Even queer lingo doesn’t get past gay ‘A Way with Words’ host and logophile Martha Barnette


MARTHA, MARTHA, MARTHA! | Public Radio’s doyenne of word originals, Martha Barnette, swoops into Dallas for a live show of ‘A Way with Words’ quicker than a duck on a junebug. (Ask her what it means.)


RICH LOPEZ  | Contributing Writer

We applaud when someone like NBA player Jason Collins comes out of the closet. But why was he in the closet anyway? No, not metaphorically, but really. Is “the closet” some arbitrary term, or did it hold certain significance? Why not the basement or the trunk?

Questions such as these are no big deal for Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, who co-host the public radio show A Way With Words (airing on KERA Fridays at 1 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.). The wordsmiths will come to Dallas for a live show at the Lakewood Theater on Thursday, benefiting (natch) The Aberg Center for Literacy. But before they got here, we sought from Barnette, who is lesbian, some insights about how queer colloquialisms (colloqueerisms? queerloquialisms?) have entered the public lexicon. And as a lover of words (formal term: logophile) Barnette enjoys explaining just how LGBT culture is likely influencing today’s language.

“We certainly see gay slang bubbling up and sliding over,” she says. “‘In the closet’ arose around the late ’60s and early ’70s, but the idea of coming out has been around for hundreds of years. And now, everyone uses it as a type of reveal:

‘I came out of the closet as a fan of Honey Boo Boo!’”

Barnette relishes in the amorphous nature of English as it compares to other languages. If it were a Scruff profile, it would proudly proclaim itself “versatile.”

Screen shot 2013-05-09 at 11.17.39 AM“I would suspect that the case is, as society gets exposed to us and then our language, more people adopt [the terminology]. That happens across the board,” Barnette says. “That’s the great strength of the English language: its diversity. Unlike others, English is open and embracing. It’s like the person at the table asking in French or Italian, ‘Are you gonna eat that?’”

Barnette is excited by her Dallas appearance, and says she and Barrett can always tell when the show is on the air in North Texas by the sheer volume of calls they receive. She’s not just blowing smoke: Tune in or download any episode and D/FW gets a fair representation of fans calling to figure out that weird thing grandma always said or where certain foods get their name.

“We have experienced so much love from you guys,” she says. “You all have such an intellectual curiosity.”

She hopes people will bring that to the event. The night will bring awareness to the Aberg Center’s mission to provide adult education and family literacy programming to decrease the near half-million Dallasites who lack a high school education and English fluency.

“It’s a perfect fit,” says Teri Walker, the Aberg Center’s executive director. “Martha and Grant and Aberg Center share an understanding of how language creates and reflects culture. We’re grateful to them for coming to Dallas in support of literacy.”

KERA’s Think  host Krys Boyd will moderate, including the partaking of quizzes and a Q&A consistent with the show’s affable, insightful nature. Perhaps even the gays can hit up Barnette for some homo-definitions and origins — like, why is “Mary” such a popular name to throw around.

“I think that’s very interesting,” Barnette admits. “I’ve heard ‘Blanche,’ also. Use of feminine names has been around — ‘Miss Nancy’ goes back to the 1820s. And ‘Nelly’ was derived when people would use ‘Nervous’ or ‘Nice Nelly.’ There’s even a Broadway show now with Nathan Lane called The Nance where he plays that kind of character.”

Barnette does say lesbians don’t have an equivalent: “There are the ‘U-Haul’ types or ‘bois’, but no tradition that I’m aware of,” she says.

While Barnette described herself as “pretty gay” during our interview, she followed it up with an email asking if I was familiar with the term “Quiltbag.” (Nope.)

Pointing to a link to QueerDictionary on Tumblr, I find “Quiltbag” is an acronym for “Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Allied/Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer.”

“I’d say I fall somewhere on that continuum,” she says. “I’m wondering if that will cross over into the mainstream.”

Here’s hoping.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 10, 2013.