Martha and Grant discuss advertising slogans and product names supposedly botched in translation. They also recommend an eclectic mix of books for the word-lover on your holiday list, from military slang to Yiddish. Plus a slang quiz on the words blue-bird and corpsing, and a caller from San Diego has a friendly disagreement with friends about the phrase bald-faced lie vs. bold-faced lie.

This episode first aired December 15, 2007.

Download the MP3.

 Biting the Wax Tadpole by Elizabeth Little
It’s the wacky title of a new book by language enthusiast Elizabeth Little which has Martha and Grant talking about whether Coca-Cola and Chevy ran into cultural translation problems when selling products abroad. Did the Chevy Nova really sell poorly in Latin America because “No va” means “don’t go” in Spanish? You can find more information about it in Dave Wilton’s book Word Myths.

 Enough Money to Burn a Wet Dog
A caller wants help understanding a phrase he saw in Sports Illustrated: enough money to burn a wet dog.

 Origin of Biffy
A San Diego listener has a weird word on her mind: biffy (meaning “toilet”).

 Gedunk Sundae
A caller wonders about the origin of gedunk, which means “ice cream” or “a snack bar” where you might buy sweets.

 Elements of Smile Word Quiz
Greg Pliska has a quiz about chemical names that should exist but don’t.

 45 Letter Lake Name
A caller asks about how lakes get named, and we talk about a lake with a 45-letter Indian name that may or may not translate as, “You fish on your side, I fish on my side and nobody fishes in the middle.” It’s Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. If you want to know how to pronounce that, here’s the helpful song Martha mentions on the show. It was written by Stephen Willey of the band Shades of Grey.

 Book is the New Cool
A caller from Indiana wonders if the T9 text-messaging function has led to the term book being a new term for “cool.”

 Books for Gift Giving
Grant recommends two books that are great for giving as gifts. FUBAR: Soldier Sland of World War II by Gordon Rottman looks at the language of soldiers from different armies. Also, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler, which looks at the history of Latin in the countries where it originated.

 Blue-Bird and Corpsing
This week’s slang contestant learns about the slang terms blue-bird and corpsing.

 Fixing to Tune Up
A New York caller is incensed by the verb incent and a California listener is puzzled when his Southern relatives observe that his new baby is fixing to tune up whenever she’s about to start crying.

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

Photo by NOAA Photo Library. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Word Myths by Dave Wilton
FUBAR: Soldier Sland of World War II by Gordon Rottman
Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler
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30 Responses

  1. I should have mentioned during the show that my pronunciation of “gedunk” as something like “guh-DUNK” is not the one used most often, especially in the Navy, where it is usually “GEE-dunk.”

  2. Natasha Papousek says:

    As I understand the translation of Chinese for Coca Cola — it loosely means delicious happiness. (One of the words for delicious in Mandarin is: kekou — the first word, Coca) Quite amazing for something so American to be able to have a phonetic translation into Chinese that actually means something — AND something that relates to the product as well — not an easy feat in Chinese!

  3. John Dalbec says:

    I was surprised to hear Grant refer to “Fubar…” as a “beautiful little small book”. Where does that speech pattern come from?

  4. Its known as idea reinforcement, John, to use a series of similar but not perfectly synonymous adjectives to emphasize a point. It’s quite common in spoken language, such as in story-telling and unscripted, off-the-cuff talk on the radio. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Steve Barry says:

    I have a suggestion regarding why a porta potty is called a “biffy”. In Houston, one of the companies that provides porta potties to events is Browning Ferris Industries. These porta potties have the Letters “BFI” on the side. “BFI” could be pronounced “Biffy”

  6. Steve, it’s possible, but I cannot verify that BFI was in the portable toilet business before 1942, when the word “biffy” seems to have first appeared in print, and it also doesn’t gibe with the term being most well-known in Wisconsin.

  7. Steve Barry says:

    If the use of the word “Biffy” for porta potties goes back to 1942, then it is not linkied to Browning Ferris Industries (BFI). While BFI has facilities throughout the USA, it started in Houston, TX in 1966

  8. dilettante says:

    I completely agree with the caller who was incensed about “incent.” And I cringe at the sound of “incentivize,” too.

  9. So, dilettante, I don’t suppose you’re a fan of “disincent”?:-)


  10. dilettante says:


    (Had trouble with that link, but found it [I think] here. They said it much better than I could: “Who could possibly have concocted this ghastly word, and what was their wicked design?”)

  11. Andrew Troth says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    I cannot verify that BFI was in the portable toilet business before 1942, when the word “biffy” seems to have first appeared in print, and it also doesn’t gibe with the term being most well-known in Wisconsin.

    Another interesting anecdotal observation (though not necessarily relevant to the etymology of “biffy”) is that in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, one of the most visible providers of portable toilet facilities to events like the Renaissance Festival and the State Fair is called “Biff’s.”

  12. Thanks for this observation, Andrew. I think I’ve heard that, too.

  13. Kevin Altenhofel says:

    RE: T9onyms (pronounced ” tynonyms”). Here is another link that discusses the T9 cool / book phenomenon.

  14. Fred in RI says:

    Regarding the book/cool transmorgification (thank you, Calvin), I came across something similar recently. When posting a comment for an internet video of a skate boarder doing a face plant, one might exclaim “Owned!” If that’s not bad enough, an apparent misspelling of Owned has become popular. With the letter O being so close to P on most keyboards, people occasionaly respond “Pwned!” And it has not become intentional.

    I think seeing this spelling and usage is more painful than the face plant. I’ve used computers and the internet since the dawn of personal computers, and I have no patience for these internet word entities. While I may sometimes laugh out loud, I will never lol.

    By the way, the math required to post this message asks me what is the sum of 3 + 1. Shouldn’t that be what is the sum of 3 AND 1?

  15. plagus says:

    i loved your episode with the periodic table of elements words.
    > there are a few additional words that deserve mention. i have provided a
    > list for your perusal below.
    > love your show. keep up the excellent work.
    > ______________________________________________________________________
    > ______________
    > What undertakers do–Barium
    > Entertainer Dione’s favorite element—Selenium
    > Dishonorable person’s element-Cadmiun
    > What a good doctor does for his patients–Helium
    > What happens when you cut things into two parts—Hafnium
    > What happens when you put the above two back parts together-Holmium
    > Rupert Murdoch’s favorite element—Titanium
    > Arnold Schwarzenegger’s favorite element—Californium
    > Berlin resident’s favorite element—Germanium
    > King of the deep’s favorite element-Neptunium
    > Al Gore’s favorite element-Nobelium
    > Ex planet’s favorite element-Plutonium
    > Fire God’s favorite element-Promethium

  16. Kay Beerthuis says:

    I laughed when I heard the word biffy. In the late forties, anyone who attended Camp Wathana (near Detroit, Michigan) would recognize that word. One of the first thing campers learned was that the facilities were called the biffy. I thought that was a term made up by the camp director.

  17. Geoff in England says:

    I was fascinated by query about ‘enough money to burn a wet dog’.

    The first thing I thought of, and it may be because I live in England, was a dog grate. I am familiar with this design of cast iron fire grate from my childhood.

    Could the original meaning of the expression have been ‘enough money to light a fire in a wet dog grate’.

    Just an idea.

  18. Maybe, Geoff, except that the expression is also sometimes rendered as “enough money to burn a wet mule.” Is there also a part of a fireplace called a “mule”?

  19. Geoff in England says:

    Thanks for your prompt opinion, Grant. I heard your reference to the ‘wet mule’ on the podcast and there is no usage of ‘mule’ in fires, grates or stoves that I’m aware of here in England.

    P.S. I’m encouraging all my English word-loving friends to subscribe to your FABULOUS podcast! I think it’s the best program on radio on the English language anywhere, and that includes the BBC!


  20. Gedaly says:

    I loved the Biffy discussion. Though I think the usage has spread beyond what you mentioned, Grant. Growing up in Southern California I would run into this word every now and then. I wouldn’t say it was the most popular word for what is usually called a PortaPotty, but I think it’s generally understood.


  21. Paradox says:

    The “burning a wet dog” phrase reminds me of the expression that something is so common that “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one.”

    Sorry, Martha.

  22. Gemma says:

    Predictive texting often leads to… textonyms. Now there’s a lovely word for you. (Google hits: 892.)

  23. Paradox: Ick! Sounds like a variation on “no room to swing a cat,” eh?

    And Gemma, “textonyms” works for me!

  24. Paradox says:

    martha said:

    Paradox: Ick! Sounds like a variation on “no room to swing a cat,” eh?


    I find a few references on the web that suggest that “swinging a dead cat” arose as a variation of “swinging a cat” (which actually refers to a cat-o-nine-tails) but nothing that looks definate or well documented.

    On the other hand, one (that being the dead variety) is used to express that
    something is very common while the other (which one may just as well assume is “un-dead”?) expresses that space is very tight.

    Some sites suggest that the “dead” version grew out of a series of jokes about dead cats that were popular in the 1970’s. This would be, as it were, a lone surviving dead cat! Seems to me though, having gone through my teens in the 70’s, that dead baby jokes were the rage, not dead cats. Perhaps I just missed out. ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. tmeyer says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    I should have mentioned during the show that my pronunciation of “gedunk” as something like “guh-DUNK” is not the one used most often, especially in the Navy, where it is usually “GEE-dunk.”

    Having served in the navy from 1962-66, I recall that geedunk was the first odd word we learned at boot camp. “Here is your barracks. Here is your bunk. Here is the head and across the street you’ll find the geedunk.” It was always pronounced “gee-dunk” and was almost always spelled that way, too. Dropping the second e seemed to me to give the word an inappropriate German feeling.

    I thought that “Geedunk Sunday” was a term to describe a Sunday (or any day on which you had no duties) where you could be so lazy as to not take your regular meals at the mess hall or galley, instead seeking sustenance at the soda fountain.

    I appreciate your explanation of its origins, as I always thought it was Chinese, like “cumshaw”, a word used in the navy to describe illicit bartering as a non-regulation method of appropriation.

  26. Wordsmith says:

    Re: “pwned”
    I have heard “powned” (pron. pohnd) which, I am told, is a portmanteau word for “p(ositively) + owned.” Sounds kinda like SoCal slang to me. Who knows?

    Re: “ge(e)dunk”
    That’s with a soft “g” (i.e., not pronounced like ghee).

  27. felixblackcat says:

    My apologies if this has been noted elsewhere on the forum, but Wisconsin Public Radio’s show Here on Earth recently featured Elizabeth Little, author of the book Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic
    You can get a free MP3 of the archived program here:
    The show is also available as a podcast:

  28. nign says:

    The rumored nonsensical translation for “Coca-Cola” is “????”:

    “?” means “tadpole,” and repeating a word for an animal twice is typical kiddy talk, so that makes “??” more like “taddypole”;

    “?” is “to bite”; and “?” is “wax.”

    So it’s actually the tadpole who bites the wax, not the drinker.

    Still nonsensical, but it’s at least a more accurate translation. ๐Ÿ™‚

    The Chinese Wikipedia (far less credible than the English Wikipedia) entry for “Cola-Cola” still maintains that the initial official translation of the brand name is “Taddypole Bites Wax,” which also seems to be a popular Chinese urban myth, but I doubt if that ever really occurred. Years (probably decades) before Cola Cola entered the Mainland Chinese market, it already set up official distributions in other Chinese language markets, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, and had had uniform brand name translation for years, same as the one currently in use. It’s a very pleasant name, which I understand to mean “delicious and makes you happy”; the “makes you happy” part comes from the phono-based translation of “cola” and has become the Chinese word (I believe it’s universal in all Chinese language communities) for “coke” (the beverage only). The success with the name also dictated how Pepsi translated its own, which could be loosely translated as “Everything Would Be a Happy Thing.”

    Aside from disbelieving any company would give up on a perfectly fine and already culturally powerful name to create another, I also doubt if a company as well structured and image-conscious as Coca Cola would allow any regional distributor to get creative with any part of the product image (and the brand name no less), and I just can’t find any picture of any actual Coca Cola artifact bearing that name, so my take is better take it as a joke. ๐Ÿ™‚

  29. Wordsmith says:

    FWIW, Coca-Cola in Mandarin is ???? which could be translated as “Tasty and able to be happy”. Mind you, this is in simplified Chinese, so the characters are a little different. But the main thing is that it can mean something even though it is a phonetic rendering of a word from an unrelated language.

  30. Very interesting, ya’ll! Nign, are you a native Chinese speaker?