As you listen, think about the words that you and your friends use to communicate K. Now there is an example, if you look up K in the dictionary you will not find that OK is one of its meanings – but that is what it may mean to you. How does language shift and change over time? What are the reasons for these changes? She seems to make the point that sometimes we take our language usage (or rather the language use of others) too seriously.

Why you should listen:

In addition to sitting on the usage panel for American Heritage dictionary since 2005, Curzan is also an author—her latest book is called Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. She also co-hosts the show “That’s What They Say” on Michigan Radio, all about language and grammar, and writes regularly for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog, Lingua Franca.

Who is she:

Anne Curzan is a collector of slang words, a dissector of colloquialisms and a charter of language evolution. To put it most simply, she is a Professor of English at the University of Michigan who studies how the English language works and how it has changed over time. As she puts it in her talk, “The English language is rich, vibrant and filled with the creativity of the people who speak it.”


  1. Find a copy of Chauser’s book Canterbury Tales and read some passages in the older version of English. How has language changed and shifted? Were you able to understand most of what he wrote? Were there some passages you were not able to understand?
  1. Find two or three examples of “new words” and present them to 10 peoples who are at least 15 years older than you. What is their reaction to the words? Is there a parallel to what she presents in her talk.
  1. Every year on January 1, a professor at Michigan Tech University suggests that a number be banished from the language; a complete list is available at Do you think that his choices are valid? Why or why not.
  1. Do you have your own pet peeve when it comes to modern American grammar usage? What are they? Where did they come from?
  1. Have you noticed that many people are starting a sentence with “So,…”? This started in 2014; why did this new construction creep into our pattern of speaking?
  1. Do some research on ebonics. How has that language form or usage influenced standard English?

What makes a word “real” with Anne Curzan


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