A Way with Words

A Way with Words is a fun and funny public radio show about words, language, and how we use them. Hundreds of thousands of language-lovers around the world tune in each week to hear author Martha Barnette and dictionary editor Grant Barrett take calls about slang, grammar, English usage, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, and speaking and writing well. The program is a fresh look at the pleasures and delights of language and linguistics, words and speech, writing and reading. Language-learners, ESL, ELT, and TESOL folks will find it a treat.

Smile Belt (Rebroadcast) - 19 February 2018 (2/2018)

The only time you'll ever see the sun's outer atmosphere is during a full solar eclipse, when sun itself is completely covered. That hazy ring is called the corona, from the Latin word for "crown" -- just like the little crown on a bottle of Corona beer. Plus, the phrase "throw the baby out with the bathwater" contains a vivid image of accidentally tossing something -- and so does the phrase "to fly off the handle." But where did we get the expression "to hell in a handbasket"? The origin of this phrase is murky, although it may have to do with the fact that handbaskets are easily carried. Also: Biscuit Belt vs. Pine Belt, how to pronounce via, streely, pizza, tuckered out, FOOSH, and Sorry, Charlie!

FULL DETAILS

You probably know about the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt, but have you heard of the Smile Belt? How about the Biscuit Belt or the Pine Belt? The word belt is sometimes used to denote a loosely defined geographical area.

An Omaha, Nebraska, woman reports that a customer emailed her after a sales presentation to correct her pronunciation of the word via, meaning "through" or "by means of." In this case, the customer wasn't right: via can be pronounced either VEE-ah or VYE-uh. There's a slight preference for the former if you're talking about a road, and the latter in the case of the method.

A Huntsville, Alabama, man finds that his younger co-workers have never heard the phrase going to hell in a handbasket. Although the expression is at least as old as the U.S. Civil War, its etymology remains unclear. In the early 1960s, the humorist H. Allen Smith helped popularize the phrase with his book To Hell in a Handbasket, a dubious title for an autobiography.

If you're tired of telling youngsters to hurry up and close the refrigerator door, try this admonishing them with this phrase or one like it: Stop letting the penguins out!

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle involving synonyms for the word hard. For example, the title of a popular Netflix series might otherwise be known as the Hard Kimmy Schmidt.

A Vermont family used to tease one of its members with the phrase Sorry, Charlie! She's surprised to learn that this catchphrase comes from a long-running series of TV commercials for canned tuna.

A bolt-hole is a place where you can escape to avoid people you don't want to run into. This term for "a type of refuge" is used mainly in Britain, comes from the idea of a place where an animal might hide or bolt from if disturbed.

A listener in Cambridge, Wisconsin, says her mother, who is of Irish descent, used to tell her children to wash their hair so it wouldn't be streely. This word derives from Irish for "unkempt," and perhaps ultimately from a Gaelic term having to do with something "flapping" or "undone."


In Ireland, if you say someone's not as slow as he walks easy, you mean he's a whole lot smarter than he appears.

A listener in Quebec, Canada, wonders about the origin of to fly off the handle, meaning "to lose control." It refers to the image of the head of an axe becoming loose and flying through the air.

The word pizza derives from an Italian term at least a thousand years old for a type of savory flat bread. The type of pie we now think of as pizza, with tomato sauce, has been around since the 15th century, when tomatoes were first brought back to Europe from the New World.

During a full solar eclipse, you can see the sun's glowing outer atmosphere called the corona. In Latin, the term corona, means "crown" or "garland." It's the source of coronation, as well as the coronary arteries that wreathe the human heart, and coroner, originally an officer of the Crown. Another eclipse-related term, penumbra, comes from Latin for "almost shadow," and refers to the shadow cast by the earth or moon over an area where a partial eclipse is visible. A related word, umbrage, means "a sense of offense" or "resentment."

To be tuckered out, or "tired," is thought to derive from the image of a starved quadruped that's so skinny and worn out that it has a "tucked" appearance just behind the ribs. It may have been influenced by an older verb tuck, meaning "to chastise."

A lecturer in business law in St. Cloud, Minnesota, is astonished to discover his students are unfamiliar with throw the baby out with the bathwater, meaning "to accidentally get rid of the good while getting rid of the bad." You can find out pretty much everything you could ever possibly want to know about this phrase from an article by Wolfgang Mieder.

For a luscious description of exactly what you will see during a total solar eclipse, check out Dan McGlaun's site, Eclipse 2017.

A middle school teacher in Flower Mound, Texas, responds to students' protests and excuses with If all our butts were candied nuts, we'd all be fat for Christmas. It's probably a variation of a phrase popularized by former Dallas Cowboys star turned sports commentator Dandy Don Meredith, who often observed, If 'ifs' and 'buts' were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a merry Christmas?" The practice of using ifs and buts as nouns goes back at least 900 years.

The medical term FOOSH is an acronym for a painful injury. It stands for "fall onto outstretched hand."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

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A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
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Copyright Wayword, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation. All rights reserved.

Crusticles and Fenderbergs - 12 January 2018 (2/2018)

A second-generation Filipino-American finds that when he speaks English, his personality is firm, direct, and matter-of-fact. But when he speaks with family members in Tagalog, he feels more soft-spoken, kind, and respectful. Research shows that when our linguistic context shifts, so does our sense of culture. Also: why do we describe movies that are humorously exaggerated and over-the-top as "campy"? This type of "camp" isn't where your parents sent you for the summer. It derives from slang in the gay community.  Finally, if someone looks after another person, do you call them a caregiver? Or a caretaker? Plus crusticles, screenhearthing, growlerly and boudoir, krexing, delope, and go do-do.   

FULL DETAILS

Is there a word to describe focusing so intently on your computer that you don't notice the sun has gone down and the only light in your room is from your computer screen? A Twitter user suggests the neologism screenhearthing. Or is there a better word? Screensetting, perhaps. The English word focus, by the way, derives from Latin focus, meaning hearth or fireplace.

A deckhand on the Lake Champlain ferry in Burlington, Vermont, wonders if there's a word for those accumulated chunks of ice in the wheel wells of cars. He calls them crusticles, but as we've discussed before, they go by lots of names, including snow snot, fenderbergs, carsicles, slush puppies, and kickies.

Charles Dickens is credited with the first use of the term growlery to mean a person's private sitting room or a place to retreat when one is in a bad mood. Long before that, the French were using the term boudoir for something similar. Boudoir comes from bouder, meaning to sulk.

A worker in Montgomery, Alabama, doctor's office reports that when the office is extremely busy, she and her colleagues will say We're slammin' or We're slammed. It's a common expression in the American South, and particularly in the restaurant business.

Members of our Facebook group have been sharing stories of signs altered in funny ways, such as the one that someone with a can of spray paint changed from No Logging Allowed to No Flogging Allowed.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's "Coffee Cup" quiz requires the addition of the letters M (as in milk) or S (as in sugar) to a word to form another word that fits a clue. For example, if the original word is cap, but what he's looking for is a place to pitch his tent, which letter would you add?

A New York City man who grew up speaking both English and Tagalog reports an experience common to bilinguals: his behavior and emotions tend to shift when he's speaking one language as opposed to the other. Two good books on the topic: Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism by Francois Grosjean and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.

A Huntsville, Alabama, physical therapist notes that patients with a hamstring cramp will sometimes say I've got a rising in my leader. Rising is a dialectal term for swelling, and leader is a regional term for tendon or muscle, perhaps inspired by the old use of the term leader for the ropy stalk of a plant. Another dialectal term for a medical condition is the sugar, which means diabetes.

What's the difference, if any, between a caregiver and a caretaker? Generally in the United States, a caretaker is someone who tends property; a caregiver looks after a person. The term caregiver is far more recent.

Our discussion about grammagrams prompts listeners to send in several more stories from their workplaces. A high-school drama teacher in Arlington, Texas, reports that in the theater world, the letter Q is scribbled in scripts to mean cue.  A plumber points out that pipes that are Y-shaped are called wyes. A Virginia man who works in a shipyard that refuels nuclear submarines says that because the abbreviation for Bill of Materials is BOM, he and his colleagues joke about exploding nuclear BOMs.

The noun camp and the adjective campy refer to movies, theater, or a style or an exaggerated manner of creative or personal expression that combines high and low elements of culture. These terms were first used in the underground gay community, and may have originated from French se camper, which means to strike a pose. Camp was introduced into mainstream discourse by Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Notes on Camp.

Delope is a term used in duelling that to throw away one's shot. Incidentally, before taking office, elected officials in Kentucky, including notary publics, must swear they have never fought in a duel.

A listener in Richmond, Virginia, is understandably bothered by the overuse of the word gentleman, as when media outlets report that police have apprehended the gentleman suspected of committing a heinous crime.

A new arrival to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is curious about a phrase used by her husband's family: go do-do (DOH-doh), for go to sleep. It's from French dormir, to sleep. Grant recommends the Dictionary of Louisiana French: As Spoken in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities.

Krex is a dialectal term, probably from German and related to Yiddish, that means to grumble or complain.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

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A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.
https://waywordradio.org/
Copyright Wayword LLC. All rights reserved.

Bun in the Oven - 5 February 2018 (2/2018)

Family words, and words about being in a family way. How many different ways ARE there to say you're have a baby on the way? Sure, you can say you're pregnant, or that you're great with child. But there are lots of other terms. How about clucky, awkward, eating for two, lumpy, clucky, or swallowed a pumpkin seed? And: the story behind the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It's older than the Mary Poppins movie. Plus, the made-up foreignisms families share with each other. Anyone for scrambled eggs and . . . oikenstrippen?

FULL DETAILS

In our Facebook group, Laurie Stiers shared the fake German name her father used for bacon: oikenstrippen. That prompted a discussion of other faux foreignisms, such as pronouncing Target as tar-ZHAY or Kroger as kroh-ZHAY.  

A father-to-be in Susanville, California, wonders about how many different ways there are to say a woman is pregnant. He likes the term great with child, but isn't crazy about knocked up. Fortunately, there are more than 120 terms, including: swallowed a pumpkin seed, swallowed a watermelon seed, lumpy, clucky, awkward, eating for two, delicate condition, in the familiar way, double-ribbed, preggers, poisoned, with a kid in the basket, joined the pudding club, shot in the giblets, full in the belly, belly up, apron up, up the spout, up the stick, and up the way.

A woman in Omaha, Nebraska, is puzzled when a friend refers to the fatty tail bump of a cooked chicken as the bishop's nose. The term may reference this structure's resemblance to a human nose or perhaps to a bishop's miter. This jocular name may reflect anti-Catholic sentiment in 17th-century England. This structure is also called the parson's nose or the north end of a chicken flying south or the last part over the fence. The French term for this morsel is le sot-l'y-laisse, meaning a silly person leaves it, the idea being that only a fool would pass up this savory bite.

Lapidary prose is so elegant and precise that it's worthy of being carved into stone. Lapidary comes from Latin lapis, meaning stone, and is related to the brilliant blue stone, lapis lazuli, and the word dilapidated, from a Latin word meaning to destroy--originally, to pelt with stones.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle is based on a Twitter thread that involves intentionally misunderstanding the name of the adult cartoon show Rick and Morty. For example, isn't Rick and Morty what occurs when you die and your body gets all stiff? Oh no, wait that's . . . .

A listener in Evansville, Indiana, wonders: Why do we say when something is undesirable that it's for the birds?

The term wordsmith is formed by analogy with older words such as blacksmith, goldsmith, silversmith, and locksmith--all denoting skill and expertise with a particular medium.

Our conversation about rebuses and grammagrams prompts several listeners to note that people in scientific fields sometimes use the letters NRG as a stand-in for the word energy.

A Traverse City, Michigan, man is curious about the phrase his mother-in-law uses: breathing a scab. She uses it to indicate that someone who's pushing limits or otherwise on thin ice metaphorically. Actually, the phrase is breeding a scab, and it describes someone whose behavior risks retaliation, such as a punch in the nose that might actually leave a scab.

A Black Mountain, North Carolina, man is trying to popularize the word earspace, which he feels can be used in two different ways. One sense is the room a person has to take in something by listening, as in I have earspace for a new podcast. The other meaning suggests things that sound somewhat similar, as in the following sentence: Nickel Creek and The Mountain Goats are in the same earspace for me because the bands have a similar sound and I listen to them when I'm in the same mood.

The rarely used English noun list, meaning desire or craving, is entirely different from the word list that denotes a series of things. That meaning is at the root of the term listless, which in its original sense meant a lack of desire. Similarly, the word listy is an old term that means desirous. Another word that isn't what it seems is the adjective full-blown, which means fully developed, such as a full-blown case of pneumonia. The blown in this sense literally means in bloom or having blossomed, and is from the same linguistic root as the word peachblow, which means having the color of a peach blossom.

A San Diego, California, man says a colleague jokingly greets him with What's cookin' good lookin'? It's a version of a question popularized by a Hank Williams song that goes Hey, good-lookin, whatcha got cookin'? This greeting goes back to at least the 1920s.

Our earlier conversation about gram weenies, another name for ultralight backpackers, prompted a San Diego, California, man to email with the story of Bill Lear, the inventor of the LearJet, who once said he'd trade his own grandmother for a one-pound reduction of weight in the design of one of his aircraft. As a result, Lear's engineers adopted the term grandmother as a synonym for one pound.

Which is correct, toward or towards, meaning in the direction of? If you're in the United States, the far more common term is toward.

If you're not feeling quite right, you might describe yourself as awvish. This dialectal term used in parts of Northern England may derive from a local pronunciation of the word half.

The mouthful supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is often associated with the song by the same name in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins. But versions of this word were around for decades, including in a 1949 song called Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus. That similarly formed the basis of an unsuccessful copyright infringement lawsuit against brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, who wrote the song for the Disney movie.

The scientific name for that part of a fowl otherwise known as the pope's nose or the bishop's nose is uropygium. The Greek root of this word, pyge, meaning "rump," is also found in the English adjectives callipygian, which means having a shapely butt, and dasypygal, which means having hairy buttocks.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

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A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Podcast listeners, contact us with your questions and comments! Email words@waywordradio.org or call toll-free 24 hours a day (877) 929-9673 in the US and Canada. Everywhere else call +1 (619) 800-4443.

https://waywordradio.org/

Copyright Wayword LLC. All rights reserved.

 

Flying Pickle - 29 January 2018 (1/2018)

How would you like to be welcomed to married life by friends and neighbors descending on your home for a noisy celebration, tearing off the labels of all your canned foods and scattering cornflakes in your bed? That tradition has almost died out, but such a party used to be called a shivaree (SHIV-uh-ree). Also: the expression My name is Legion goes back to a Bible story that also gave us another English word that's much more obscure. Finally, tips for reading a book AND looking up the words you don't know--without losing the narrative thread. Plus lazy wind, plumb, bucklebuster, squinnies and grinnies, pollyfoxing and bollyfoxing, That smarts!, and hanged or hung.

FULL DETAILS

A listener shared a story in our Facebook group about hearing the term lazy wind, which refers to the kind of wind that's so bitterly cold that it seems to go straight through you, rather than going around you.

A woman in Puyallup, Washington, disagrees with her husband about the pronunciation of avocado. She pronounces it as if it were spelled alvocado, but the standard pronunciation is ah-voh-KAH-doh. A small minority of English speakers insert an l sound in the first syllable, which arises from the way the tongue works inside the mouth when pronouncing such a vowel. Something similar happens with the word both, which a some people pronounce as bolth.

Leah, a 9-year-old from Argyle, Texas, heard her mother answer a question with No, no, no--absolutely yes. Why did her mother do that? There are two things going on: the surface meaning of sentence, and the metanarrative.

A woman in Hemet, California, wonders about plumb crazy, as in totally, completely crazy. The plumb in this case has to do with a plumb line, a weighted line used to determine verticality, and derives from Latin plumbum, the word for the metal known as lead and abbreviated on the periodic table as Pb.

In theater slang, a bucklebuster is a line that's sure to get a big laugh.

Ermahgerd! Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle this week was inspired by the Gersberms meme, and involves adding R sounds to book titles to create books with entirely different plots. For example what George Orwell novella would be about a horse, a duck, a dog, and several pigs, and how they get rid of people and start their own company?

Martha and Grant share tips and tricks for learning unfamiliar words in a book without breaking up the narrative. A handy online resource for quick lookups is onelook.com, which lets you search several dictionaries at once.

After Martha gave a presentation to the Special Libraries Association's Southern California chapter, she was left wondering whether there's a good collective noun for a group of librarians. A Dewey?

A San Diego, California, listener recalls that growing up in Mississippi, friends and family would use the terms bollyfox or bollyfoxing, referring to a sassy way of walking. The more common version is pollyfox, meaning to waste time or lollygag.

An opera singer from Ontario, Canada, just finished a run of La Faniculla del West with the Virginia Opera. His character is put to death by hanging. Is it correct to say his character was hanged? Or was his character hung?

The adjective gadarene describes something headlong or precipitate, such as a gadarene rush to pass legislation. It derives from a story in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus visits the land of the Gadarenes and casts out demons from someone possessed by them. The exorcised demons invade a herd of swine, driving the animals mad, and sending them plunging to their deaths in the Sea of Galilee. From another version of the story in the Book of Mark comes a phrase that may be more familiar: My name is Legion.

A shivaree, also spelled charivari, is a raucous tradition of playing tricks on a newlywed couple. The practice was immortalized in the 1955 musical Oklahoma! (Starts at 2:09:22)

Among whale-watchers, the term flying pickle is used to refer to a newborn baby humpback whale breaching the surface.

A listener in Abilene, Texas, wonders about the expression That smarts! The verb to smart, meaning to sting or cause sharp pain goes back more than a thousand years. The adjective smart meaning intelligent evolved from that sense of something sharp.

Can you munch frozen yogurt, or does the verb to munch imply that whatever's being eaten has some crunch or resistance to it?

A woman who has spent most of her life in Des Moines, Iowa, says she's always used the word squinny for chipmunk, but doesn't hear it outside of her hometown. The term is definitely specific to Iowa, but an even more common word for the same striped animal in that area is grinnie.

In 1963, the writer James Baldwin was the subject of a profile in LIFE magazine, in which he observed, "You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
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Happy as Larry - 22 January 2018 (1/2018)

New research shows that you may be less influenced by superstitious behavior like walking under ladders or the magic of four-leaf clovers if you're reading about it in another language. And: sometimes not cursing will catch someone's ear even more than a real curse word. Finally, in what sport do you enjoy a glass-off and speck out before getting flushed? Martha brings back a firsthand report from the language of paragliding.

FULL DETAILS

In what sport would you hear the slang terms glass off, speck out, and get flushed? They're all expressions used in paragliding. Glass-off refers to a smooth, effortless takeoff; to speck out is to go so high that you're nearly invisible to those on the ground; to get flushed means to lose lift and be forced to make a landing. The United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association offers a glossary of the slang of free flight. As promised, here's video that Martha shot while getting flushed toward the end of her first paragliding flight. The song is "Fear of Flying," by Pam Delgado, performed by Blame Sally, and used with permission. (By the way, we have no idea who Cindy is, but we hope she said yes.)

A roofer in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has a dispute with his boss over how to pronounce the word roof. Most people pronounce it to rhyme with the word proof, but about 10 percent of the English-speaking world population pronounces roof like the word rough.

A listener in Williamsburg, Virginia, wants to know the correct pronunciation of the condiment known as Worcestershire sauce. The proper pronunciation involves what linguists call haplology, the loss of a syllable next to a similar-sounding one.

This week's puzzle by Quiz Guy John Chaneski involves limericks based on notable news from 2017. For example, how would you finish this one? My dependable British authorities / Say the royals have excellent qualities / Like handsome Prince Harry / Who announced he will marry / Meghan Markle who hails from the ________________.

The piece of playground equipment you slide down goes by several different names, depending on which part of the U.S. you're from: slide, sliding board, sliding plank, and sliding pond.

A Fort Worth, Texas, woman remembers her grandfather used to say You live and learn, then you die and forget it all. She wonders if he made it up. Actually, this phrase goes back to the 1840s and may allude to the brevity of life or to putting trivial matters into perspective.

Our discussion about finding a word that means both nervous but excited prompted several suggestions from listeners. A listener in Melbourne, Australia, contributed another term used in his part of the world: toey. If you're toey, you're full of anxious anticipation--an allusion, perhaps, to a horse pawing at the ground.

A listener in Huntsville, Alabama, says that in her native Scotland, the phrase send out for messages means to send someone to go shopping. The phrase stems from a time when people actually did pick up their postal mail or other messages at the local store.

To eat al desko is a joking term for having lunch at work without leaving the office.

New research published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that people who speak more than one language tend to be less superstitious if they're reading or thinking in a different language.

A San Antonio, Texas, woman wonders about the phrase to ask for your John Henry, meaning to ask for your signature. It's a variant of the far more common phrase, to ask for your John Hancock, a reference to the bold signature of John Hancock, one of the original signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The slang of paragliding includes the term cu's, also known as cumies, also known as cumulus clouds, which indicate good lift is available. For paragliders, the term cloud street refers to a line of cumulus clouds that stretches for miles, suggesting ideal conditions for flying.

A Los Angeles, California, man says his mother studiously avoided swearing. Instead of a curse word, she substituted the word piffle, which was often even more effective than a four-letter word because it was so unexpected. Piffle is most likely onomatopoetic, suggesting a disgusted exhalation through pursed lips. It's common in the United Kingdom, and figured in the title of the popular 2006 British television program about etymology, Balderdash & Piffle.

Someone does both paragliding and hang gliding is jokingly said to be biwingual. Really!

A woman in Perote, Alabama, wonders about the phrase happy as Larry, meaning very happy. This expression is commonly heard in Britain and Australia. It may derive from a jocular reference to the biblical Lazarus, who presumably would have been happy to be raised from the dead. Or it might be some sort of rhyming slang that evolved from very happy to Larry happy to happy as Larry. But the truth is no one knows who this particular Larry is or why he's so pleased.

Among paragliders, the expression the locals refers not to humans, but to birds. If the locals are able to soar without flapping their wings, then paragliders know that conditions are good for flying.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.

A Shoo In (Rebroadcast) - 15 January 2018 (1/2018)

This week it’s butterflies, belly flowers, plot bunnies, foxes, and cuckoos. Also, writing advice from Mark Twain and a wonderful bit of prose from Sara Pennypacker's book Pax. And are there word origins? Well, does a duck swim? We'll hear the stories of polka, smarmy, bully pulpit, and the exes and ohs we use to show our affection. Plus! Sarcastic interrogatives, the echo questions we give as answers to other people's no-duh queries.


FULL DETAILS


Hiking in the mountains, Martha kept noticing butterflies at about 4,000-to-5,000 feet above sea level. Those butterflies are hilltopping. It’s when male butterflies of many species go to high points to advertise their fortitude and genes to the female butterflies.


Judy in Huntsville, Alabama, has hundreds of song lyrics playing on auto-shuffle in her head. When the Polka Dot Polka started playing, she began to wonder how polka dots came to be associated with the music. It turns out that the polka dance craze of the early 1800s — named after the Polish word for a Polish woman — gave its name to a lot of things, including this fabric pattern.


Writing advice from Mark Twain, who was not a fan of adjectives. In The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, he says, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” He also wrote a letter with clever, useful advice that still holds true for the modern writer.


When you would ask the father of Chris from Reno, Nevada, something to which he thought the answer was obvious, he’d answer with jokey phrases like “Is a pig pork?” or “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “Does a bear poop in the woods?” (but with a different verb!). These sarcastic interrogatives, also known as a kind of echo question, are wonderfully discussed in an article by Charles Clay Doyle titled “Is the Pope Still Catholic?” in the journal Western Folklore. (The article is free with registration.)


The Greek word for the cuckoo bird, kokkux, is related to our word coccyx, the tailbone, because the bone looks like the bill of a cuckoo.


Our New York City quiz guy John Chaneski joins us for a punny word quiz. How to play: There’s a pun with a key word missing. You need to fill in the blank. For example, if you don’t pay your e_______, you get repossessed. The answer: exorcist. Get it?


Steve in Bend, Oregon, asks: Does bully pulpit mean what people think it means? Is the bully the same as the bully you might find in a schoolyard? What did Teddy Roosevelt really mean when he said he had a bully pulpit? There’s an old meaning that has fallen away that changes how we understand the phrase.


Hamid in San Diego, California, says that his wife is a job recruiter who finds people to fill high-profile positions. She will come home and say, “This candidate’s a shoo-in.” What’s the story with shoo-in? Where does it come from? It has something to do with an old slang term for rigging a horse race. It’s not, shoe-in, by the way, although that is a common misspelling, and it has nothing to do with footwear. There are many everyday terms that come from horse-racing, such as the term hands-down.


Growing up in Kentucky, where the state religion seems to be basketball, Martha played a lot of rounds of horse, where players compete to make baskets from the same court positions, shot for shot. If you miss, you get a letter from the word horse. If you get all the letters, you lose. Basketball star Steph Curry instead challenged a bunch of high school students to a game of sesquipedalian. We’ve talked about long words like that before.


Rodney in Suffolk, Virginia, is interested in the word tattoo. His grandmother didn’t use it to mean skin art. She used it to rave about seeing a great concert or band: “It was just such a wonderful tattoo!” It might have something to do with a musical military tradition involving a tattoo (of Dutch origin) that is unrelated to the skin tattoo (which has a Tahitian origin).


A belly flower is a small low-growing flower you have to get down on the ground to see.


Martha recommends Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, a book targeted at children but in which adults will find much to admire and mull over. In preparing the book, Pennypacker spent a great deal of time studying the behavior of foxes. Martha shares a particularly perfect passage.


Zach from Plano, Texas, watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In it, a protegé of the star sushi chef ends a long explanation about how much he’s learned from his mentor by saying, “I don’t sleep with my feet in his direction.” What does this Japanese expression it mean?


Man-eating spiders! Martha tells a charming story about how illustrators and authors work together when they make children’s books.


Greg, calling from Norfolk, Virginia, says that when he uses the word smarmy, some people seem not to know it. What does it mean? Where does it come from? Is it even a real word? It’s related to an old verb meaning to smear or be-daub. It’s kind of like the word unctuous.


Andrea in Haslett, Michigan, and her six-year-old daughter Neevee had a question about the way we show love in writing. When they were texting back and forth with Neevee’s daddy, she got to wondering where where we get X and O for kisses and hugs. It may have something to do with the way people used to sign and kiss important documents, and the Christian cross.


Plot bunnies are writing ideas that you can’t get rid of. The only way to purge yourself of the ideas is to write them!


This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

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Noon of Night (Rebroadcast) - 8 January 2018 (1/2018)

Pranks, cranks, and chips. As a kid, you may have played that game where you phone someone to say, "Is your refrigerator running? Then you better go catch it!" What's the term for that kind of practical joke? Is it a crank call or a prank call? There's a big difference. Also, if someone has a chip on his shoulder, he's spoiling for a fight -- but what kind of chip are we talking about? Potato? Poker? Hint: the phrase arose at a time when there were many more wooden structures around. Finally, a conversation with an expert on polar bears leads to a discussion of history and folklore around the world.

FULL DETAILS


After our conversation about a verbose admonition to use short words, a Tallahassee, Florida, man called with a version he learned as a boy: Do you have the audacity to doubt my veracity? Or even to insinuate that I would prevaricate? While I'll thrust my phalanges into your physiognomy with such intensity that it will horizontalize your perpendicularity.

There's a difference between a crank call and a prank call.

If someone has a chip on their shoulder, they're spoiling for a fight. The phrase derives from the old practice of literally putting a chip of wood or other small object on one's shoulder, and daring an adversary to knock the chip off--a gesture indicating that a line had been crossed and the opponent was ready to fight.

In Ireland, the word omadhaun means "a foolish person."

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle this week involves adding a letter to the names of famous bands to come up with entirely new ones. For example, Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool are trading in their instruments for a lime-colored delivery truck. What are they known as now?

Those strings of amber lights on 18-wheelers are known as chicken lights. But why? Although the term's origin is unclear, a participant in a discussion forum of the American Historical Truck Society suggests they may have been originally associated with trucks hauling Frank Perdue chickens.

Noon of night is an archaism, a poetic way of saying "midnight."

A New York City listener recalls that as a youth in Erie, Pennsylvania, he and his peers referred to a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich as a choke-and-slide or choke-n-slide. It's a reference to the qualities of the sticky peanut butter and the slippery jelly. The colloquial names of some other foods also refer to how they make their way down the throat, including gap-and-swallow and slick-and-go-down or slip-go-down. Other foods named for action associated with them are saltimbocca, literally "jump into the mouth," and tiramisu, from Italian for "pick me up!"

A woman who grew up in south central Minnesota grew up using the phrase too yet, which can have various meanings at the end of a sentence, usually with some negative sense. An article by Peter Veltman in American Speech suggests that the tag too yet used this way is a calque from Dutch.

A conversation with a leading expert on polar bears has Martha thinking about several bear-related words, including the term arctic and the feminine name Ursula.

In the 1940's, kids commonly teased a playmate who'd just gotten a short haircut by pointing at them and saying Baldy Sour! Baldy Sour!

A man in Bowling Green, Kentucky wonders: is the correct phrase You have another thing coming? Or is it You have another think coming?

The medical term tragomaschalia means "smelly armpit sweat," and derives from Greek words that mean "goat armpit."

A woman from Abilene, Texas, is preparing to make a move to the Northeast, and was amused when a realtor in her new hometown used the phrase Bada boom, bada bing, a phrase she'd heard only in movies. It's possible that this term is older than the 1960's, although so far no such record has been found.

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Naked as a Jaybird - 1 January 2018 (1/2018)

What's the best way for someone busy to learn lots of new words quickly for a test like the GRE? Looking up their origins can help. Or record yourself reading the words and definitions and play them back while you're doing other chores. Plus, book recommendations for youngsters. Finally, military slang, and the one-word prank that sends Army recruits running--or at least the ones who are in on the joke! Also: fanboys, technophyte, galoot, landsickness, to have one's habits on, Zonk!, and a sciurine eulogy.
 
FULL DETAILS
 
On our Facebook group, a listener asks if anyone else's children have been taught the term fanboy, meaning "coordinating conjunction." These connecting words include for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, and a helpful way to remember them is with the acronym FANBOYS.
 
A Huntsville, Alabama, listener says that when someone was being abrasive or mean or defiant, her mother would say she's got her habits on. This phrase appears in the work of many blues singers, including Lucille Bogan and Bessie Smith, and writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston.
 
A vast Corinthian column. A fair, flaxen-haired sister with golden ringlets. An old citizen of the town. A harp upon which the wind makes music. An athlete that shows its well-developed muscles. A great green feather stuck in the ground. These are all phrases that Henry David Thoreau used in his journals to describe what familiar sight?
 
A woman in Fort Worth, Texas, wonders if she's alone in using the phrase single as a jaybird to describe herself as unpartnered. The far more common phrase is naked as a jaybird, which is of uncertain origin, but which may stem from a young jay's featherless appearance.
 
A man who's not so handy with computers described himself not as a technophobe, but as a technophyte--a misapprehension of the components of the term neophyte, a word stemming from Greek words meaning "newly planted."
 
Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a puzzle inspired by the word age, featuring punny, one-word answers that end in -age and answer a question, such as "How old do you have to be to study podiatry"?  
 
What's the best way to learn lots of new vocabulary while studying for a test like the GRE?
 
A man in Rupert, Vermont, says his wife affectionately calls him a big galooly. It's unclear where that word might have come from, although it might derive from galoot.
 
Spread out like a week's washing is a colloquial way to describe something extending far and wide.
 
In Kansas, the gravelly residue from mines is often called chat, or less commonly, chert.
 
The German word for "mnemonic device" is Eselsbrucke, or literally, "donkey bridge."
 
Grant has two recommendations for young readers: Full of Beans, by Jennifer L. Holm, and the Lumberjanes series, by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, illustrated by Brooke Allen.
 
A listener in Fort Rucker, Alabama, remembers a prank played on new Army recruits: when a sergeant barked the order Zonk!, all the seasoned soldiers would fall out of formation and run away, leaving the newbies to wonder what was going on.
 
What's for the word for when you get off a boat, but still feel like you're moving? It's called landsickness. A more severe version is mal de debarquement, French for "sickness from disembarkation," abbreviated MdDS.
 
A theater professor who has cast many students in productions wonders about the past tense of the verb to cast. Is it cast or casted?
 
A listener in Bonifay, Florida, says when she was young and asked her mother what she was doing, her mother would respond I'm stacking greased bb's with boxing gloves on. This nonsensical phrase is part of a long tradition of parents brushing off inquiries with creative responses, including layoes to catch medlars and I'm sewing buttons on ice cream.
 
In the early 18th century, squirrels were popular pets in Britain and the American colonies. In fact, Benjamin Franklin once wrote a grand eulogy for a girl's pet squirrel named Mungo. The adjective sciurine means "referring or pertaining to squirrels."

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Hot Dog, Cold Turkey (Rebroadcast) - 25 December 2017 (12/2017)

Why do we call a frankfurter a "hot dog"? It seems an unsettling 19th-century rumor is to blame. Also, if someone quits something abruptly, why do we say they quit "cold turkey"? This term's roots may lie in the history of boxing. Plus, a transgender listener with nieces and nephews is looking for a gender-neutral term for the sibling of one's parent. Finally, the words "barber" and "doctor" don't necessarily mean what you think. They can both be weather words, referring to very different types of wind.  

FULL DETAILS

Brickfielder, Simoom, and Haboob are all types of winds. Others include snow eater and chinook.

Why do we call a frankfurter a hot dog? In the late 19th century, hot dog was a jocular reference to rumors that these sausages were stuffed with dog meat. They were also called hot pups.

Say you're introducing someone to a married heterosexual couple, and both members of the couple are physicians. What titles should you use? This is Dr. and Dr. Jones? Dr. and Mrs.? What if one holds Ph.D.? What if both hold doctorates?

Here's a humorous take on how optimists differ from pessimists.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has been swapping out letters on Broadway marquees to create the names of entirely new theatrical productions. For example, what Broadway play might you be watching if it's about a famous woman who leaves her career as a sharpshooter for a job at McDonald's?

The grandmother of a woman in Council Bluffs, Iowa, says tousled hair looks like a Hoorah's nest. Also spelled hurrah's nest or hooraw's nest, this means "an untidy mess" or "a commotion." Its origin is uncertain. In 1829, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described someone as having a head like a hurra's nest. The term's origin is obscure, although it might have to do with the nest of an imaginary creature.

A transgender and gender-nonconforming listener wonders if there's a gender-neutral term for "aunt" or "uncle." Some people have suggested pibling, meaning the "sibling of one's parent." Others have proposed baba, titi, bibi, zizi, unty or untie, or simply cousin. In the same way that kids often come up with a pet name for their grandparents, perhaps nieces and nephews (or nieflings, as they're sometimes collectively called) will come up with their own term. The tumblr Gender Queeries has more suggestions for all kinds of gender-neutral words denoting kinship.

A thesaurus, a collection of synonyms, derives from the Latin word thesaurus, or literally, "treasury."

A San Antonio, Texas, man says his 6-year-old son wonders: If the plural of house is houses, why is the plural of mouse mice? And why is the plural of tooth teeth? These plurals are vestiges of a time when the middle vowel sound in some nouns changed to form the plural. Other old plural forms are reflected in such words as children and oxen.

"A cool wind" or "a wind that brings good health" is sometimes called a doctor, such as the Freemantle Doctor of Western Australia. A barber wind is a harsh wind so cold and wet it can freeze a person's hair and beard.

Jessica Goodfellow spent several weeks as an artist-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska while finishing her latest book, Whiteout. The poems in this collection explore the stark natural beauty of that mountain, which drew her uncle there for a climb that turned out to be deadly. Martha shares one of those poems, "The Magpie."

When you quit something abruptly, you're said to quit cold turkey. This expression's origin is unknown, although its earliest recording uses are from 19th-century boxing.

A listener in Port Washington, Wisconsin asks: When is it appropriate to get rid of an old edition of a dictionary?

The cloth case for a pillow is variously known as a pillowcase, a pillow slip, or a pillow cover.

An Evansville, Indiana, says she responds to the question How are you? with a phrase she adopted from her grandmother: If I was any better, I'd be twins. There are several versions along these lines: If I was any better, I'd be you; If I was any better, there'd be two of me; If I was any better, I'd be dangerous, and If I was any better, vitamins would be taking me. In all of these jokey responses, the meaning is straightforward. It's simply that the speaker is doing very well indeed.

Kapai is a Maori term used in New Zealand meaning "good."

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There's more of everything! (12/2017)

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