Why do auctioneers talk so fast? Martha and Grant discuss the rapid-fire speech of auctioneers, and how it gets you to bid higher. Also, why so many books have ridiculously long titles, where you’d have sonker for dessert, and an appreciation of that children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. Plus, “different from” vs. “different than,” the origin of suss out, words that apparently entered English in 1937, and the many names for those little gray bugs that roll up into a ball.

This episode originally aired November 5, 2011.

Download the MP3 here.

 Roly Polies, Sow Bugs, Wood Lice, or What?
What do you call those little gray bugs that roll up into a ball? They go by lots of names: roly poly bugs, potato bugs, sow bugs, chiggypigs, dillo seeds, basketball bugs, bowling-ball bugs, and wood lice, to name a few.

 Why We Capitalize the Pronoun “I”
If you’re wondering why we capitalize the letter “I” when we don’t capitalize the first letters of other pronouns, the answer’s simple. It’s easier to read. Martha recommends a book offering a detailed history of every letter of the alphabet. It’s Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z, by David Sacks.

 Fast-Talking Auctioneers
Why do auctioneers talk so fast? The hosts say it’s partly to put you into a trance, partly to increase the sense of urgency, and partly to sell off lots of items in a short amount of time. More details in an article in Slate magazine. You can learn some of the basics of auctioneering from videos on YouTube.

 1937’s Words
On wordorigins.org, etymologist Dave Wilton is going through the Oxford English Dictionary year by year to find the earliest citations for various words, which offer an unusual linguistic glimpse into that particular year. The year 1937, for example, is the first in which we see the terms “four-by-four,” “cliffhanger,” and “iffy.”

 Double-Dog-Dare Word Puzzle
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle called “Double Dog Dare.”

 Long Book Titles
Why are some book titles so incredibly long? A caller complains about book-title inflation, usually consisting of a shorter title followed by a colon and a longer subtitle that seems to sound important and ends with the words “and What To Do About It.” Grant explains that such extra-long book titles have long been a form of search optimization by publishers and marketing departments. The more searchable keywords in the title, the more copies sold.

 Different Than vs. Different From
Which is correct: “different from” or “different than”? Martha explains that the grammatically correct choice is almost always “different from.”

 More Book Titles With Letters Missing
Martha plays another round of the Books With A Letter Missing game.

 Laundry List
A caller in Hamburg, Germany, wants to know where we got the term laundry list. Grant explains that it derives from a time when people of a certain class sent their laundry out to be cleaned. It’s usually associated with a collection of things that are routine or involve drudgery or something negative. Funny how no one ever offers a laundry list of compliments.

 More 1937 Words
More words that entered the language around 1937: “Spam,” “telecast,” and “whoops.”

 Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth, the beloved children’s book by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, turns 50 this year. There are two new 50th anniversary editions of the book. As Adam Gopnik notes in a New Yorker magazine article, the book is the closest thing American literature has to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Martha shares her favorite passage from the book, a description of various kinds of silence.

 Sonker Cobbler
Care for another helping of sonker? That’s another name for deep-dish cobbler. There’s a Sonker Festival each year in Surry County, North Carolina, one of the few places where you’ll hear this regional term.

 Even More 1937 Words
More words that entered the lexicon around 1937: Yiddish “bupkes,” meaning “nothing,” and “zaftig” meaning “plump,” “soft,” or “juicy.”

 Suss Out
What does the term suss out mean? It’s often heard in police and journalistic jargon, and means to “take a forensic approach to finding out an answer.” It probably derives from the verb “suspect.”

 Quisquillious
Quisquillious describes something that’s trashy or worthless. It derives from the Latin for “rubbish.”

 Unobtanium
In the movie Avatar, the characters battle over a rare and valuable mineral called unobtanium. A mechanical engineer says he had a hard time getting into the movie because in his world, the word unobtanium means something different.

 Not Have Way
Martha quotes Steve Martin’s aphorism about language: “Some people have a way with words. Some people not have way.”

Photo by sashafatcat. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z by David Sacks
Oxford English Dictionary
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
I Feel The Earth Move Lonnie Smith Mama Wailer Kudu
Horny Tickle Clutchy Hopkins Walking Backwards Ubiquity Records
Bidi Man Robert Walter Spirit of ’70 Greyboy Records
Soul Dream The Greyboy Allstars West Coast Boogaloo Greyboy Records
Fried Grease The Greyboy Allstars West Coast Boogaloo Greyboy Records
Rocktober Clutchy Hopkins Walking Backwards Ubiquity Records
Hardware Robert Walter Super Heavy Organ Magnatude Redcords
Rivers of Babylon Robert Walter Cure All Palmetto Records
Jan Jan Robert Walter Spirit of ’70 Greyboy Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Song Book UMG Recordings
Tagged with →  

30 Responses

  1. dilettante says:

    Grant, where did the links in this forum post go (they were there in the blog post)?

  2. Ron Draney says:

    I was surprised to hear Grant say that he doesn”t think of “suss” as particularly British, but that may just be a function of where he first noticed the word. For many Americans, their first experience with the word came in these lyrics:

    Hey you getting drunk, so sorry!
    I”ve got you sussed.
    Hey you smoking Mother Nature!
    This is a bust!
    Hey hung up old Mr. Normal,
    Don”t try to gain my trust!
    “Cause you ain”t gonna follow me any of those ways
    Although you think you must

    That”s from “We”re Not Gonna Take It”, from the Who”s “Tommy”.

  3. Jackie says:

    My first notice of “suss” came from the Rod Stewart song, “I Was Only Joking.”

    Me and the boys thought we had it sussed.
    Valentinos all of us…

    I headed straight for the dictionary to find out what it meant. I do think of it as a particularly British word, as I”ve rarely heard an American use it.

  4. LangstonHughes says:

    As per the laundry list call, I would guess that ” shirt,WOD ” would mean ” wet or dry “. Though it’s commonly used as ‘ work out day ‘ which perhaps could apply too. It’s funny because what first came to mind for me was ” worn on dad “.  

     

    Also, I hear “suss” and immediately hear in a southern drawl “come on y’all, suss out a dance parnter”.  

  5. ablestmage says:

    I enjoyed the classroom call-in segment you had.. any chance that could become a regular feature on the show? Maybe a different classroom from around the country could call in with their question..

    I propose “hypertitulism” (hyper + titular + ism) for the over-wordiness of book titles..

  6. CheddarMelt says:

    (Off Topic)

     

    Jackie, what are those items in your profile pic? Are they trilobite cookies or chocolate-dipped mealworm pupae?

  7. Jackie says:

    CheddarMelt, they are, indeed, trilobite cookies.   I don’t even want to *think* about your other guess.   *grin*  

  8. Ron Draney says:

    Grant did well to mention that excessively long titles are nothing new. One of the prized possessions in my library is an 1880 “History of the World”, whose title goes on for a good ten lines or more beyond those four words.

    Going back still further, one of the best-known works of literature from the early 18th century has the official title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, better known to most readers now by the shortened version: Gulliver’s Travels. At least the full version doesn’t conclude with and What You Can Do About It.

  9. dilettante said:

    Grant, where did the links in this forum post go (they were there in the blog post)?

    We’ve upgraded the forum software and are working through a few technical issues. I believe I’ve got some of it sorted out, but there’s still a ways to go.

  10. tromboniator says:

    I remember exactly when and where I first ran into suss. 1969, the song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on The Who’s album Tommy:

    Hey you getting drunk, so sorry!
    I’ve got you sussed.
    Hey you smoking Mother Nature!
    This is a bust!

    Peter

  11. Phil Wala says:

    I’m wondering if the negative connotation of the phrase “laundry list” comes not from it being long, boring, and routine, but because it is a list of dirty things needing to be cleaned; hence, a list of problems that need to be solved, or a list of complaints that need to be addressed.

  12. Gemma says:

    I’d like to see the laundry list that Grant was reading from. I cannot find it in google books. I haven’t heard the phrase “laundry list” often, but it had always puzzled me, so thanks for the explanation.

    As for woodlice, my local council (in Scotland) calls them “slaters” (on their list of things you can pay for them to deal with), and my mum (from Devon) calls them “fat pigs”. I note that the wikipedia article says that several of the nicknames relate to pigs. I wonder why? I didn’t know what sort of creature you were talking about at first, not having heard of “pill bugs” etc. I am now wondering if the woodlice in my childhood home are ones which roll up to protect themselves, or not. There’s a project for when I next visit!

  13. CheddarMelt says:

    Throw another name for roly-poly bugs onto the pile: Terrestrial isopods.  

  14. Heimhenge says:

    In Wisconsin, where I grew up, we called them ball beetles. Of course, I don’t think they’re actually “beetles,” but my grade school curriculum didn’t include entomology.

    But it did inspire me and my science nerd buddies to try and build what is now called a “diwheel” transporter. I’d include a link, but with the current state of this forum I fear it would be stripped out. Just Google “diwheel” and switch to the images page. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

    Ours was much smaller than those you’ll see. And the rider rotated with the wheels. It wasn’t motorized, so all it could do was roll on downhill grades, powered by gravity. Had about 4 feet between the two wheels, so it was pretty stable and none of us ever wiped out. We were trying to answer the “scientific” question of what it felt like to be a ball beetle kicked across the floor. Answer … pretty damn dizzy. I think we’d hit 1-2 rotations per second tops, as we only ever tried it on a shallow grassy grade at the local park. Lotsa bystanders asked to try it. We shoulda’ charged for the ride.

  15. Ron Draney says:

    Heimhenge, a bunch of my friends and I invented your diwheel about forty-two years ago when I was in seventh grade. We took one of the wooden spools the utility companies use to transport cable from the back yard of a neighbor who was using it as a picnic table, pried one or two of the slats out of the axle part, and stuffed the smallest kid in the neighborhood into it. Then we turned the spool up on its “wheels” and let it roll down the street. We stopped after one run because a car coming out of a side street was almost hit when the spool rolled past.

    I don’t remember what the “test pilot” had to say about the experience.

  16. noah little says:

    About “different from” and “different than”… your explanation makes perfect sense to me, a speaker of American English.

    Since living in Europe, though, I’ve noticed people saying “different to”, which really sounded strange to me. Turns out it’s common in spoken British English. Whodathunk?

    Oxford Dictionary’s take on it: http://oxforddictionaries.com/page/differentfrom_us

    Great episode, as always! Thank you.

  17. Gemma says:

    Noah, the whole discussion of “different than” and “different from” set my teeth on edge. My brain kept insisting “it’s different to“. I notice you say it’s common in Europe in spoken language. I’m English. I think I would invariably say “different to” even in formal written English (although perhaps I would get pulled up for it?).

    Similarly, I was jarred by the discussion, the previous week, of ways to tell the time. Both “ten of five” and “ten till five” sound alien to me. I would understand “till”, but I might need to double check “ten of five” before relying on it. In Britain it’d be “ten to five.” In Scotland I’m further confused by “the back of five” which I think means “a little before five,” but different people seem to use it differently (or I get myself muddled), so I mentally translate it to “around five,” then smile and nod.

  18. Glenn says:

    Gemma said:

    Similarly, I was jarred by the discussion, the previous week, of ways to tell the time. Both “ten of five” and “ten till five” sound alien to me. I would understand “till”, but I might need to double check “ten of five” before relying on it. In Britain it’d be “ten to five.”

    Decades ago, I encountered a charming British couple on the street in London. They asked me for the time. I told them it was a quarter of 5. They were very confused, and repeated “quarter of five” several times. Their confusion confused me. Finally, the young man said to the young lady “I think he means quarter till five.” At which point his partner brightened and thanked me very much.

    Since then I have used till instead of of. I am mildly alarmed that you would find till alien. Must I now retrain again?

  19. CheddarMelt says:

    Hm. I thought I’d chimed in on this one, but I can’t find my entry.

     

    Since the “quarter of” construction was rarely used where I grew up, I’m still to this day  confused when I hear it. I am always left trying to figure out whether the speaker means “quarter til” or “quarter after.” “Quarter after” makes more sense to me, since it’s a quarter of the way through the named hour. Could someone suggest how “of” relates to “before”?

  20. Glenn says:

    While I am reluctant to suggest a rationale for prepositions — it is a fool’s errand — I can point out several contexts in which “of” is used to discuss distance from a reference point. Specifically, “of” precedes the point of reference. Some examples of physical distance:
    He made it to within 10 yards of the finish line.
    The library is 1 mile east of the town square.

    To discuss temporal distance from a reference point — of course, before and after are the only alternatives here:
    You must have received no moving violations within a year of your application.

    None of these uses demand a meaning of before. Nonetheless they seem semantically close to the time telling use.
    It is a quarter of five.

    Finally, here is the entry for “of” in the online American Heritage dictionary. The time telling use is worthy of its own entry (definition 17).
    http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/of

  21. Billie Dawn says:

    Pertaining to the long subtitles discussion – it should be noted that book titles cannot be copyrighted, but I believe that subtitles can, and that may also explain the length and specificity in them.  

  22. telemath says:

    Billie Dawn said:

    Pertaining to the long subtitles discussion – it should be noted that book titles cannot be copyrighted, but I believe that subtitles can, and that may also explain the length and specificity in them.  

    I can’t find any evidence that subtitles are copyrightable.   Per  Circular 34  from the US Copyright Office, “Copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright.”

     

    I also searched the Copyright Office’s online catalog for a few popular subtitles.   They appeared in copyright notices  for the book itself, but there are no copyrights  for the title or subtitle alone.   Further, the search  tips specify to search for “the  entire title”, and the titles displayed include the subtitle, indicating that the USCO considers the subtitle to be part of “the entire title.”   Apparently, not one jot nor title shall pass through the copyright office.

  23. tromboniator says:

    CheddarMelt said:

     Since the “quarter of” construction was rarely used where I grew up, I’m still to this day  confused when I hear it. I am always left trying to figure out whether the speaker means “quarter til” or “quarter after.” “Quarter after” makes more sense to me, since it’s a quarter of the way through the named hour. Could someone suggest how “of” relates to “before”?

    Good grief! Are you looking for logic in this? Having grown up with “quarter of” it’s hard for me to see the problem. Simply put, it cannot mean “quarter after,” because that is served by “quarter after” (or quarter past, though not in my natal neck of the woods). It’s my guess, but only a guess, that the “of” usage grew from something like, “It lacks a quarter of two” to “It’s quarter of two.” I’ve also encounter “to” instead of “of”. I think I was in college before I realized that other forms were in use, and that lack of comprehension might result.

  24. Dick says:

    tromboniator said:

    Simply put, it cannot mean “quarter after,” because that is served by “quarter after”

     

    Neither can it it mean “quarter till,” because that is served by “quarter till.”   Your statement and my sarcastic statement make no sense at all.

    I have never had a problem understanding “quarter of” although it was not in common use where I grew up.   But it does seem like it lends itself to misunderstandings.   After all, isn’t a quarter of four,   one?

  25. Jim Hassett says:

    noah little said:

    About “different from” and “different than”… your explanation makes perfect sense to me, a speaker of American English.

    Since living in Europe, though, I’ve noticed people saying “different to”, which really sounded strange to me. Turns out it’s common in spoken British English. Whodathunk?

    Oxford Dictionary’s take on it: http://oxforddictionaries.com/page/differentfrom_us

    Noah, thanks for this. I was going to ask if “different to” was specifically British, as I seem to recall hearing it sometimes from British speakers (mostly in podcasts, I think).

  26. Lee says:

    telemath said:

    I also searched the Copyright Office’s online catalog for a few popular subtitles.   They appeared in copyright notices  for the book itself, but there are no copyrights  for the title or subtitle alone.   Further, the search  tips specify to search for “the  entire title”, and the titles displayed include the subtitle, indicating that the USCO considers the subtitle to be part of “the entire title.”   Apparently, not one jot nor title shall pass through the copyright office.

    Boo! Hiss!

    In other words, nice pun :-)

  27. Danny says:

    Relative to the prevalence of books with ridiculously long titles, Grant & Martha called for a name for this practice…

     

    How about titulogorrhea?

     

    Just as Ron Draney cited Gulliver’s Travels as an example of this style of supplying long subtitles to works in early 18th c. English literature, this practice was also found in American literature of the day. How about Washington Irving’s  The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others, the subtitle to the satirical periodical, with official main title  Salmagundi, that he published in 1807 to lambaste New York culture? I have two favorite examples of titulogorrhea: Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), which had the official title (as seen on the first edition title page) The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pyrates. Written by Himself.; and one that comes from my own little corner of civilization (I am a mathematics professor), a Latin treatise written in 1684 by the philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Leibniz in which he presented an early version of his new calculus: in English, the title is  A new method for maxima and minima, as well as tangents, which is neither impeded by fractional nor irrational quantities, and a remarkable type of calculus for them.

  28. larrfirr says:

    telemath said:

    Billie Dawn said:

    Pertaining to the long subtitles discussion – it should be noted that book titles cannot be copyrighted, but I believe that subtitles can, and that may also explain the length and specificity in them.  

    I can’t find any evidence that subtitles are copyrightable.   Per  Circular 34  from the US Copyright Office, “Copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright.”

     

    I also searched the Copyright Office’s online catalog for a few popular subtitles.   They appeared in copyright notices  for the book itself, but there are no copyrights  for the title or subtitle alone.   Further, the search  tips specify to search for “the  entire title”, and the titles displayed include the subtitle, indicating that the USCO considers the subtitle to be part of “the entire title.”   Apparently, not one jot nor title shall pass through the copyright office.

     

    True,  names, titles and short phrases cannot be copyrighted, BUT then can be trademarked.   Trademark law works differently than copyright law  but it still falls under the category of intellectual property.

  29. hippogriff says:

    In north Texas, the critter is called a pill bug, although I have seen sow bug in more serious nature literature.

     

    Auctions: Then there is the quicker Dutch auction (named for its use in selling tulips and cheese). Bidders are provided an electrical switch, a clock runs down the price in two minutes. Bidder clicks at their price. Instead of bidding price up, it locks in the price the clock indicates. Very nerve-wracking – how much lower might it have been bought for? But very fast, two-and a half minutes or less and next lot is up for bids.

     

    Long subtitles: We called it colonitis.

     

    In the western expansion, many laundries were run by Chinese immigrants, and the list was written in Chinese. That guarded against anyone getting low-cost clothes by paying someone else’s laundry with a forged list. Also the origin of the pigin expression, “no tickee, no laundry”.

  30. jock123 says:

    Gemma said:

    Noah, the whole discussion of “different than” and “different from” set my teeth on edge. My brain kept insisting “it’s different to“. I notice you say it’s common in Europe in spoken language. I’m English. I think I would invariably say “different to” even in formal written English (although perhaps I would get pulled up for it?).

    Similarly, I was jarred by the discussion, the previous week, of ways to tell the time. Both “ten of five” and “ten till five” sound alien to me. I would understand “till”, but I might need to double check “ten of five” before relying on it. In Britain it’d be “ten to five.” In Scotland I’m further confused by “the back of five” which I think means “a little before five,” but different people seem to use it differently (or I get myself muddled), so I mentally translate it to “around five,” then smile and nod.

     

    I’ve got to agree – being British, the use of “from” and “than” with “different” just sounds completely wrong (it was especially odd when – in the song “Valleri” by The Monkees – Davy Jones was found to be singing “But she sure looks different than/ The way she looked before”, but in a largly Mancunian accent!). “Different to” seems to be about the only construction used here.

    However, “ten ’til five” (“Ten miniutes until five o’clock”) would be both easily understood and used in Scotland, especially in the North East dialect (known as “The Doric”); likewise “ten of five” probably wouldn’t.

    “The back of five” as a construction does seem to vary in meaning regionally, but to me is just after five o’clock, not before. It can be used to indicate the time both vaguely, so as to mean any time between the hour and maybe ten-past the hour: “Meet me at the back of five”); or specifically, thus: “It’s now the back of five, there’s not enough time, so I suggest that we all go home and meet again tomorrow”.

    There isn’t a concensus on this, so it’s probably better not to assume; I’ve seen this discussed in another forum before, where someone was really put out when he invited guests for a meal at “the back of seven”, and they turned up just after seven instead of at half-past six, or half-past seven (can’t remember which way it went), which the host knew was what everyone would know it meant (I’ve never met anyone who took it to those lengths).

Leave a Reply