
- Jack Lynch, author of “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma”
You know that grammatical “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition? Well, who ever decided finishing off a sentence like that is a bad thing? (Personally, we think it’s one of the silliest things anyone ever came up with.)
- X, Y, and Zed
Some teachers are using a controversial tactic to get young students reading: They let their pupils choose which books to read for class. Does it work? Also, should that line at the grocery store checkout read 15 items or less or fewer? And is the expression these ones grammatically incorrect?
- What’s Slang Jang?
No, it’s not the neurological effect of spending too much time researching odd new terms. Slang jang is a tongue-tickling sauce found in East Texas. For more about slang jang, including recipes, check out etymologist Barry Popik’s site.
- The Prehistoric Mother Tongue
Many of the world’s languages apparently derived from a prehistoric common ancestor known as Indo-European. But since no one ever wrote down a word of it, how do we know what it was like?
- Talking in the Third Person
Does it bug you when people talk about themselves in the third person? A caller finds herself mightily annoyed by this habit, which she observes especially among politicians and celebrities. There’s a word for the practice of referring to oneself in the third person: illeism.
- Hip-Hop Book of Rhymes
Hip-hop is high art. If you don’t understand that, you’re missing out on some of the best poetry being created today. Grant talks about the new book by English professor Adam Bradley called Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop