All aboard! This week, a bit about the musical language of railroad conductors’ calls: “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cu-ca-monga!” Also, the origin of the military slang term cumshaw, tips for learning Latin, the influence of Spanish immigrants on English, and the funny story behind why plain-talking Texans say, “We’re going to tell how the cow ate the cabbage.”

This episode first aired November 9, 2009.

Download the MP3.

 Railroad Conductor Language
A trip to the California State Railroad Museum has Grant musing about the way language can change in the mouth of a single individual— in this case, railroad conductors. He recommends a collection of sound files from metros and subways around the world. For different type of stroll down mem’ry lane, check out Mel Blanc’s version of a train conductor here.

 Shut Up!
Does anyone still say “Shut UP!” to mean “No way!”? A forty-something riding instructor says this Seinfeldian locution confuses some of her younger students.

 Southern Phrase “I’d Have Liked To”
A caller wonders why his North Carolina-born partner uses the phrase “I’d have liked to” instead of “I almost” or “I nearly,” as in “I’d have liked to died laughing.”

 Rhyming Dance Names Quiz
Quiz Guy John Chaneski starts a whole lotta shakin’ with his puzzle about dances with rhyming names. How about the dance that involves many missteps while dancing to the music of Johann Strauss?

 “Ouch” in Other Languages
Is “Ouch!” a universal word, or does what you say when you stub your toe depend on what language you speak?

 Cumshaw Artists
A Seattle-area veteran remembers that in Vietnam he and others like him were known as cumshaw artists. They were the guys who scared up and “permanently borrowed” whatever their unit needed— gasoline, vehicle parts, or whiskey for a party. He’s always wondered about the appellation.

 How the Cow Ate the Cabbage
The phrase “Let’s talk about how the cow ate the cabbage” means “Let’s talk frankly.” The hosts talk plainly about the naughty tale that may be behind it.

 Books for Learning Latin
It’s never too late to start learning Latin, a language that will deepen your understanding and appreciation of English. Martha offers tips on how to begin: Getting Started with Latin, by William E. Linney, and Virent Ova! Viret Perna! (Green Eggs and Ham in Latin) by Dr. Seuss, with translation help from Jennifer and Terence Tunberg.

 Yesterday Follows Today Riddle
A riddle: There’s a place where yesterday follows today, and tomorrow’s in the middle. Where is it?

 Scarf as a Verb
The word scarf, meaning “to eat rapidly and greedily,” has a long, winding history. Grant helps a listener unravel it.

 Hell-to-the-No
A die-hard Tyler Perry fan is curious about an emphatic expression she’s heard in some of his movies: Hell-to-the-no. What’s up with the extra words?

 Spanish Influencing English
A second-generation Mexican-American wonders how much the English language is being influenced by Spanish, especially after a misunderstanding when he turned to his date in the passenger seat and asked if she wanted to “get down.”

 On One Foot Riddle
Another riddle: I stand on one foot, and my heart is in my head. Who am I?

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

Photo by David Wilson. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Getting Started with Latin by William E. Linney
Virent Ova! Viret Perna! (Green Eggs and Ham in Latin) by Dr. Seuss
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22 Responses

  1. harmonicpies says:

    A caller wonders why his North Carolina-born partner uses the phrase I’d have liked to instead of “I almost” or “I nearly,” as in “I’d have liked to died laughing.”

    I’ve always heard (and spoken) this as “like to’ve” as in “I like to’ve died laughing.”

    The anecdote of the train conductor reminded me of how the stadium announcer pronounces the names of the home team ballplayers. When I was a girl and we started attending Atros games, we were puzzled and a bit indignant at first over how the crowd treated Jose Cruz, our adored left-fielder. When he was up to bat, the announcer would draw his last name out, “Jose Cruuuuuuuuuuuz,” followed by what sounded like a resounding chorus of boos by the crowd. Every time he’d get a hit, as the cheers faded, the same prolonged boos would follow. It didn’t take us long to figure out that, rather than booing him, the crowd was gleefully shouting his name the same way the announcer did, “Cruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuz!”

  2. Glenn says:

    One language shift I’ve noticed on my daily train rides to and from New York City is the conductors’ use of the verb express:
    This train will stop at Newark, then will express to Princeton Junction.

    Sometimes, depending on my mood, I will add a completing phrase for the announcer: its utter contempt; its profound regret; its wholehearted devotion; its sincerest apologies.

    Speaking of Princeton, the University has a traditional cheer, one of the oldest on record, called The Locomotive. I have found a few similar forms documented as Princeton’s Locomotive, but all of them are alike. It sounds like a steam engine pulling out of a station, since it starts slowly, then picks up the pace as you go, complete with a little balk after the bah. I like to imagine the balk represents the moment the train hesitates as the back cars catch the forward motion.

    I will give you the form I am most familiar with:
    Hip! Hip! (Usually by one person, the leader)
    Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!
    Siss, siss, siss.
    Boom, boom, boom, bah!
    (Fill in the blank) (Fill in the blank) (Fill in the blank)
    Yay!

    Actually the words for fill in the blank (often these are class years, especially during reunions: ’89; ’76; ’09; Princeton) might fit the metric pattern of “Fill in the blank” or “Fill the blank” or “Princeton” depending on the number of syllables. I have no idea what the class of ’10 will say. Monosyllables usually fall a little flat in this context.

  3. Ron Draney says:

    They’ve got nothing on the railroad announcers of old, but some of the bus drivers around here delight in calling out all the streets along the route. One evening I got one who announced my stop as “os-BOOORNE!”, with the pitch shifting upward a fourth on the second syllable. It was all I could do to restrain myself from continuing “…in a crossfire hurricane!”

    Conductor: “This train goes to Cleveland, Chicago, St Louis and points west.”
    Passenger: “I want a train that goes to Philadelphia, and I don’t care which way it points.”

  4. Glenn says:

    I think that the loudspeaker systems have changed the language dynamic of railroads. Still, every morning our conductor starts out with a distinctive way of saying: No airport. No airport! He says the first one firmly, then says the second one slowly as if through clenched teeth to someone who responded to the first with an annoying no airport?

    This is a charming feature of my morning commute. At this moment I know it is just the right time to start listening to the podcast of AWWW.

  5. Goheels says:

    harmonicpies said:

    A caller wonders why his North Carolina-born partner uses the phrase I’d have liked to instead of “I almost” or “I nearly,” as in “I’d have liked to died laughing.”

    I’ve always heard (and spoken) this as “like to’ve” as in “I like to’ve died laughing.”


    I was born in Georgia and grew up here in NC, and I don’t encounter it that often, living in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, but my dad (and his family), who is a native South Carolinian uses it and the way he uses it is slightly different than the way you described. He says things like “I like to [simple past]” so “I like to died” or “I like to fell off the ladder.”

  6. Etymology Fan says:

    The “Wilhelm Scream” briefly mentioned in this episode comes from the 1953 western The Charge at Feather River. Here are a couple of videos featuring some of Wilhelm’s other cinematic apperances:

  7. tatamiburns says:

    I was a little surprised that in the “Hell to the No!” discussion the most widespread recent example was not cited. I am not a big Jay-Z fan but his hit single “Izzo H.O.V.A.” (meaning, of course, H-O, spelling out his monnicker `Hova`) was ubiquitous in 2001. It features the refrain

    “H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. Fo’ shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in VA”

    Of course, this isn’t the origin of the phrase as Grant correctly points out, it goes way back in hip-hop. “Hip to the Hop, You Don’t Stop.” Spelling out the letters is common in rhymning, but “Izzo” but it out widely in the public.

    On another note; As a Southerner a often say “I liked to……” But I don’t recall hearing it with “would” at the beginning.

    Last two notes; Here in Japan the conducters call out the stops and there are also electroninc voices. Some of them are in English, read by a native speaker and with embarasssing pronunication of place names. Frustrating. Every conducter seems to have their own patter which is funny but sometimes incomprehensible. One JR conducter hops of the train, puffs up his chest, waves his arms and yells the stops. I was in New Orleans recently and had a great trolley car driver that not only called out the stops but what was in walking distance. People were complimenting him as they got off. He was truly great at it.

  8. phoxx47 says:

    Grant,
    Do you remember the Jan and Dean surfer-type song “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga too, Sewing Circle, Book Review, and Timing Association?” I the meter and tone of the conductors speech or perhaps just the MetroLink route might have been an inspiration for this song. By the way, the song was about a group of hot-rodding grannies – “timing association” was a euphemism for drag racing clubs. It was used to avoid the negative image projected by the words Drag Racing or Hot Rods….
    jf

  9. Hankk says:

    Loved the episode (my first)! Regarding universal words (with the same pronunciation and meaning in many languages), you mention the Wilhelm scream, but in fairness as you say this is more of a sound than an actual lexical expression. However, I’d always heard of ‘mama’ as being a word like this: the same (or similar) word exists at least in English, Spanish, French, Hungarian, and many more. A bit of research pointed me to work by Jakobson 1962, which is summarized in an excellent writeup here:

    http://www.sussex.ac.uk/linguistics/documents/where_do_mama2.pdf .

    The work makes the points that a) it’s essentially true that many many languages share this word, and b) since languages evolve rapidly, it’s unlikely that they all have a common origin in an ancient common language. Therefore, the word must be invented anew in every language, and they suggest this is because ‘mama’ is something babies say naturally. The bulk of the argument is this:

    “Parents are eager to hear their child beginning to speak, and they listen impatiently for a child’s “first words”. At the cooing stage, the child is producing no recognizable speech sounds, and so the parents do not suppose that the child is trying to speak. However, once the child moves on to the babbling stage, the eager parents suddenly start hearing familiar speech sounds and recognizable syllables – and so they at once conclude, delightedly, that little Jennifer is trying to speak.

    “Now, this conclusion is an error. There is absolutely no evidence that babbling children are trying to speak, and in fact linguists are pretty sure they are not. Babbling appears to be no more than a way of experimenting with the vocal tract, and babbled sounds like mama and dada are not intended as meaningful utterances. But the parents think otherwise: they are sure little Jennifer is trying to talk.

    “But what is Jennifer trying to say? This is not obvious, and in fact the fond parents can only guess what Jennifer means to say. And what guess does Mother come up with? Does she guess that little Jenny is trying to say ‘banana’? Or ‘telephone’? Or ‘go away’? No. In almost every case, Mother concludes that little Jenny is trying to say ‘mother’.”

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    -Hankk

  10. Goheels says:

    Hankk said:

    Loved the episode (my first)! Regarding universal words (with the same pronunciation and meaning in many languages), you mention the Wilhelm scream, but in fairness as you say this is more of a sound than an actual lexical expression. However, I’d always heard of ‘mama’ as being a word like this: the same (or similar) word exists at least in English, Spanish, French, Hungarian, and many more. A bit of research pointed me to work by Jakobson 1962, which is summarized in an excellent writeup here:

    http://www.sussex.ac.uk/linguistics/documents/where_do_mama2.pdf .

    The work makes the points that a) it’s essentially true that many many languages share this word, and b) since languages evolve rapidly, it’s unlikely that they all have a common origin in an ancient common language. Therefore, the word must be invented anew in every language, and they suggest this is because ‘mama’ is something babies say naturally. The bulk of the argument is this:

    “Parents are eager to hear their child beginning to speak, and they listen impatiently for a child’s “first words”. At the cooing stage, the child is producing no recognizable speech sounds, and so the parents do not suppose that the child is trying to speak. However, once the child moves on to the babbling stage, the eager parents suddenly start hearing familiar speech sounds and recognizable syllables – and so they at once conclude, delightedly, that little Jennifer is trying to speak.

    “Now, this conclusion is an error. There is absolutely no evidence that babbling children are trying to speak, and in fact linguists are pretty sure they are not. Babbling appears to be no more than a way of experimenting with the vocal tract, and babbled sounds like mama and dada are not intended as meaningful utterances. But the parents think otherwise: they are sure little Jennifer is trying to talk.

    “But what is Jennifer trying to say? This is not obvious, and in fact the fond parents can only guess what Jennifer means to say. And what guess does Mother come up with? Does she guess that little Jenny is trying to say ‘banana’? Or ‘telephone’? Or ‘go away’? No. In almost every case, Mother concludes that little Jenny is trying to say ‘mother’.”

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    -Hankk


    Helping the ubiquity of ‘mama’ is probably helped by the fact that the first sounds to be intentionally produced by children are typically labial stops (b, p, m) and low/open vowels, like the vowel in mama. Also, the word is a reduplicated CV syllable. Reduplication by children is very common in early language acquisition.

  11. gnome says:

    I love that you guys mentioned the Wilhelm scream. While looking up the Wilhelm scream I was surprised by all the places this scream has been stuck into. There are a couple of compilations out there that are really great.

    Have you guys heard of the Howie scream? This one I’m more familiar with because of my terrible video game playing. For what its worth, StarCraft players will know what I’m talking about it once they hear it.

    This is a link to a forum discussing other places where the scream can be heard.
    http://forum.indymogul.com/showthread.php?t=20155

  12. Charlie says:

    I have some miscellaneous comments on this show.

    In the 1964 movie The Americanization of Emily, the lead male character had a role similar to a cumshaw artist. There he was called a dog-robber. This is not the same as the listener’s characterization of a cumshaw artist however. He scrounged up things needed to fight while the dog-robber scrounged up things to make an admiral’s war as comfortable as possible.

    The French version of “ouch” is the diphthong a-i, where the “a” and “i” are the Italian vowels. I remember it well from stepping on the toe of a woman in the métro. On the other hand, when my wife’s toe was stepped on and she cut loose with a loud “OW”, people looked at her very strangely.

    Also, in France, when one gets off the bus or the métro, on descend. That is, one gets down. So the Mexican-American listener shouldn’t worry; some francophone has probably made the same mistake.

  13. Charlie says:

    Hankk’s explanation of a child’s development of language is pretty much the one that I’ve either heard or hypothesized myself. However…

    My oldest son began talking very early. One day my wife was holding him as we were at the doorway, I on my way to work. Because of his age, we weren’t looking for any signs of language at that time and he hadn’t been making many of the common experimental noises. While we were talking he was just observing quietly, without any babbling. Suddenly he said, very softly, “Da-da,” with no subsequent babbling.

    What to make of this? It doesn’t fit any of the above explanations.

  14. Glenn says:

    Perhaps he was voicing a rejection of the prevailing standards in language through anti-language cultural expression.

  15. Nathan Oliver says:

    Grant, I couldn’t help but wonder as you pronounced the origins of cumshaw artist, is there any connection to the word Concierge? I can see a similarity in meaning, and the similarity in pronunciation was striking to me, although I’m not sure how a Chinese phrase would have gotten into French.

    And while I’m at it, thanks for the show–been listening to it for a few seasons via the podcast, but this is the first time I’ve made it to the forums.

  16. Nathan, there’s no relationship between “cumshaw” and “concierge.” The etymological path for both is fairly clear. Etymologies: concierge, cumshaw.

  17. Glenn says:

    For those interested, the Chinese for Gamsia is 感謝, which in Pinyin is transcribed gan3 xie4. Gamsia is a transcription that comes from the Xiamen dialect, as opposed to the Pinyin, which is based on the Mandarin dialect pronunciation.

  18. pjxf99 says:

    Hi! I was trying to find out the spelling of calk?–the overlaying of one language’s grammatical pattern on another. I lived in Japan for years and worked with many bilingual children, and can think of so many examples of this, so I’d really like to know the correct terminology. Thanks!

  19. Glenn says:

    Calque.
    Movie star is often a calque in many languages.

  20. pjxf99 says:

    Glenn said:

    Calque.
    Movie star is often a calque in many languages.


    Thanks Glenn, I NEVER would have come up with that!

  21. JamesRee says:

    Just listened to this podcast and I had to comment. I’m from Southern California, so influence from Spanish is something that I am definitely used to. I’m white, my first language is English, and I was born and raised in Southern California. Until listening to this podcast I never even considered that the phrase “do you want to get down?” used to mean “do you want to come in?” would be odd to other English speakers. Everyone I know would readily understand and use that phrase here.

  22. Jerry in San Diego says:

    “Hell to the No” — Grant explained the use of “to the” for the rhythm, but didn’t mention the actual words. Why “to the”? I never heard this expression before, but I had an immediate way of understanding it that made sense to me. But given the cultural context it does seem far-fetched:

    In math, you say “ten to the third” or “ten to the power of 3″ to mean ten times ten times ten. Grant called spelling out a word “a form of rhetorical emphasis.” Likewise, you might call “to the” an intensifier. And that’s what raising something to a power does; it’s an extreme form of intensification. (When people say “it’s growing exponentially”, with only the vaguest understanding of what “exponential” means, what they mean is “a whole lot.”) “Hell to the No” seems like an imaginative variation on the math expression. You don’t normally expect high-school math to figure in street lingo, but if Grant’s right that this may come from black preachers (who love to talk about power), maybe it’s not too much of a stretch?

    On the other hand, when I searched this page for “to the” I got a lot of hits.

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