This week, it’s backhanded phrases, those snarky remarks that come sugar-coated in politeness, like “How nice for you,” “Oh, interesting!,” and the mother of all thinly veiled criticism, “Bless her heart.” Also this week, free reign vs. free rein, the origin of the one-finger salute, and what it means if a Frenchman has “big ankles.” And Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings stops by to try his hand at a slang quiz.

This episode first aired October 31, 2009.

Download the MP3.

 Sugar-Coated Snark
You’ve been on the receiving end of backhanded phrases, and admit it, you’ve used them, too. A discussion on Ask MetaFilter prompts Grant and Martha to talk about the ways people use sugar-coated snark. By the way, if you want a fancy word for veiled criticisms like “bless her heart” and “let me know how that works out,” it’s charientism, from a Greek word that means “the expression of an unpleasant thing in an agreeable manner.”

 Free Reign vs. Free Rein
Is it free reign or free rein? Ruling or riding?

 Back Forty
The back forty refers to a remote area of a large piece of land. Grant has the origin of that phrase.

 The One-Finger Salute
What do English bowmen, the French, and lopped-off digits have to do with the classic middle-finger insult? Absolutely nothing. A San Diego truck driver wonders about the true origin of the one-finger salute. There’s a great debunking of the English archers story here.

 “High” School Quiz
Quiz Guy John Chaneski says he’s been visiting some “niche” high schools, all of which have the word “High” in them, maybe in reverse of a standard phrase. How about this one: “The school where they study phantoms, ghosts, and apparitions.” That would be Spirits High.

 Marriage With vs. Marriage To
A caller who grew up in Australia has a question about wedding-invitation etiquette in the U.S. She wonders: Shouldn’t an invitation refer to a daughter’s “marriage with” the groom rather than a “marriage to” him?

 Etymology of Graveyard Shift
A man who works nights in a mortuary in Brookings, Oregon is curious about the origin of—what else?—graveyard shift.

 Origin of Brown as a Berry
Quick, picture a berry: Is it blue? Red? Then where’d we get the English expression brown as a berry?

 Slang Quiz with Ken Jennings
It’s “Slang for $500.” All-time Jeopardy! Champion Ken Jennings tackles his next logical challenge, the A Way with Words slang quiz. Ken puzzles over the meaning of brummagem and pluck of a pig, and tries to guess an usual meaning for the term daylight. More about Ken at his website,

 Mischief Night
In many neighborhoods, the night before Halloween is the night when pranksters run around wreaking all kinds of mischief–toilet-papering houses, spraying windows with shaving cream, ringing doorbells and then running away. A Connecticut woman remembers calling that night Goosey Night, and is surprised when friends call it Mischief Night. In fact, that prankfest goes by lots of other names, including Corn Night, Picket Night, and Devil Night.

 Big Ankles
In English, we say that someone who’s egotistical has a big head. But in French, according to a caller, the person is said to have big ankles. Why ankles?

Grant shares a quirklum.

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

Photo by Graham Hellewell. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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6 Responses

  1. lux rationis says:

    My instructor within felt a pang of missed opportunity ripple through the airwaves during the discussion of “free rein.” While Grant and Martha properly pointed out that “free rein” is the correct form of the expression, a Teachable Moment lapsed as they moved on without any ensuing discussion of the linguistic phenomenon the caller had instantiated: “free reign” and “free rain” are examples of eggcorns.

    An eggcorn is an incorrectly encoded figure of speech resulting from unintentional word substitution. Eggcorns are of great interest to linguists on a number of counts. Here are three:

    1. Many eggcorns exemplify how changes in technology and culture foster incertitude in idiomatic phraseology as a people become alienated from the hands-on experience in which a figure of speech is rooted. A hundred years ago, for example, most Americans knew what the verb “to whet” meant. The metaphor “to whet one’s appetite” made intuitive sense because most people had ample experience with the chore of passing kitchen knives over a whetstone to sharpen them. Stainless steel changed all that. Stainless steel is not user friendly when it comes to sharpening, so never-needs-sharpening cutlery with hollow-ground or factory-serrated blade edges largely replaced resharpenable cutlery in the late 20th century. As a consequence, whetting is now an unfamiliar experience for most, and the eggcorn “to wet one’s appetite” is commonly encountered.
    The same is true for “free rein.” A hundred years ago, most English speakers had, at minimum, a passing familiarity with basic horsemanship…enough, certainly, to know the consequences that could result from giving a horse or mule free rein. With the preeminence of automobiles as a means of moving people about, distinguishing the correct equestrian allusion from the distracting homophones is now much less intuitive.

    2. Eggcorns interject an interesting conundrum into the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. Many eggcorns have a far higher incidence of occurrence than the correct form of expression. In one dictation test, over 90% of college students transcribed “just desserts” when hearing a sentence containing the idiom “just deserts” (the reward or punishment one merits). That’s a problem for those who contend that usage is the ultimate arbiter of acceptability. Admitting that the overwhelming majority of a language’s speakers might use certain idiomatic constructions in a way that is blatantly wrong is not an easy thing for descriptivists to countenance. They would rather make some nonjudgmental observation about regional dialectal alternatives or evolving practices. But however deeply embedded an eggcorn might be in broad usage, it is clearly an error, plain and simple.

    3. For me as an educator, the most intriguing aspect of eggcorns is a psycholinguistic one…and one that the caller hinted at. The schema being held in the mind of a person using an eggcorn must be drastically different from the one being used by someone who understands the figure of speech correctly. A schema, in this case, refers to the conceptual construct or model the brain is using to decode the meaning of the language. Someone who correctly writes the phrase “toe the line” might have a visual schema of a group of runners all lined up for the start of a race, bending over with their fingertips resting on the track and their shoes “toeing the line” (and that’s the right visual). Someone who writes the eggcorn “tow the line” might be holding a schema of someone walking along a canal with a rope over his shoulder, pulling a heavily-laden boat as he muscles his way forward. Yet, despite these radically different schemata – some of them woefully miswrought – different speakers seem to be able to exchange these figures of speech among each other and convey mutually-intelligible ideas without a great deal of communication dissonance.

    The Eggcorn Database is attempting to catalog as many English eggcorns as it can. It currently has inventoried 628 (and yes, “free reign” is one of them). If you enjoy this kind thing, you can find it at:

  2. Lex, we’ve talked about eggcorns here and elsewhere before (and I’ve contributed to the database). If we took every avenue of discussion on every topic, it’d be a daily 12-hour program!

  3. Glenn says:

    a daily 12-hour program

    Great idea, Grant! I’d listen.

  4. Ron Draney says:

    Then it’s settled. Now all we need is an underwriter.

  5. dackville says:

    A bit of trivia related to the “40 acres and a mule”: here in the Adirondacks, land was given to Civil War veterans in the form of “great lots.” I think a great lot was 200 acres, acres consisting of mountainous, rocky, frozen, tree-covered land to homestead. Pretty good joke, huh. One of our neighbors, a descendant of one of the original recipients, still lives on his grandfather’s farm on a street that bears his name.

  6. Kaa says:

    On the subject of “backhanded phrases”:

    Comedian Dom Irrera has a wonderful routine in which he discusses exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about, only he talks about the “Italian Erase Phrases.”

    You know, ways in which people can insult you to your face, then “take it back” with what he calls an “erase phrase.”

    “You’re a complete moron; but I don’t mean that in a BAD way.”
    “With all due respect, you’re a moron.”
    “Don’t take this the wrong way, but do you know what the hell you’re doing?” [I actually had a boss say this to me, once.]

    The Southern “bless your heart” can be intensified as “bless your little heart.” I’m not sure whether the “little” makes it worse or better. 🙂