Sasha Sagan talks to author and linguist AMANDA MONTELL about our strange habit of making patterns of vibrations emanate from our faces in order to communicate.

We’ll also hear from linguist DR. SONJA LANEHART about how these patterns of vibrations vary, spread, and change—and how they help define who and what we are.

Episode excerpt

AMANDA MONTELL: The words that stick around are the words that fill a lexical gap. So language is amazing. Collectively, language is really good at doing its thing, regardless of what some higher-up on a throne thinks is correct. So let’s use an example from the 70s: The reason why no one says groovy anymore is the same reason nobody really says on fleek anymore. That already feels passe. Because those are just synonyms for good or cool. And we had a word for that already: it’s good, it’s cool.

SASHA SAGAN: And they’re working just fine. 

AMANDA: And they’re working just fine. But then there are terms that really fill a lexical gap and really serve a purpose that before went unspoken or unnamed. One example that comes to mind for me is mansplain. It’s just a brilliant portmanteau, which is a sort of hybrid of two words like brunch or frenemy, not to be confused with the pun. So mansplain like really put a label to this experience that so many people had known, and for that reason, now you can basically insert identity here –splain anything, and it was just so useful. Freaking out was another one that filled a lexical gap. I mean, we really did not have a phrase that conveyed the essence of freaking out, but yeah, we’re freaking out. And so it stuck around. It took a seat at the table of everyday English.

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