Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
A Way with Words
The Visual Thesaurus is a proud sponsor of public radio's A Way with Words, a "freewheeling joy ride through the English language," that airs every weekend in San Diego, the Midwest and around the world via podcasts. When the ninth season of the show kicks off this Saturday, host Martha Barnette will be joined by a new partner, lexicographer Grant Barrett (read our interview with Grant here). We caught up with Martha to talk about her show, her work and her latest book, the delightful Ladyfingers and Nun's Tummies.
VT: How do you describe "A Way with Words?"
Martha: It's sort of like public radio's "Car Talk," except that people call in with questions about language instead of automobiles. We cover everything from grammar to word usage to slang. Language is a lens for looking at the world and learning all kinds of things besides just grammar. When you're looking at word origins, for example, you're necessarily talking about things like history, science, pop culture and mythology. For someone like me who's a big nerd, it's a great opportunity to find out about lots of stuff.
VT: What are calls that have really stood out?
Martha: Sometimes it's the simplest call, like a husband and wife who have been having a fight about the pronunciation of the word "potable." People take language really personally and they can have an ongoing dispute for years and years and then call us to issue a verdict. We also love it when somebody calls in and talks about an expression in their native language. You see the holes in English because you learn about a concept that another language has a word for but we don't. For example, in English we say "he stands on his own two feet" but in Spanish "he flies with his own wings." I love that kind of thing. There's a Bantu word that means "shuck off your clothes and dance." Why don't we have that in English?
VT: Sounds like people are calling in from around the world.
Martha: Well, I'll tell you one thing that's coming through loud and clear: there's a huge appetite out there for learning English and speaking it well. I can't tell you the number of people who have called in who speak English as a second or third or even fourth language. And they speak it in a way that lets you know they cherish it.
VT: Your background is in print journalism but now you're interviewing people on the air. What has been different about your work in radio?
Martha: With radio you have to do preparation at the beginning, reading, say, an author's book and working out a narrative arc for the questions. The interview itself becomes almost an afterthought. You have to lead that person through a kind of narrative in radio to make it feel satisfying. But you also have to be open to whatever surprises come along. This is really different from print. When I was a print person, an interview could be completely meandering and boring but I could make it interesting by talking about the tenor of the person's voice or the salad they're picking at. In radio I very well might get garbage if I'm not really prepared up front and ready to talk to the person.
VT: Your latest book, "Ladyfingers and Nun's Tummies," has a title that's scintillating -- but a tad mysterious. What's it about?
Martha: It's a lighthearted look at how foods got their names. There's also a chapter about words in English that have food words hidden in them, like mellifluous, from the Latin for "flowing with honey." There's all this chewy stuff in the book. It's a lot like the show. The last thing we want to be are school marms wearing buns and glasses rapping you on the knuckles. It's all about opening doors for people through language -- and having fun.
(Please check out Martha's terrific essay, Why I Love Words)