Word Matters Podcast

Researching Slang (with Ben Zimmer)

Word Matters, Episode 67

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This week we're joined by Wall Street Journal language columnist and Spectacular Vernacular podcast host Ben Zimmer! Learn all about Ben's research on the history of words like 'hella' and 'Ms.', plus how slang is studied and tracked through time.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, a visit with linguist, lexicographer, and podcast host Ben Zimmer. 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 Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I, explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Ben Zimmer's extensive research into current and historical uses of words has led to all kinds of discoveries. We're going to begin our conversation with one such discovery that had surprising real world consequences. Listen up. It's hella fun.

We have a special guest today, our friend Ben Zimmer. Ben is a linguist and a lexicographer. He's the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal as well as a contributing writer for the Atlantic and co-host of The Slate podcast Spectacular Vernacular. Thank you Ben, for being here.

Ben Zimmer: Oh, thanks for having me. This is a real pleasure.

Emily Brewster: We're really happy to have you. Been trying to make it happen for a while now.

Ammon Shea: And it's good to hear your voice, Ben. I'm going to embarrass you by saying what I always say about Ben. He's the hardest working man in word business.

Emily Brewster: That seems apt.

Ben Zimmer: I keep busy. I keep busy. I like working on lots of different things at once, but they're all word related, on some level.

Emily Brewster: You've been researching and writing about language for so long you've covered everything from meh to supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. So when we were talking about you coming on the show, the most difficult thing was to try to narrow what we would talk about. Slang is always fun though and so are regionalisms. And so I think want to start by talking about research you've done on the California-born word hella.

Ben Zimmer: Hella. Yeah. That's one of my favorite words. I've been researching it for quite a while and have made some very interesting discoveries just in the past year or so. It all started when I wrote about hella for my Wall Street Journal column. The column is about words in the news, and it was in the news last November when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won. And Kamala Harris is from Oakland, California, and that meant that the Mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, was talking about how proud the city was for her history-making accomplishment and said: "In Oakland, we're hella proud." So that was an opportunity for me to sort of unlock all of my research on hella that I've been collecting over the years and see if I could find anything new because it's one of those slang terms, everybody agrees it came from the Bay Area and it spread and became more national or even international slang, but how old is it? If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster, you might see dates from the mid 1980s. But I always heard reports from people who grew up there, it's like, "Oh, it's older than that. Definitely goes back to the '70s." But where do you start looking for that type of slang? It's not always obvious because it might not be in the kind of more standard sources where you would look.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Slang is notoriously difficult to pin down in its earliest uses because it's primarily spoken.

Ben Zimmer: Exactly. And with something like hella, it stayed regional for so long that it didn't really get on many people's radars unless they happened to have grown up, not just in the area, but specifically in the East Bay. So places like Oakland and Berkeley seemed to be where it first started. And I had found examples going back to 1986 in a Bay Area skateboarding magazine called Thrasher, where they were interviewing members of Metallica and James Hetfield used hella a couple of times. And hella can be used as an adverb, meaning very or exceedingly, like hella proud. But it also can be used as an adjective that's more like a quantifier meaning like much or many or a lot of something. And it was clearly already being used that way in the mid '80's. But it seemed older than that.

Peter Sokolowski: I have a quick dating-related question because this is obviously a subject that's very near and dear to my heart. And if I were to further embarrass our guest, whenever I antedate something I'm describing it to somebody, I always stipulate that this is the earliest known date until Ben Zimmer comes around and takes a look at it, at which point things will probably change. So when you were finding these early incidents of hella in Thrasher, you were searching out, were these physical copies, were these digital copies? Is it something that you just knew to look there?

Ben Zimmer: I don't remember. I may have just been looking for transcriptions of interviews because I knew that it was something that musicians might use. It showed up in hip-hop lyrics, for instance. Too Short, the rapper from Oakland, used it on an album that came out in 1986. So I think maybe I was just sort of like zeroing in what can I find? And perhaps someone had transcribed that interview and it just so happened that I was able to search for it and find it. But that magazine is not in any of the usual kind of repositories of digitized sources where we generally look.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ben Zimmer: But those sources, who do this type of dating and try to figure out the earliest uses of things, we tend to look in places like newspaper databases, Google Books, those sorts of places. But a lot of these smaller publications, let's, say don't necessarily get aggregated into those databases where we would normally look.

Emily Brewster: That's one of the reasons that slang is hard to find. I happen to have defined the word hella, and as a definer, I don't have to find to the earliest example. I don't actually even have to research the etymology. You often end up in the course of defining work, come across early examples, and certainly you want to have a sense of how long a word has been in use, but you don't have to do that labor when you're a definer for Merriam-Webster of finding the earliest examples. In my defining work, I found examples from the late 1980s. That was what I had access to, which was enough to tell me that the word was established. More so in this particular case, we were looking to see that the word had really moved beyond its regional origins.

Ben Zimmer: And it did by that point become something that you would hear beyond just the Bay Area and sort of spreading to other parts of the country. But I'm very interested in how these things start out in terms of if it's really a regional thing like this, where does that start bubbling up? And so in this particular case, it required finding sources that were right there in the East Bay. And fortunately in the past few years, more of those sources have become available for searching. So Internet Archive, which you can access from archive.org, has done a great job of collecting all sorts of sources that weren't really available before in these databases that we were talking about. And so when I took another look to see what I might find for hella, suddenly I was finding earlier examples from the East Bay, specifically the Bay Area Reporter, which is this long running weekly newspaper serving the LGBTQ community, has several examples of hella from the early '80s, earlier than anything that had been found before. And they were all coming from a particular columnist who is based in Oakland. He used the pen name Nez Pas, but he was really Peter Palm in real life. And he reported on the nightlife in Oakland and East Bay. And just from finding his columns in the Bay Area Reporter, I was able to see that hella was being used as early as March 1982 in his columns where he says, "You just might be hella surprised." And it turns out that this writer enjoyed using local slang and often used these things like hella. And so that was sort of a first discovery that kind of led to various further discoveries. That was the earliest that I was able to find for hella, spelled H-E-L-L-A in the way that we typically see it now. But it turns out that it was also being spelled hell of, H-E-L-L-O-F, with the exact same usage, meaning either very, or many, or much, and perhaps hell of was being pronounced like hella, but they didn't know how to write it, and so they just wrote it as two words, hell of. And again, thanks to Internet Archive, that two-word version can be found in high school yearbooks from Berkeley High School in the early '80s.

Emily Brewster: Really?

Ben Zimmer: And so that opened up a whole new path of discovery there.

Emily Brewster: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait, wait. They have high school yearbooks in this database?

Ben Zimmer: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: That's amazing.

Ben Zimmer: Exactly. Yeah, when I found out I was like, "Oh, well, this changes things."

Emily Brewster: It really does.

Ben Zimmer: Because high school yearbooks are fantastic places to look for slang as a sort of bubbling up, because it's the young people who are coming up with it, typically. High school yearbooks or other publications like high school newspapers are extremely valuable and you can get a lot of this now on Internet Archive. In the case of this Berkeley High School yearbook, it just so happened that the Berkeley Public Library has been scanning and digitizing the high school yearbooks and Internet Archive just has kind of aggregated all of that into its search contents. And so that meant that doing a search now for hell of turned up all sorts of interesting things. It actually topped the list of most used slang in the Berkeley High School yearbook for the '83/'84 school year. And then you can keep going back further. So the 1981 yearbook, it has it in the form, "There were a hell of foxes at BHS this year." Again, using it like that quantifier like many or much. So once I realized that these yearbooks were available, I just kept digging further and further. The examples I've given you so far were all in print, just what you could search for from these digitized sources, because the way these databases work is it uses optical character recognition to take all of that printed matter and turn it into sort of machine readable, searchable text. But yearbooks have other kinds of text in them. We all remember writing in each other's yearbooks, all of those signatures and inscriptions. Well, those might not be searchable, but if all of the yearbooks are scanned there, you can just look at what kids were writing to each other in their yearbooks. And that's what I did and kept taking it back further and further. Found it in 1980. And then eventually the earliest from those yearbooks that I found was from the 1978/'79 school year. And the quote is, "Too bad you didn't go to Santa Cruz because it was hell of live."

Emily Brewster: Wow. Hell of live.

Ben Zimmer: Yeah. And it must have been a great time, more California slang there. I guess it was lively, I suppose.

Ammon Shea: Was that a handwritten use, Ben?

Ben Zimmer: It was handwritten and it was written to Jim from David. The story gets even more unbelievable at that point because I was sharing these findings on social media, on Facebook and Twitter. And a friend of mine who I know as a Facebook friend said, "Hey, wait a minute. I'm from Berkeley High School class of 1979. I know this guy David who wrote this." And he posted this on the Facebook group for the alumni of Berkeley High School class of 1979 and the Jim that this was written to identified himself.

Emily Brewster: Wow.

Ammon Shea: I was going to interject that the next level of this would be to find these actual individuals, and you actually did it.

Emily Brewster: And see if there's still regret about not attending that Santa Cruz event.

Ben Zimmer: Well, turns out this fellow named Jim Manheimer stepped forward and said, "This was my yearbook. I have not seen my yearbook since graduation day in 1979 when I lost it."

Emily Brewster: Oh.

Peter Sokolowski: So that's the one that was scanned.

Ben Zimmer: That's the one that was scanned. It was lost. Somebody just turned it in, I guess, to the library, and it was part of their holdings. And that's what the library scanned.

Emily Brewster: That's amazing. Now I was going to say earlier that the library is the real hero in this story, unless the library stole this.

Ben Zimmer: It's such a great story. And in fact, it was brought to my attention earlier this year in January, when a reporter got in touch with me from Berkeleyside, the local Berkeley paper there, to tell me that Jim Manheimer was being reunited with his yearbook. He got in touch with the library and he said, "Yeah, I think you have my yearbook." And they're like, "Well, can you describe it?" And he was able to describe it exactly. And so the library decided that they already have it scanned and digitized, that this should go back to the rightful owner. So they were able to give him his yearbook back, which went missing on graduation night 42 years ago.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Emily Brewster: Oh my gosh.

Ben Zimmer: He hadn't even read all of these inscriptions because he lost it before he could read what people had written in it. So it just goes to show, when you do this type of research, it can have some hella random consequences.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back in a minute with more of our conversation with Ben Zimmer. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media

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

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And from more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: In part two of today's episode with Ben Zimmer, we discussed the challenges of researching the early uses of words and hear the tale of how he dug up what might very well be the first time the courtesy Ms. was used in print.

Ammon Shea: I remember you doing some other similar research with slang where you found handwritten evidence of words. I think you had found early use of sucked?

Ben Zimmer: So yeah, I found a whole treasure trove of graffiti that was written by recruits for Vietnam who were being transported on a transport ship, where you would have to sleep on a bunk bed that would have a canvas on it. And that canvas was perfect for scribbling graffiti on. And at Texas Tech, they have a museum that collects all of these canvases from these bunk beds and has scanned them and transcribed the graffiti. So for someone like me, again, looking for the hidden sources of slang and other language that might fly under the radar for a while, this was amazing. Of course, a lot of it is very vulgar, but it gave some insights into some slang like saying something sucks, let's say the Navy sucks or the Army sucks. And that comes from the 1960s, latter half the 1960s. Of course, it's hard to date some of that. You can't know exactly when graffiti was written, but that has like a long tradition as well. Allen Walker Read famously went around the country, in 1928, I believe was his first trip, collecting graffiti that he would find at roadside places in bathrooms. And what he collected there is extremely valuable and especially vulgar slang that you wouldn't find in proper print sources.

Ammon Shea: You guys are really archeologists of language. You're going back and looking. I think the one point we should make for listeners is that sometimes people have the impression that we know this much detail about all of the words in the dictionary and the fact is these are the rare exceptions. Often we can't find these early examples.

Ben Zimmer: That's true, but given the new sources that are becoming available to us, whether it's high school yearbooks or other sources that would be very hard to search for, the more that that becomes available, the more we're able to dig up things and sort of tell these hidden histories that were just not available to us before.

Peter Sokolowski: I mean, technology has completely changed the game. You two are among the best of these Indiana Joneses of literature. I served on the team that did etiological dating for the 11th Collegiate, but that was in 2002, and we didn't have these tools. And so it's a marvel to me.

Ammon Shea: Well, one of the things that I think is kind of interesting about the technology that's being brought to the table here is that it's a blessing and a curse. I'm sure that Ben has experienced the kind of difficulty of optical character recognition that we refer to as OCR, which can be with a word like hella, which is kind of orthographically vague in a way, it could be any number of words, hell, hello, could be transcribed as hella.

Ben Zimmer: Exactly. Exactly.

Ammon Shea: So you get so many false positives, but what I think is really of value with somebody like Ben is particularly knowing, not just going through a computer and searching through newspapers.com, I mean, anybody can do that and is great. But really having the kind of knowledge of specific databases and linguistic registers to know where to look because one of the things that we find, I think, is that a word will be extant much earlier than we think, but then there's going to be someplace hidden. A recent example, I came across the use of marriage from 1954, well before it was part of the conversation, and it was in the minutes of a meeting of the Mattachine Society, a mid-century gay rights organization. And it didn't enter into public discourse for decades after this, but it still means that this was a legitimate use of the word, it was being used very specifically with very specific meaning that we kind of recognize today, but it doesn't come up in newspapers. It doesn't come up in your kind of traditional sources. So if you are lucky enough to have access to some of these things, or if you're experienced to know where to look, it really kind of changes the picture of the language quite a bit.

Emily Brewster: Well, newspaper evidence is really evidence of the language as it exists, as it is permitted by the gatekeepers of the language, right? Someone has said, "Yes, this is allowed. Yes, the readership is likely to understand this. And, yes, we won't get lots of horribly angry letters complaining about our use of this word." So there's a lot of consideration that goes into the allowing of any particular word into a dictionary, traditionally anyway. I think that's less true now.

Ammon Shea: That's a great point though, since we have this guest here today, I want to bring this up. There are several instances of 19th century bullshit coming up in newspapers that nobody knows why. One was just in an advertisement, it was kind of like type setting, just like random bullshit, actual uses of the word bullshit.

Ben Zimmer: That's right. That's something that you can find now. Sometimes people who are doing the type setting for newspapers would sneak in some things that shouldn't really belong. And so these old Linotype machines or whatever, where sometimes you just had to clear it out basically, and these things would accidentally get into print sometimes. So we do have an early example of bullshit showing up that way, where it was clear it was just not intended for print, but was just part of someone just having a little devilish fun with the Linotype machine, I guess.

Emily Brewster: Do they do it with other words too?

Ben Zimmer: Yeah. There were some other kind of vulgarisms that would slip through that way. Yeah, you never know what you might find now, if you go looking for these things.

Ammon Shea: Do we accept that as lexical evidence? I feel like it's clear intent of some sort, but it's certainly not being used in any discernible context.

Ben Zimmer: Yeah. It's just one of these oddities that shows up where it was something that was in use, but yeah, you can't say exactly based on the context how it was being used, other than it was a word people knew shouldn't appear in the newspaper and so when it slipped through, it was obviously an error.

Ammon Shea: One of my favorite examples is very similar to that. I always wanted to write a paper on equine antonomastic, especially early 20th century. You see this kind of ludic, this really playful use of racing horse names. And a number of times, if you're just looking for the earliest use of a word, it'll come up in race results, as the name of a horse. So a jockey will name or the owner of a horse will give their name like Bowery Boy or Boho Boy or something like that. Something that we don't then see for another 10 or 20 years. A lot of the trainers, a lot of the grooms, were Irish immigrants. And then we see that in similar circumstances 20 years later, it's obvious that the word existed, but it's also obvious that it's not being used in a way where we can actually identify meaning. We just know that it was there.

Ben Zimmer: Yeah, absolutely. That does feel that way sometimes when you're looking through newspaper databases and finding things on the sports pages. It seems like everything was the name of a racehorse before it was anything else. I wanted to pick up on something Ammon said earlier though, about false positives and how difficult that is when you're looking through these databases, especially for shorter words, and the shorter the word, the more false positives you're going to get. And sometimes figuring out just the right kind of search to do in order to filter it out in such a way that you're getting good results is the key for finding these very early examples of things. Sometimes I like to think of it as like finding the right incantation to release the genie from the bottle or something like that. Sometimes that involves searching for the word you're looking for along with another word that you expect to find in the same context, and just hoping that collocation will appear. One nice example of that just came up recently thanks to Words Matter because Emily mentioned that the interjection, yay, Y-A-Y, that sort of celebratory interjection had only been dated by Merriam- Webster and other dictionaries to 1963, which seemed kind of surprising. There was some discussion about this on Twitter, Daniel Radosh pointed out that yay, hurray appeared in translation of the wedding song from the Three Penny Opera in 1954. And that made me think, "Oh, well, that's a good thing to search for." Yay, somewhere near hurray. And sure enough, doing that kind of search on newspaper databases finds comic strips. You have to hope that those comic strips were lettered in a way that would actually be picked up and properly searchable. But sure enough, in the 1920s, there was a comic strip called Winnie Winkle. And I found examples going back to 1922 where the kids are celebrating among themselves and they say, "Yay." And they also say "Hurray." And so sometimes you just have to think of what's the right thing to search for in addition to the word that you're looking for in order to zero in on something that will be useful.

Ammon Shea: That's a great point. And it's also the kind of reverse engineering your search. You're looking at the word that it's used approximating to today and then kind of winching your way backwards. That's a great idea for yay, because yay is just an absolute nightmare to search for.

Ben Zimmer: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: It could be any one of a number of things it's essentially it comes up as the, it comes up as something like that, as way. And there's so many words that could be interpreted that way, according to the OCR.

Ben Zimmer: And another good example of that is one that I spent a lot of time looking for, Ms. The title for a woman regardless of her marital status. One of my proudest achievements in doing this kind of dating is finding the earliest proposal for Ms. as a title for a woman going back to 1901.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Ben Zimmer: In the Springfield Sunday Republican from Springfield, Massachusetts. And that one took years of looking before that first usage was finally something that I could find. And there were other researchers who were trying to find earlier and earlier examples of Ms. and we kept sort of pushing it back further and further. And the breakthrough that I made that actually got it back to 1901 was thinking "Well, okay, if people are talking about this title, Ms., they should also be talking about, well, how do you pronounce it?" And so it was from searching on Ms. along with M-I-Z or M-I-Z-Z, that actually led me to a commentary on the original proposal from the Springfield Republican published in some newspaper in Iowa, just like a month later in December 1901, where they're talking about, "Well, the Springfield Republican is talking about this title that they're suggesting, and they say it should be pronounced something like Ms. M-I-Z-Z." And so that was the key to eventually find the original proposal for it, which was 120 years ago.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Ben Zimmer: A lot older than most people might think in terms of that, because most of us are just familiar with in the early '70s, especially when the feminist movement with Ms. magazine picked it up, but it had this whole hidden history that was really fun to uncover your.

Emily Brewster: Prior to your 1901 date, Merriam-Webster had a date of 1949, which I think also seemed old, but 1901 is much earlier.

Peter Sokolowski: Just so that people who are not familiar with lexical dating know, so what you're saying essentially is that you've taken this word, and I'm just kind rephrasing this very simply, and you're looking for what, within 30 other words, you're looking or an example of Ms. with some variation of pronouns, right?

Ben Zimmer: Something like that. Yeah, exactly. You can do all sorts of fun things involving proximity operators where you say, "Find me this word within 25 words of this other word, but don't show me if it has this other word." You can do all sorts of things with Boolean operators to try to really filter it down to what you're looking for. So that from years of experience is what I've learned to do in terms of trying to find things that other people might not be able to find. As you say, anybody can go on newspapers.com or similar databases this time and find all sorts of great stuff, and that's fantastic. And people have been able to make all sorts of interesting discoveries. It's not just seasoned lexicographers making these discoveries, but having a bit more experience in knowing how to use these databases can lead to some great results. And that's what I often try to pursue.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that we've found as well is that it's not uncommon say with certain newspaper databases for them to misidentify. There's some problems with the metadata and certain titles, for instance, which were published in 1942 are always categorized as coming from 1895. And we've had a number of people write to us saying, "Look at this. I've found this atomic bomb from 1895," or something like that. And people are failing to just read the date at the top of the page, which is understandable because it's very exciting to think you found this. One of the ways in having somebody like you look for something like Ms., knowing the territory really comes in handy, is, for instance, the word jazz, which I and many, many other people spend a lot of time kind of trying to push the date back, and it's currently in 1912. But what's interesting about a word like jazz is not just that it's problematic for its optical character recognition, it can be read many different ways. But that it kind of entered the language with three different meanings at once. And it could be the curveball that somebody had, and the music, and also just pep and excitement. There are so many different things that it could be associated with that it really then comes down to knowing where to look. Are you still dipping into that? Are you working on that at all?

Ben Zimmer: I look back on jazz because it's one of these key words in the language, and you want to know everything about any appearance early on, in whatever meaning it might have had. And so we have these early examples, as you were saying from baseball, going back to 1912, and then its use also in West Coast baseball circles to mean sort of pep or vim and vigor. And then only in 1915 in Chicago does it seem to be brought over apparently by members of the band that played in San Francisco where the baseball team, the San Francisco Seals were training, and there seems to be this connection. Again, this is something that we don't have firmly established, but seems like could have been in the pathway for the word jazz being applied to the music, because that word was not actually being used in New Orleans where the real sort of musical birthplace, they used other words for it. It was only in Chicago where it got the name. And so that's one that I will return to occasionally and discuss with other researchers, whether they're word researchers or historians of music or baseball, just to see is there anything else that we can find from those years? Can we find other flyers or things like that for musical performances in Chicago in 1914 or 1915? Because I'm always hoping that there will be some other little bit of evidence that we can use to put this story together because that word jazz is one that the American Dialect Society said it was the word of the 20th century. And I agree that it's this very important word just in terms of this American art form. And so any little bit of evidence that we can find about how that name came to be is important. And so that's one great example. In a lot of these cases, finding an early example is just like, "Oh, this is cool. I found something that's a few years older than other people have found," but in other cases like Ms. or jazz, it's telling such an important story about our own cultural history that you want all the details that you can find.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, there's a narrative that's clearly missing some important steps with jazz. It's important to mention too, that an etymology, we don't know either. We have the wonderful phrasing "origin unknown" in our dictionaries. I think a lot of people are surprised when they see that. They think that we know everything about words and this is one of those mysteries.

Ammon Shea: Well, one of the things that I think is so fascinating about this kind of search for earliest use is that you really start to see not just the bones of the language, but the bones of how it's recorded. Specifically, how it's overlooked. And so routinely we'll find uses of word that come from African American English, that just had been overlooked because either they weren't printed or we didn't keep the sources as part of the historical record. And I'd like to think that we're doing a better job of kind of unearthing these things, but there's certainly a real inequity in terms of how we've preserved certain kinds of language. And it leads to a record that is not accurate in terms of actual use, but it is an accurate portrayal of what kind of emphasis we assign to taking care of the historical record.

Ben Zimmer: That's a great point. And it's also true that more sources from marginalized communities are becoming available. I mentioned just the LGBTQ publication from the Bay Area, but if we're talking about African-American newspapers or other things that are much more easily available now than they were before, that can go a long way to rectifying a lot of the oversights of the past, let's say. Very often we see this kind of erasure of histories and when terms get appropriated in the mainstream that earlier history can sometimes be lost, but we can piece things together in a way that I think does more justice to those who may have a particular linguistic form and really give credit where credit is due.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. 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 Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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