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Going to Buxtehude

Here’s another newsletter from A Way with Words.

On this past weekend’s show we mused over the idea of reading books on electronic devices, talked about “tow-headed,” and got to the German origins of “going to Buxtehude.”


Since the show aired, we’ve already received a lot of email and phone calls responding to a caller’s question about the expression “layers for meddlers and crutches for lame ducks,” which is used to confuse and put off nosy people. You not only had your own expressions of misdirection (especially for inquisitive children), but you had a lot of other interesting sayings, too.

We’ll do a follow-up later that will include some of them. Our favorite so far: “a silver no-nothing to hang on my elbows.”

We also talked about the expression “you buy ’em books, you give ’em books, and all they do is eat the covers.” The earliest use we could find in print was from the 1980s, but a number of you wrote and called to say you remember the expression from at least as early as the 1960s. Thanks! You’ve helped us go a few steps closer to its origins.

In our call about the variant spellings “gray” and “grey,” Grant explained that when a word has more than one spelling, we English speakers often try to assign different meanings to the variants, whether or not there really is a difference in meaning.

This follows the “principle of contrast,” one of the ways by which we learn new language. You can read more about the principle in Eve Clark’s chapter in the book “Mechanisms of Language Acquisition”:


We received several interesting books this week.

“The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion: Lady Snark’s Guide to Common Discourtesy” by A.C. Kemp contains lessons on using ten-dollar words to confuse and insult people. It’s a humorous question-and-answer back-and-forth of what happens when high and low culture meet, with quizzes, example sentences, and smart-aleck remarks.

Here’s what Lady Snark recommends saying to your daughter’s unwanted boyfriend: “Do you ever get that eerie feeling that someone is watching you? That’s the professional sharpshooter I paid to end your relationship.”

Find her web site here:


We also received an advanced reading copy of David Crystal’s “‘Think on my Words’: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language” which is due to be released in May. We’ve mentioned David on the show before. He’s a well-known British language specialists who wrote “How Language Works” and “Pronouncing Shakespeare.” See a full bibliography at his web site:


His new book also takes us through Shakespeare, this time by way of how he writes: his rhetorical devices, spelling, word order, grammar, vocabulary, etc. Despite being frightfully wonky and nerdy, the book is an interesting read, even if you’re no Shakespeare specialist.

Of particular interest is Crystal’s appendix of Shakespeare’s “false friends.” These are words that had different meanings when Shakespeare used them, though that might not be clear to modern readers.

“I’ll tickle your catastrophe!” in Henry IV makes a lot more sense when you know that “catastrophe” meant “conclusion” or “end-point.” The whole phrase translates as “I’ll smack your behind!”

Let’s take that as our own end-point for this week and bid you adieu. We’ll talk about more books next time.

Best wishes,

Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett

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