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.

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.


FULL DETAILS

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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Punch List (Rebroadcast) - 17 April 2017 (4/2017)

Books for sale, books for free, and wisdom passed down through the ages. Libraries aren't just repositories for books -- they're often a great place to find gently used volumes for sale. Or you can always visit a "little free library," one of those neighborhood spot dedicated to recycling your own books, and picking up new ones for free. Plus: "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers" -- weighty proverbs from East Africa. Finally, the United States and the UK are separated by more than a common language: the way we talk about numbers is also surprisingly different, depending on which side of the pond you're on. Also: I don't know him from Adam, stargazy pie, my dogs are barking, and cheiloproclitic. Ruminate on that!

FULL DETAILS

The stunning play Our Lady of Kibeho, set in Rwanda, includes some powerful East African proverbs gathered by playwright Katori Hall, such as A flea can bother a lion, but a lion cannot bother a flea, and When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

A caller from Deer River, Minnesota, has lots of experience raising ruminants and wonders if the word ruminate, as in "to ponder or muse about something" stems from the image of such an animal chewing regurgitated cud. Indeed it does. In classical Latin, the word ruminare could mean either "to chew cud" or "to turn over in one's mind." Similarly, the English verb to browse originally referred to the action of an animal feeding on the buds and leaves of trees and bushes.

The phrase I don't know him from Adam suggests that if the person were standing next to the person in Western tradition thought to be earliest human being, the two would be indistinguishable. The phrase I don't know her from Adam can be used to refer to a woman who is similarly unrecognizable, but it's less common. Another variation: I wouldn't know him from Adam's off ox.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski invites us to a party to meet all of his dear "aunties" -- as in the "auntie" who makes sure your oily hair doesn't mess up the furniture.

Since the 1930's the term punch list has referred to a list of things to do, or a list of problems to fix. Although there are many proposed explanations for the origin of this term, none is definitive.

A caller from Tampa, Florida, talks about the eerie feeling she had when she heard an audio interview recorded with a speaker who at the time was unaware of his imminent death. She'd like a word to describe that feeling. Postalgia, maybe?

An Alabama woman says Minnesota-born husband has never heard an expression she's used all her life. The phrase is smell the patching, as in If he's not careful, he's going to smell the patching. The idea is that if you do something bad, it will catch up with you. In the early 19th century, patching was the piece of cloth used to tamp down gunpowder in firearms. If you're close enough to a battle to smell the patching, you're pretty darn close.

The Little Free Library movement offers a great way to unload some of your old books and discover some ones that someone else has left for the taking.

A listener in Hartford, Connecticut, is sure he's heard a word that means "an erotic attraction to lips." The word is cheiloproclitic, from ancient Greek words that mean "inclined toward lips." Grant offers a couple of other terms, jolie laide, French for "beautiful ugly," and cacocallia, from Greek words that mean roughly the same thing.

Those of us in the United States and Britain may be separated by a common language, but we're also separated when it comes to how we indicate numbers. A Numberphile video featuring linguist Lynne Murphy explains this in more depth.

If you think stargazy pie sounds romantic, you'd better be charmed by egg-and-potato pie with fish heads sticking out of it.

My dogs are barking means "My feet hurt" or "My feet are tired." As early as 1913, cartoonist Tad Dorgan was using the term dogs to mean "feet." If your "dogs" in this sense are "barking," it's as if they're seeking your attention.

In an earlier episode, we discussed visual signals used in deafening environments such as sawmills. One signal, developed in a textile mill, was holding up both hands, fingertips up and palms out, miming a gesture of pushing. That pushing motion translated to, of course, The boss, as in The boss is coming, so look sharp!

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Sweet Dreams (Rebroadcast) - 10 April 2017 (4/2017)

In deafening workplaces, like sawmills and factories, workers develop their own elaborate sign language to discuss everything from how their weekend went to when the boss is on his way. Plus, English speakers borrowed the words lieutenant and precipice from French, and made some changes along the way, but not in ways you might suspect. Finally, how do you pronounce the name of the New York concert hall you can reach with lots of practice? Is it CAR-neg-ghee Hall … or Car-NEG-ghee? Plus, no great shakes, Gomer, a limerick about leopards, foafiness, and sleep in the arms of Morpheus.

FULL DETAILS

Try this tricky puzzle: Take the words new door and rearrange their letters into one word.

How do you pronounce the name Carnegie? The Scottish industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable, as his namesake the Carnegie Corporation of New York takes pains to make clear. Good luck explaining that to New Yorkers, though. They may know that the famous concert venue is named in his honor, but it's become traditional to stress the first syllable in Carnegie Hall. In the 19th century, people would have encountered his name in print first rather than hearing it by radio broadcast and incorrectly surmised it was CAR-neh-ghee, not car-NEH-ghee.

A Dallas woman says that when she rebukes the advances of the courtly old gent she's dating, he apologizes with the words I'm sorry for losing my faculties. Using the term my faculties in this sense is not all that common, but understandable if you think of one's faculties as "the ability to control impulses and behavior."

Foafiness, which derives from friend of a friend, is the condition of knowing a lot about someone even though you've never actually met, such as when you feel like you know a friend's spouse or children solely because you've read so much about them on Facebook. But is there a term for "experiential foafiness," when you feel like you've visited someplace but then realize you've only read about it or seen it in a video?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a quiz based on what editors for the Oxford English Dictionary say are the 100 Most Common Words in English.

Is it okay use the word ask as a noun, as in What's our ask going to be? Or should we substitute the word question or request? Actually, the noun ask has handy applications in the world of business and fundraising, where it has a more specific meaning. It's taken on a useful function in the same way as other nouns that started as verbs, including reveal, fail, and tell.

A Burlington, Vermont, listener says that when he was a boy, his dad used to call him a little Gomer. It's a reference to the 1960's sitcom "Gomer Pyle," which featured a bumbling but good-hearted U.S. Marine from the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. As a result, the name Gomer is now a gently derogatory term for "rube" or "hick."

Glenn Reinhardt and his 8-year-old daughter Camryn of San Antonio, Texas, co-authored a limerick that makes clever use of the words leopard, shepherd, and peppered.
 
A native French speaker wants clarification about the use of the word precipice in English.

A listener in Lashio, Myanmar, reports that a term of endearment in the local language translates as "my little liver."  

In deafening industrial workplaces, such as textile factories and sawmills, workers often develop their own elaborate system of sign language, communicating everything from how their weekend went or to straighten up because the boss is coming.

The phrase no great shakes means "no great thing" or "insignificant." The term may have arisen from the idea of shaking dice and then having a disappointing toss. If so, it would fall into a long line of words and phrases arising from gambling. Or it may derive from an old sense of the word shake meaning "swagger" or "boast."  

A listener in Montreal, Canada, asks: How do you pronounce lieutentant? The British say LEF-ten-ant, while Americans say LOO-ten-ant. In the United States, Noah Webster insisted on the latter because it hews more closely to the word's etymological roots, the lieu meaning "place" and lieutenant literally connoting a "placeholder," that is, an officer carrying out duties on behalf of a higher-up.

Why doesn't an usher ush? The word goes all the way back to Latin os, meaning "mouth," and its derivative ostium, meaning "door." An usher was originally a servant in charge of letting people in and out of a door.

A San Diego woman says her mother always tucked her into bed with the comforting wish, Sweet dreams, and rest in the arms of Morpheus. This allusion to mythology evokes a time when people were more familiar with Greek myth, and the shape-shifting god Morpheus who ruled over sleep and dreams and inspired both the word metamorphosis and the name of the sleep-inducing drug, morphine.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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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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Gone To Seed - 3 April 2017 (4/2017)

Restaurant jargon, military slang, and modern Greek turns of phrase. Some restaurants now advertise that they sell "clean" sandwiches. But that doesn't mean they're condiment-free or the lettuce got an extra rinse. In the food industry, the word "clean" is taking on a whole new meaning. Plus, a Marine veteran wonders about a phrase he heard often while serving in Vietnam: "give me a Huss," meaning "give me a hand." Finally, some surprising idioms used in Greece today. For example, what does a Greek person mean if he tells you "I ate a door"?

FULL DETAILS

In English, the expression keep your eyes peeled means "pay close attention" or "be on the lookout." In Modern Greek, the equivalent is ta matia sou dekatessera, literally, "your eyes fourteen." In Greece today, if you've been rejected you might say so with a phrase that translates as "I ate a door." If you've been looking for someone for a very long time, you might say Efaga ton kosmo na se vro, the equivalent of "I ate the world to find you."
A listener in New York City asks: Why do we say yesterday but not yesterweek?

The phrase ignorance gone to seed invokes an agricultural metaphor. Picture a field that is so far gone it's no longer flowering and is now beyond the point of further cultivation.

If someone feigns ignorance, a Greek might describe him with an expression that translates as "He pretends to be a duck."

Unless you're having a bad dream about equine creatures, a nightmare doesn't have anything to do with horses. The mare in nightmare comes from an old word that means "goblin."

In Modern Greek, if you want to say something is "fantastic," "out of this world," or otherwise "terrific," you can say Den iparchei!, which literally means "It doesn't exist!"

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's challenge requires removing an initial letter from one word to form a two-word rhyme. For example, what two rhyming words are suggested by the clue "I'd like to try that ice cream, but you didn't give me enough"?

A Marine Corps veteran in Omaha, Nebraska, is puzzled by a phrase he often heard during his service in Vietnam: give me a huss, meaning "give me a hand" or "help me." One strong theory for its origin involves a type of helicopter known as the Huss, described in the book Marines and Helicopters 1962-1973, by William Fails.

Some people, particularly younger folks, are adamant that the term belligerent means "drunk." It's a misanalysis of the word, perhaps associating being intoxicated with being ready to fight. Instead, belligerent derives from the Latin word bellum, meaning "war," also found in bellicose, and the term applied to that period before a war, particularly the U.S. Civil war, antebellum.

A woman in Carmel, Indiana, wonders about the use of the verb kimble to mean a certain kind of "strutting." Kimbling is that proud, confident way of walking you might associate with Barack Obama or Denzel Washington. But its origin is unclear.

Second-acting, the once-common practice of sneaking in to see the second act of a Broadway show for free by mixing in with paying patrons outside at intermission, largely ended as theaters began tightening their security and fewer people step outside for a cigarette.

What is the plural of attorney general? Attorneys general or attorney generals?

The word clean, as in clean food, has taken on a whole new life as a buzzword describing food free of artificial ingredients, preservatives, or added color. A restaurant chain now boasts clean sandwiches, and the topic is now covered by the magazine Clean Eating.

Scobolotch is a term used in Wisconsin for the mayfly, and may derived from a Native American language. Variants include scobblotcher and skoplotch. This short-lived insect goes by many other names, including Green Bay fly and Canadian soldier.

The words flet and dray, or drey, refer to types of squirrel's nests.

Why don't we pronounce the letter b in the word subtle? The word derives ultimately from Latin subtilis, meaning "fine, delicate," and was adopted into Middle English from Old French as sotil. The b was later added back in so that the spelling reflected the word's original Latin roots, but the pronunciation continued to lack the b sound.

The mayfly, that insect whose time is up in a mere 24 hours or so, goes by many other names, including bay fly, cisco fly, drake fly, dun, eel fly, fish fly, flying clipper, green fly, July fly, June bu, June fly, and more.

Spondulix, also spelled spondulicks, is a slang term for money. Mark Twain used it in Huckleberry Finn, although it had been around for a while before that. The word may derive from the Greek word spondylos, meaning "vertebra" or "spine," suggesting the similarity between a column of those round bones and of a stack of coins.

The Spanish phrase tiene mas lana que un borrego means someone is quite wealthy. Literally, the phrase means "he has more wool than a lamb."

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

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Hell's Half Acre - 27 March 2017 (3/2017)

Hundreds of years ago, the word girl didn't necessarily mean a female child. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the term "girl" could refer to a child of either sex. Only later did its meaning become more specific. Plus, some people think that referring to a former spouse as an ex sounds harsh or disrespectful. So what DO you call someone you used to be involved with? Finally, the story behind the real McCoy. This term for something that's "genuine" has nothing to do with the famous feud. Also, hairy at the heels, Spanglish, nose out of joint, punctuating abbreviations, and gaywater.

FULL DETAILS

Listeners respond to our discussion about what to call a baby shower for the dad-to-be, suggesting Huggies and Chuggies, beer shower, beer for diapers, diaper kegger, baby boot camp, and Baby Fat Tuesday.

Why do we describe something that's genuine or authentic as the Real McCoy?

The expression Hell's Half Acre denotes a small patch of land or a place that's otherwise undesirable, and has been around for a century and a half.

A Courtland, Alabama, woman wonders about the phrase hairy at the heel. Along with hairy-heeled, hairy about the heels, and hairy about the fetlocks, this snobby term describes someone who is considered ill-bred, and derives from the fact that non-thoroughbred horses often have tufts of hair above their hooves.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a fill-in-the-blank puzzle about famous hip-hop rhymes. For example, from Run DMC, there's the verse: I'm the King of Rock / There is none higher / Sucker MC's should call me _________.

A man in Carlsbad, California, contends that the word ex for "a former partner" or "a former spouse" sounds too harsh. Is there a better term besides wasband?

Responding to our discussion about what to call a baby shower for a dad-to-be, one listener suggests the term bro bath.

A man who divides his time between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, wonders if linguistic mixtures similar to Spanglish arise at other borders. Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language by Ilan Stavans, offers a comprehensive look at this phenomenon.

A Hindi proverb that means "Unity is strength" literally translates as one and one make eleven.

Why, when writing out an abbreviated name like NATO for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, don't we use periods between the letters?

When someone's buried in a cemetery, you can visit their grave. But what do you call the place where you go to visit someone's scattered ashes? Listeners ponder that question on our Facebook group.

Hundreds of years ago, the word girl could refer to a child of either sex, and the word boy applied specifically to a servant. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a useful resource for understanding which terms were in common use during what period.

A listener suggests a sartorial twist on our conversation about baby showers for dads-to-be.

Why, when someone's unhappy about something, do we say someone's nose is out of joint or out of socket?

A man in Devon, England, notes that where he lives, wetting the baby's head is a term for a baby shower for a soon-to-be dad, and involves taking the man out to a pub for copious amounts of beer.

A San Diego, California, says his high school history teacher used the phrase Chop chop wiki wiki meaning "Hurry up!" The first part of this phrase comes from similar-sounding Cantonese words--the source also of the chop in chopsticks--and the second half comes from a Hawaiian word that means "quick," and is also found in the name of the online reference work that can be edited quickly, Wikipedia.

Gaywater is a Southern term for whiskey, especially the illegal variety.

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Steamed Bun - 20 March 2017 (3/2017)

This week on "A Way with Words”: The language we use to cover up our age, and covering up a secret message. Do you ever find yourself less-than-specific about your age? Listeners share some of their favorite phrases for fudging that number, like: "Oh, I'm 29, plus shipping and handling." Plus, since ancient times, people have hidden messages in clever ways. Nowadays, coded messages are sometimes concealed in pixels. Finally, uber-silly German jokes: Did you hear the one about the two skyscrapers knitting in the basement? It's silly, all right. Plus, the origin of hello, the creative class, all wool and a yard wide, get some kip, a handful of minutes, and jeep.

FULL DETAILS

On our Facebook group, listeners share a variety of ways to refer to someone who's lived a half-century or more: 50-plus, member of the 600 Month Club, 29 plus shipping and handling, the 40th anniversary of my 30th birthday, and Jack Benny-plus.

There's the living room, the dining room, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the TV room. So why don't we call the kitchen the cooking room?

The hell in hello has nothing to do with the Devil's abode. The word is related to similar shouts of greeting, such as Hallo or Halloa. Several languages have similar exclamations, such as Swedish hej, which sounds like English hey.

A listener in our Facebook group reports that sometimes he says he's not old -- he's just been young for a really long time.

A man in Del Mar, California, wonders about the expression must needs meaning "must by necessity." Is it a regionalism, pretentious, or perhaps used just for emphasis?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a tricky quiz with false answers. For example, if the plural of mouse is mice, then what's the false plural of spouse?

A listener has been baffled for years by a riddle told a German friend. It goes: What's the difference between a frog? Answer: The greener it is, the faster it swims. It's an example of an Antiwitz or "anti-joke," a popular form of German humor that has the structure of a traditional joke, but involves absurd imagery and lacks a satisfying punchline. In China, a similarly silly type of humor goes by a name that translates as "cold joke."

A popular Hindi proverb about blaming everyone but oneself translates as "One who knows no dance claims that the stage is tilted."

The term creative class has been around for a century, but it was popularized by economist and sociologist Richard Florida and his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida uses the term to refer to artists, designers, tech producers, and other knowledge workers whose products and ingenuity invigorate local economies.

The translation of one silly German Anti-witz joke begins, "Two thick feet are crossing the street…" Another starts, "Two skyscrapers are sitting in the basement knitting…" They go downhill from there.

All wool and a yard wide means "reliable and trustworthy." The phrase was part of an advertisement in the late 19th century, touting material produced by textile mills that wasn't shoddy, or made from the shredded fiber of old scraps.

In Appalachia, the term handful of minutes refers to something small, as in She's no bigger than a handful of minutes.

Steganography is the practice of concealing messages within text, digitized data, or other objects. The word derives from Greek words that mean "covered writing."

A listener in Ypsilanti, Michigan, wonders how the Army vehicle called a jeep got its name. It was associated with Eugene the Jeep, a strange creature from the 1930s comic strip, Popeye.

In a discussion our Facebook group, a woman shares her mother-in-law's favorite expression for fudging her age.

A triathlete in Traverse City, Michigan, calls to say she's going stir-crazy while recuperating from an injury. The term stir-crazy makes sense if you know that stir is an old synonym for "prison."

A witty euphemism from our Facebook group for discussing one's age: I'm plenty-nine.

Time to get kip means "time to get some sleep." Kip goes all the way back to an old Dutch word that means "brothel."

The tradition of the German Antiwitz or anti-joke includes a groaner that starts with a couple of muffins sitting in an oven. When one muffin complains about the heat, the other muffin exclaims incredulously, "Oh my god, a talking muffin!"

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Gangbusters (Rebroadcast) - 13 March 2017 (3/2017)

Sensuous words and terms of endearment. Think of a beautiful word. Now, is it simply the word's sound that makes it beautiful? Or does its appeal also depend on meaning? Also, pet names for lovers around the world: You might call your beloved "honey," or "babe," or "boo." But in Swedish, your loved one is a "sweet nose," and in Persian, you can just say you hope a mouse eats them. Finally, in certain parts of the U.S., going out to see a stripper may not mean what you think it means. Plus, clutch, dank, girled up, gorilla warfare, dead ringer, spitten image, butter beans vs. lima beans, and the whole shebang.

FULL DETAILS

May a mouse eat you, or in Persian, moosh bokharadet, is a term of endearment suggesting the recipient is small and cute. Another picturesque hypocorism: French mon petit chou, "sweetheart," but literally, "my little cabbage."

To go gangbusters is to "perform well and vigorously" or "act with energy and speed," as in an economy going gangbusters. The term recalls the swift aggression of 1930's police forces decisively breaking up criminal gangs. The old-time radio show Gangbusters, known for its noisy opening sequence, complete with sirens and the rattle of tommy guns, helped popularize the term.

Sotnos, with an umlaut over that first o, is a Swedish term of endearment. Literally, it means "sweet nose."

A listener in Billings, Montana, wonders about two of her boyfriend's favorite slang terms: clutch and dank. Clutch most likely derives from the world of sports, where a clutch play requires peak performance from an athlete, giving rise to clutch meaning "great." Dank, on the other hand, is used among cannabis aficionados to describe the smell of good marijuana, and was popularized by Manny the Hippie's appearances on David Letterman's show.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski is on the hunt for four-letter words hidden inside related words. For example, find the related four letter word hidden in the last word of this sentence: A union member might find him despicable.  

When writing a business letter, what's a modern salutation that doesn't sound as stuffy as Dear Sir or Dear Madam? To Whom It May Concern, perhaps? The answer depends on the context and the intended audience.

A Boardman, Ohio, was confused as a child after reading about guerrilla warfare and wondering what those big, hairy primates could possibly be fighting about.

In mining country, a stripper is an huge piece of machinery churns up the soil in search of coal veins. This caused no end of hilarity one Christmas Day for a Terre Haute, Indiana, family when a new in-law was scandalized by the thought that all the menfolk were enthusiastically heading out to see a new stripper.

More than a century ago, the Springfield Republican newspaper in Massachusetts proposed a new word for that twitterpated time in an adolescent's life when one discovers the joys of flirtation: being all girled up. The Republican is also the publication containing the first known instance of someone suggesting the term Ms. as an honorific.

Schadenfreude, from German for "damage-joy," means "delight in the misfortune of others."

How dry is it? In the middle of a drought, you might answer that question is So dry the trees are bribing the dogs.

What makes a word beautiful? Is it merely how it sounds? Or does a word's meaning affect its aesthetic effect? Max Beerbohm had some helpful thoughts about gondola, scrofula, and other words in his essay "The Naming of Streets." Several years ago, Grant wrote a column on this topic for The New York Times.

The origin of the whole shebang, meaning "the whole thing," is somewhat mysterious. It may derive from an Irish word, shabeen, which meant "a disreputable drinking establishment," then expanded to denote other kinds of structures, including "an encampment." The phrase the whole shebang was popularized during the U.S. Civil War.
 
Two familiar terms that have inspired lots of bogus etymologies are dead ringer and spitting image. Dead ringer probably comes from horse racing, where a ringer is a horse that may look like other horses in a race but is actually from a higher class of competitors, and therefore a sure bet. The dead in this sense suggests the idea of "exact" or "without a doubt," also found in such phrases as dead certain. As for the term variously spelled spitting image or spittin' image or spit and image, Yale University linguist Larry Horn has argued convincingly that the original form is actually spitten image, likening a father-son resemblance to an exact copy spat out from the original.

If you want to reassure someone, you might say I've got your back. In Persian, however, to indicate the same thing, you'd say the equivalent of "I have your air," which is havato daram.

What's the difference between butter beans, lima beans, and wax beans? The answer depends on where you live and what dialect you speak.

Oh, those romantic Germans! Among their many terms of endearment is the one that translates as "mouse bear."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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XYZ PDQ (Rebroadcast) - 6 March 2017 (3/2017)

How often do you hear the words campaign and political in the same breath? Oddly enough, 19th-century grammarians railed against using campaign to mean "an electoral contest." Martha and Grant discuss why. And, lost in translation: a daughter accidentally insults her Spanish-speaking mother with the English phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Finally, just how many are a couple? Does a couple always mean just two? Or does "Hand me a couple of napkins" ever really mean "Give me a few"?

FULL DETAILS

Today's pet peeve is often tomorrow's standard usage. Nineteenth-century grammarians railed against the use of the word campaign to denote an electoral contest, arguing it was an inappropriate use of a military term. C.W. Bardeen's 1883 volume Verbal Pitfalls: A Manual of 1500 Words Commonly Misused is a trove of similarly silly and often unintentionally hilarious advice.

The slang phrase XYZ, meaning "examine your zipper," has been used since at least the 1960's as a subtle tipoff to let someone know his zipper is down. A variant, XYZ PDQ, means "examine your zipper pretty darn quick." Other surreptitious suggestions for someone with an open fly: There's a dime on the counter, Are you advertising?, and What do birds do?

A listener in Palmer, Massachusetts, wants a term for when something, such as a piece of art, evokes fondness by combining both old and new things, such as a Monet painting reimagined by a digital artist. How about a combination of the Italian words for "new" and "old," nuovovecchio? Or newstalgia, perhaps? Retrostalgia?

A bollard is a post that helps guide traffic. It probably derives from the Middle English word bole, meaning "tree trunk."

You'uns, a dialectal form of the second-person plural, generally means "you and your kin." The term is heard in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and much of the South, reflecting migration patterns of immigrants from the British Isles. It's also related to yinz, heard in western Pennsylvania to mean the same thing.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski serves up a sibilant quiz about three-word phrases that have words beginning with S separated by the word and. For example, what 1970's sitcom featured a theme song by Quincy Jones called "The Street Beater"?

Go lemony at is slang for "get angry."

Does the term a couple mean "two and only two items"? Nope. Plenty of folks use couple to mean "a small but indefinite" quantity, and to insist otherwise is pure peevishness.

A colloquial apology for telling an overly long story is Sorry I had to go around my elbow to get to my thumb. The phrase is also a handy way to indicate you took the opposite of a shortcut.

A woman whose mother is a native Spanish speaker learning English was bothered when her daughter used the phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks, taking offense at the idea that her daughter was calling her a dog. She might instead have used A leopard can't change its spots, or As the twig is bent, so inclines the tree, and from Latin, Senex psittacus negligit ferulam, or An old parrot doesn't mind the stick.

The words plethora and drastic both have roots in ancient Greek. Both were first used in English as medical terms, plethora indicating "an excess of bodily fluid" and drastic meaning "having an effect."

In his 1869 volume Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech, self-appointed grammar maven gave specious advice against using the word love when you merely mean "like."

A San Diego, California, listener bemoans the lack of a specific term for the person who is married to one's brother or sister. The best we can do in English is brother-in-law or sister-in-law, but often that needs further clarification.

The slang expression No Tea, No Shade, meaning "No disrespect, but …" is common in the drag community, where T means "truth." The related phrase All Tea, All Shade, means "This statement is true, so I don't care if it offends you or not." At least as early as the 1920's the slang verb to shade has meant "to defeat."

Martha's fond of videos about Appalachian dialect, and in one she came across the expression, I'd just as soon be in hell with my back broke, meaning "I strongly prefer to be anywhere else."

English speakers borrowed the German term Witzelsucht (or "joke addiction") to mean "excessive punning and a compulsion to tell bad jokes." While it might sound amusing to have a word for such behavior, the word refers specifically to a brain malfunction that's actually quite serious.

In Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Dan Lyons writes about slang he heard during his time working at a hot new startup. If someone was fired, that person was described as having graduated, and the word delight and the neologism delightion were used as terms for what the company aimed to provide to customers.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Hang a Ralph (Rebroadcast) - 27 February 2017 (2/2017)

The names of professional sports teams often have surprising histories -- like the baseball team name inspired by, of all things, trolley-car accidents. Plus, some questions to debate at your next barbecue: Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? And when exactly does dusk or dawn begin? Dictionary editors wrestle with such questions all the time, and it turns out that writing a definition is a lot harder than you think. Finally, a new word for your John Hancock: When you use your finger to sign an iPad, what do you call that electronic scribble? Plus, hang a Roscoe, Peck's Bad Boy, coming down the pike, sozzling, stroppy, grammagrams, and umbers.

FULL DETAILS

Try this riddle: You throw away the outside and cook the inside, then eat the outside and throw away the inside. What is it?
 
A caller from Los Angeles, California, wonders why we say hang a Roscoe for "turn right" when giving directions. This phrase, as well as hang a Louie, meaning "turn left," go back at least as far as the 1960's. These expressions are much like the military practice of using proper names for directional phrases in order to maintain clarity. Some people substitute the word bang for  hang, as in bang a Uey (or U-ee) for "make a U-turn."

The phrase coming down the pike refers to something approaching or otherwise in the works. The original idea had to do with literally coming down a turnpike.

In the late 19th century, Wisconsin newspaperman George Wilbur Peck wrote a series of columns about a fictional boy who was the personification of mischief. The popular character inspired stage and movie adaptations, and the term Peck's Bad Boy came to refer to someone similarly incorrigible.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski tees up a trivia quiz about how sports teams got their names. For example, are the Cleveland Browns so named because one of their founders was named Paul Brown, or because of the orange-brown clay on the banks of the Cuyahoga River?

A listener in Bayfield, Wisconsin, says her grandmother used to tell her to go sozzle in the bathtub. John Russell Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms defines the verb to sozzle this way: "to loll; to lounge; to go lazily or sluttishly about the house."

A professional shoemaker in Columbiana, Ohio, wonders why the words cobbler and cobble have negative connotations, given that shoemaking is a highly skilled trade. The notion of cobbling something together in a haphazard or half-hearted way goes back to the days when a cobbler's task was more focused on mending shoes, rather than making them. But Grant quotes a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which such a tradesman articulates the nobility of his profession: I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat's leather have gone upon my handiwork.

The slang term stroppy is an adjective meaning "annoying" or "difficult to deal with." It might be related to the similarly unpleasant word, obstreperous.

If you simply read each letter aloud, you can see why O.U.Q.T.! U.R.A.B.U.T.! can be interpreted to mean "Oh, you cutie! You are a beauty!" A statement expressed that way with letters, numerals, or drawings is called a rebus, or, if it's solely expressed with letters and numerals, a grammagram. Great examples include the F.U.N.E.X.? ("Have you any eggs?") gag by the British comedy duo The Two Ronnies, and William Steig's book CDC?

A door divided across the middle so that the bottom half stays closed while the top half opens is known as a Dutch door, a stable door, or a half-door. Some people informally call it a Mr. Ed door, named after a TV series popular in the 1960's about a talking horse named Mr. Ed who frequently stood behind such a door.

Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? Why or why not? Is a burrito a sandwich? (A Massachusetts judge actually ruled on that question in 2006.) What about a veggie wrap? These kinds of questions about the limits and core meanings of various words are more complicated that you might think. Lexicographers try to tease out the answers when writing dictionary entries.

Some people are using the word fingature to mean that scribble you do on an electronic pad when asked to sign for a credit card payment.

A woman who grew up in Albuquerque recalls that when one of her schoolmates got in trouble, she and their peers would say ominously, Umbers! This slang term is apparently a hyperlocal version of similarly elongated exclamations like Maaaaaan! Or Burrrrrn! that youngsters use to call attention to another's faux pas.

An Indianapolis, Indiana, listener says that his mother-in-law was asked by a child where she was going, would jokingly sing that she was going to the Turkey trot trot trot, across the lot, lot, lot, feeling fine, fine, fine until Thanksgiving time. Trouble. Trouble trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble on the double. Sounds like she was singing a version of the Turkey Trot Blues.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Charismatic Megafauna - 20 February 2017 (2/2017)

Choosing language that helps resolve interpersonal conflict. Sometimes a question is really just a veiled form of criticism. Understanding the difference between "ask culture" and "guess culture" can help you know how to respond. And what words should you use with a co-worker who's continually apologizing for being late--but never changes her behavior? Finally, charismatic megafauna may look cuddly, but they're best appreciated from a distance. Plus, in like Flynn, gradoo, champing, pronouncing the word the, pilot episodes, and Bless your heart.

FULL DETAILS

Following our discussion about how to handle repeated excuses from a perpetually late co-worker, a listener sends a snarky solution from a stylist in her hair salon.

The multipurpose phrase Bless your heart is heard often in the Southern United States. Although it sounds polite and solicitous, it often has a cutting edge to it.

The phrase loose lips sink ships is a warning to be careful about what you say publicly. It stems from propaganda posters from World War II that proclaimed Loose Lips Sink Might Sink Ships, meaning that anything you say could be overheard by an enemy, with literally catastrophic results.

An ex-Marine reports that his commanding officer used to castigate his men for any stray threads hanging from their uniforms, calling those loose threads Irish pennants. That term is an ethnophaulism, or ethnic slur. Other examples of ethnopaulisms include Irish screwdriver for "hammer" and Irish funnies for "obituaries."

In the 17th century, the verb to bate and the likely related verb, to bat, were used in falconry to mean "to flap wildly."  By the 19th century, to bat was also part of the phrase to bat one's eyelashes.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle is inspired by the periodic table, and involves adding the chemical symbol for an element to one word in order to form an entirely new word. For example, if you take the hat from a baseball fan and add helium to it, it becomes very inexpensive. What's the new word?

In comic strips, a bright idea is symbolized by a light bulb over a character's head. This association between an incandescent bulb and inspiration was popularized in the early 20th century by the cartoon character Felix the Cat, but the notion of an idea being bright goes back as least as far as the writing of Jonathan Swift.

Listeners weigh in on a call about what language to use with a co-worker who continually apologizes for being late, but doesn't change their behavior.

To be in like Flynn means to be "quickly and easily successful." The phrase has long been associated with hard-living heartthrob Errol Flynn, but was around before he became famous. Some people use the phrase in like Flint to mean the same thing, a phrase probably inspired by the 1967 movie In like Flint.  

If two people are like five minutes of eleven, they're close friends. The phrase reflects the idea of the position of a clock's hands at that time.

Why is the first episode of a television series often called a pilot?

As the 19th-century British jurist Charles Darling observed: "A timid question will always receive a confident answer."

After researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego discovered a seahorse-like creature called the Ruby Sea Dragon, they described this brilliant red fish as a charismatic species. Many scientists use the word charismatic to characterize animals that humans may find particularly appealing, which makes such animals useful for raising public awareness of biological diversity and environmental concerns. Such fauna--or in the case of pandas and elephants, megafauna--are sometimes called glamour animals or hero species. A hero shot in advertising, by the way, is a photo of a product or service that sums up its appeal to potential customers.

A psychotherapist in Burlington, Vermont, observes that couples in counseling together ask each other questions that are actually veiled criticisms. Such indirect communication was the topic of a spirited conversation on Metafilter.  Much has been written about direct vs. indirect communication styles, or as it's sometimes called, "ask culture" vs. "guess culture."

A Palm Springs, California, listener was taught that when the word the is followed by a vowel, it should be pronounced with a short e, and otherwise with a schwa sound. However, there's no basis for such a rule.

The Churches Conservation Trust helps maintain and repurpose more than 300 churches in Britain that are no longer used for worship. To raise money for the buildings' upkeep, the trust now offers visitors the chance to have a sleepover in the sanctuary, which they've dubbed champing, a portmanteau that combines the words church and camping. Their promotional materials also offer a slap-up breakfast, slap-up being a Britishism that means "first-rate."

A Dallas, Texas, listener wonders if his family made up the term gradoo, meaning "grime" or "schmutz." It's definitely more widespread than that, and may derive from a French term.

The noun bangs, meaning "hair cut straight across the forehead," may derive from the idea of the word bang meaning "abruptly," as in a bangtail horse whose tail is trimmed straight across. The verb curtail, meaning to "cut off," was first used to mean "dock a horse's tail," and then later applied more generally to mean "shorten" or "diminish."

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