Montana State University

Spring 2012

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Mountains and Minds

Word has it April 30, 2012 by Michael Becker · Photos by Kelly Gorham • Published 04/30/12

Chrysti the Wordsmith's feast of words began at MSU
It has happened to us all. You're folding the laundry or doing some other mundane task when it hits you. That's what I should have said.

That phenomenon of coming up with the perfect retort too late has a name--l'esprit de l'escalier in French and treppenwitz in German, where it roughly translates into "staircase wit," referring to coming up with that comeback while headed down the stairs after the gathering and your verbal opponent are left behind.

There is no equivalent word in English, and that fascinates Chrysti Smith, who is better known to public radio listeners as Chrysti the Wordsmith, host of the popular two-minute radio show about word and phrase origins.

A native of Poplar, Mont., Smith came to MSU at age 30 in 1989 after a few years in west Texas as a builder of picture frames and hobbyist spelunker. She chose a course of study in anthropology and sociology, but not far into her coursework, she enrolled in a few linguistics classes.

A collector and avid reader of antique dictionaries since her 20s, Smith was already vulnerable to the language's appeal.

"Learning how we as human beings make sounds and meaning was very interesting," said Smith. "I was really falling in love with the notion that words have histories and stories."

In nearly 22 years, Chrysti estimates she has recorded nearly 3,000 episodes of her radio broadcast, Chrysti the Wordsmith.

Radio, which was a constant presence while Smith was growing up in northeastern Montana, seemed like the perfect medium to spread her budding love of etymology. She took her show idea to KGLT--the public radio station housed at MSU that lets anyone have a radio program after passing the requisite class and completing an apprenticeship. Phil Charles, the legendary radio man in charge of the station at the time, had no problem finding room for Smith's show.

Just six weeks after pitching the idea and with no prior experience in radio, Smith found herself in the studio recording her first episode of "Chrysti the Wordsmith."

Nearly 22 years later, she can't recall what that first word was.

It's understandable. In the years since, Smith figures she has recorded around 3,000 episodes. They've been broadcast--five days a week in some places--on KGLT and Yellowstone Public Radio, as well as on public radio in Salt Lake City and the Armed Forces Network worldwide.

She has also written two books based on her shows, 2004's Verbivore's Feast: A Banquet of Word & Phrase Origins and a follow-up in 2006, Verbivore's Feast, Second Course.

The formula for each of those 3,000 shows has been similarly simple, or so it seems when Smith describes it.

Pick a word. Derive an attention-grabbing way to play with the word. Elaborate on the word in a way that tells the people who use it all the time something they didn't know about it. Do it all in about 225 words.

It sounds easy enough, but each script takes Smith one to three hours to write, drawing from her collection of language and word books, thesauri and dictionaries--more than 300 volumes at this point. She still has those antique dictionaries too, though she has had to prune her collection--not enough space and too many good resources online these days, she said.

She has a particular fondness for the mother of all etymological tomes, the Oxford English Dictionary.

"I used to go and sit and read it at the library," said Smith, referring to the Renne Library at MSU. "I spent my life reading that 20-volume papyrus copy of the OED."

After the research is complete, many of her scripts go to Philip Gaines, an associate professor of English and linguistics at MSU who has served as Smith's script editor for about five years. He helps hone her scripts for broadcast.

"Her books are Verbivore's Feast, so I would call each one of her shows a delightful snack," Gaines said. "She gets people to think in deeper ways about the things we are commonly familiar with."

The show is important in a day when so much emphasis is put on science and technology, which is especially true at MSU, Gaines said.

"Her show strikes me as a way for (listeners) to connect, even in a brief way, with the life of the mind," he said.

Smith records her shows at KGLT, taking about an hour to record about 12 shows at a time. "That, by far, is the speediest process," she said. "The most fun part, really."

KGLT helps support "Chrysti the Wordsmith" as part of the station's grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which says 26 percent of the grant money must be spent on national programming, said Ellen King-Rodgers, station manager.

Smith does have a life outside of words and radio. She makes her home in Belgrade and enjoys hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and walking her dogs. In her off time, she paints houses.

That off time has been limited, though, by the duties of being a celebrity. Not long after starting the show, the calls began coming in, asking her to make public appearances, do readings, share her wit and judge spelling bees.

"Radio was perfect for me," Smith said, "because no one could see me, and I always had a script to read."

Unfortunately, too many people liked her show to let her exist only as a disembodied voice on the radio.

"To my horror," she said with a laugh.

Next up for Smith is a new project, a cliché-a-day calendar she hopes to soon sell to a publisher. Plus, there's the radio show, which she has no plans to stop any time soon.

The love of words is too much a part of her for that. She's always finding new stories to fascinate her and new holes in the language in need of explanations.

"It's not so much an academic project at all," she said. "It's a program for someone who uses the language."