If you regularly tune into Montana Public Radio or Yellowstone Public Radio, odds are good that you’ve caught Chrysti the Wordsmith on the air. In her brief, two-minute segments, she explores the origins of a commonly used English word or phrase. When you hear her signature, “Greetings, fellow verbivores!” you know you’re in for an etymological treat.
A Love of Words
Etymology is the study of word origins, and Chrysti Smith has been at it for most of her life.
“I’ve collected dictionaries since high school,” she said, “but I became especially enamored of word origins after taking linguistics classes in college.” (“Enamored,” she would probably tell you comes from Latin, and the key root is the Latin word for “love,” amor.) “I was enchanted by those initial explorations of word roots and decided I wanted to do a radio show to share my passion.”
Born in Poplar, Mont., Smith graduated from Billings Senior High and then migrated to Bozeman for college. She now lives in Belgrade, but travels the state widely as a speaker in Humanities Montana’s Speakers’ Bureau.
In 1990, while studying for her anthropology degree, Smith took advantage of an opportunity to try out her idea for a word-roots radio show in the student-run KGLT studios. From its humble beginnings almost 30 years ago, her radio segments can now be heard on KGLT-FM Bozeman, Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings, Montana Public Radio in Missoula, KCPR in Salt Lake City, and worldwide on Armed Forces Radio and Television Network. It’s two minutes of well-produced radio, featuring theme music by Stuart Weber and engineering from Brodie Cates. Phillip Gaines, professor of linguistics at MSU, is a consulting editor.
Most people take radio production and the creation of each episode of their favorite radio program for granted, but each two-minute segment of Chrysti The Wordsmith takes an average of four or five hours to produce. “Some episodes take as many as 10 hours, depending on the complexity of the subject and how deeply I delve into it,” Smith said. “I do a lot of research and then spend hours refining all that into a little more than a minute and 30 seconds of cogent material.”
The results are impressive: listen to any episode, and you will marvel at how much information Smith packs into each segment, while presenting it all in a manner that captures the listener’s attention.
A Full-Time Job
With an average of five episodes airing weekly, Chrysti the Wordsmith is nearly a full-time job.
“I have other jobs also,” she laughed. “I’ve been a housepainter for decades and still enjoy doing it. That’s primarily summer work, of course. And I do some freelance writing.”
Chrysti the Wordsmith is supported mainly through a generous underwriter in Bozeman, Zoot Enterprises. “They’ve been underwriters of the show for 10 years,” Smith said. “The show is also supported through grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Gilhousen Family Foundation.”
Smith attributed the enduring success of her show to a surprising discovery she has made through the course of her career.
“Almost everyone who uses language is interested in linguistic principles, even if they don’t realize it. The discipline itself is an Ivory Tower pursuit, but everybody is interested in some way or another in communication, and often that’s at the level of words and their origins.”
Though her college degree is in Anthropology, and she always imagined she’d end up being an archaeologist, she said “dictionaries and radio lured me away!”
The more she did the radio show, the more she learned she loved doing it.
“It evolved organically,” she said, “and the more I did it, the more I liked it. It was a homegrown project, a kind of entrepreneurial adventure.” MSN
To hear past episodes or order Smith’s books The Verbivore’s Feast (two volumes), visit her website: wordsmithradio.org. You may also find a select bibliography of more than 65 books on word origins if you find you, too, are interested in the roots of language.