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That Old-Book Smell
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2013/09/30
10:25am
San Diego, California
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You walk into a used bookstore, or pull down an old volume at the library, and there it is: The smell of old books. If you detect notes of vanilla in that intoxicating scent, there's a reason. Also, why some people think the word awesome is overused, why Comic Sans is a font almost universally reviled, and the origin of the phrase around Robin Hood's barn. Plus, chuck it vs. chunk it, sharing out, the dummy it, intellectual jokes, and the answers some parents give when a kid asks one too many questions. As in, "Daddy, what's that?" "Why, it's a wiggly-woggler for grinding smoke!"

This episode first aired September 28, 2013.

Download the MP3.

Nothing like that old-book smell. And if you open up an old volume and think you detect notes of vanilla, there's a good reason. That intoxicating scent is the result of lignin, a chemical compound in plants used for making paper. It has a molecular structure similar to that of vanilla.

"Grandpa, what's that?" A caller says that when she asked her grandfather one too many questions, he'd give her the fanciful answer, "That's a dingbat off of a wiffem dilly that you grind smoke with." It's one of several things parents say to deflect questions from inquisitive children. Similar phrases include a wigwam for a water-windmill for grinding smoke, a weegee for grinding smoke, and a wiggly-woggler for grinding smoke.

Is there a word for a word that doesn't fit its own definition? For example, verb is a noun, and monosyllabic is polysyllabic. Come to think of it, why is it so hard to remember how to spell mnemonic?

A truck driver in Tucson, Arizona, has a dispute with her boyfriend: If you toss something out, do you chuck it or chunk it?

"Is it solipsistic in here or is it just me?" That's one answer to the question: "What's the most intellectual joke you know?"

Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a quiz with punning clues from some of the nation's top crossword-puzzle constructors.

Do the verb phrases share out and explain out have a special, nuanced meaning in the worlds of business and education? Or are they jargon to be avoided?

A Vermont caller feels the word awesome is overused to the point of being almost meaningless. There's a term for that. It's called semantic weakening.

Listener Jennifer Bragg writes: "In our home, we call an extra-strong coffee confesso. One cup and you can't stop talking."

A caller originally from South Florida grew up calling the screened-in patio area behind her house a lanai, but now that she lives in Indianapolis, she hears this structure called breezeway. The word lanai originated in Hawaii, and may have been popularized in Florida by real estate developers.

The origin of the phrase in the offing is nautical. The offing is the part of the ocean that one can see from shore, so if something's in the offing, it's not that far away.

Why does everyone hate the Comic Sans? Well, maybe not everyone, but a lot of people dislike it. In fact, graphic designer David Cadavy gave a whole Ignite Chicago talk on the topic.

In parts of the American South, a can of creasies is a can of watercress salad, also known as salad greens.

A Quebec listener asks: In the phrases it's a girl, or it's raining, what exactly is the it here? It's called the weather it or the dummy it, and it serves a placeholder inserted to make the sentence function grammatically.

Polyglots sometimes experience faulty language selection, accidentally reaching for words from a language different from the one they're speaking. Listener Phoebe Liu of Seattle grew up speaking Chinese, then learned English, and studied Japanese in college. She says that physically embodying stereotypical speakers of each language when speaking helps her keep the languages straight.

If you say they went all the way around Robin's barn, it means they took a long, circuitous route. A San Antonio, Texas, listener wants to know: Who is Robin and why did he build his barn in such an inconvenient place? It's probably a reference to Robin Hood, the legendary character who kept the riches he stole in Sherwood Forest — a very big "barn" indeed.

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

Photo by Tom Maisey. Used under a Creative Commons license.

2013/10/02
2:02pm
Christopher Murray
Ireland
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On semantic weakening: How much simpler it would have been for the USA and its allies invading Iraq looking for WMD if "Weapon of mass destruction" meant the same then as it does now. The suspect in the Boston bombings has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction, which in that case was a conventional bomb, and Iraq must have possessed some of them.

On Comic Sans: Why is "Sans" pronounced like a plural of "San" instead of the way I pronounce it as a French word? It is a sans serif font (without serifs), so it must be the French word.

2013/10/02
2:42pm
Glenn
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I pronounce the full phrase sans serif just as you describe Comic Sans -- as American as San Francisco and Sandwiches.

2013/10/03
12:50am
RobertB
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The article is good reading but the thesis on hate comic sans is incredibly vague and incredible. The author traces its genesis to Microsoft dot matrix texts, and seems to imply the one was all the fonts available to the early self publishers, who in turn gave comic sans a bad name with their poor quality productions.  But what must have happened in history was nearly instantly before anyone noticed anything all the fonts as of today came on line all at once so that there was no special prejudice about any font over another whatsoever, so any hate must be personal tastes alone.

2013/10/03
3:45am
tromboniator
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Christopher Murray said

On Comic Sans: Why is "Sans" pronounced like a plural of "San" instead of the way I pronounce it as a French word? It is a sans serif font (without serifs), so it must be the French word.

Sans has been used in English for more than 600 years, and lost the French pronunciation long, long ago.

 

Peter

 

2013/10/03
6:17am
RobertB
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In public it's never used except humorously for 'without,'  like 'moi' humorously for 'me.'  Am I wrong?

2013/10/03
11:53am
Gwillim
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> Is there a word for a word that doesn’t fit its own definition?

Yes: heterological (see Grelling's Paradox). It's sometimes written heterologous.

2013/10/03
12:29pm
Christopher Murray
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tromboniator said

Sans has been used in English for more than 600 years, and lost the French pronunciation long, long ago.

 

This prompted me to check my English dictionary. Sure enough, it's there with exactly the pronunciation Grant used.

I stand corrected. Thank you.

2013/10/04
4:26am
tromboniator
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You're welcome, Christopher. I ask that question about French-derived words all the time.

RobertB said 
In public it's never used except humorously for 'without,'  like 'moi' humorously for 'me.'  Am I wrong?

"Never" may be a bit extreme. I use it (rarely), sometime humorously, and usually for effect, but generally not in the same pretentious pseudo-humility as Miss Piggy. I have used it a time or two (literally) in all seriousness, but a) you can't judge general cases by what I might do; and b) the company in which you can get away with using it is somewhat limited. Know your audience.

2013/12/02
11:14am
james765
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Re. "Share-out"

As a Dallasite, I have to say that "share-out" is corporate jargon which has been adopted by the Dallas Independent School District. For a bit of background, DISD is one of the lowest performing public school systems in the country, in one of the wealthiest cities. It seems every year there are worse performance reports and less people interested in improving it. Having passed time as a a student in Hillcrest High School in Dallas myself, I can vouch that there are some good teachers who still have an ear for bad english, like your caller, but for decades the leadership of DISD has been atrocious and it is not a wonder that its administration has adopted this lingo.

In a broader sense, many realms of the education system (in Texas at least, I assume elsewhere as well) have adopted what I can only call corporate speak, in the Simpsons sense of the term. That is, speech which reflects the way that many corporate types are depicted in that program, as well-polished and socially-respected but ultimately uneducated and fairly thoughtless actors. I suspect that the adoption of corporate lingo in education systems may reflect the increased collusion between schools and corporations in recent years. This is also the case with public and private universities across Texas. I bring this up, what may seem like a political tangent, because it seems that the changes in the makeup of who is influencing and running schools across Texas has affected our language, and not for the better. One of my university professors commented to me once that my generation (I am 27 currently) does not know how to read well, and that we do not have a grasp of things which were the basics just a generation ago. Such as basic English. I also notice in politics a trend toward corporate language. Or perhaps another way to put it would be advertising language. You guys could do a whole show based on the changes in language affected by the poor english of advertising, and the subsequent adoption of that "more exciting" (as they would put it) lingo in both politics and education systems.

In any case, keep up the good work y'all.

(Y'all is a word. So there.)

2013/12/07
9:40am
Bob Bridges
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Gwillim said
> Is there a word for a word that doesn’t fit its own definition?

Yes: heterological (see Grelling's Paradox). It's sometimes written heterologous.

Aw, you beat me to it!  I was going to bring up Hofstadter's mention of this (though I don't think he identified it as "Grelling's paradox"), but, oh, well.

 

2013/12/07
9:55am
Bob Bridges
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Grant Barrett said
"Is it solipsistic in here or is it just me?" That's one answer to the question: "What's the most intellectual joke you know?"

LOL!  That one goes straight into my tagline file!

Grant Barrett said
Why does everyone hate the Comic Sans? Well, maybe not everyone, but a lot of people dislike it. In fact, graphic designer David Cadavy gave a whole Ignite Chicago talk on the topic.

I thought I'd detected a certain deprecation of Comic Sans, but I thought I was imagining it since I see it used frequently.  Me, I use it routinely when filling out forms on-line, eg in Word or PDF; I let the form stay in Times or whatever (<troll>not "Times Roman"</troll>), and use Comic Sans for my replies to distinguish them from the question.

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