Barack Obama wants to put people to work building roads and bridges. But how about a federal jobs program for out-of-work writers? Also: why do we call it a flight of wine? How did the haircut called a mullet get its name?

This episode first aired January 24, 2009.

Download the MP3.

 Federal Writers Project
President Barack Obama hopes to boost the economy by pouring federal dollars into efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, much like the old Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. But how about reviving that other jobs program from the New Deal era: the Federal Writers Project. Martha and Grant discuss the pros and cons of subsidizing writers with taxpayer money.

 Vienna Sausage
A caller from Juneau, Alaska, says she was tickled when her friend from the South told her he loves “vye-EEN-ers.” It took a while before she realized he was saying Viennas, as in that finger food so often found a can, the Vienna sausage. So, just how common is the pronunciation “vye-EEN-er”?

 Origin of The Mullet
It’s been called the ape drape, the Kentucky waterfall, the Tennessee top hat, hockey hair, and the 90-10. We’re talking about that haircut called the mullet, otherwise known as “business in the front, and party in the back.” But why mullet?

 Borborygmic
The word borborygmic means “pertaining to rumblings in one’s tummy or intestines.” Martha explains that it comes from the Greek word borborygmus (“bor-buh-RIG-muss”), a fine example of onomatopoeia if ever there was one.

 Wine and Astonishment
Martha shares writing advice from wine writer Andrew Jefford’s essay “Wine and Astonishment.” His main advice for writers: be astonished.

 Off Color Word Game
Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a word game in which the object is to guess the color-related terms suggested by his clues. Try this one: What color-coded term is suggested by the phrase “information gained without serious effort”?

 Devil Strip
What do you call the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk? Depending on where you live, you may call it a tree lawn, a berm, a city strip, the parking, or one of a host of other regional terms for it. In a small part of the country, this narrow piece of land called a devil strip. In fact, this expression figures in a great story about forensic linguistics: When a linguist analyzed a ransom note and saw the term devil strip, he realized this was a telltale clue– one that would lead authorities right to the kidnapper.

 Etymology of “Falling In Love”
Does the English expression “falling in love” derive from the biblical story of Rebekah and Isaac? A caller thinks so. The hosts don’t think so.

 Nobody Here but Us Chickens!
You may have used the expression, “Nobody here but us chickens!” Would you still use it if you knew its origins lie in a racist joke from the turn of the 20th century?

 Up To Possible
In an earlier episode, the hosts heard from a woman who, as a teenager, was scolded by her grandmother for wearing a skirt that Granny said was almost up to possible. The woman wondered about that phrase’s meaning and origin. Grant shares listener email about this question, plus information he’s found linking the term to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

 Mad Pancakes and Mad Gangster Slang Quiz
This week’s “Slang This!” contestant from the National Puzzlers’ League tries to pick out the real slang terms from a puzzle that includes the expressions board butter, cap room, mad pancakes, and mad gangster.

 Regards vs. Regard
Is the proper expression “in regards to” or “in regard to”? In regard to this question, the hosts say, the answer is clear and unambiguous.

 Wine Flight
A sampling of several kinds of wine is called a flight. But why?

 Smorgasbord vs. Buffet
And while we’re on the subject of sampling lots of different savory things, what’s the difference between a smorgasbord and a buffet? Or is there one?

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

Photo by Jordan Johnson. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Broadcast

Ulysses by James Joyce
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28 Responses

  1. Whitsel says:

    Smorgasboard:
    In Russian they use the term “swedish table” when they are describing a buffet or putting out a variety of small dishes for people to take from.

  2. George Dunn says:

    Might “up to possible” be in any way related to “possibles” bag (a compact toolkit)?

  3. EmmettRedd says:

    I have heard the term “vye-EEN-er” but I also live in the Ozarks.  Anyway is it really all that great a stretch since a “wiener” is named after the same city.

    BTW, I went to Vienna (Austria, not Missouri) the last week of August.  While there, I had opportunity to eat “Vienna Sausages.”  They were much better than the US canned variety.  But, that is reasonable since the US variety are only slightly better quality meat than the “potted meat” product sold in similar cans.  A counsin's husband would call potted meat, “Lip.”  He did that because the first listed (and, thereby, highest percentage) ingredient was “beef lips.”

    Emmett

  4. oli says:

    Vee-ah-nee weenie by way of Harlan Co.,Ky. The pian(o)er remark brought to mind of a relative in NY City who ends words with an “er” instead of the correct “a”, such as Hella becomes Heller,China=Chiner and so on .Always drives me crazy. Is this  type of pronunciation typical of New Yorkers?

  5. Smorgasboard:
    In Russian they use the term “swedish table” when they are describing a buffet or putting out a variety of small dishes for people to take from.

    Whitsel, thanks for this. Are you a native Russian speaker?

  6. >>> Might “up to possible” be in any way related to “possibles” bag (a compact toolkit)?

    Hi, George. That one hadn't occurred to me. But I'm convinced it's the story about washing up and down and far as possible before moving on to the “possible” part. Don't know if you caught the additional conversation about it here.

    I'm not familiar wtih “possibles” as a toolkit. Is that a military or professional usage?

  7. ablestmage says:

    The “mad gangster” question reminded me of something being blown up, run through, crashed, (etc.) “like gangbusters,” which comes from an old radio program Gangbusters (~1937-57) that always began with loud sirens, screams and jarring music. I'd've gotten it, but perhaps for the wrong reason!

    In regard  to the wacky food pronunciations, I had an eyebrow cocking experience when first encountering the spoken word Studebaker being a vehicle, as my grandfather had often referred to tomato soup as “stew'd d'maters” of which I had been familiar. It became one of those classic comedic audience-knows-the-real-story scenes where the listener thinks he knows what a speaker is talking about but has it all wrong. I had mental imagery of someone driving a soup can before finally asking what model vehicle he'd just said ^_^

  8. Christopher Murray says:

    According to George Wood of Radio Sweden, the Swedish chef from the Muppets has more of a Norwegian accent than a Swedish one.

  9. MarcNaimark says:

    An odd thing about the French for “to fall in love” is that the French French version is indeed “tomber amoureux” (”amoureux” being an adjective meaning “in love”). But in Quebec, they say “tomber en amour”. I had always assumed that this was simply due to the influence of English on Quebec French.

    And like Italian (apparently), when lightning strikes, it's love at first sight (”un coup de foudre”).

    The most famous “coup de foudre” in France is that of the Princesse de Clèves and the Duc de Nemours in La Fayette's Princesse de Clèves.

    [Grant says: I removed the embedded code, which doesn’t work in this forum.]

  10. Wendy in Oregon says:

    I am married to a North Carolina boy. His Daddy was a sharecroppers son and his Mother’s folks were somewhat more prosperous farmers in the same area around Wilson. They both loved and frequently ate vye-een-ah sausages, their pronunciation for the little pink weenies in a can.

    As for ‘possible’, when I was a Candy Striper at a Spokane hospital about 40 years ago, the nurses taught me that when we were bathing a male patient, we were to start at his head and wash down as far as possible, then start at his feet and wash up as far as possible, and then hand him the wash cloth and tell HIM to wash ‘possible.’

  11. kkrishmar1 says:

    Hi Grant & Martha,

    I love your show.

    I've a question for you.

    Strunk and White in 'The Elements of Style' say 'as regards' is also correct. How is this different from 'in regards to' in regard to 'regards'?

    Thanks.

    Krishna.

  12.  >>>>   the little pink weenies in a can.

    Wendy, thanks for this confirmation. And I can't tell you how chagrined I am that I didn't use your wonderfully worded description of them in that episode. :-)

    And yes, we're hearing that washing explanation from a lot of folks now. (So, as a fellow former hospital worker, do you share my queasinesss when people say that something “impacted” them?) :-)

  13. Stoppel says:

    I always thought that borborygmic was a word made up by George Carlin, I had never heard it before until I had bought one of his records where Carlin is using that word. The way he said it, it was very clear what he was talking about for a non native english speaker like myself.

    After hearing the reference to the song 'There aint nobody here but us chickens' I had a flashback to 'The Muppet Show' where a chickenbarn full of predators were singing the song while they held some chickens hostage. Yet nobody expected the Chicken Liberation Squad. 

    If Jim Henson can use the expression, we all can. Its a classic, easy to find on YouTube.

  14. Huh. I knew it comes from ancient Greek, and exists in English, but not that George Carlin had used it.

    And heh, you're right. It's been a while since I watched The Muppets. Had to smile when I did just now. Thanks for the laugh.

  15. Matt Holck says:

    I considered cutting my bangs

  16. Wendy in Oregon says:

    martha said:

     >>>>   the little pink weenies in a can.

    Wendy, thanks for this confirmation. And I can’t tell you how chagrined I am that I didn’t use your wonderfully worded description of them in that episode. :-)

    And yes, we’re hearing that washing explanation from a lot of folks now. (So, as a fellow former hospital worker, do you share my queasinesss when people say that something “impacted” them?) :-)


    I work now in the high tech industry and HATE impact used as a verb, but I can’t seem to avoid it! Aaargh! Everyone around me also “hones in” on something, another pet peeve.

  17. laugh-to-survive says:

    “fall in love” – Comedienne Rita Rudner says she has never fallen in love, but reports she has “stepped in it a few times.”

  18. >>>“fall in love” – Comedienne Rita Rudner says she has never fallen in love, but reports she has “stepped in it a few times.”

    Heh. Wish I’d said that, laugh-to-survive!

  19. zombie amelia says:

    OK- here in lovely Wisconsin, where mullets can still be seen, there's one more descriptive word for them (no idea if it's local) schlong hair- short/long hair. also slightly, um, off-color.

    also- my husband, who grew up in Minnesota, calls the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street “the boulevard,” which I think is very strange. I thought the boulevard was the strip of grass dividing two lanes of traffic on an actual Blvd.

    Amelia

  20. Matt Holck says:

    boulevard
    1769, from Fr., originally “top surface of a military rampart,” from a garbled attempt to adopt M.Du. bolwerc “wall of a fortification” (see bulwark) into Fr., which lacks a -w-. The original notion is of a promenade laid out atop demolished city walls, which would be much wider than urban streets. Originally in Eng. with conscious echoes of Paris; since 1929, in U.S., used of multi-lane limited-access urban highways.

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=boulevard&searchmode=none

    The strip of grass in the center of the street makes more sense
    as that would be a raised footpath with limited access (cars could not access).
    In any case,
    a boulevard is a major thoroughfare the sort of street wide enough to be divided.

    I wonder if “Bully” is related.
    After all, conquering Romans a top broken walls is dominating.

    bully (n.)
    1538, originally “sweetheart,” applied to either sex, from Du. boel “lover, brother,” probably dim. of M.H.G. buole “brother,” of uncertain origin (cf. Ger. buhle “lover”). Meaning deteriorated 17c. through “fine fellow,” “blusterer,” to “harasser of the weak” (1653). Perhaps this was by infl. of bull, but a connecting sense between “lover” and “ruffian” may be in “protector of a prostitute,” which was one sense of bully (though not specifically attested until 1706). The verb is first attested 1710. The expression meaning “worthy, jolly, admirable” (esp. in 1864 U.S. slang bully for you!) is first attested 1681, and preserves an earlier, positive sense of the word.

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=bully&searchmode=none

    Nope

  21. zombieamelia, thanks for that one. I hadn't heard it. :-)

  22. dilettante says:

    Re: “devil strip” (or “devil’s strip”) – here’s a sighting in the wild, just today:

    March 26, 2009 Crankshaft comic strip

  23. Rhino1515 says:

    Hello Martha and Grant,
    I’m a huge fan of your show. Thank you for brightening the airwaves with your language discussions.
    I have a word I’d like to share with you and your readers. It is one of my favorite German words: ‘Vokuhila’. Although it sounds like it might be the name of a lesser Norse god, it actually stands for “vorne kurz, hinten lang” and describes what we call a mullet! Translation: short in the front, long in the back.

  24. >>> Re: “devil strip” (or “devil’s strip”) – here’s a sighting in the wild, just today:

    Oooo, oooo, good catch, dilettante. And need we be surprised that the strip’s creator, Tom Batiuk, is from . . . wait for it . . . Akron, Ohio?

  25. I have a word I’d like to share with you and your readers. It is one of my favorite German words: ‘Vokuhila’. Although it sounds like it might be the name of a lesser Norse god, it actually stands for “vorne kurz, hinten lang” and describes what we call a mullet! Translation: short in the front, long in the back.

    Very nice, Rhino1515! Hadn’t heard that one. And thanks for the kind words!

  26. PDXPaul says:

    I thought the boulevard was the strip of grass dividing two lanes of traffic on an actual Blvd.

    Amelia

    That’s the neutral ground. Added to my lexicon via a buddy from NOLA.

  27. Wonder why that strip of grass has SO many different words for it?

  28. iskal says:

    MarcNaimark said:

    An odd thing about the French for “to fall in love” is that the French French version is indeed “tomber amoureux” (”amoureux” being an adjective meaning “in love”). But in Quebec, they say “tomber en amour”. I had always assumed that this was simply due to the influence of English on Quebec French.


    Martha, Grant, hi!

    Not doubting that “falling in love” is a translation from the French, as Grant mentioned, I believe there is more to it than just falling-in-another-language. There is an interesting aspect to the verb tomber, according to an etymological dictionary: “étymologie: XIIe siècle. Avec le sens de danser, sauter, faire la culbute (voir l’anglais tumble)”. The original French expression “tomber amoureux (amoureuse for a female)” could thus mean “to danse (leap, skip, somersault, tumble) enamouredly or amorously” – i.e. not falling in love so much as dancing since, while, because in love. In translation, an unintentional or even jocular shift in meaning might have taken place from the state of being in love (12th c. French) to an actual or metaphorical falling, head over heels, helplessly in love. Although this doesn’t explain the modern meaning of the French expression, which seems to correspond to its English counterpart…

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