We all misspeak from time to time, but how about when we mangle words on purpose? Do you ever say fambly instead of family, perazackly for exactly, or coinkydink for coincidence? When Grant recently wrote a newspaper column about saying things wrong on purpose, the response was enormous. Why do many people find such wordplay hard to resist?

This episode was originally broadcast May 10, 2008.

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Discuss this episode here.

A Pennsylvania minister is curious about a phrase her family uses: by way of Robin Hood’s barn or around Robin Hood’s barn, meaning a long, circuitous route.

How do you pronounce the architectural term beaux arts? (Yep, Grant accidentally left of the final S when he spelled the term on the air.) Is it pronounced boh-ZART, boh-ART, boh-ZAR, or boh-ZARTS? We settle a dispute between a New Jersey woman and her nephew.

Martha shares the winners of a contest for Best Book Titles of the Year. Or would that be Oddest Book Titles of the Year?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski presents a puzzle in which we remove the first letter of a phrase to yield another with a different meaning. Try one: originally it was a boxing film starring Robert De Niro. Now it describes a head of cattle that’s perhaps getting on in years.

A Wisconsin woman is trying to remember a term for paths in the grass created by pedestrians taking shortcuts. Grant has an answer for her, straight from the jargon of urban planning professionals. The caller also wants recommendations for a good thesaurus. The hosts’ response may surprise you.

A caller is curious about a slang term she hears from her friends in the military. The word is Jody, and it means someone who steals a soldier’s girlfriend. Grant tells the colorful story behind this bit of military slang, as well as the songs it inspired. Here’s a sample of Jody calls from the Vietnam war and from the Korean War.

Grant and Martha share more intentional mispronunciations, including tar-ZHAY instead of Target.

This week’s Slang This! contestant is not just any word nerd. She’s Dorothea Gillim, creator of the animated PBS series WordGirl. Dorothea tries to guess the meaning of the odd terms pelican crossing and zanjero. The new season of WordGirl starts Monday, May 26th, and airs Mondays through Fridays.

What is janky? A Chattanooga caller uses it describe something inferior or bad.

A Wisconsin man wonders about the use of the term big box store to denote the stores of big retail chains like Wal-Mart. Is big box a reference to the size and shape of the stores, or the fact that they sell huge appliances that come in, well, big boxes? Here’s a silly song from JibJab about bix box stores.

A Pittsburgh man is bothered by people who would say someone wrote an outraged letter. Can a letter really be angry and indignant or is it really the writer who’s upset? Martha answers his question and seizes the opportunity to talk about the four-syllable word, hypallage.

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44 Responses

  1. Anne says:

    Word I mangle on purpose: Walmart. I refer to it as SqualorMart. Needless to say, I don’t shop there.

  2. Shannon Lee says:

    How about, Cheese Whiz (for Gee Whiz)? Or, Hangaburg (hamburger)? Cheese-and-Rice (to replace taking the Lord’s name in vain). Sure love you guys!

    Shannon

  3. Shannon Lee says:

    Another thought, regarding Beaux Art… it looks and sounds like a boyfriend’s tattoos. :)

  4. Liz says:

    Gee — a MATH security question. That’s scary !!

    How about written “improprieties” — such as the capitalization of words in context where they normally are not capitalized? I often copy the style of old titles in A.A. Milne’s children’s books, to emphasize something in a sentence I’ve written. Here’s an example (remember that I live in Georgia):

    When it gets hot Down Here, everyone goes indoors.

  5. dfilpus says:

    Our family refers to J. C. Penny with a faux French prounciation. < Zhay Say Pen-ay' >

  6. Wisconsin woman says:

    Thank you “Wisconsin man” for asking about big-box stores. Exactly what I’ve been asking every time I hear that term used.

  7. Luke says:

    Where I work we order supplies from Office Depot, and we all call it “Office Despot.”

  8. Albert says:

    I first encountered ‘jody’ as a noun and verb to be a synonym with ‘cadence’ as in the calling cadences that Grant gave examples of. The person jodying would be leading the cadence, though I might be mistaken about that.

    In a sentence:
    “We jodied from the mess hall back to the barracks.”

  9. idiosyncratic idiot says:

    I couldn’t help but be taken aback by Grant’s admonition about the use of thesauri – I just love them.

    I often find myself ‘type-stuttering’ (damn, there should be a word for that… I think you get what i mean) as I’m posting in the internet and my fledging English keeps me from saying what I want. Then I resort to the online thesaurus and find that elusive word I was trying to remember. (Well, since we’re among nerds here, I fess up: I derive an almost literary pleasure from just browsing randomly through thesaurus.com and enjoying the gamut of the language rainbow).

    The very etymology of the word couldn’t make any more sense to me – it is a resource I treasure greatly. Nonetheless, I’ll give OneLook a try; this is not the first time I see people recommend it.

    i.i.

  10. Joie de Vivienne says:

    dfilpus said:

    Our family refers to J. C. Penny with a faux French prounciation. < Zhay Say Pen-ay’ >


    My family always said “Jacques Pen-ay”

  11. Rick Reid says:

    In Australia a PELICAN CROSSING is a special type of pedestrian controlled road crossing. When the pedestrians are shown the flashing ‘don’t walk’ sign, drivers will see a flashing yellow light. If the crossing is clear of pedestrians the drivers can proceed before the green light is shown. This reduces the amount of time drivers have to stop at lightly used pedestrian crossings.

  12. Tricia says:

    Sharing two of your topics from the show, long ago a friend came back from boot camp and shared one of the cadences he had learned there, “Don’t be sad, don’t be blue, my recruiter screwed me too.” Another friend there asked “who is Myra Gruder?” So now, all recruiters are named Myra.

    And since I am from San Diego, spanish is much more common than french. So instead of saying thanks with “mercy buckets” I often say “Muchachas Garcias.”

  13. ken says:

    Here in Pittsburgh our grocery stores are called Giant Eagle. I like to adopt a humongous Pittsburghese accent and pronounce it “John Ingle.”

  14. Rick – thanks for the report from Down Under! (Come to think of it, what do you guys call us? “Up Over”?)

  15. Triciia – Love that mondegreen of yours! And I think I may have to borrow “muchachas gracias.” So, muchachas gracias for that.

  16. Ken — That reminds me that when I was in Georgia once, I saw a chain of grocery stores called “Ingles.” At the time, Spanish was very much on my mind, and my first thought was, “My gosh, that store makes a big point of English being spoken there.” Duh.

  17. Bdette says:

    A word I often mispronounce on purpose is macaroni. In my family, we say it “markonis”.

  18. Mariana says:

    Hey everybody!

    I was thinking about the dispute “Beaux Arts”…I think that if you are going to use a foreign language and not the translation, then you should pronounce it correctly…otherwise, use “fine arts”. My first language is Spanish, and I know I cringe when people use “Brava” instead of “Bravo”, so, that is my take on it….

    Regarding the use of a thesaurus and using a word out of context, specially if you don’t speak the language well…I have a good example!!! The word “entre” in Spanish can mean 1) to come in (from the verb entrar) or 2) between

    I remember one time when a friend of mine who spoke little English and threw a party…He was inviting people into his house and, he first said “come in, come in” and after a while, he started saying “between, between”. I asked him what he meant…He said he got tired of using the same words over and over, so he would use a synonym….

  19. Joie de Vivienne says:

    Mariana said:

    Hey everybody!

    I was thinking about the dispute “Beaux Arts”…I think that if you are going to use a foreign language and not the translation, then you should pronounce it correctly…otherwise, use “fine arts”. My first language is Spanish, and I know I cringe when people use “Brava” instead of “Bravo”, so, that is my take on it….

    Regarding the use of a thesaurus and using a word out of context, specially if you don’t speak the language well…I have a good example!!! The word “entre” in Spanish can mean 1) to come in (from the verb entrar) or 2) between

    I remember one time when a friend of mine who spoke little English and threw a party…He was inviting people into his house and, he first said “come in, come in” and after a while, he started saying “between, between”. I asked him what he meant…He said he got tired of using the same words over and over, so he would use a synonym….


    If I’m not mistaken, people shout “Brava!” (as opposed to bravo) when congratulating a woman specifically, as is customary in Italian. I’m surprised this interjection is not gendered in Spanish also… Hmm…

    I can understand why it bothers you in Spanish, isn’t “brava” brave?

    Though I accept it as technically correct, I do agree though that it sounds a bit pretentious. Then again, I was nearly a gender studies major in college and taught to reject all gendered words, particularly those that mark females :-P

  20. I remember one time when a friend of mine who spoke little English and threw a party…He was inviting people into his house and, he first said “come in, come in” and after a while, he started saying “between, between”. I asked him what he meant…He said he got tired of using the same words over and over, so he would use a synonym….

    LOL, Mariana. Good one! And I share Joie’s question. If you’re cheering for a woman in Spanish, what would you say?

  21. Mariana says:

    Hey Martha!

    If you are cheering a female in Spanish you would say Bravo! just as if you were cheering a male. In this case is an interjection to express applause, admiration and it does not have gender.
    Bravo means brave, . It can also mean fierce, rough and angry. I all these cases it has gender: bravo and brava.

    Mariana

  22. divinentd says:

    Podcast listener chiming in late…

    If you’d like to see an amazing collection of desire paths, check out the Desire Paths pool on Flickr.

  23. llihak says:

    “He committed sewer pipe” (suicide)

    “Blo-Mart” (Wal-Mart)

  24. Divinentd, I’m chiming in late myself here, but it’s kind of cool to see all of those in one place! Thanks for posting that.

  25. llihak, I’m not sure I’d have guessed either one of those.

  26. Fred Bals says:

    Hi Martha and Grant,

    I liked your show about “Jody calls” so much that I did a podcast of my own on the subject:

    Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone

    Hope you enjoy it, and thanks for A Way With Words!

  27. Fred, that is tremendous! Great job tracking down those songs, and even the image of the index card for the Lomax fieldwork. I’m going to mention your podcast in the next issue of our newsletter. Thanks!

  28. TCJ says:

    What a “maroon!” = “moron” (thanks to Bugs Bunny).

    What an “idot!” = “idiot” (plays better on paper).

    I’m being “sarcophagus.” = “sarcastic” (real old one from my aunt)

    “Groovus” = Latin for “groovy” (thanks to Mel Brooks)

  29. TCJ says:

    Liz said:

    Gee — a MATH security question. That’s scary !!

    How about written “improprieties” — such as the capitalization of words in context where they normally are not capitalized? I often copy the style of old titles in A.A. Milne’s children’s books, to emphasize something in a sentence I’ve written. Here’s an example (remember that I live in Georgia):

    When it gets hot Down Here, everyone goes indoors.


    The late, great, Hunter S. Thompson often capitalized the first letter of words, and sometimes the entire word for emphasis that gave some respite from the classics … ellipses, bold, italics, underlines — em dashes — semicolons; etc.

    I’ve been a Practitioner of the same since High School.

  30. indystan says:

    I just heard a rerun of this episode, and it actually made it into one of my dreams last night. There was a guy in the dream named “Bo”, kind of a rednecky auto mechanic. One of his coworkers called him “Bozart”, which I thought was a hilarious play between his name and Beaux Arts, to the point that I was laughing out loud in the dream and maybe even in my bed. But of course Bo didn’t get the joke. It then occurred to me that Bozart would make a good name for a clown who happened to be the mascot of an arts organization, though admittedly it seemed like a better idea in my sleep than it does now that I’m awake. Still, if there happen to be any arts organizations out there looking for a name for their new clown mascot, Bozart the Clown is all yours.

  31. Ron Draney says:

    Unfortunately, HL Mencken beat you to the term by about 89 years. In the article “Sahara of the Bozart”, he uses it to describe both “bad art” and the culture of the South at that time.

  32. johng423 says:

    Here are a couple of words that probably do not appear in a dictionary. I’ve never heard them spoken in a way that indicated the speaker was knowingly or deliberately mispronouncing or combining words. Maybe that’s because they seem to be such natural combinations that intensify the meanings so well.

    “slickery” = slick + slippery
    (for example, used to describe walking conditions on rainy days)

    “flustrated” = flustered + frustrated
    (for example, used to describe the annoyance of bureaucratic “red tape”)

  33. dalerhobson says:

    Pronunciations like “fambly” and “chimbly” for family and chimney are not mispronunciations, but are vernacular anachronisms according to my college linguistics prof. They are in commonest use in Appalachia and other regions where dialects have been preserved from settlement times and earlier. He said that it was accepted pronunciation in Elizabethan times to use an mbl sound combination for both “ml” and “mn”. He said that Shakespeare likely pronounced the name of his tragedy “Hamblet.”

  34. Goheels says:

    I response to the Jody discussion about military chants, I wanted to see if anyone had heard the “I used to work in Chicago” song. My grandfather who was in the navy during WWII used to sing it sometimes and its another one of those dirty military songs. I only remember one or two verses so I’ll post what I remember:

    I used to work in Chicago, I did but I don’t anymore
    I used to work in Chicago, in a great big butcher store
    A lady came in for some meat, I asked her what kind at the door
    Sausage she said, and sausage she got, and I don’t work there anymore

    I used to work in Chicago, I did but I don’t anymore
    I used to work in Chicago, in a great big department store
    A lady came in for a hat, I asked her what kind at the door
    Felt she said, and felt I did, and I don’t work there anymore

    There were all kinds of other verses too, the Jody discussion just reminded me of this song.

  35. I just heard a rerun of this episode, and it actually made it into one of my dreams last night. There was a guy in the dream named “Bo”, kind of a rednecky auto mechanic. One of his coworkers called him “Bozart”, which I thought was a hilarious play between his name and Beaux Arts, to the point that I was laughing out loud in the dream and maybe even in my bed. But of course Bo didn’t get the joke. It then occurred to me that Bozart would make a good name for a clown who happened to be the mascot of an arts organization, though admittedly it seemed like a better idea in my sleep than it does now that I’m awake. Still, if there happen to be any arts organizations out there looking for a name for their new clown mascot, Bozart the Clown is all yours.

    Indystan, this is great! And I’m delighted to learn we’re invading your dreams. Mwuhahahhaha! First your dreams, then your credit card number . . .

  36. SaSoldier says:

    My sister was helping out in a kindergarten class one time. The teacher was reading a book, and she asked the kids if she knew what animal the book was referring too. It was a book about warthogs. The teacher firmly believed that this animal is called a “Warth og” my sister tried to tell her that most of the world calls them “wart hogs” In the future if you run across a kid that thinks that Pumba is a “warth og” it could just be a mispronounciation done on purpose. I know that I now call warthogs “warth ogs” sometimes because of this story.

  37. Ron Draney says:

    Goheels said:

    I response to the Jody discussion about military chants, I wanted to see if anyone had heard the “I used to work in Chicago” song. My grandfather who was in the navy during WWII used to sing it sometimes and its another one of those dirty military songs. I only remember one or two verses so I’ll post what I remember:

    I used to work in Chicago, I did but I don’t anymore
    I used to work in Chicago, in a great big butcher store
    A lady came in for some meat, I asked her what kind at the door
    Sausage she said, and sausage she got, and I don’t work there anymore

    I used to work in Chicago, I did but I don’t anymore
    I used to work in Chicago, in a great big department store
    A lady came in for a hat, I asked her what kind at the door
    Felt she said, and felt I did, and I don’t work there anymore

    There were all kinds of other verses too, the Jody discussion just reminded me of this song.


    Dr Demento (what, you thought AWWW was the only radio show I listen to?) occasionally plays a recording of this song, “I Used To Work In Chicago”, by a singer called Larry Vincent. He’s also featured a version by Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra, and essentially the same song by Spike Jones and the City Slickers under the title “I’ll Never Work There Any More”.

  38. johng423 says:

    Mispronunciation: I remember a Readers Digest story in which a woman tells about her nephew who was fascinated by a book about jungle animals. “Look! Here’s a frickin’ elephant!”
    “Excuse me, what did you say?” she replied, in anger and embarrassment.
    “See – it says right here,” he said as he pointed to the picture in the book, captioned AFRICAN Elephant.
    Her comment: Hooked on Phonics – ain’t it great!

  39. mark4ww says:

    Regarding the “desire paths” (a new term for me), you may get a different answer at MIT in Cambridge, MA. On a tour there in the early 90s, we were following a circular sidewalk around an open courtyard when the tour guide pointed out the worn path through the grass that ran straight across the middle. We were told it was an example of a “nerd path”, since any good nerd knows the shortest distance between two points (in a plane, at least) is a straight line.

  40. Glenn says:

    Relating to intentional mispronunciation of words, I will often intentionally misspeak cliches.
    It’s not rocket surgery.
    That’s water over the bridge. -or- That’s water under the dam.

  41. Ron Draney says:

    Glenn said:

    Relating to intentional mispronunciation of words, I will often intentionally misspeak cliches.
    It’s not rocket surgery.
    That’s water over the bridge. -or- That’s water under the dam.


    That’s half of one, six dozen of the other.

  42. Glenn says:

    Lol. May I steal that one to add it to my repertoire?

    It also occurs to me that there is one phrase that fits both categories:
    one swell foop.

    I’ve spoonerized it for so long, it requires concentration for me to say it correctly.

  43. jacosta says:

    My girlfriend and I like to mispronounce Spanish, generally from what we heard that day. For example: tortilla -> tor-tila , quesadilla -> qwesadila. Sometimes we jokingly say “no sabo” when it should actually be “no se”, meaning “i don’t know.” Sometimes children will say “no sabo” when they are very young. I’ve even had a friend’s child say “popico” for “poquito” (a little) which has developed into a family phrase.

  44. heathbug says:

    Anne said:

    Word I mangle on purpose: Walmart. I refer to it as SqualorMart. Needless to say, I don’t shop there.


    I use ‘Dirty Queen’ for ‘Dairy Queen’. That’s because, when I was young, in the ’50′s, we only had one drive in, and that was the Dairy Queen; it was filthy inside, with roaches, etc., and we didn’t dare eat there. It was only used for driving around (cruising), not for eating. It is still ‘Dirty Queen’ to me, and I still won’t eat there.

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