Home » Newsletter » Mountweazels ex Machina

Mountweazels ex Machina

Hello from Martha and Grant --

A big, warm welcome to our newest public radio listeners! "A Way with Words" is now heard on KSFC 91.9 FM in Spokane, and WFSU 88.9 FM in Tallahassee and Panama City, Florida. We're glad to have you aboard.

Last week on our show, we chewed over a mouthful of strange words, including jungftak, mountweazel, esquivalience, and pickleback. (In case you were wondering, picklebacks aren't pointy shoes--those are "winklepickers." Really. Look it up!)


As Grant mentioned on our discussion forum, The New Yorker magazine ran an entertaining piece on the lexicographical story behind mountweazels and esquivalience.


Last week we also enticed literary historian and Rutgers University professor Jack Lynch into playing our slang game. Lynch's new book, "The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper English' from Shakespeare to South Park," is a highly readable account of some of the real-life human beings responsible for the grammar rules you've often heard about.

Martha speaks with him in this special online-only minicast:


The current issue of The American Scholar features the text of talk by William Zinsser, author of "On Writing Well." Speaking to Columbia University journalism students, Zinsser reported some surprises while teaching writing to students whose native language isn't English.

What's considered good writing style in one language, he learned, may not be the same as what's considered good writing style in English. Arabic revels in adjectives, while Spanish makes use of long sentences and "melodious long nouns that express a general idea."


We appreciate his point, but we think Zinsser goes overboard when making the case for puny words and tight-as-a-drum sentences. Forbes columnist Trevor Butterworth agrees with us, saying that perhaps Zinsser "pontificates too much." Butterworth's column on what we can learn about writing from Cicero is worth a read:


Do you have a favorite riddle that involves clever wordplay? We're not talking about dopey puns like, "What did the grape say when the elephant stepped on it? Nothing. It just let out a little wine."

We mean the kind of brain-twisters you hear on our show from time to time, like "Nature requires five, custom gives seven, laziness takes nine, and wickedness eleven." If you know one of these, please send it along to martha@waywordradio.org. You never know -- it just might end up on the air.

The answer to that last riddle is here:


You may have also read in the news this week that the New York Times plans to start charging for its online content. Yikes!

We here at "A Way with Words" don't ever want to get to that point, and we're doing our best to make sure this program remains available free of charge to language lovers and English learners worldwide.

That means we depend on contributions from folks like you. Please take a moment to click on https://www.waywordradio.org/donate/ and toss a few bucks in the tip jar. Your contribution's fully tax-deductible. Thank you!

As always, let us know if you have questions or observations about language that you'd like to share. We're all ears and eyes!


Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Further reading

Piping Hot (episode #1503)

The game of baseball has alway inspired colorful commentary. Sometimes that means using familiar words in unfamiliar ways. The word stuff, for...

Folding Money (episode #1616)

Barbara Kingsolver’s book Demon Copperhead is a retelling of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield set in today’s Appalachia. Martha...

What’s a Nonce Word?

Lorelei from Wakefield, Virginia, learned the word nonce from the Spelling Bee game in The New York Times. When she looked up the definition of...