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Etymology of Canvassing

The word “canvassing,” as in, going door-to-door passing out political information, has an obscure etymology. It’s thought to be related to the use of canvas material either for sifting things out or tossing someone in the air...

Phonaesthesia Word Connotations

Why do words that begin with sn—sneer, snarl, snot, snide, snake, snooty—all have negative connotations? Phonaesthesia, a phenomenon whereby we associate certain sounds with particular meanings, may hold the answer. Linguist and cognitive scientist...

Make Your Hair Worse

We heard from a woman who told her boyfriend about her plan to get her hair cut. He responded that he thought that particular style would make her hair “worse.” Does the word worse in this case imply that her hair was bad to begin with...

Dust Bunnies

Is it cheating to say you’ve read a book if you only listened to it on tape? Over the centuries, the way we think about reading has changed a lot. There was a time, for example, when reading silently was considered strange. Plus, what do you...

Through Tough Thorough Thought

A listener from Concord, North Carolina, sent along an example of why learning English as a second language can be so challenging: “Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough, thorough thought though.” This is part of...

William Zinsser Quote on Writing

Martha recalls that as an English major, she nearly memorized William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He died this month at age 92, and she’ll remember this quote, among others: “Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the...