In this week's episode: Just how far back could you go and still understand the English people were speaking? We crank up our trusty time machine to find out. Hint: You'd probably have a tough time getting around in the eighth century, when English poetry looked like: “Hwaet we gardena in geardagum.”
This episode originally aired February 9th and 10th, 2008.
Download the MP3 here (23.5MB).
This week we also started our online-only summer minicasts. Listen to them here.
Speaking of the more recent past: When you played hide-and-seek as a child, did you yell “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free”? Or “Ally Ally in Free”? Or maybe “Ally Ally Ump Free”? “Ole Ole Olsen Free”? Or something else? A caller in Montevideo, Uruguay, is curious about the origin of such nonsensical phrases.
It's the Moby Dick of etymology: “Where do we get the phrase the whole nine yards?” A pediatrician in North Carolina wonders if it derives from a World War II phrase involving “nine yards” of ammunition. Grant and Martha discuss the many theories about this expression. Looking for the naughty story we mentioned about Scotsman and his kilt? You'll find it on etymological researcher Barry Popik's site.
Martha and Grant discuss squeejawed and other strange terms that mean “crooked,” or “askew,” including slanchwise, whompy-jawed, whopper-jawed, antigogglin', sigogglin, and catawampus.
This week Puzzle Guy Greg Pliska presented a quiz called Categorical Allies. He gave a word and Martha and Grant had to come up with the second word that was in the same category as the first and began with the same two letters that the first one ends with.
So, French was a clue, to which we responded Chinese, the category being languages (though it would work as food, too). The two letters CHend FrenCH and start CHinese.
At the end of the quiz, Greg proposed that listeners come up with a string of more than four items in a specific category that follow the same rules. Greg gave the example of American states. His clue was Alabama. We followed it with Maine, Nebraska, Kansas. Or Maine, New Mexico, Colorado. Each word ends with the same two letters that the next word starts with.
So, to play this here in the forums, come up with a fairly narrow category, such as French authors, computer parts, insects, American presidents, or anything else, and then come up with four items that can be linked together by the pairs of last and first letters. Give everyone else the first clue on the forum and the guessing will commence! Your puzzle playground is here.
A woman wonders about a phrase from her past: “I'm going to beat you like a red-headed stepchild.” Martha and Grant discuss gingerism, or prejudice against redheads.
A New York babysitter says the English language needs a word to replace the clunky phrase, “the kids I babysit.” The hosts try to help her find one. “Charges”? “Child associates”? “Padawans”?
This week's Slang This! contestant, a professor of medieval history at the University of Santa Cruz, tries to guess the meaning of the slang terms quizzam and snirt.
A native speaker of Spanish has a hard time with prepositions in English. Why do we say that someone's “on my mind” but “in my heart”?
A listener in York, England wonders about the word grockles, a derogatory term for tourists.
On an earlier episode we talked about regional differences involving the words dinner and supper, prompting a whole smorgasbord of responses. Grant reads a few of them on the air.
If you're still wondering about how far back in time you could go and still understand the English spoken then, check out these links:
An NPR report in which host Robert Siegel gets a lesson in pronouncing Shakespeare, based on David Crystal's research for London's Globe Theatre.
Grant & Martha:
Re: "squeejawed", my father, born in 1910 in Mosinee, Wisconsin, used the term "gee-jawed" in a similar manner. As a driver of teams of animals, he would use "gee" to turn right and "haw" to turn left. I have no specific knowlege of the potential relationships, but the phonetic, conceptual and regional connections seem to close to be coincidental.
Hi, James -- Yes, Chubby Checker used those too! Check out these lyrics.
I don't think it's connected to "squeejawed," though.
"I'm going to beat you like a redheaded step-child."
I've never heard that particular phrase using redheaded step-child, but a couple years ago I worked at Books-A-Million (a bookstore chain in the south). The store I worked at was one of the oldest in the district, and it showed: dirty carpet, broken cabinets, mismatching bookshelves, etc. The location was once a hot spot for consumerism so it got a lot of business, but after a while, most shoppers bypassed the area to go to the newer, more recent shopping meccas. A co-worker once described our store as the "redheaded step-child of Books-A-Million." I'd never heard of anything ignored referred to as a redheaded step-child, but I immediately understood the reference and thought it quite witty. Think about the Brady Bunch: if Mr. Brady had three boys and one redheaded girl, she would kind of be the odd one out out of Carol's "three lovely girls with hair of gold like their mother."
For crooked items (e.g. when hanging a painting) I would often have used "skew-wiff" in England, but in Scotland I favour "squint". If something I've made (drawn, cooked, etc) turns out all askew I would most likely call it "wonky".
I had assumed the word "grockle" was much older than the 60s. My Mum (from Devon) used it particularly for "grockle shops" which sold little of interest to locals: mostly buckets and spades, postcards, etc.
I would also like a better word for kids that you babysit. I did like "sittee" above, except that it sounds too much like "settee" (sofa). I guess you could use the expanded version: Babysitter -> Babysittee. Meh.
There is one reference that was not brought out in the discussion about step-child and lost birth-rights would be that of a Red-head in the bible, Esau.
24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.
As the events unfold, Easu gave away his birth-right for a meal, and lost his father's blessings (inheritance) through deception by the younger brother.
This reference could give reason for such a bad rep upon red-heads, though undeserving.
And more British TV gingerness.
I recall the sitcom "Game On". Here's an extract from the Wikipedia entry:
# Matthew Malone (Ben Chaplin for the first series, subsequently Neil Stuke) – terminally agoraphobic and slightly insane. He could never leave the flat but always thought of himself as a cool guy; he had a surfboard despite his condition. Loved the words "tosser" and "double hard bastard" and in an ongoing gag throughout the entire series would mock his flatmate Martin for being ginger. The 'second Matt', Neil Stuke, actually almost won the role in the first series, just losing out to Ben Chaplin. When Chaplin left, the producers gave Stuke the part. # Mandy Wilkins (Samantha Janus) – ambitious career girl who finds herself going nowhere except to bed with an endless stream of men (northern by preference).
# Martin Henson (Matthew Cottle) – a tangerine haired banker without attitude, Matthew's slave and source of entertainment.
Matt would usually call Martin a "ginger-headed tosser".
I think that a babysitter (or caregiver) who has developed a true family bond should consider the children "para-spawn" (or "feremeiparvulus" coming from the latin fere mei parvulus or "almost my kids") and she should be "para-parentus."
I also think that I am VERY prejudiced toward ginger women. Almost every man I know agrees with me that red hair gives an automatic three point bump in the man-law 1 to 10 beauty scale.
Wow -- lots to respond to here…
Thanks for posting those, Marc. I especially like "I am Ginger!"
Gemma, I like "wonky" as well. And love the term "grockle shop," which is a new one on me.
David, yes, the Esau story is another possible explanation floating around out there, but the truth is that as happens all too often, we just don't know the answer for sure. (I remember my mother the Sunday School teacher getting a big kick out of the King James version, which asserts that "Esau was an hairy man.")
And I grew up hearing it as "screwjawed."
I grew up mostly in Wisconsin; my parents were from Iowa. I really don't recall whether I read the word somewhere, heard it used by a family member, or heard it from school friends.
James D. Huycke said:
Grant & Martha:
Re: “squeejawed”, my father, born in 1910 in Mosinee, Wisconsin, used the term “gee-jawed” in a similar manner. As a driver of teams of animals, he would use “gee” to turn right and “haw” to turn left. I have no specific knowlege of the potential relationships, but the phonetic, conceptual and regional connections seem to close to be coincidental.
I really enjoyed the question about the babysitter / child relationship. I would agree that another word group is needed and I had a similar idea to a prior poster: put the word "care" with the relationship. One, we need a word that kids can use to express their relationship with a babysitter. (What 9-year-old wants to admit that they have a babysitter?) Second, there is no emotion in an employee / charge relationship, but many, many babysitters have a close to familial relationship with charges. The word (going both directions) needs to convey some emotion.
I believe that you could put "care" with a variety of familial relationships and get a word with emotional impact. As a babysitter, I could be a care-parent, or even better a care-mom or a care-dad. My charges could be my care-children or my care-child, or even more affectionately, my care-son or care-daughter. In other words, I am using the prefix "care" in a similar way to which I might use the prefix "grand", "step", or "foster". Plus, I think there would be little confusion in hearing the term care-parent or care-child… it sounds like what is it.
Works for me. What do you think?
I once used the expression "the whole nine yards" with a coworker some years back. She was from Boston (or thereabouts) and she thought I had it wrong. She said it was "the whole ten yards" as that is how far you must advance the ball in American football to get a first down. I had never heard that version before.
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