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Public Radio's "A Way with Words": Not Just for Word Nerds and Language Lovers

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Grant and Martha
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My guests today are Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, co-hosts of A Way with Words, a popular, hour-long weekly radio show. Welcome to OpEdNews, Martha and Grant.

JB: How would you describe your show?

GB: I just tried to describe it to an LA Times photographer and said, "It's a show about people and how they talk." Sometimes we call it "Car Talk for language" or "cracking open language and letting humanity and history pour out." It's definitely about human relationships, as much as anything.

JB: " Car talk for language" is apt because it captures so well the lively interaction between the hosts on each show. Would you like to flesh that out, Martha?

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MB: We deal with all aspects of language -- word and phrase origins, slang, linguistic diversity, regional dialects, grammar, and that weird thing Grandma used to say. Our hope is to inform, inspire, and connect people, and nurture their curiosity about language. And we're always happy when folks say we're plain old entertaining, like this tweet from the other day:

Angelica Meegan@AngeMeegan Dec 10

Is 5 consecutive episodes of @wayword too many ?! Thank you @MarthaBarnette & @GrantBarrett for helping clean my house

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JB: I can attest to the addictiveness of your show. I listen to your podcasts and often just go from one to the next without even catching my breath. Each of you brings your own special breadth of expertise to the show. Can you tell us what you did/where you've been that prepared you to take on this role?


Martha Barnette
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MB: My background's in classics, with many years of study of ancient Greek, which I studied in college, grad school, and with a polyglot tutor. I also spent years as a professional journalist, at The Washington Post, among other places. The story of how I fell in love with etymology, and how that arose from my favorite failure, is here: http://marthabarnette.com/why-i-love-language/ The short version is that as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry." For me, discovering that linguistic fossil evidence is as thrilling as digging up a T. rex femur and dusting it off. :)

JB: "Fossil poetry": Nice word picture, Martha! Grant?

GB: For me, the biggest preparation has been being a part of the American Dialect Society, a great group of linguists, lexicographers, and other language specialists. I've been a part of the group for 20 years. They're so generous with their knowledge! They just want average folks to understand the basic things that they take as givens: 1. Language change is normal and interesting. 2. The idea of "bad" or "good" words or language is a social construct, not something inherent in the language. 3. When we think we are upset about something having to do with language, we're almost always really upset about something having to do with our relationship or interactions with other people, and not so much with the function and form of the language used between us. Think about it like having a cold: it's not the excess nasal mucous that's wrong with you, it's the cold virus that causes your nose to run that's really the problem.

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All three of these things are beliefs Martha and I bring to the show, and they are woven through everything we do on air, and in our live appearances.

Also, I've been a lexicographer -- a dictionary compiler and editor -- and that has put me in touch with many of the best reference works that help me answer listeners' questions, as well as taught me how to build my own language files that go above and beyond what others have. I have a deep archive of stuff I've gathered.


Grant Barrett
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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