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Grant Barrett

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A Yankee Dime (full episode) [Jul. 2nd, 2011|09:42 am]
Grant Barrett

Remember misunderstanding certain words as a child? Maybe you figured “cat burglars” only stole cats, or assumed guerrilla fighters must be angry apes. Martha and Grant discuss childhood misunderstandings about language. Also this week, Yankee dimes, culch piles, hanging crepe, educational rubrics, and whether the language you speak influences the way you think.

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There’s a point when children understand just enough of their native language to be confused by homophones and metaphors. What misunderstandings do you remember? Maybe you thought cat burglars stole only cats, or that you might be swept out to sea by the undertoad? The hosts discuss childhood misunderstandings about language.

Some business owners give their establishments names like “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe.” What most people don’t realize is that the letter Y in this case is a vestige of a letter we no longer use, and has a “th” sound. More about this letter here.

A woman from upstate New York says her stepfather used to keep small dishes in various rooms to collect small odds and ends like paper clips and rubber bands. He called them culch piles. Martha has the story on this term.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle based on the candy called “Mentos.” It’s called Mento Stimulation. Example: What kind of minty candy would be appropriate for musicians?

A North Carolina man says he was surprised as a child when he did a chore for his grandmother, and the Yankee dime she promised him turned out to be a peck on the cheek.

A Texas caller says her child’s middle-school teacher insists that students should never begin a sentence with a preposition. The hosts are shocked, shocked.

Martha describes a funny linguistic misunderstanding she had while trying to read Harry Potter in Spanish.

Predictive text on cellphones can result in some amusing accidental substitutions. The word for that: textonym.

Does the language you speak shape how you think? The hosts discuss an essay on that topic adapted from the new book “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” by Guy Deutscher.

Reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, an Indiana listener is stopped short by the sentence “She carried a tray of charlotte.” Who or what is charlotte?

Someone who paints a negative or pessimistic picture is said to be hanging crepe. Martha has the origin.

The word rubric derives from a Latin word for “red.” Originally, it referred to red letters used as section headings in religious texts and the like. Rubric has since become a term used in modern educational jargon, as in grading rubric. What’s the connection?

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


The Bee’s Knees (full episode) [Jun. 25th, 2011|10:04 am]
Grant Barrett

Let’s put the moose on the table: You have questions, and Grant and Martha have answers. For example, why would someone have an albatross around the neck? And what’s so cool about bees’ knees, anyway? Plus, jockey boxes, bailiwicks, and cute names for loved ones, from snookums to bubula. If a bartender ever serves you a mat shot, don’t try to beast it. You’ll regret it in the morning.

Listen here:

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What pet names do you have for your loved ones? In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten shares the name his Mother used to call him — bubala, a term of endearment grandmothers might use in addressing children. We have all kinds of substitutes for the names of those we care about: sweetie, honey buns, snookums, etc. Martha opts for the Portuguese fofinha, meaning “fat, cuddly baby.”

What’s so cool about bees’ knees, anyway? The bee’s knees, a phrase meaning “cool” or “great,” dates back to the flapper era of the 1920s. It relates to an old definition of the word “cute,” referring to something small and nicely formed. The knees of a bee are just that, after all.

A bartender wonders about the origin of the term jockey box. In his world, a jockey box is a metal container for ice. However, in some parts of the western U.S., a jockey box means is the glove compartment of a car, and much earlier, the term referred to boxes attached to the side of chuck wagon for holding feed or water.

The caller also shares another bit of bartending slang, the so-called mat shot or Matt Dillon. It’s a glass of whatever liquor collects on the rubber mat on the bar, which some enterprising patrons order as a prank or a test of a strong stomach.

A listener in Romania learned English in the Southern U.S., but after going back home to where a British English is taught, people are having a hard time understanding his accent. Where we learn a language plays a big role in how we speak it.

Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a game called “Centricity”, emphasis on the “city.” For example, “Mickey ate all the fruit, leaving Minneapolis.” And as George H.W. Bush said to George W. Bush, “You can be president Tucson.”

Has your boss ever used the expression “Let’s put the moose on the table“? This management buzzphrase, meaning “let’s address the problem everyone’s been avoiding,” is relatively new, showing up in print around the early 1990s. The phrase pops up in books by former Eli Lilly CEO Randall Tobias and management guru Jim Clemmer. In Clemmer’s book Moose on the Table, he tells a possible origin tale about a baby moose that crawled under a buffet table, only to be avoided by the patrons as it stank up the banquet hall.

What does it mean to have an albatross around your neck? A political pundit, referring to a current candidate, mentioned “an alcatraz around his neck.” The proper version, with an albatross, originates from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, wherein a sailor shoots an albatross, bringing down a curse on the boat, and his shipmates force him to wear an albatross around his neck as a symbol of shame. Grant notes that the name “albatross” likely derives from the Portuguese or Spanish “alcatraz,” meaning “pelican” or “sea bird.” So perhaps an alcatraz around the neck isn’t so far off after all.

If something’s “the bee’s knees,” you can bet that it’s also beast. A sixth grade teacher wonders about the term beast being thrown around by her students. This synonym for “cool” or “good” is also used as a verb, as in I beasted that exam, or “I did extremely well.” The slang term “beast” is common slang in sports, as in, “That player is a beast on the field.” Former Cal running back Marshawn Lynch is notably famous for his signature playing style, beast mode.

A few weeks ago, a listener was looking for a term to describe the copy of The Emperor’s New Clothes that he’d read many times as a child. In this picture book, the naughty bits were always cleverly covered up. Thinking he wanted a synonym for “fig leaf,” Martha had offered the word antipudic, from the Latin pudor meaning “shame.” Many listeners responded, suggesting that the word he really wanted was bowdlerize, meaning “to remove improper or offensive material.” This eponym comes from Thomas Bowdler, whose sister ghost-edited The Family Shakespeare in 1818 containing censored versions of Shakespeare’s plays.

If you go to a department store, you’ll see the Men’s department, the Women’s department, and the Children’s department. So why do so many stores have a department that’s called simply Baby? Grant attributes the non-possessive nomenclature of stores like Baby Gap to tradition in the retail industry.

A listener from San Diego, California, named Lois has been called Louise, Lori, Lauren, Louisa, and Rosa, to name a few. And of course, the Scott/Todd mix-up phenomenon continues. Do people ever mess up your name?

What does it mean to vet a political candidate? The word “vet” comes from veterinarian, specifically the ones who would examine a horse before a race to make sure it was healthy and eligible. Similarly, one might vet a candidate to make sure they’re up to snuff. The novelist John le Carre popularized the term in his political stories.

A listener from Wisconsin adds to the discussion on wind pudding and air sauce, explaining that where he’s from, wind pudding is old loggerspeak for “baked beans.”

How do you pronounce biopic? The proper way to mention the genre of biographical motion picture has always been “BUY-oh-pick,” as opposed to the mirror of myopic. It’s not unusual to mispronounce a word if the spelling does not clearly indicate how to say it. For example, Grant notes a common error people make in pronouncing misled to rhyme with “chiseled.”

If something’s not in your bailiwick, it’s not in your jurisdiction or area of control. But what exactly is a “bailiwick”? Martha explains that the two words which make up the term — bailiff and wick — have specific meanings in Middle English. A bailiff, in the time of kings, was “a public minister of a district,” and a wick was simply a “town” or “village.” For example, Gatwick literally referred to a “goat village.” And Greenwich literally meant “green village” or “village on the green.”

Is that funny hehe or funny haha? The way we laugh indicates whether we’re laughing at someone or if we’re simply enjoying the humor they’ve brought.

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It (full episode) [Jun. 20th, 2011|06:47 am]
Grant Barrett

Which came first, orange the color or orange the fruit? And what’s a busman’s holiday? Martha and Grant talk about bumbershoots, brollies, nursery rhymes, and alternatives to the word “unicycle.” Plus, an app-inspired quiz, favorite oxymorons, and the origin of “put that in your pipe and smoke it“! If the Google Books Corpus doesn’t sound like fun, think again. And by the way, shouldn’t more than one company be allowed to sell Monopoly?

Listen here:

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You know those words whose meanings never seem to stick in your mind, no matter how many times you flip back to the dictionary? Martha wrestles with the term atavistic, meaning “the tendency to revert to ancestral characteristics.” She now remembers it by the Latin root it shares with the Spanish word for “grandfather,” abuelo. Grant, in turn, shares his revelation that upwards of actually means “more than,” not “up to.”

A unicycle enthusiast wonders if his unicycle can be properly called a bike. To avoid the four-syllable mouthful, the unicycle community (yes, there is one) sometimes calls it a uni, but for the general public, the term “bike” works. Martha reveals that she once spent a summer teaching herself to ride a unicycle, and doesn’t mind calling it a bike. Grant notes the general rule that once a word has left its etymological root, it can be used for whatever we need it for.

Rihanna’s hit “Umbrella” may not have had the same ring if she’d referred to being “under my bumbershoot.” Nonetheless, bumbershoot, bumberell, brolly and bumbersol, among others, are all playful alternatives to umbrella that even Mary Poppins would appreciate. Grant explains that bumbershoot, itself an American slang term, derives from the Latin umbra, meaning “shadow,” and chute, as in “parachute.”

Twitter’s 140-character format has made way for a whole new brand of comedy writing. See Judah Friedlander: “More than one company should be allowed to sell Monopoly,” or Stephen Colbert: “It doesn’t always pay to get up early. If you’re a worm, you just get eaten by that early bird. So sleep in, worms.”

In the mood for a word puzzle? Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has an app for that. This week’s quiz features solutions starting with the letters app. Someone afraid to take care of the bug problem in their apartment doesn’t want to “app-roach” them!

Is it worth using proper pronunciation if it makes you sound ignorant or misinformed? Contrary to the common understanding, the word forte is actually pronounced “fort.” Grant describes forte as a skunked word; it’s a losing situation no matter how you use it. For the sake of clarity and conversational flow, it’s best instead to say that something is a “strength,” a “strong suit,” or is “in one’s wheelhouse.”

Do you ever spend your off-time doing something work related? This is known as a busman’s holiday or a postman’s holiday, as in the British understanding of holiday as a vacation or time off work. Research for a dictionary entry on postman’s holiday led Grant to an old French ragtime song called “Le Facteur en Balade,” or “The Postman on a Walk”. In the proper sense, a postman’s holiday might consist of a leisurely walk along the same route whereon he delivers the mail. Let’s just hope it doesn’t involve getting chased by dogs.

Some listeners are madly in love with oxymorons, and they continue to share their favorites. One listener has a great T-shirt that reads “An oxymoron a day keeps reality away.” Another says his favorite oxymoron is “Dodge Ram.”

A listener from Richmond, Virginia, remembers an old game called buckeye that consists of metaphorically pulling someone’s leg, then calling Buckeye! and tugging one’s own lower eyelid. Martha suggests that it may be related to a 19th-century use of buckeye that refers to “something or someone inferior,” like a country bumpkin or a rube. Thus, calling “Buckeye!” may be equivalent to calling someone a sucker for getting tricked, or punk’d. Still, any explanation for the eyelid exposure is still pending.

Grant is pleased as punch about BYU Professor Mark Davies’ new Google Books Corpus, which contains entries for every word ever in the entire Google Books database. In addition to parts of speech and definitions, the site provides contextual examples for each word. For example, the database has revealed that the word “suitcase” is often preceded by the adjective “battered.” Writers, teachers, English learners and language enthusiasts will love prospecting in this lexical goldmine.

Home again, home again, jiggity-jig! A listener wonders about the origin of this phrase her Mother often used. Grant and Martha trace it back to another mother: Mother Goose. The full line goes, “To market, to market, to buy a fat pig, home again, home again, jiggity-jig.” It does not, contrary to a highly visited Google result, originate from the movie Blade Runner (though it’s a cute scene nonetheless).

Listeners have been sharing some of their personal Scrabble rules, including new uses for the blank tile. For example, one variation allows for the tile to be removed and reused, so if Grant were to play the blank tile as an “E” and Martha has an “E” in her tray, she can swap the tiles and then use the blank for her own play. Just be sure to use it, because nobody likes someone who bogarts the blank tile!

Downton Abbey, a program featured on Masterpiece Theater, provided a handful of colorful expressions that date surprisingly far back. “Like it or lump it,” meaning “deal with it,” is found at least as early as 1830 and takes from the old verb lump meaning “to look sulky or disagreeable.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, a contemporary favorite meaning “Take that!” actually shows up around 1820. As for the phrase you’re sailing perilously close to the wind, meaning “be careful not to overstep” — well, we haven’t caught wind of the origin of that one.

Databases like the Google Books Corpus can also be used to follow text over time. For example, as the women’s suffrage movement grew around 1910, words relating to women’s rights grew in popularity and frequency of usage.

What came first, the color orange or the fruit? The original term is Sanskrit and refers to the fruit. As the fruit traveled west, the word came with it. Grant notes that, like the terms for parts of the body, the names of colors travel very well in language because we’re constantly speaking and writing about them. The term “orange” became what it is in English after the fruit made it to the French town Orange.

Martha shares a quip that’s all too true: “I don’t find it hard to meet expenses. They’re everywhere!”

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


Tweet Nothings (full episode) [Jun. 10th, 2011|08:43 am]
Grant Barrett

How much humor and personality can you pack into a 140-character update? A lot, it turns out. Martha and Grant talk about funny Twitter feeds. Also this week, the origins of skosh and can’t hold a candle, why dragonflies are sometimes called snake doctors, whether the word pre-plan is redundant, and how technology is affecting the experience of reading.

This episode first aired September 24, 2010. Listen here:

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Martha and Grant share some of their latest guilty-pleasure reading from Twitter feeds that show just how much meaning can be compressed into 140 characters. Cases in point: @veryshortstory and @GRAMMARHULK.

He can’t hold a candle to someone means that he can’t possibly compare to the other person. The hosts explain where this phrase comes from.

A zoo tour guide wants a specific word to describe how elephants procure hydration.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski presents a puzzle called “This, That, and the Other.”

A Facebook newbie asks if it’s okay to misspell words on purpose when communicating via social media.

The mother of eight-year-old twins wonders why one of her girls habitually adds dun-dun-DUN! to sentences in everyday conversation. The hosts suspect it’s related to the audio element known as a “sting” in television and movie parlance, like this one in the famous “Dramatic Prairie Dog” video clip.

The term skosh means “a small amount,” and derives from a Japanese word that means the same thing.

Remember when the expression “reading a book” meant, well, actually reading a book? Martha and Grant discuss a Los Angeles Times series about how electronic devices are changing the way we read.

The distinctive shape of the dragonfly has inspired lots of different nicknames for this insect, including snake doctor, devil’s darning needle, skeeter hawk, spindle, snake eyes, and ear sewer, the last of which rhymes with “mower.”

What’s the correct term for the male lover of a married woman? The hosts share suggestions from listeners, including paramour and sancho.

A firefighter is annoyed by his boss’s use of the term pre-plan.

Martha shares the term hit and giggle, a bit of sports slang term she picked up while working as an announcer at this year’s Mercury Insurance Open tennis tournament.

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


Get Your Nickels Together for a Jitney Supper (full episode) [Jun. 4th, 2011|10:37 am]
Grant Barrett

Anagrams, rebuses, cryptograms — Martha and Grant swap stories about the games that first made them realize that playing with words and letters can be fun. Also this week, what’s a jitney supper and where do you eat graveyard stew? The hosts explain the origin of the term hang fire and why Alaskans sound like they’re from the Midwest, and take on a debate about whether an egregious falsehood is a bald-faced lie or a bold-faced lie.

This episode first aired June 5, 2010. Listen here:

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What games first made you realize that words and letters make great playthings? Martha describes puzzling, as a child, over the odd combination of letters, F-U-N-E-X, until she finally figured out the joke. Grant talks about discovering anagrams as a youngster, and how word puzzles in the newspaper became a daily ritual.

An office worker in Indianapolis is mystified when a British colleague sends an email telling her to hang fire. It has to do with faulty firearms.

“Call up to 24 hours in advance to make a reservation.” Do those instructions mean you can call until 24 hours before the deadline, or that you should call within 24 hours of it? When a San Diego listener assumed it was the former, she was surprised to be wrong.

Did you know the POTUS (President of the United States) has a BOTUS? Grant explains what a BOTUS is.

Quiz Guy Greg Pliska’s word game this week is “Name Dropping.” The answer for each set of clues will be a word that has a common first name hidden somewhere in it; when that name’s removed, the remaining letters spell a new word. For example, the first clue is “one of the seven deadly sins,” the second is “the grain consumed by one-fifth of the world’s inhabitants.” Subtract the latter from the former, and you get a woman’s name.

A Charlottesville, Virginia, caller says that when she was a child and recovering from an illness, her mother fed her a kind of milk toast she called graveyard stew. Is that strange name unique to her family?

During the health care debate in Congress, there was lots of talk about an up-or-down vote. A Montana listener finds this expression annoying. What’s wrong with plain old “vote”?

In youth slang, “totes” is short for “totally.” Grant talks about new, lengthened version of this slang shortening.

A Carlsbad, California, couple has a running debate over whether an egregious whopper is correctly called a bold-faced lie or a bald-faced lie.

The Library of Congress is archiving the entire content of Twitter. Grant explains why that’s a gold mine for language researchers like David Bamman at Tufts University. You can see some of the results Bamman’s compiled at Lexicalist.com.

What do you eat at a jitney supper? Jitney?

Why do people from Alaska sound like they’re from the Midwest?

A caller who grew up in Arkansas says his mother used a colorful expression instead of “mind your own business,” which was “tend to your own rat-killing.”

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


You Bet Your Sweet Bippy (full episode) [May. 28th, 2011|07:27 am]
Grant Barrett

Why do some puns strike us as clever, while others are plain old groaners? Martha and Grant puzzle over this question. Also, the difference between baggage and luggage, a royal word quiz, the “egg” in egg on, what to call someone who doesn’t eat fish or seafood, Hawaiian riddles, and why we say “You bet your sweet bippy!”

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When President Barack Obama had the Oval Office redecorated in soft browns and beige, The New York Times headline read: “The Audacity of Taupe.” The hosts discuss how puns work, and what makes them clever. Martha recommends John Pollack’s new book, The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics.

What do you call someone who doesn’t eat fish? A caller wants to know, but not because of dietary requirements. He’s a string bass player who plays in an ensemble that’s tired of being asked to perform Schubert’s famous composition, the Trout Quintet.

Martha and Grant tells him he has several options. Among them: non-pescatarian, anti-marinovore, anichthyophagist — and, of course, non-seafood eater.

What’s the difference between baggage and luggage? After all, it’s not as if anyone confesses to having emotional luggage. The hosts conclude that usually the word “luggage” specifies the container, while “baggage” is more likely to refer to that which is lugged inside the container.

Martha shares a quotation from Joseph Addison, no fan of puns: “If we must lash one another, let it be with the manly strokes of wit and satire: for I am of the old philosopher’s opinion, that, if I must suffer from one or the other, I would rather it should be from the paw of a lion than from the hoof of an ass.”

Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a royal quiz in honor of the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William. He celebrates the wedding of the King and Queen with clues to answers that contain the letters “K” and “Q” next to each other. The answer to “The band that recorded ‘Take Five,’” for example, is the “Dave BrubecK Quartet.”

Where’d we get a word like skyscraper? Martha explains the image literally refers to scraping the sky, but first applied to the topmost sail on a ship, and later to tall horses, and high fly balls in baseball. There are similar ideas in other languages, as in the Spanish word “rascacielos” and French “WolkenkratzerWolkenkratzer.” In German, the word is picturesque as well. It’s “Wolkenkratzer,” which literally means “cloud-scratcher.”

Grant shares some fill-in-the-blank puzzles from a listener. For example, “There’s one w______ on a u________” and “There are 5 d________ in a z_________ c__________.”

A listener remembers her mother used to say, “Your Monday is longer than your Tuesday.” This phrase offered a subtle way to notify someone that her slip was showing. Other expressions convey that warning as well, including “Monday comes before Sunday” and “Saturday is longer than Sunday.” Also, if someone whispers “Mrs. White is out of jail,” it’s time to check to see if your slip is showing. Ditto if you’re told you have “a Ph.D.,” but you’ve never earned that degree. In this case “Ph.D” stands for “Petticoat Hanging Down.”

Martha’s been reading the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English again, and stumbled across a synonym for “fried chicken.” It’s preacher meat.

“The Die is Cast” is the title of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A listener and his wife disagree about what kind of “die” is meant here. It’s not a reference to metallurgy — it’s a quotation attributed to Julius Caesar. When he crossed the Rubicon to lead a campaign against his enemies, he supposedly declared, “Alea jacta est.” The word “alea,” which refers to one piece of a set of dice, is an ancestor of the modern English word “aleatory,” which means “by chance.”

What happens when a clock gets hungry? It goes back four seconds. Martha talks about how puns weren’t always considered “bad.” Cicero praised them as the wittiest kind of saying, and Shakespeare made plenty of them, for both serious and comic effect. In the early 18th century, though, things changed. Pamphlets with titles like “God’s Revenge Against Punning” began appearing, and the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson denounced them as “the last refuge of the witless.”

Martha and Grant discuss why some puns work and others don’t. Martha recommends John Pollack’s observation in The Pun Also Rises describing how “for a split second, puns manage to hold open the elevator doors of language and meaning as the brain toggles furiously between competing semantic destinations, before finally deciding which is the best answer, or deciding to live with both.”

Where’d we get the expression “You bet your sweet bippy!”? It’s from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a zany television show from the late 1960s. The word “bippy,” by the way, means “butt.” The phrase “You bet your sweet bippy” is a linguistic descendant of earlier versions that go back to at least the 1880s, when phrases like “You bet your sweet life” were commonly used.

The show also popularized such phrases as “Sock it to me!” and “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.”

Why are some American place names pronounced differently than the famous place they were named after? Why is Cairo, Ill., pronounced “KAY-roh”? Why do Midwesterners pronounce Versailles as “Ver-SALES” and the New Madrid Fault as “New MAD-rid”? Grant explains that these names are far removed from their earlier incarnations and function as a sort of shibboleth among the locals.

Martha springs another pun on Grant: Knock-knock. Who’s there? Tarzan. Tarzan who? “Tarzan Stripes Forever.”

Why do we speak of trying to egg on a person, meaning to urge them to do something? Martha explains that the “egg” in this case has nothing to do with chickens. This kind of “egg” is derives from an old root that means to “urge on with a sharp object.” It’s a linguistic relative of the word “edge.”

Grant wraps up with some Hawaiian riddles from the book Riddling Tales From Around the World, by Marjorie Dundas, including this one:

My twin was with me from the day I crawled
With me till the day I die
I cannot escape him
yet when storms come, he deserts me

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


Pickles and Ice Cream (full episode) [May. 21st, 2011|08:15 am]
Grant Barrett

How about some wind pudding with a dollop of air sauce? What’s in a tavern sandwich? Do pregnant women really crave pickles and ice cream? Grant and Martha dig in to colorful language from the world of food. Plus, ever think of publishing a novel? Be warned: The snarky literary agent from SlushPile Hell shows no mercy when it comes to rejections. Also, piggy banks, children vs. kids, hand vs. foot dexterity, and a bi-coastal quiz. Plus, those flipped sentences known as antimetabole, such as “It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.”

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Ever thought about getting that novel published? Apparently, others have too, and some of their queries are less than persuasive for the admittedly grumpy literary agent who writes the blog SlushPile Hell. He posts some of the more colorful queries from his inbox, along with his own pithy responses. Take this one: “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be pulled up a waterfall or to be flushed down a toilet?” To which the agent responds, “Hey! Have you been reading my mind?” Ouch.

Is it wrong to refer to children as kids? One discerning mother, when asked about her kids, always replied, “I don’t raise goats, but my children are fine.” Grant explains that as early as the 1600s, the word kids had popped up to refer to bratty or unruly children. But by the 1800s, it was normal even among upper-class households to call their young ones “kids” without any negative connotations.

A vegetarian from Vermillion, South Dakota, wonders about the origin of a popular loose meat sandwich called a “tavern.” It’s like a sloppy joe, and also goes by the monikers Maid-Rite and Tastee. Martha notes a diner in Sioux City, Iowa, called Ye Olde Tavern, that claims to have created the sandwich. Still, with food origins, plenty of people lay claim to the inventions of everything, from hamburgers to breakfast cereal.

8 Regional Foods You Might Not Know

Tavern Sandwich page at Barry Popik’s site.

Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a bi-coastal quiz about two-word phrases connecting the letters NY and CA. For example, the man in black is JohnNY CAsh. Keep your eyes wide open for the clues!

A Canadian listener’s boyfriend has a special talent. He can remove his socks, roll them up, and throw them across the room into the laundry basket — all with his toes. She says he has toe dexterity, but wonders if the word dexterous can apply to feet as well as hands? Martha notes that great soccer players like Argentina’s Lionel Messi are simply called dexterous, although nimble and agile are also appropriate adjectives.

Noctivagant people are those who wander the night, and vespertilian folks have bat-like qualities. Add these to “shirtless” as poignant ways to describe a vampire.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. This and other phrases of wisdom are known as antimetabole, from the Greek for “turning about in the opposite direction.” Certain forms of these statements also go by the name chiasmus, from the Greek letter chi, meaning “X.” They’re often effective for making a point in a speech, like John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” No matter the context, these flipped-sentence proverbs are great for making a point clear. Mardy Grothe has a whole book about chiasmus called Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You.

The grumpy agent who writes the blog blog SlushPile Hell received a submission stating, “I have attached a copy of a letter I recently sent to Oprah about my book. She ends her show in September 2011, which leaves little time to select an agent.” The agent responds, “Finally! An author who understands the importance of Oprah and has a no-fail plan for getting on her show.” As if.

What’s for dinner? How about wind pudding, air sauce, and a side of balloon trimmings? This colorful euphemism for “nothing” dates as far back as the American Civil War, when troops would come into the mess tent, see a wild squirrel boiling in a pot, and opt for wind pudding and air sauce instead.

Here’s a joking menu you might enjoy. Not.

The calls and e-mails keep coming in about Scotts being called Todds and Todds being called Scotts. One listener left a voicemail about a christening where the priest called the baby by its oddly common misnomer. Another listener by the name of Stefanie complains that she keeps getting called Jennifer. Perhaps it has to do with rhythm, and the patterns we develop out of sounds and syllables.

There’s been a lot of talk about the place of handwriting in the digital age. Grant has some great books to recommend on the subject: Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry, and Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by Tamara Thornton. A long time ago, part of the reason for teaching longhand cursive was to have students practice transcribing documents with indoctrinating political and social messages. The character of handwriting, from the flourishes to the way a letter sits on the line, brought with it an array of cultural implications.

Why do we have piggy banks instead of any other kind of farm animal banks? In Scotland and Northern England, a kind of Middle Ages earthenware container called pygg. Today we fill our piggs, or piggy banks, with coins.

Do pregnant women enjoy pickles and ice cream? Linguists from the American Dialect Society have been discussing this recently. They found that the expression pickles and ice cream once referred simply to the conjoining of two unrelated things, sort of the opposite of peas and carrots. Not until the middle of the 20th century did it pertain to cravings, simply because pregnant women go through different nutritional patterns than they would when eating for one.

Can the word training be pluralized, as in “How many trainings did you have last week”? Martha and Grant disagree about whether training can be a count noun.

A Minnesotan who relocated to Wisconsin gets called a mud duck, and wants to know why. Much in the way Wisconsinites get referred to as cheese heads, it’s really a harmless bit of nomenclature from a cross-state rivalry. In hunting, the term “mud duck” has also been known to mean a mixed kind of species. Unfortunately, “mud duck” has popped up in odd corners with negative racial connotations. Still, most people using “mud duck” mean it simply as a friendly jest.

Martha shares another barb from the SlushPile Hell agent.

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


Who You Callin’ a Jabroni? (full episode) [May. 14th, 2011|01:01 pm]
Grant Barrett

Yo! Who you callin’ a jabroni? And what exactly is a jabroni, anyway? Also, what do vintage school buses and hack writers have in common? Grant and Martha trace the origins of famous quotes, and a listener offers a clever new way to say “not my problem.” All that, plus winklehawks, motherwit, oxymorons, word mash-ups, and a quiz about palindromes.

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Is that a winklehawk in your pants? A listener shares this word for those L-shaped rips in your trousers, from an old Dutch term for “a carpenter’s L-shaped tool.” And Grant has a new favorite term, motherwit, meaning “the natural ability to cope with everyday life.” You could say a mark of wisdom is showing some motherwit in the face of life’s winklehawks.

Ever heard a school bus called a school hack? Grant and Martha explain the etymology of hack, beginning with hackney horses in England, then referring to the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages, then the carriages themselves, and finally the automobiles that replaced them. A museum in Richmond, Indiana, has a vintage yellow school hack, once used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to bring rural children to their schoolhouse. Incidentally, the contemporary term hack, meaning a tired old journalist, comes directly from the original term for the tired old horse.

A bit about school bus history.

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms! A listener senses something awfully good about oxymorons, from the Greek for “pointedly foolish.” Grant shares this favorite example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, while Martha picks a modern classic: airline food. What are your favorites?

In the U.K., they don’t count seconds as one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, because, well, they have no Mississippi. Instead, they say one-elephant, two-elephant. Lynne Murphy, author of the blog Separated by a Common Language, points out this difference between English speakers on opposite sides of the pond.

Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a game called Welded Palindromes, with two-word phrases spelled the same forwards and backwards. What do you call your first appearance on TV? A tube debut. What kind of beer does a king drink? Why, a regal lager, of course.

A listener wonders about the origin of the phrase “your father’s mustache,” akin to the phrase go jump in a lake, or your mamma wears combat boots. Grant explains that it may sound more familiar as your fadda’s mustache, circa 1930s, Brooklyn. The borough’s own jazz musician Woody Herman had a hit song in 1945 called Your Father’s Mustache, but those in the know pronounced it “FAH-duh.”

A listener named Meagan from Wisconsin uses the term flustrated, combining flustered and frustrated — one of many mashed together words she deems Meaganisms. Though Grant applauds her innovation and creativity, Martha points out that flustrate actually does pop up in English texts as far back as the 18th Century. Dictionaries with entries for flustrate note that it’s usually a jocular term, a conversation could always use more Meaganisms.

Grant gives Martha a little Greek test with the word leucomelanous. Leuco, meaning “white,” and melano, meaning “black,” together refer to someone with a fair complexion and dark hair, like Snow White or Veronica from the Archie comics.

How do you say “not my problem“? A listener shares his go-to: Not my pig, not my farm. It means the same thing as I don’t have a horse in that race, or I don’t have a dog in that fight. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, created the SEP Field, or the Somebody Else’s Problem field. Though examples are boundless, there doesn’t seem to be a standard or definite origin.

A cowboy loves a ranch that’s pecorous, meaning abundant with cattle. Just something worth knowing.

There’s an old joke running around that goes as follows, “Lost: Bald, one-eyed ginger Tom, crippled in both back legs, recently castrated, answers to the name of ‘Lucky.’” Nigel Rees of The Quote Unquote Newsletter has been tracking down this oft-quoted joke, and so far he’s found it as far back as 1969. On another front, Fred Shapiro of the Yale Book of Quotations has made progress in tracing the origins of famous quotes, often to people other than those who made them famous. And the folks at quoteinvestigator.com are doing their share in researching the history of those quips and aphorisms that do so much to frame our essays and speeches.

A violin maker wonders about the origin of a practice in his trade known as purfling, where a black and white line is inlaid into a tiny channel along the edge of the instrument. Martha traces the word back to the Latin filum, meaning “line” or “thread.” Purfling is also a practice in guitar-making, furniture-making, and embroidery, and it shares an etymological root with profile. A fun fact: purfling is also just “profiling” said with a mouth full of marshmallows.

When someone admiringly called a woman “outspoken,” Dorothy Parker is said to have cynically replied, “Outspoken by whom?” Well, according to quoteinvestigator.com, the line pre-dates Parker’s quip.

Why do we call our biceps “guns”? The slang lexicographer Jonathon Green suggests that the metaphor first pops up in baseball around the 1920s, when players referred to their throwing arms as guns. Believe it or not, the early baseball pitchers actually threw the ball intending for the batter to hit it. It wasn’t until later that a strong arm, or gun, was needed to throw a pitch too fast to hit.

A listener shares a Russian saying that translates I am going “there where the Tsar goes on foot,” meaning “I am going to the bathroom.” It’s the equivalent of we all put our pants on one leg at a time, or we’re all just human.

Who you calling a jabronie? And what exactly is a jabronie? (Or a jaboney, jadroney, jambone, jiboney, gibroni, gibroney, gabroney, jobroni, jobrone, etc.) Grant traces this playful insult, meaning a “rube” or “loser,” to the 1920s, when Italian immigrants brought over a similar-sounding Milanese term for “ham.” Jabronie is also commonly used in professional wrestling, referring to those guys set up to lose to the superstars.

A decade is ten years. A century is a hundred. But what do you call a period of five years? It’s a lustrum, borrowed whole from Latin. So you might say a decade is two lustra.

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


Everything is Tickety-Boo (full episode) [May. 7th, 2011|08:27 am]
Grant Barrett

News reports that the makers of Scrabble were changing the rules to allow proper names left some purists fuming. The rumors were false, but they got Grant thinking about idiosyncratic adaptations of the game’s rules. Also this week, the origins of the terms picket lines and hooch, why actors go up on their lines, terms for diarrhea of the mouth, and what we mean when we say there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room.

This episode first aired May 15, 2010.

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Some families have their own idiosyncratic rules for Scrabble. Grant talks about the rules in his house.

What do we mean when we say there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room?

An Indianapolis listener says her family often refers to strong liquor as hooch, and wonders where that term comes from. The hosts trace the term’s path from an Indian village in Alaska.

Grant follows up on his chickpea vs. garbanzo poll, and shares an email on the subject from the U.S. Dry Bean Council.

Quiz Guy Greg Pliska reprises his game called Initiarithmetic. The object is to guess a set of items associated with certain numbers, as in “There are 12 m__________ in the y___________.” Here’s another: “76 t___________ in the b__________ p____________.” If you missed the first Initiarithmetic game, it’s here.

An SAT prep teacher in Santa Cruz, California, hears lots of teen slang in his work, and is struck by a new use of the term legit.

What’s a synonym for diarrhea of the mouth? A caller swears she heard the word on an earlier episode, but can’t recall it. The hosts try to help. Tumidity? Multiloquence? Logorrhea?

Several decades ago, the expression tickety-boo was commonly used to mean “all in order,” “correct,” or “just dandy.” Although it’s rarely heard, a caller who once lived in Florida says her boss there often used it. Does it derive from Hindi? If you just can’t get enough of this expression, check out Danny Kaye singing “Everything is Tickety-boo.”

Grant quizzes Martha about some odd terms: three sisters garden, weak-hand draw, and strimmer.

In the theater, actors who forget their lines are said to go up or to go up on their lines. But why go up?

A listener from Bethel, Maine, calls with a riddle she heard at summer camp: The maker doesn’t want it, the buyer doesn’t use it, and the user never sees it. What is it?

She also stumps the hosts with a puzzle: What adjective requires five letters to form the superlative?

A Fort Worth listener wonders about a claim she saw in a 1930s magazine. The article said that traditionally, a picket line was an area between the front lines of two opposing armies where soldiers might safely venture out to pick berries without fear of being attacked. Might that be connected to the modern sense of picket line meaning a group of striking workers or protesters?

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


Ultimate Slang Dictionary (full episode) [Apr. 30th, 2011|08:48 am]
Grant Barrett

When it comes to language, who’s the decider? Grant explains how grammar rules develop. Also, what’s tarantula juice, and what’s the difference between a muffin top and a smiley? We discuss these and other terms from Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Why do we call a waste of taxpayer money a boondoggle? What does it mean to cotton to someone? And what’s happening if we have a touch of the seconds? Plus, funny movie mistakes, a quiz in limerick form, regional terms for lanyards, and a new spin on a musical joke: brown chicken, brown cow.

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Can you guess what a smiley is? No, the another smiley. Or how about tarantula juice? You could, of course, happen upon someone with a muffin top drinking inferior whisky, or you could look these terms up in the new Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Jonathon Green spent decades assembling this three-volume collection of slang from the United States, Great Britain, and every other corner of the English-speaking world. Grant explains what has linguists so excited about its publication.

If you preface a statement with “I’m not trying to be racist, but…” does that then make it okay? Is there a term for such disclaimer?

It’s always fun to catch moviemakers’ blunders. Say you’re watching an epic about ancient Rome and spot a toga-clad extra who forgot to remove his wristwatch. That’s an anachronism. But what do you call something that’s geographically incorrect. Take, for example, an exterior shot of what’s supposed to be Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton office, but includes a fleeting glimpse of a palm tree? That’s called an anatopism (accent on the second syllable), from the Greek topos, meaning “place.”

For an excellent timewaster along these lines, Grant recommends moviemistakes.com. (Yo, “The Nativity Story”! Everyone knows maize wasn’t grown in Nazareth during the time of Christ. Anatopic FAIL!)

Understandings aren’t just for epistemologists and marriage counselors. In the 18th Century, the slang term understandings was a jocular name for “boots” or “shoes.” Later, the word also came to be a joking term for “legs.”

Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a set of Topical Limericks from the worlds of media and entertainment.

A listener from Dallas wonders about the origin of I don’t cotton to, meaning “I’m not in favor of” or “I don’t get along with.” Though it sounds like a classic Southern phrase, Martha traces it all the way back to England, where the verb to cotton had to do with textile work. Saying “I’m not cotton with” or “I don’t cotton to” means that you don’t get along with something.

What do you call those convenient props in illustrations and movies that cover up the naughty bits? A listener remembers an old illustrated copy of The Emperor’s New Clothes that made clever use of twigs and berries for covering, well, the twigs and berries. Martha opens the kimono on the rare term antipudic, from the Latin pudor meaning “shame.” It’s the source also of the English words impudent and pudenda.

Alfred Hitchcock specifically referred to his own use of antipudic devices regarding the shower scene in Psycho. And of course, nobody makes better use of antipudic devices than Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery.

Listeners emailed us in response to a call on the sonorous bow-chicka-wow-wow cliche, and we’re glad they did. We learned that country star Trace Adkins has a song called “Brown Chicken, Brown Cow” that uses puppets to demonstrate just what it means to take a roll in the hay. We’re sure it’d have Statler and Waldorf whipping out their opera binoculars.

Who is Boo-Boo the Fool? A listener wonders if this African-American character has any relation the Puerto Rican fool, Juan Bobo. Martha draws a connection to the Spanish term bobo, meaning “fool,” and its Latin root balbus, meaning “stammerer”. Grant notes that the name Bobo has been extremely common for clowns since at least the 1940s, and the bobo/clown/jester character is prevalent in most all cultural folklores, be they African, South American, or Anglo-European.

When it comes to language, a listener from Dallas wants to know, as a fellow Texan might put it, “who’s the decider”? Grant explains that nobody makes the rules about language — and everybody does. For those seeking professional guidance, a whole community of lexicographers, dictionaries, and style guides offers rules and provenance on vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. However, on a daily basis all the users of a language implicitly write the rules by choosing words and syntax that have semantic clarity for the people they’re trying to communicate with. You could go to a reference book, or you could say something to your neighbor, then judge by their reaction whether or not you made sense.

Your mother gave you life, and you gave her … a boondoggle. Or is it a lanyard? Maybe a gimp? Grant assures a listener there are several terms for that long key fob you made at summer camp out of plastic yarn. Boondoggle seems to have originated among Boy Scouts in the Rochester, N.Y., area in the 1930s, and was later picked up by those in politics to mean “a wasteful debacle.” Grant also shares a French term for these summer-camp crafts, scoubidou, pronounced just like the cartoon dog.

Nobody writes more movingly about lanyards than poet Billy Collins.

If you get an email called Life in the 1500s, hit “delete”! Grant explains that the etymology provided is not entirely accurate. That’s what this show is for. Also, if you’re getting an email that says “Free Money, Click Here,” you shouldn’t trust that either. That’s what jobs are for.

Snopes.com has a good debunking of these linguistic urban legends.

A college senior has invented a word to describe that anxiety we feel when there’s unfinished work looming over us. He calls it desgundes. As in, “that twenty-year-old in the library making a three-foot boondoggle must likely be dealing with some inner desgundes.”

An Indianapolis listener says his father used to often spoke of leaving this veil of tears. His son wonders about the origin of that phrase. Grant and Martha explain the expression is actually vale of tears, a synonym for valley. In some translations, Psalm 84 refers to traveling through a vale of tears.

Originally published at A Way with Words. Please leave any comments there.


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