Word Matters Podcast

What's up with 'biweekly'? And More Listener Questions

Word Matters, Episode 13

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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.

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on Word Matters: your questions. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. This one's all about you, dear listener. Or at least your questions. On each episode, we encourage listeners to email us at wordmatters@m-w.com with any language related questions, complaints or observations they want to share. We've received a wide array of such missives, and thought we'd spend some time today addressing a few of them. Ammon Shea has our first question.

AMMON SHEA, HOST: We're starting with a letter from James Callan, who is writing in about "No problem." And he writes, "I'm 50, and I seem to be right on the dividing line between older people who hate this reply to thank you, and younger people who find it completely unexceptional and don't use you're welcome. Why is you're welcome falling out of favor, and why is no problem the most common replacement?" One of the things that's interesting about this is that obviously language changes and the things that we get upset about change and the way that we respond to things change. "No problem" is perhaps among the more common responses to "thank you" right now, but it's not the first or the only one. We do have evidence going back to the 18th century where people used to say "don't mention it" in response to "thank you." In the 19th century there's evidence say from Dickens in Great Expectations that people would say "not at all," or we have people saying "think nothing of it." It's a recent development that people have started saying "no problem." I think the issue that folks have with it is that it's seen as a kind of double negative, and perhaps unfortunately familiar. What I love about this is that we always find something to kvetch about in terms of how we talk to each other. Some people like to complain about the other side of the equation and people have been complaining about saying "Thanks," rather than "Thank you." There's a great Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture book in 1893 that says "when you receive attention or a favor, acknowledge it by I thank you instead of thanks. Thanks has become a vulgarism from the abuse of the word."

PETER SOKOLOWSKI, HOST: Except it's in Shakespeare, all over the place.

AMMON: That's true. Thanks goes back to Shakespeare.

EMILY: That doesn't mean it's not vulgarism.

AMMON: It doesn't it's not an abuse of the word. These figures of speech that we use, whether it's "I thank you" or "thank you" or "thanks," they change inevitably over the course of time. Right now, we are in the stage of human development that says "no problem."

EMILY: "No problem" I understand to mean is, it was no problem. It was no problem for me to do this thing for you that you were thanking me for.

NEIL SERVEN, HOST: Right. It seems to be about the transaction of thanking. It's about somebody is saying I recognize that this was a burden for somebody to do, and then I went ahead and did it and it was not a problem for me to do. I think maybe possibly the concern about something like "no problem" instead of "you're welcome," it brings up the idea that it was a burden. It could've been a burden for somebody to do. Instead of saying, when we say "you're welcome," that's more of certainly a positive recognition of the transaction. I was glad to do this for you. "No problem" suggests it could've been a problem at some point, and it was not.

AMMON: I think these are all true, but for me, the real sticking point, the thing that sticks in the craw of those over 50 when someone says "no problem" is what it actually is translated as is "I refuse to abide by the meaningless linguistic strictures that you were forced to learn as a child. I rebel against you and everything that you stand for. I cast you out and reject you utterly." That's the way it's broadly interpreted, I think.

PETER: It seems to me as a public radio listener that there would often be a kind of reporter speaking to a host and the host would say, "Thanks for your report. Thank you," and then the response at that moment for many, many years was "thank you." It was "thank you" and "thank you." And then, at some point somebody complained and said, "This doesn't make sense," and now I hear "you're welcome" quite a lot. My favorite is David Folkenflik on NPR always says, "You bet."

AMMON: I say for kids out there who are listening, if you really want to rebel what you should go back to is "I thank you" and "it is my pleasure."

NEIL: In other languages, we also bring up this negative phrasing. Isn't it "de nada"?

PETER: "De nada."

NEIL: Isn't that what we use in Spanish which means it's nothing?

PETER: Yeah. In French, it's a little bit more elaborate, but it means the same-

NEIL: Is it "a pas de quoi"?

PETER: "Il n’y a pas de quoi." Yeah.

NEIL: Il n’y a pas de quoi. So it's not just an American cultural thing certainly that we're reducing the sense of the effort that was required. It's international.

PETER: Maybe even more popular one in French is "je vous en prie," which literally means "I beg it of you." That's neither negative, it's a sort of hyper polite, saying I'm so happy to help you that I ask to help you basically. They bring politesse up to the highest level with that one.

AMMON: If you really want to confuse people, just say "I beg it of you."

PETER: There we go.

(music break)

EMILY: Neil Serven has our next listener question.

NEIL: Listener Larry Weisberg writes about a word that we receive a lot of questions about at Merriam-Webster, and that is the word biweekly. He writes, "How is anyone supposed to know which of the two meanings are the intended meaning? I mean, what's with that?" It's a very good question.

PETER: It sure is.

NEIL: We'll say that it's not limited to biweekly. The problem is same with bimonthly and occasionally biannually, although that gets into other things we'll get into, but it's that sticky prefix bi that has two meanings, essentially. It can mean "every two" or it can mean "twice a." So biweekly ends up being interpreted as meaning twice a week or every two weeks.

EMILY: I think the simple answer for Mr. Weisberg is nobody is supposed to know, unless you have context. An English speaker who chooses to use the word biweekly really has to provide context that gives information about which meaning of biweekly. Is it every two weeks or twice a week? Otherwise, their listener, their reader is not supposed to know.

AMMON: I think that this can be blamed on the American paycheck system. That is really the only common event of something that historically has happened every two weeks. What else do we do every two weeks aside of get a paycheck?

NEIL: Recycling.

AMMON: Really?

NEIL: I get my recycling picked up every two weeks.

AMMON: Not over where I am.

NEIL: We have town budgets.

AMMON: Yeah. But that's not a common use. I think that the biweekly paycheck has become ingrained in our head. If we just changed everybody over to a weekly paycheck, this would be a non-issue.

NEIL: What are things that happen commonly twice a week?

EMILY: There might be biweekly meetings.

AMMON: You have classes biweekly I think. A lot of kids will have classes every Tuesday and Thursday.

PETER: Or biweekly newsletters, for example, then that could be confusing because does that mean every other week or twice? You would need more context in other words.

NEIL: In the case of biannual, that word does have the same issue meaning occurring twice a year or occurring every two years. In that case though, there is a second word biennial which does mean almost strictly occurring every two years. You at least there have an alternative, and then if you remember that, then you can remember biannual as being twice a year. More often than not, I suppose it is clear which is meant, and if not, especially with _biannualv you still might want to provide that context.

PETER: Absolutely.

EMILY: Right. It is helpful that the language has developed these differentiating terms in this particular case. We recommend to English, please do it for biweekly. So far, the language has not taken that recommendation.

PETER: Right. It's evolved for one term, biannual, biennial. We actually figured out we need an easy way to tell one from the other, but we haven't quite figured that out for biweekly.

AMMON: We're working on it.

PETER: Who's in charge?

NEIL: Who's in charge of this place?

PETER: I want to make a complaint.

(music break)

EMILY: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. I'll be back after the break with another of your questions. Word matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

PETER: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the definition and history of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.

NEIL: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

EMILY: Listener Linda Nietman—pardon me if I've mispronounced your name, Linda—writes, "Do you all think that mash potatoes will ever be acceptable along with mashed potatoes?" This is what is happening with ice tea and ice coffee, which we talked about in an earlier episode. This is a process called elision and elision just happens. These sounds fall out of words, and my sense is yes, someday. Yeah.

NEIL: It was interesting with ice tea, I think we talked about it during that episode that the T in tea encouraged, maybe, people to interpret it with I-C-E at the beginning instead of not having the D. With mashed potato, you don't really have that happening. You have a consonant at the beginning of potato, but you don't have ... You notice a difference when you say mash potato and mashed potato.

EMILY: Yes. Except when you're speaking quickly. So this would be more like what happened with iced cream, which did happen. We used to say, people used to say iced cream.

AMMON: Right. Usage guides or at least among them, Richard Grant White, one of our foremost and most splenetic scolds on the issue of language back in 1881 had a furious chapter in his book about the fools, I don't know if he said fools, but he was very angry about the fact that people would say ice cream instead of iced cream.

EMILY: Also water. He didn't like ice. He wanted iced water.

AMMON: He was a real crank. Nobody really seems to have paid that much attention to him, at least in this regard.

EMILY: I feel like mashed potatoes, whatever you want to call that dish, is just such a wonderful food that I think if it gets a name that is somehow easier to say, I feel like that's just in keeping with the pleasure that I derive from eating the food.

AMMON: I think mash potatoes is acceptable now.

PETER: I can say that in the grocery store that I go to, there is an aisle that says can soup, C-A-N space soup. So clearly it had been canned soup.

AMMON: Don't they mean may soup?

PETER: But my point being that that's a similar movement, a similar reduction, a similar elision. Can soup, sort of like old fashioned has essentially lost the E-D. Or boxed set. Both of those phonetically, box set, the terminal sound of an X as an S, and so that's elision. That's true elision, but we end up losing the syllable in the spelling, but actually in the phonetics it's not that different. Reading can soup it's pretty easy to understand what that is. I have to say seeing it, that one made me blink. My point being that that shows the level of acceptance of this kind of elision is maybe beyond what we had already thought. Mash potatoes may already be here for some of us.

EMILY: The fact is that elision happens.

(music break)

EMILY: Next is Peter Sokolowski and another question from one of our listeners.

PETER: We got a note from Carol Chapman that says, "I have one small suggestion maybe for future podcasts. I do not understand the different use of capitol, that is capitol with an O versus capital, capital spelled with an A." This is a pretty good example of what I call confusables in English like principle, principal is another one, discreet and discrete, capitol, capital. This particular one has a more clear answer than most, I have to say. A lot of these are simply spelling variants or doublets that have entered the language at different times, but from the same source. In this case, that's sort of true if you squint, but the basic original meaning of capital with an A, that is to say C-A-P-I-T-A-L, the original meaning in English was the architectural one we define as "the upper most member of a column or pilaster crowning the shaft and taking the weight of the entablature," so the capitals that we think of as Ionic or Doric, for example, in classical architecture. That's where it started, and then it shifted to become, for example, the large letters that we know, the majuscule letters as opposed to the minuscule letters. And then later, because the capital letters were more important, it became his important thing or place like the seat of government or the chief of influence. This word comes from the notion of the capital, meaning the head of the column, the literal head top of it from capitalis, caput in Latin meaning "head." The capitol with an O interestingly enough comes from a place. It's a place name in Rome that was called Capitolium which was the temple of Jupiter at the Capitoline Hill. It was an actual geographic location. That's why we refer to the capitol building with an O, and pretty much everything else whether it's financial or in terms of leadership or in terms of architecture or alphabet is spelled with an A. The O is really just the building in which a state legislative body meets, or of course the US Capitol. I don't know if that makes it very clear, but I thought it was interesting that we actually borrowed those two capitals from two different sources.

EMILY: I think it's interesting that the capital with an A as its earliest meaning was architectural, but capitol with an O is only about buildings.

PETER: That's right.

NEIL: If you think about which elements are confused, capital letter I think most people know which spelling is used there. When you have a sense like the state capital, Austin is the capital of Texas, then you're getting into difficulties because there is such a thing as a state capitol building that you could also have that refers to government. It's the governmental senses I think that are most likely to be confused. I suppose if there is a way to sort them out a mnemonic device to remember which is for which, one I like to think of is that capitol with the O is used for the building where the legislative body meets and most of those buildings have domes.

PETER: Right. Exactly.

NEIL: Which are round. So if you think of that, the round letter is in capitol for the dome and the domed building, and A is in for pretty much every other use.

EMILY: Every other use. That's right. The O is only for buildings.

PETER: As Neil points out, the point of confusion is that for example, the US capitol is in the capital. And those are two words that are spelled differently. But it also happens to be true that in at least the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the seats of government are typically not in A-frame buildings.

EMILY: Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question or a comment, email us at WordMatters@m-w.com. Also, let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts. You can also visit us at NEPM.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobsen. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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