Ever eaten golden catheads for breakfast? Yum! A listener shares this Southern term for big, fluffy biscuits. Also, how did people greet each other before “hello” became a standard greeting of choice? What does it mean if someone’s fair to middling? How do you pronounce “bury”? Is the phrase whether or not redundant? Should we use try to or try and? And if Sam and them are coming, who exactly is “them”? Plus, Grant and Martha share some classic riddles, and Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a word game of animal name mash-ups.

This episode first aired April 2, 2011.

Download the MP3.

 Rock Riddle
“What happens when you throw a yellow rock into a purple stream? It splashes.” (Ba-dump-bum.) Grant and Martha share this and other favorite riddles, some with deceptively obvious answers.

 Pronouncing “Bury”
Why do we pronounce bury like berry and not jury? The word originates in the Old English term byrgan, and the pronunciation apparently evolved differently in different parts of England. Grant explains why many terms go mispronounced if we read things without hearing them out loud.

 Telephone Greetings
What do you say when you answer the telephone? On the NPR science blog, “Krulwich Wonders,” Robert Krulwich notes that hello did not become a standard greeting until the mid-19th Century, when the Edison Company recommended the word as a proper phone greeting. Before that, English speakers used a variety of phrases depending on the circumstance, from “hail” to “how are you?” One thing’s certain: If we’d followed Alexander Graham Bell’s recommendation, we’d all be greeting each other with “Ahoy!”

 Potato Riddle
“A riddle, a riddle, I suppose, a thousand eyes and never a nose.” Nothing shakes up the dinner table conversation like a good potato riddle!

 Animal Hybrids Quiz
Greg Pliska, musical director for the Broadway show War Horse and our very own Quiz Guy, has a puzzle about Animal Hybrid Phrases combining two common expressions involving animals. For example, what do you get when stuffed animal stocks go down? A Teddy Bear Market.

 Golden Catheads
Ever had golden catheads for breakfast? A native of Tennessee wonders about the origin of this term meaning “biscuit” — specifically, ones that are light, fluffy, and about the size of, well, a cat’s head. Martha explains how the names of many foods derive from their resemblance to other things — a head of cabbage, for example.

 You’re the Berries
A listener has spent the last 30 years looking for the origin of the playful phrase “you’re the berries.” This affectionate expression first appears in literature in the 1908 book Sorrows of a Showgirl, then made its way into popular slang by the 1920s. However, it seems to disappear during the next decade, and it remains only as a relic heard in the vernacular of those who lived during the era.

 Try And vs Try To
Should we use try and or try to? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says it’s grammatically permissible to “try and go to the store,” or to ask someone to “try and speak up.” However, a fan of formality ought to stick with try to. Still, Grant warns against trying to force logic on the English language by creating rules that don’t exist. Jack Lynch has an opinion on it, too.

 Counterfeit Riddle
“Whoever makes it tells it not. Whoever takes it knows it not. Whoever knows it wants it not. What is it?” Martha shares this old riddle.

 Word Birth
The question of how children acquire language has long intrigued parents and scholars. MIT cognitive scientist Deb Roy recently found a novel way to study what he calls “word birth.” He wired his home with cameras and microphones, and recorded his infant son’s every utterance as he grew into toddlerhood. He then combined the 90,000 hours of video and 140,000 hours of audio into some astonishing montages. Dr. Roy shared his findings at a TED conference. More visuals and audio from the study in this article from Fast Company.

 Fair to Middling
If you’re fair to middling, you’re doing just fine. A native of the Tennessee mountains wonders about the origin of this phrase her good-humored grandfather used. As it turns out, fair to middling was one of the many gradations a farmer would hear in the 19th Century when they’d bring in their crop — usually cotton — to be priced and purchased.

 Whether or Not
Is the phrase whether or not redundant? Well, take this sentence: “Whether or not you like it, Martha is dressing as a ballerina.” Would that sound right without the or not? Now, the or not is technically redundant, but depending on the case, it’s best to pick the wording that won’t distract the reader or listener. The person in charge of the New York Times Style Manual comments on the question.

 Liberian Proverb
“Only the grass dies when elephants fight.” This Liberian proverb is a reminder that it’s the powerless who suffer when governments or factions fight.

 “And Them” Colloquialism
If Sam and them are going to be here after while, can the “and them” mean just one additional person? In some parts of the country, it could be Sam’s wife, or Sam’s entire softball team. A listener from Texas shares this charming colloquialism.

 99 Clump Riddle
“What goes 99, clump?” “If you woke up at night and scratched your head, what time would it be?” Grant has the answers to those riddles.

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

Photo by Jules Morgan. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Sorrows of a Showgirl by Kenneth McGaffey
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Something’s Got To Give Beastie Boys Check Your Head Capitol Records
Jan Jan Grant Green Live at The Lighthouse Blue Note
Bold and Black The Ramsey Lewis Trio Another Voyage Cadet
Ease Back Grant Green Ain’t It Funky Now Blue Note
Uhuru The Ramsey Lewis Trio Another Voyage Cadet
Melt! Flying Lotus Melt! Warp Records
On The Sunny Side Of The Street Jimmy Smith Back At The Chicken Shack Blue Note
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
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11 Responses

  1. natatorium says:

    “Why do we pronounce bury like berry and not jury?”

    We don’t, if we’re Cleveland Brown — who also calls his friend Terry, “Tury.”


  2. Ron Draney says:

    There’s a variant on and them that doesn’t seem quite as regionally marked as those mentioned during the show: and all.

  3. Glenn says:

    Ron Draney said:

    There’s a variant on and them that doesn’t seem quite as regionally marked as those mentioned during the show: and all.

    I was thinking the same thing. Being a northerner, I remember hearing family say things like “Aunt Elva and all are coming over today.” Like “and them,” I can use “and all” even when I have a single person in mind.

    And as for the caller’s pronunciation of bury (rhymes with furry and slurry), I must disagree with Grant’s assertion that the pronunciation is not regional. I believe that pronunciation of bury also to be a very localized regional pronunciation in the Philadelphia, PA, area. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and everyone pronounced bury in that way. They still do. When I moved away for school, it was one of the first things I had to modify about my speech to fit in.

    I was surprised to hear that the caller had no connection to Philadelphia.

    Other words pronounced to rhyme with furry:
    berry (strawberry) — yes, just like bury
    merry (Merry Christmas)

    Where I experienced the most ridicule is with the pronoun her. As I was least conscious of its use, it would slip out in the vernacular. It had the same back vowel sound as bury and burr, and made my college roommates laugh.
    Other words pronounced to rhyme with fur and burr:
    inter (as in the verb meaning bury)
    were (both the verb form and the werewolf)

    There is no reason why this regional pronunciation should be less celebrated than others. Perhaps it is time for us to stop this persecution, and cease burying our very heritage.

  4. My Young Padawan says:

    I just make it easy and make all of my vowel sounds vague enough that I use the same sound for all vowels.

  5. Ron Draney says:

    My Young Padawan said:

    I just make it easy and make all of my vowel sounds vague enough that I use the same sound for all vowels.

    But I’ll bet the bat that bit your boot bought beet-bite bait.

  6. tromboniator says:

    Ron Draney said:

    There’s a variant on and them that doesn’t seem quite as regionally marked as those mentioned during the show: and all.

    A fellow I worked with in central New York State used “and that” as an et cetera kind of construction: “People brought pudding, and that.” After thirty years, I have no recollection of where he grew up, if I ever knew.


  7. Glenn says:

    News interview with buried in a true Philadelphia accent (Timestamp 1:31):
    Buried in Philadelphia?

    For very (Timestamp 0:40):
    “Very” spoken in Philadelphia dialect

  8. davidgib says:

    Great show. I was thingking about the phrase, “Whether or not…” and had a different point of view over the idea of choice. Martha is supposed to wear her ballerina outfit to third grade production of swan lake, but she does not want to be in the play and is arguing with her mother about wearing the outfit. When her mother says, “Martha, you are going to wear the ballerina outfit whether you like it or not.”, there is absolutely no choice available to Martha.

  9. Lee says:

    Glenn said:

    News interview with buried in a true Philadelphia accent (Timestamp 1:31):
    Buried in Philadelphia?

    Fascinating…. I’m referring, of course, to the reporter’s name, which is Jennaphr. The attorney’s “yo” is running a close 2nd for me right now, though there are other gems which might rise above it if I listen to the clip one more time.

  10. diplogirl says:

    I found this particular episode extremely interesting because it hit two things close to home.

    I grew up in central Maine and everyone around me pronounced bury, as jury. It wasn’t until I went to college that someone called me out on my strange pronounciation. It is sad to learn I am probably wrong and in the minority. I am not sure I can change my pronounciation at this point…

    I also spent four years living and working in Liberia. Their culture offers an amazing wealth of proverbs, but “Only the grass dies when elephants fight” is one of my favorites!

  11. artephius says:

    I grew up in eastern Massachusetts and growing up my father used to say “Ain’t that the berries?” when he was mildly irked at something.

    More often you’d tell him about something that really upset or infuriated you and he’d say “ain’t that the berries?” I took his delivery as his way of comically defusing childish emotions.

    When I was older I asked him where this came from and he said “when you’re a parent with small kids, you say all kinds of things to keep from swearing.” I was 14 when I first overheard my father swear, and it was a real shock. Of course I’d been swearing like a sailor since I was about 10. Ain’t that the berries?