Word Matters

By Merriam-Webster, New England Public Media

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Peter
 Apr 1, 2021

Description

Word Matters is a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class. Join Merriam-Webster editors as they challenge supposed grammar rules, reveal the surprising origins behind words, tackle common questions, and generally geek out about the beautiful nightmare that is language.


Episode Date
44. Different Words for the Same Thing
00:24:04

Is a simple task "doable," or would you consider it "feasible"? Is it different to "buy" something than it is to "purchase" it? Is this description "readable" or merely "legible"?

This week we're looking at what happens when English pulls words from different roots, but uses them in similar ways. Then, we find out how the 'jay' got into 'jaywalking.'

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here,


Sponsored by BetterHelp. For 10% off your first month, visit betterhelp.com/matters

Jun 09, 2021
43. The Words We Mispronounce
00:20:39

Are we language professionals? Certainly. Does that mean we pronounce every word perfectly? Oh, not even close. Today we'll get into the words that we, the lexicographers, still struggle to say, as well as the joy of learning a word from reading it.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Sponsored by BetterHelp. For 10% off your first month, visit betterhelp.com/matters

Jun 02, 2021
42. The Language of Spy and Detective Stories
00:16:51

Shadowy spies, brilliant detectives, danger and action. The language of spy and mystery thrillers has always been a source of captivation for readers, sometimes even affecting the world of spycraft itself. This week we'll look at the contributions and popularizations of some of the genre's biggest names.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

May 26, 2021
41. Is It 'Further' or 'Farther'?
00:14:30

Further and farther. They're one letter apart; how different could they be? Well, we regret to inform you that English is at it again. Also, let's get into another linguistic curiosity: how did we end up with the phrase "raining cats and dogs"?

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

May 19, 2021
40. A 'Wicked' Good Episode
00:26:34

How did 'wicked' become THE New England signifier? We'll look into that, along with some more questions from readers.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Sponsored by BetterHelp. For 10% off your first month, visit betterhelp.com/matters

May 12, 2021
39. A Lexical History of 'Jazz'
00:26:47

When it comes to defining an entire musical genre, especially one with as many forms and perspectives as jazz, the work can get pretty tricky. Even the word itself has a long and sometimes controversial history. Today we'll look at the story of jazz, from the language's point of view.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Sponsored by BetterHelp. For 10% off your first month, visit betterhelp.com/matters

May 05, 2021
38. What Is a Learner's Dictionary?
00:22:22

Wait, shouldn't every dictionary be a learner's dictionary? Technically, sure. But today we're discussing a specific resource: Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learner's English Dictionary, which was designed and written directly for people coming to English from another language. Here's the story of that book and how it changed how our other definitions were written.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Apr 28, 2021
37. Can You End a Sentence with a Preposition?
00:19:27

It's one of the most notorious grammar peeves in the entire English language: the commandment that one shall not ever end a sentence with a preposition. But is it actually a rule that holds up? Hmm...

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Apr 21, 2021
36. On Jane Austen's Use of 'Condescension'
00:18:54

We're going back to our inbox this week to answer some of your most pressing concerns. Such as: what did 'condescension' mean in the work of Jane Austen? Why does 'brilliant' mean "smart"? And what is it about the letter 'S' that strikes fear into a lexicographer's heart?

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Sponsored by BetterHelp. For 10% off your first month, visit betterhelp.com/matters

Apr 14, 2021
35. 'Fewer' vs. 'Less'
00:27:08

You might've seen the sign at the grocery store: "12 items or less." Depending on what you've been taught, you might also have considered the sign a grave grammatical sin. Today we'll look at one of the most popular "rules" in the English language. Plus, is there a difference between being 'uninterested' and being 'disinterested'?

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Sponsored by BetterHelp. For 10% off your first month, visit betterhelp.com/matters

Apr 07, 2021
34. What Is a 'Retronym'?
00:17:37

You probably encounter them all the time: new words created to describe the older version of a thing. (Like an acoustic guitar. Or skim milk.) Let's talk about them. Then, we'll check in on the English language's former 27th letter: &. No, that's not a typo. We're talking about the ampersand. (And how it got that name.)

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Mar 31, 2021
33. Tracing the Origins of Famous Phrases
00:14:24

We're catching up on our email! This week, we answer some listener questions about the murky origins of two famous idioms.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/matters to receive a free month of unlimited access.

Mar 24, 2021
32. The Story of the Backward Index
00:11:16

Strange but true: in the basement of our Springfield office, we have a file of 315,000 words typed in reverse. Why would anyone want (or do) such a thing? We'll explain.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/mattersto receive a free month of unlimited access.

Mar 17, 2021
31. Why Is It Called an 'Adam's Apple'?
00:17:12

The Adam's apple: it's neither an apple nor is it possessed exclusively by people named Adam. We'll talk about why that is, plus another linguistic conundrum: how did 'physician' become a word for "doctor" while 'physicist' stayed in the realm of matter and energy?

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/mattersto receive a free month of unlimited access.

Mar 10, 2021
30. How We Wrote Our Bilingual Dictionaries
00:20:35

We're going deep on dictionary lore this week! Listen in for an interview with editor Peter Sokolowski on how we wrote our French and Spanish bilingual dictionaries.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/mattersto receive a free month of unlimited access.

Mar 03, 2021
29. There Is No Such Thing as "The Dictionary"
00:18:36

No, we don't mean that we've been ghosts this whole time. (Or do we?)

What we're saying is we are not "the" dictionary. We're just one among many, all with their own aims and procedures and standards. We'll explain.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/mattersto receive a free month of unlimited access.

Feb 24, 2021
28. The Onomatopoeia Episode
00:26:09

O-N-O-M-A-T-O-P-O-E-I-A. The forming of a word in imitation of a sound.

First, we'll look at some words that first described a sound (like pop, or buzz) that then went on to describe completely different things (like pop, or buzz). Then, we'll get into the phenomenon known as back-formation, or, the creation of a word by the alteration of an existing word (like burgle from burglar). It leaves some people feeling less than gruntled.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/matters to receive a free month of unlimited access.

Feb 17, 2021
27. What's the Longest Word in the Dictionary?
00:15:25

This episode is all about dictionary myths and mysteries. Is the longest word the one you think it is? Probably not. Are some words harder to define than others? Undoubtedly. Are there multiple philosophies on how to even write a definition in the first place? You'll find out.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/matters to receive a free month of unlimited access.

Feb 10, 2021
26. How Do You Pronounce 'Often'?
00:21:24

First, we examine the common word 'often.' Is one way of saying it more correct than the other? And does the English language delight in making us distrust our eyes and ears? Then, we look into the language of getting out of a rut and the difference between getting "on track" vs. "untracked."

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Today's Podcast is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/matters to receive a free month of unlimited access.

Feb 03, 2021
25. New Words in the Dictionary
00:32:44

Language never rests, and neither do we. In January 2021, Merriam-Webster added 520 new words and definitions to the dictionary. In this special episode, editors Emily Brewster and Peter Sokolowski break down the new additions.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Read more about this new batch of words here.

Today's podcast is sponsored by Audible. Visit audible.com/wordmatters or text "word" to 500-500 to start your free 30 day trial.

Jan 27, 2021
24. Questions from You
00:27:31

We're going back to our mailbag this week for another round of our listeners' most vexing, irksome, and esoteric linguistic concerns.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.


Today's podcast is sponsored by Audible. Visit audible.com/wordmatters or text "word" to 500-500 to start your free 30 day trial.

Jan 20, 2021
23. Who Put the 'Lady' in 'Ladybug'?
00:17:54

Etymology meets entomology this week (at last!) as we dive into just how the ladybug got its name. Then, we look at the curious, similar pairing of the words 'transmissible' and 'transmittable.'

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Jan 13, 2021
22. Words That Are Their Own Opposites
00:27:30

How is it possible that a word like 'oversight' can refer to both watchful care and an inadvertent error? Why didn't someone stop this and bring order to the English language? Today we discuss the linguistic oddities known as contronyms. (Or auto-antonyms. Or Janus words. There's a long list.) Then, we'll try to untangle the strange and twisting path of the words 'iniquity' and 'inequity.'

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Jan 06, 2021
A Holiday Greeting
00:00:30

Hello friends!

We're taking a short break and will return with new episodes in early January.

Have a lovely holiday season!

Transcript available here.

Dec 23, 2020
21. When a Mistake Leads to a New Word
00:22:19

Some words are borrowed from elsewhere. Some are created for a purpose. Others are, well, a bit of an accident. Today we're looking at the times English made a mistake, but recovered from it quickly. Then, we'll figure out the legitimacy of a word that annoys many: the troublesome 'enormity.'

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Dec 16, 2020
20. Is It a '180' or a '360'?
00:18:14

We start this week in the rough-and-tumble world of politics (yikes!) with an analysis of the phrase "throw someone under a bus." Where's it from? And why a bus? Then, we go to the world of math (double yikes!) to see if there's a linguistic difference between pulling a 180 and pulling a 360.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Dec 09, 2020
19. The Word of the Year 2020
00:32:50

What can the most frequently searched words of the year tell us about 2020? On this special edition, Emily Brewster and Peter Sokolowski reveal our 2020 Word of the Year, along with 11 more of the words that shaped a year like no other.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Nov 30, 2020
18. Is "Try And" a Proper Use? plus More Listener Questions
00:18:02

We're going back to the mailbag for more of our listeners' most pressing and intriguing questions. Plus, we issue our first correction! Exciting!

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Nov 25, 2020
17. How to Read a Dictionary Entry
00:18:04

When you read a definition, what do you see? Is one meaning of a word more important than another? Who decides this, anyway? Join us for a deep dive into the myths and mysteries of the dictionary.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Nov 18, 2020
16. 'Contact' and 'Impact': Acceptable Verbs?
00:23:05

For many, the term 'bounty hunter' might evoke the Old West (or at the very least, Star Wars). But is it a much newer word than expected? We'll investigate. Then, we look at two of the most-maligned verbs of the past century: 'contact' and 'impact.'

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Nov 11, 2020
15. Why Are American and British English Different?
00:24:37

This week is all about spelling. Some attempts to reform it have succeeded. (You've probably noticed that words are spelled differently in the US than in British English.) Others have failed hilariously. (You'll see.) But we're burying the lede; our first topic is that word itself: 'lede.' How did it find its current form? Then, we'll discuss the godfather of American English himself, Noah Webster. (Yes, that's where we got half our name.)

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Nov 04, 2020
14. Everything Is 'Awesome.' Or Is It?
00:30:55

On a dark and stormy night many years ago in Springfield, Massachusetts, a fake word rose to take its place among the living. Or at least among the pages of our dictionary. Today we're telling the haunting tale of that ghost word. Then, we'll look at a word that (to some) is even scarier: the dreaded 'awesome.'

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Oct 28, 2020
13. What's Up with 'Biweekly'? and Other Listener Questions
00:16:18

You asked, we answered. This week, we go to the mailbag to look into some of the questions, complaints, and vexing language concerns sent in by you, dear Word Matters listeners.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Oct 21, 2020
12. A Collection of Obscure Words for People Who Annoy You
00:09:15

If there's one activity that has bonded English users throughout the centuries, it is the creation of new words to describe those who are unpleasant or otherwise disagreeable. Here's Ammon Shea with some forgotten words you might need when dealing with annoying people.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Oct 14, 2020
11. Can Something Be "Very Unique"?
00:22:50

Most adjectives can be ranked — something can be good, better, or best — but are there any that can't? Are some adjectives already absolute? Does the English language love to confuse and beguile? We'll get into that, plus the tricky usage of 'than' in phrases like "than I" and "than me."

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Oct 07, 2020
10. How "Not" to Start a Sentence
00:21:33

You've probably, at some point, been taught that there are certain words that should never, ever start a sentence. Today you will learn that this rule is a bunch of hooey. If anything, you should never, ever trust an 18th-century grammarian. After that, we'll look into what exactly is going on, language-wise, when a Top Chef judge says a dish "eats salty."

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Sep 30, 2020
9. In Defense of 'Like'
00:24:46

'Like' is a wildly versatile, fascinating word and we're here with guest editor Serenity Carr to give it its due. Seriously. Like, there's nothing wrong with it. Later we'll tackle the story of 'mean', which was a perfectly nice word for centuries before it developed a bit of an attitude.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Sep 23, 2020
8. A Collection of Obscure Words That Are Pretty Much Useless
00:09:11

Sometimes, a word falls out of use through no fault of its own. Other times, the blame lands squarely on the word's shoulders. Here's Ammon Shea with a special batch of words that were just too specific or too unnecessary to live.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Sep 16, 2020
7. 'Matriculate': A Word on the Move
00:19:22

Today we travel to the wide world of sports to ask the question (we assume) everyone's been pondering: how did the word for enrolling in a school start being used to describe the movement of a football down a field? Then, we examine the origins of a word that once took flight, literally.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Sep 09, 2020
6. Sorry, But Shakespeare Didn't Create That Word
00:19:51

One of the most cherished and enduring myths about the English language is that its vocabulary was largely populated through the genius of a single man: William Shakespeare. Without seeking to diminish the importance of the man who was undeniably influential, we would like to point out that this is just not the case.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Sep 02, 2020
5. Can I Get a Word in the Dictionary?
00:26:55

It's nothing personal, but most of the time, the word you invented won’t make it into the dictionary. Except, on occasion, when it does. Today, we tell the story of one such rule breaker: ‘scofflaw.’ Then, we look at all the various shapes and forms the word ‘mustache’ has taken over the years, before shaving itself down to its current spelling.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Aug 26, 2020
4. How Do You Even Pronounce 'Antennae' Anyway?
00:25:11

After a job well done, you might receive kudos. But today we ask: can you ever receive just one? Or is it just the sound of one hand clapping? Then, we explore a topic that loves to make even the most seasoned English speakers second-guess themselves: Latin plurals.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Aug 19, 2020
3. A Collection of Obscure Words That You Might Find Useful
00:10:00

Few parts of the English language fascinate its users more than obscure and obsolete words. Today, our in-house collector of errant words Ammon Shea brings us a few words that may have been lost to history, but perhaps might be worth picking up and dusting off.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Aug 14, 2020
2. Setting Sail on a Semantic Drift
00:26:37

Terrific. Fantastic. Wonderful. Can we properly use these words without referring to terror, fantasy, or wonder? Today our editors look at one of the most dependable sources of language change: semantic drift. Then, we cool down with a discussion of how ‘ice’ and ‘iced’ function to describe various refreshing beverages.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Aug 13, 2020
1. 'Irregardless': You Don't Have to Like It
00:24:11

Welcome to Word Matters! In our first episode, we ask a simple but surprisingly complex question: when is a meal supper and when is it dinner? Is there even a difference? Then, we navigate one of English’s most fraught topics. That’s right, we’re talking about the word (yes, WORD) irregardless.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Aug 12, 2020
Introducing Word Matters
00:02:33

From the editors at Merriam-Webster, Word Matters is a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class. 

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Transcript available here.

Aug 04, 2020