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.

Noon of Night - 26 June 2017 (6/2017)

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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Boss of Me (Rebroadcast) - 19 June 2017 (6/2017)

If you want to be a better writer, try skipping today's bestsellers, and read one from the 1930's instead. Or read something besides fiction in order to find your own metaphors and perspective. Plus, just because a city's name looks familiar doesn't mean you should assume you know how the locals pronounce it. The upstate New York town spelled R-I-G-A isn't pronounced like the city in Latvia. Turns out lots of towns and streets have counterintuitive names. Finally, why do we describe being socially competitive as "keeping up with the Joneses"? The Joneses, it turns out, were comic strip characters. Also, sugar off, filibuster, you're not the boss of me, and lean on your own breakfast.

FULL DETAILS

When it comes to the names of towns and cities, the locals don't necessarily pronounce them the way you expect. Charlotte, Vermont, for example, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, not the first--and therein lies a history lesson. The town was chartered in 1762, the year after England's King George III married the German-speaking Princess Charlotte, and it's named in her honor.

What's the deal with the use of person, as in I'm a dog person or She's a cat person? The word person this way functions as a substitute for the Greek-derived suffix -phile, meaning "lover of," and goes back at least a century.

A woman from Hartford, Connecticut, remembers her mom used the term clackers to denote those floppy, rubber-soled shoes otherwise known as flip-flops, go-aheads, or zoris. Anyone else use clackers in that way?

A listener in Reno, Nevada, wants to know: If one member of a long-term, unmarried couple dies, what's a good term for the surviving partner, considering that the usual terms widow and widower aren't exactly correct?  

To sugar off means to complete the process of boiling down the syrup when making maple sugar. Some Vermonters use that same verb more generally to refer to something turns out, as in that phrase How did that sugar off?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle involves social media "books" that rhyme with the name Facebook. For example, Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, posts on on what fancifully named social media outlet?

A Los Angeles, California, listener says his grandmother, a native Spanish speaker, used the word filibustero to mean "ruffians." Any relation to the English word filibuster? As a matter of fact, yes.

To encourage diners to dig into a delicious meal, an Italian might say Mangia!, a French person Bon appetit! and Spaniard would say Buen provecho. But English doesn't seem to have its own phrase that does the job in quite the same way.

A Palmyra, Indiana, listener observes that in online discussions of Pokemon Go, Americans and French-speaking Canadians alike use the word lit to describe an area of town where lots of people playing the game. This usage apparently is related to the earlier use of lit to describe a great party with lots of activity, or recreational drug use.

If you think the city of Riga, New York, is pronounced like the city in Latvia, think again.

A listener in Brazil wants to know about the source of the phrase keeping up with the Joneses, which refers to trying to compete with others in terms of possessions and social status. This expression was popularized by a comic strip with the same name drawn by newspaper cartoonist Arthur "Pop" Momand for several years during the early 20th century.

If you're sitting on a subway or airplane seat and someone's invading your space, you can always offer the colorful rebuke Lean on your own breakfast, meaning "straighten up and move over."

Essayist Rebecca Solnit has excellent advice for aspiring writers.

The phrase You're not the boss of me may have been popularized by the They Might Be Giants song that serves as the theme for TV's "Malcolm in the Middle." But this turn of phrase goes back to at least 1883.

A woman whose first language is Persian wonders about the word enduring. Can she describe the work of being a parent as enduring? While the phrase is grammatically correct, the expression enduring parenting not good idiomatic English.

The poetic Spanish phrase Nadie te quita lo bailado expressing the idea that once you've made a memory, you'll always have it, no matter what. Literally, it translates as "no one can take away what you've danced."

In a roadway, the center lane for passing or turning left is sometimes called the chicken lane, a reference to the old game of drivers from opposite directions daring each other in a game of chicken. For the same reason, some people refer to it as the suicide lane.  

A bible lump, or a bible bump, is a ganglion cyst that sometimes forms on the wrist. It's also called a book cyst, the reason being that people sometimes try to smash them with a book, but  don't try this at home!

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Sunny Side Up (Rebroadcast) - 12 June 2017 (6/2017)

Baseball has a language all its own: On the diamond, a snow cone isn't what you think it is, and Three Blind Mice has nothing to do with nursery rhymes. And how do you describe someone who works at home while employed by a company in another city? Are they telecommuters? Remote workers? One writer wants to popularize a new term for this modern phenomenon: working in place. Also, a powerful essay on white privilege includes a vivid new metaphor for the pain of accumulated slights over a lifetime: chandelier pain. Plus, sunny side up eggs, count nouns, bluebird weather, harp on, think tank, thought box, and how to remember to spell Mississippi.

FULL DETAILS


Baseball is a rich source of slang, and The Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson is a trove of such language. A snow cone, in baseball lingo, is a ball caught so that it's sticking up out of the fielder's glove. And which month of the year is called Dreamer's Month? It's March, when loyal fans believe that anything is possible for their team in the coming season.

Sunny side up eggs sometime go by the name looking at you eggs, an apparent reference to how the yolk in the middle of the egg white makes them resemble eyes. A similar idea appears in the German name, which translates as "mirror egg," and in Hebrew, where such eggs go by a name that translates as "eye egg." The Japanese term, medama yaki, translates as "fried eyeball." In Latvia, they're "ox eyes," and "cow eyes" in Indonesia.

In baseball, a two-o'clock hitter is one who hits well in batting practice, but not during the game. It used to be that games traditionally started at 3 p.m., with batting practice an hour before.

An attorney in El Centro, California, is bothered by the phrase a large amount of people, because the word amount is usually applied to mass nouns, not count nouns. There are exceptions, however.  

In baseball slang, three blind mice denotes the three umpires on the field.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has an artful quiz about, well, art. For example, remove two letters from the end of this painting's title, and now the couple in it has been replaced by a pale young man outside a farmhouse sporting a black T-shirt, eyeshadow, and several piercings. What's the name of this new painting?

In Arabic-speaking families, it's not uncommon for mothers to address their children with the Arabic word for "mama" or for fathers to use the word for "father" when addressing their offspring. These words are used in this way as a term of endearment. Some other languages do the same.

Writer Isabel Allende offers this writing advice: Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the Muse shows up, too.

A listener in Honolulu, Hawaii, wonders about an expression used by her husband's grandmother, who was from Eastern Kentucky: He left so fast, that you could have played marbles on his coattails. The notion that a person is running so fast his coattails are stretched out perfectly flat goes back at least to the 1850's.

Since the 1950's, the term think tank has meant "a research institute." But even earlier than that, going as far back as the 1880's, think tank referred "a person's mind." Another slang term for one's mind is thought box.

A Seattle, Washington, listener wants to know why, when marking time, we say One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, as opposed to other states or rivers. In the United Kingdom, they're more likely to say hippopotamus. Some people count instead with the word banana, or Nevada, or one thousand one. Also, a mnemonic for spelling the pesky name Mississippi: M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked-letter-I-humpback-humpback-I.

In Maryland and Virginia, bluebird weather is a brief period of warm weather in autumn.

What do you call it when you work for a corporation but aren't based in the same place as its headquarters. Writer Michael Erard believe that the term working remotely doesn't really characterize it, and instead has suggested working in place.

A caller from New York City wonders about his grandmother's use of the word says rather than said when she's telling a story about something that happened in the past. It's a form of the historical present tense that helps describe recounted or reported speech.

In a powerful essay on white privilege, Good Black News editor Lori Lakin Hutcherson includes the term chandelier pain to describe how painful accumulated slights can be. Medical professionals use the term chandelier pain to refer to the result of touching an exquisitely painful spot--so painful that patients involuntarily rise from the examining table or reach toward the ceiling.  

Does the expression to harp on something, as in "to nag," have anything to do with the stringed instrument one plays by plucking? Yes. As early as the 16th century to harp all of one string meant to keep playing the same single note monotonously.

We talk about something occurring beforehand, so why don't we talk about something happening afterhand? Actually, afterhand goes all the way back to 15th-century English, even though it's not that commonly used today.

A New Hampshire listener recalls that as a boy, when he talked friends within earshot of his mother and said referred to her as She, his mother would pipe up with She, being the cat's mother. It's an old expression suggesting that it's insulting to refer to people in the third person if they're present.

The early 20th-century Spanish poet Antonio Machado has a beautiful poem about finding one's way. The translation in this segment is by Anna Rosenwong and Maria Jose Gimenez.

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

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Naked as a Jaybird - 5 June 2017 (6/2017)

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 - 29 May 2017 (5/2017)

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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Spur of the Moment (Rebroadcast) - 22 May 2017 (5/2017)

A caller with a 25-year-old parrot wonders: How much language do birds really understand? Plus, Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo. Well . . .  you can guess the rest. But there was a time when these goofy jokes were a brand-new craze sweeping the nation. Finally, the words "coffee" and "sugar" both come from Arabic, as does another familiar word: ghoul. There's a spooky story about its origin. Also, freckle, diamond in the rough, spur of the moment, literary limericks, the pronunciation of divisive, and a cold vs. the flu. 

FULL DETAILS


In 1936, newspapers across the United States breathlessly reported on a new craze sweeping the nation: knock-knock jokes -- and they were at least as corny as today's version.

A seventh-grader from Colorado wonders where the word freckle comes from. This word's origin is a bit murky, but appears to be related to old Scandinavian term rooted in the idea of "scattering," like the seeds that freckles resemble. The German word for these bits of pigment is Sommersprossen, literally, "summer sprouts."

A native New Yorker who lived as a boy with his grandmother in South Carolina recalls coming home late one day and offering a long-winded excuse, prompting his grandmother to declare, Boy, you're as deep as the sea! She probably meant simply that he was in deep trouble.

Our earlier conversation about the word ruminate prompts a Fort Worth, Texas, listener to send a poem that his aunt, an elementary-school teacher, made him memorize as a child:  A gum-chewing boy and a cud-chewing cow / To me, they seem alike somehow / But there's a difference -- I see it now / It's the thoughtful look on the face of the cow.

What's the meaning of the phrase diamond in the rough? Does it refer to a rose among thorns, to unrealized potential? The phrase derives from the diamond industry, where a diamond in the rough is one taken from the ground but still unpolished. The word diamond is an etymological relative of adamant, meaning "unbreakable," as well as adamantine, which means the same thing.

Looking for an extremely silly knock-knock joke? Here's one that's as silly as they come:

Knock, knock. Who's there? Cows go. Try figuring out the rest.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's challenge involves phrases of two words, each of which ends in the letter a. For example, if you mix nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, you get a yellow, fuming, corrosive liquid that eats metals, even gold. What's it called?

A listener in Hartland, Vermont, has a 25-year-old African parrot named Trouble, and says he's often asked about the bird's vocabulary and how the two of them communicate, which raises the question "What is a word?" Grant argues that the better question is "Does this bird have a language?" and the answer is no. For example, the bird might associate an object with a particular word, but wouldn't understand pronouns, nor would the bird be able to comprehend recursive statements that contain ideas embedded in ideas.

Before knock-knock jokes swept the country in 1936, another silly parlor game called Handies was all the rage.

To do something on the spur of the moment, or to "act spontaneously," comes from the idea of using a sharp device to urge on a horse.

The English language includes several words deriving from Arabic, such as coffee, sugar, and giraffe. Another is ghoul, which comes from an Arabic term for a "shapeshifting demon."

How do you pronounce the second syllable in the word divisive? This question divides lots of English speakers. Either is fine, but the use of a short i is more recent, first recorded in dictionaries in 1961.

Why do we say someone has a cold when we say someone else has the flu, and another person has croup?

A listener in Abu Dhabi responded to our request for literary limericks with one of her own. It starts with "There once was a lass on a ledge … "

A bank teller suffered a brain injury and now sometimes finds it hard to remember simple words. She wants a succinct way to explain to her customers why she's having difficulty.

Some knock-knock jokes stir the emotions, including Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo ...

A woman in Middlesex, Vermont, says that when she was a girl her parents sometimes described her as porky, but they weren't referring to her appearance -- they meant she was acting rebelliously. This use of the word might be related to pawky, or "impertinent," in British English.

Don't worry, be happy -- or, as a quote attributed to Montaigne goes, My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.
 
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:

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Hell For Leather (Rebroadcast) - 15 May 2017 (5/2017)

Victorian slang and a modern controversy over language and gender. In the early 1900's, a door-knocker wasn't just what visitors used to announce their arrival, it was a type of beard with a similar shape. And in the 21st century: Is it ever okay to call someone a lady? Or is woman always the better term? Plus, surprising stories behind some familiar car brands. Chances are you've been stopped in traffic behind a car named for an ancient Persian deity -- or passed by an automobile that takes its name from a bilingual pun involving German and Latin.



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The 1909 volume Passing English of the Victorian Era by J. Redding Ware has a wealth of slang terms from that era. One entry even includes musical notation for Please mother open the door, a slang phrase that was sung, rather than spoken, to express admiration for a woman.

A 13-year-old from San Diego, California, wonders: Why do we call that breakfast staple toast instead of, say, toasted bread? It's natural to find shortcuts for such terms; we've also shortened pickled cucumbers to just pickles.

A wise Spanish proverb, Cada cabeza es un mundo, translates as "Every head is a world," meaning we each have our own perspective.

A caller from Long Beach, California, say hell for leather describes "a reckless abandonment of everything but the pursuit of speed." But why hell for leather? The expression seems to have originated in the mid-19th century, referencing the wear and tear on the leather from a rough ride on horseback at breakneck speed. But similar early versions include hell falleero and hell faladery. There's also hell for election, which can mean the same thing, and appears to be a variation of hell-bent for election.  

Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes. The job requires extra pluck and zeal from every young wage-earner. Both of those sentences are pangrams, meaning they use every letter of the alphabet. Our Facebook group has been discussing these and lots of other alternatives to the old typing-teacher classic The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, sleeping dog.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has designed a puzzle inspired by the movie Finding Dory about two language experts who journey around the ocean looking for le mot juste. For example, what sea creature whose name literally means "daughter of the wind"?

When is it appropriate to refer to someone a lady? Is woman a better word to use? Is it ever appropriate to refer to adult females as girls? It all depends on context -- who's doing the talking and who's doing the listening.

As Mark Twain observed, The compliment that helps us on our way is not the one that is shut up in the mind, but the one that is spoken out. Martha describes a compliments challenge that her friends are taking up on Facebook, with happy results.

A Dallas, Texas, caller says his girlfriend from a rural part of his state has an unusual way of pronouncing certain words. Email sounds like EE-mill, toenail like TOW-nell, and tell-tale like TELL-tell. These sounds are the result of a well-known feature of language change known as a vowel merger.

Riddle time! I exist only when there's light, but direct light kills me. What am I?

The stories behind the brand names of automobiles is sometimes surprising. The name of the Audi derives from a bilingual pun involving a German word, and Mazda honors the central deity of Zoroastrianism, with which the car company's founder had a fascination.

A high-school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, wonders about the origin of the term honky. This word is widely considered impolite, and likely derives from various versions of the term hunky or hunyak used to disparage immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Lots of foods are named for what happens to them. Mozzarella comes from an Italian word that means "cut," feta cheese takes its name from a Greek word meaning the same thing, and schnitzel derives from a German word that also means "to cut."

Why do some people pronounce the word sandwich as SANG-wich or SAM-mitch or SAM-widge?

In the 19th century, the slang term door-knocker referred to a beard-and-mustache combo that ringed the mouth in the shape of a metal ring used to tap on a door.

A Canadian-born caller says her mother, who is from Britain, addresses her grandson as booby.  
In The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, researchers Iona and Peter Opie write that booby is a children's term for "a foolish crybaby," which may be connected.


The 1909 slang collection Passing English of the Victorian Era defines the phrase to introduce shoemaker to tailor this way: "Evasive metaphor for fundamental kicking." In other words, to introduce shoemaker to tailor means to give someone a swift kick in the pants.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Skedaddle - 8 May 2017 (5/2017)

The months of September, October, November, and December take their names from Latin words meaning "seven," "eight," "nine," and "ten." So why don't their names correspond to where they fall in the year? The answer lies in an earlier version of the Roman calendar. The sweltering period called the "dog days" takes its name from the movements of a certain star.
A new book offers an insider's view of the world of dictionary editing.

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You're trying to unscrew the stubborn lid on a jar of pickles and ask someone to hand you that flat, round, rubber thing that helps you get it open. What do you call that item? In a discussion on our Facebook group, listeners share several names, including rubber husband, second husband, rubber grippy thing, and round tuit.

A surfer in Imperial Beach, California, wonders who coined the word gnarly to describe waves that are particularly challenging. This term may have originated in the slang of surfers in South Africa in the 1970s, and eventually spread into everyday slang.

The slang term sky hag was originally a negative appellation for an older flight attendant. But it's now being reclaimed by longtime airline employees as a positive self-descriptor.

A woman in Mammoth Lakes, California, says her father used to offer this advice: In promulgating your esoteric cogitations or articulating your superficial sentimentalities, beware of preposterous ponderosities. In other words, don't use big words. This particular phrase and variations of it were passed around in 19th century, much like internet memes today.

Gram weenie is a slang term for an ultralight backpacker who goes to extreme lengths to shave off every last bit of weight they must carry.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski shares puzzle called "Blank in the Blank." For example, what classic toddler's toy shares its name with a fast-food restaurant?

A college student in Bowling Green, Kentucky, wonders about the origin of the word emoji. Although you might guess that the name for these little pictures inserted into text messages contains the English word emotion, that's just a coincidence. Instead, the word derives from Japanese e meaning "picture" and moji, meaning "letter" or "character."

The phrase to be nebby is heard particularly in Western Pennsylvania, and means to be "picky" or "gossipy." Originally, it meant "nosy" or "snooping." Nebby is a vestige of Scots-Irish, where the word neb means "nose" or "beak."

Some parents take homeschooling a step further with world-schooling, or educating children through shared travel experiences.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener recalls hearing the term las caniculas to denote a period of 12 days in January where the weather seems to run the gamut of all the kinds of weather that will be experienced in the coming year. This period is also known as las cabanuelas. Canicula derives from Latin for "little dog," a reference to Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, which at a certain time of the year appears in the eastern horizon just before sunrise, appearing to accompany the sun like a faithful pup. There's a great deal of folklore associated with la canicula, a term applied at different times in different Spanish-speaking countries. In English, this period in late summer is known as the dog days.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, is a must-read for anyone interested in language and how dictionaries are made.

The months September, October, November, and December derive from Latin words that mean "seven," "eight," "nine," and "ten" respectively. So why are they applied to the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year? The answer lies in the messy history of marking the year, described in detail in David Duncan's book, Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.

A sneck is a kind of latch. A listener in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says his British relatives use the term snecklifter is sometimes used to mean "a gift that will get you in the door at a dinner party."

A U.S. Forest Service firefighter in Lakeland, Florida, also teaches classes on chainsaw safety, and wants to make sure he's using gender-neutral pronouns when doing so. The epicene pronoun they will work just fine.

The origin of skedaddle, meaning to "run away in a panic" or "flee," has proved elusive. Renowned etymologist Anatoly Liberman suggests it may be related to a Scottish term, skeindaddle, meaning "to spill." Its popularity in the United States took off during the Civil War.

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Pop Stand (Rebroadcast) - 1 May 2017 (5/2017)

When it comes to learning new things, what's on your bucket list? A retired book editor decided to try to learn Latin, and ended up learning a lot about herself. There's a word for someone who learns something late in life. And when it comes to card games, how is it that the very same game goes lots of different names? What you call Canfield, other people may call Nertz! Finally, a bit of vulture culture: Words for these birds depend on what they're doing: A kettle of vultures is swirling in the air, while a group of vultures standing around eating is called … a wake. Plus, cat's eyes, Bott's dots, dumpster fire, spagglers, Dan Ratherisms, pussle-gut, and let's blow this pop stand.


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A restaurant review in the Myanmar Times describes a steak that "could not have been more middle-of-the-road if it was glued to a cat's eye." This analogy makes sense only if you know that cat's eye is a term for the reflective studs in the middle of a road that help drivers stay in their own lanes.

Card games often go by several different names, like Canfield and Nertz, or Egyptian Racehorse and Egyptian Rat Screw, or B.S. and Bible Study. These names, and the rules for each, vary because they're more often passed from person to person by word-of-mouth rather than codified in print. Incidentally, the use of the word Egyptian in various card game names stems from the fact that playing cards supposedly originated in Egypt.

A woman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, say that there, if someone's fly is open, instead of saying XYZ for Examine Your Zipper, many people say Kennywood is open. Kennywood, it turns out, is a nearby amusement park.

A San Diego, California, woman is baffled by her husband's saying: If a frog had a pouch, he'd carry a gun. It has to do with wishing for the impossible, similar to the saying If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. It's one of many Dan Ratherisms, folksy sayings popularized by the Texas-born CBS newscaster.

The trendy term dumpster fire, meaning "a chaotically horrible situation," may have originated with sportswriters.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's quiz is a challenge to find the odd word out, etymologically speaking. For example, which word doesn't belong in the following group? Bigot, saloon, quiche, tornado.

In Spanish, mordida literally means "a bite," but it's a kind of bribe. It predates the English phrase put the bite on someone by more than a hundred years. One proposed etymology for the Spanish term is that divers rescuing treasure from wrecked Spanish galleons were allowed, on their final dive, to keep as many coins as they could bring up crammed into their mouths. Another story goes that the underlings of a Spanish nobleman collected a special tax to help pay for his extensive dental work, then simply continued the practice after the work was paid for. Both of these colorful stories are probably too colorful to be believed. Mordida! is also a popular cry at birthday celebration in parts of Latin America, where the birthday boy or girl is encouraged by cheering guests to plunge face first into a cake.

A listener in Abilene, Texas, says that his Maryland relatives always referred to asparagus as spagglers, so he was shocked when he got to college and realized no one else knew what he was talking about. This vegetable goes by lots of other names, including spargus, spiro grass, asper guts, dusty roots, and aspirin grass. In upstate New York, it's even called Martha Washington or Mary Washington.

No word if Dan Rather coined this phrase, but shakier than cafeteria jello describes something that's pretty jiggly indeed.

Is it a pitched battle or a pitch battle? Originally, a pitched battle was conducted according to traditional rules of warfare, which called for combat in a prearranged time and place. The pitch in this term has to do with positioning, in much the same sense as to pitch a tent.

Bott's dots are little round pavement markers, named for California highway engineer Elbert D. Botts.

Having retired as a New York book editor, and looking for a way to fill her time, Ann Patty embarked on the study of college-level Latin. She chronicles those studies and the life lessons learned in Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin. Someone who begins to learn late in life is called an opsimath. What's on your opsimathic bucket list?

A caller from Vermont says his Mississippi-born grandfather always called him a pussle-gut, and admonish him about an unseen wampus cat. The former, also spelled puzzle-gut, simply means "a fat or pot-bellied person," the pussle being related to pus, as in the bodily ooze. American folklore is full of stories about the wampus cat, a terrifying, hybrid mythical creature.  

A listener in Springfield, Illinois, recalls that an elderly relative would respond to the question "How are you?" with the answer Forked end down. By that, he meant, "I'm fine." If you've ever drawn a stick figure, you know that the forked end is where the feet are, so forked end down means someone's feet are firmly planted on the ground. In the American West, forked end up long referred to the unfortunate position of a rider thrown from a horse.  

A hike in San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park has Martha pondering terms for turkey vultures. A flock of vultures in flight is called a kettle, a committee, or a volt, while a group of vultures feeding on carrion is called a wake.

Let's blow this popsicle stand is an adaptation of Let's blow this pop stand, meaning to leave a place, and in a way that's showy. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

The glow in the eyes of some animals is called eyeshine, and the adjective that describes such shimmering in a cat's eyes is chatoyant, from French for "cat."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Coast Is Clear - 24 April 2017 (4/2017)

In the military, if you've "lost the bubble," then you can't find your bearings. The term first referred to calibrating the position of aircraft and submarines. And the phrase "the coast is clear" may originate in watching for invaders arriving by sea. Plus, a dispute over how to pronounce the name of a savory avocado dip. Finally, one more place where people are starting sentences with the word "So"--during prayers at church. Also: elbow clerk, smitten, Tennyson's brook, fussbudget vs. fuss-bucket, clinomania, and 50k south of Woop Woop.


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Our conversation about goofy German Antiwitze prompts listeners to send in their own silly jokes. For example: What's the difference between a duck? A pencil, because a duck has no sleeves!

A brother and sister in Elgin, Illinois, disagree about how to pronounce guacamole. She argues that it rhymes with whack-a-mole. She's wrong.

Speaking to a conference of judges and lawyers, Grant learns the term elbow clerk, meaning a clerk who works in the judge's chambers.

A woman in Vancouver, Washington, wants to know the origin of the phrase the coast is clear, meaning "it's safe to proceed." It most likely has to do with a literal coast, whether from the perspective of a ship at sea or guards patrolling the shoreline. The Spanish equivalent No hay Moros en la costa translates literally as "There are no Moors on the coast."

Why does it seem that more and more people start responses to a question with the word So? After hearing our discussion about sentence-initial so, a Nashville, Tennessee, churchgoer calls to say that he often hears something similar at the beginning of a prayer after a sermon or to conclude a service.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about people whose names are words. For example, if he asks, "Is the comedian who was one of the Three Amigos vertically challenged?" you'd answer with name of a funny man whose last name is also an adjective.

A woman who is fond of the word smitten is curious about about the word's origin. Smitten is the past participle of "smite," so if you're smitten with someone, you're struck by them, metaphorically speaking.

A San Antonio, Texas, woman who has taught at the Defense Language Institute at Lackland Air Force Base, says one of her Spanish-speaking students taught her the equivalent of the pot calling the kettle black: el conejo gritando orejon, which translates literally as "the rabbit yelling 'big ears.'"

A listener in Marquette, Michigan, says her daughters criticize her for saying Where you at? They argue that the word at in this case is unnecessary. In many cases, this phrase is indeed a pleonasm, but Grant explains that in some contexts this use of the word at plays a particular linguistic role to convey additional meaning.

In response to our conversation about euphemistic terms for one's age, a listener says that he fudged his age on his last big birthday by telling friends he'd turned 21 in Celsius.

Two-hander is theater jargon for a play that features just two people.

The expression on and on like Tennyson's brook describes something lengthy or seemingly interminable, like a long-winded speaker who goes on and on like Tennyson's brook. The phrase is a reference to a lovely poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson about the course of a body of water.

To lose the bubble means "to lose track" or "lose one's bearings," and refers to the bubble in an inclinometer on an airplane or ship, much like the bubble in a carpenter's level. It's described in detail in Gene Rochlin's Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization.

In Australian slang, Woop Woop is a joking term for any remote town, and if you want to denote someplace even more remote, you can describe it as 50k south of Woop Woop.

A fussbudget is someone who's "ill-tempered" or "overly critical," the -budget in this term deriving from an old word for "purse" or "pouch." Variants include fussy-budget, fuss-a-budget, and fussbucket.

The words clinomania and dysania both refer to extreme difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.

If the car you bought is a lemon, it's defective. This negative use of lemon derives from the tart taste of this fruit, which first inspired an association with a sourpuss, then a generally disappointing person, and then finally a similarly disappointing product.

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