by Junvi Ola


Every year, new words and phrases sneak into our vocabulary (remember ‘winning’ or ‘occupy’?). Some are just a passing trend, while others stick around to become part of our everyday language. Wonder who tracks them all?

3rd Space member Grant Barrett  is a radio host, public speaker, lexicographer and journalist. He co-hosts and co-produces of A Way with Words, a nationally syndicated and lively radio show about words, language, and how we use them. He’s also the author of two books, and, as a lexicographer specializing in slang and new words, a contributor to dozens of dictionaries. Think you have a vast vocab? Think again.

I chatted with Grant about balancing his many roles, the difference between a shit head and a shit heart, and which ‘f’ word can make his fellow writers blush.

I love your public radio show, A Way with Words. For those who haven’t yet tuned in, briefly describe your show and why you love co-hosting.

It’s a lighthearted question-and-answer program dedicated to exploring all those little questions about language — speaking, writing, reading, etc. — that come up in life. We try to pick a good mix of callers from around the country (it’s a national show, with the occasional international caller, too) so that we can have folks with all the different accents and voices that make up the whole of language here.

You specialize in slang…how does one do that?

One gets lucky enough to work alongside Dr. Jonathan Lighter, a slang expert who began the Historical Dictionary of American Slang decades ago. I learned a great deal from him, from my reading, and from my colleagues in the American Dialect Society and the Dictionary Society of North America.

barrettYour all-time favorite 5 slang words. Go.

An all-time list is impossible! Here are some recent kind of naughty ones I’ve picked up here and there:

Shark week: a woman’s time of the month.

Resting bitch face: when a person’s relaxed facial expression looks angry, bitter, or sarcastic.

Shitheart: a person worse than a shithead.

Ass grab rehab: the therapy that former Mayor Bob Filner underwent.

Irish Alzheimer’s defense: when a person being questioned by authorities forgets (or claims to have forgotten) everything but the names of their enemies and people by whom they were wronged. I may try to get a few of those on my annual “words of the year” list I do for the New York Times!

Is there one word that is too hideous to mention (but you can tell us), and you wish it would be erased from dictionaries forever? Do tell.

No! All language should be recorded, if it’s widely used enough. But I once made a room full of very erudite writers blush by passing around a dictionary open to an entry for “felching.”

I assume you fell in love with languages and words as a child. How did your fascination with words unfold?

It’s a three-part origin story: 

One, at the age of ten I started reading the J.R.R. Tolkien books, which have rich veins of language, real and invented, running through them like the fat marbling a good steak.

Two, my grandfather was a school janitor who would give us discarded textbooks, including dictionaries. I love them! Especially the tables of characters of other alphabets. I spent many hours trying to figure out how Cyrillic worked. Some of the words sounded like the same English words if you could pronounce the characters, but others were completely different. I tried to understand why.

Three, when I was in my early teens I accidentally figured out how to turn a standard AM radio into a simple shortwave receiver. That meant I could hear broadcasts from around the world! French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, German, Dutch, Arabic, and more. The international broadcasters used to send out shows in more than 200 languages and I could listen to them at home in the boonies and be educated about the world — and about music. It’s where I found an interest in African music, and the reason why when I hear Cuban music I think of being 13 — I listened to hours of tunes when I was that age from Radio Havana Cuba, which, although it’s a propaganda station, had glorious, deep music playlists. Listening to that station — which had a very strong signal — also helped me get a decent Spanish accent (which has since faded), too.

You also manage marketing at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, in addition to writing, editing and speaking.  How are you successfully balancing all of these priorities? Any tips for the rest of us at 3rdSpace?

The radio show and museum have a surprising affinity: both seek to explain complex subjects to non-specialists, and both are quasi-academic nonprofits. I find working with both to also be complementary in terms of

audience, and attitude, and the way they are respected in the community by people I already admire. General life advice about getting a lot done: Try to always say “yes” to students, schools, and libraries. Say no to people who can afford to pay but are trying to get something of value at no cost. Remember that your time is the most valuable thing you have. Try to always consider whether the stakes are high enough to bother. Repurpose content. Sleep is the best enabler. Someone emailing or calling you does not form a social contract hat obligates you to any action — but if you can at least reply, do.

GrantBarrettIs it right to assume you’d kick ass in Scrabble?

Oh, no. Scrabble is about memory, math, and anagramming. Knowing a lot of words, or loving language — my strengths — aren’t the best Scrabble skills. You have to know all those really rare words in the Scrabble dictionary, and most of them are rather boring, and many have little other everyday use that would make them really compelling for me to bother remembering. When I was fully in my Words With Friends/Scrabble/Wordfeud kick I would win about two-thirds of the time. Enough to hold my head up but not enough to avoid being slaughtered at the game board once in a while.

Article by Junvi OlaHeadshot-vertical
Lead Copywriter/Owner, Hospitality Content Studio
Editor, founder/Diego On A Dime
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