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Nobody Here But Us Chickens

This past weekend on "A Way with Words," we mulled over whether part of the recession-busting bailouts the government is proposing should be targeted at reviving the Federal Writers' Project of the 1930s. Get a taste of that, and more, here:


We also talked with callers about a dialect pronunciation of "Vienna," the haircut known as the "mullet" and its different names, and the interesting words "borborygmic" and "borborygmus."

Martha has a new minicast for you. It's about language particular to New England, "sculch," "dite," "from away," and so forth.


One of the things you'll hear in the flights-and-mullets episode above is Grant saying that "smorgasbord" comes from two Swedish words.

One of the things you’ll hear in the flights-and-mullets episode above is Grant saying that “smorgasbord” comes from two Swedish words. Well, it kind of does. “Smörgås” is “sandwich” or “bread and butter” and “bord” is table. Although “smörgås” is itself made of two words, “smör” meaning “butter” and “gås” meaning “lump of butter” (though it originally meant “goose”), it behaves as a single lexicalized compound that is independent and has meaning beyond its two component parts.

Pete also wrote in about that call to say that he maintains a distinction between "smorgasbord" and "buffet." Buffet, he says, is made up of dinner-type dishes, mostly hot, available at a single serving station. A smorgasbord, for him, is made up of snack-type dishes, mostly cold, also available at a single serving station.

We're sure some people do keep a distinction between "smorgasbord" and "buffet, but many do not. You can kind of get a handle on how the uses and meanings differ by googling "cold buffet" and "hot buffet." Some people even use "hot smorgasbord," though not many.

Our Swedish friends might not approve of the American corruption of the meaning of "smorgasbord," but we bet they would still fill their plates.

Carole wrote in about our conversation in regards to "in regards to" vs. "in regard to": Why not say "regarding" when it's one word instead of three? Why not, indeed? English is surely rich in options, but we'd be reluctant to discard any of them based simply upon length.

Jeff had something to say about our call about "flights." He writes, "I was listening to the discussion about the word 'flight' as it pertains to a series of similar items as in a 'flight of wine, stairs, birds, angels, etc.' I noticed that all of these things allude to more than one of the item mentioned. So where does 'flight of fancy' fit into the mix?"

Aha, Jeff. That's a different flight! The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as "a swift passage of time" and calls it "poetic or literary." So, a "flight of fancy" is a bit of a daydream. It's more or less the same as a "phantasm," in the sense "a mental image or thought arising from the imagination, especially in a dream."

Sasha wants to know why people say "How's it going?" but don't really expect an answer. She says, "I came to realize that they were using 'How's it goin'?' as a mere greeting. They weren't expecting an answer back because to them it was like saying 'Hey' or similarly 'What's up?'"

She got it right. Like so many greetings, it's only a formality and not really a question. If people greeted each other with "Potato rabbit pickle?" we'd all just accept that it meant, "I see that you are a fellow human being. I acknowledge your presence and wish you no ill will," just like "How's it going?" does.

That's all for this week's newsletter. Like what you hear or read? If you'd like to support "A Way with Words," you can make a contribution here:


Best wishes in the year of the ox,

Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett

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