Why do spelling bees use such strange words — often foreign words that almost nobody uses? Like cymotrichous, stromuhr, Laodicean, guerdon, serrefine, and Ursprache?

We answered that question in last week’s episode — it’s what happens when one uses an unabridged dictionary to make word lists.

We also took calls and dropped mad science about:

  • origin of New York City as “the Big Apple
  • common expressions that come from the King James Bible (and the classic error in what is now known as the “Wicked Bible“)
  • the common root of respiration and inspiration
  • asafoetida bags
  • vowel mergers — when some people make the vowels in some words sound the same, even though they are traditionally pronounced differently from each other: don and dawn, cot and caught, pen and pin
  • in like Flynn
  • And a lot more.

Tidbits of Language

• Are you a writer of historical fiction or of movie scripts who is trying to avoid anachronistic speech? Maybe you’re, say, a screenwriter for Downton Abbey who’s already introduced a few time-travelling uh-ohs? Then try the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’ll help you find a word with the same meaning that was definitely used during your time period. If you have online access to the Oxford English Dictionary, you also have access to the thesaurus.

• A new translation of the Kama Sutra says that “Among the ’64 arts’ a woman should master are ‘improvisation of poetry; knowledge of dictionaries; knowledge of prosody’ and ‘reciting difficult verses.'” YES.

• Although it’s best to pronounce both Rs in February, the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel says the “FEB-yoo-airy” pronunciation is also generally acceptable. The panel is made up of top writers, editors, linguists, and thinkers. Read more about it here. (The dictionary is a sponsor of A Way with Words, for which we thank them, but this post isn’t a part of that sponsorship.)

• A funny slideshow: “So you know a linguist…

Peace and love,

Martha and Grant

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