There are nearly 7,000 languages in the world today, and by some estimates, they’re dying off at the rate of one every week. What’s lost when a language dies? Martha and Grant discuss that question and efforts to record some endangered languages before they die out completely.

This episode originally aired February 16, 2008.

Listen here:

Download the MP3 here (23.4MB).

Discuss this episode here.

A caller named Holly confesses that there’s a word that practically makes her break out in hives every time she hears it. Grant assures her she’s not alone in her aversion to the word—Holly, cover your eyes—moist. Grant and Martha discuss the psychological aversion some people have to certain common terms. Is there a word that makes you shudder in disgust? Unload in our discussion forum.

An Indianapolis woman calls to say she a great first date with a doctor, but was horrified to hear him suggest they meet at an expresso shop. She asks for dating advice: Should she correct the guy, keep quiet about this mispronunciation, or just hope he never orders espresso again? Would you go out on a second date with someone who orders a cup of EX-presso?

A California man says that he thinks he is increasingly hearing locutions like “50 is the new 30″ and “pink is the new black” and “blogs are the new resumé.” He’s curious about the origin of this X is the new Y formula.

You may recall earnestly singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire. But a caller observes that the title of this folk song has taken on a new, more negative meaning. Grant and Martha discuss the new connotations of “Kumbaya,” especially as used in politically conservative circles.

Puzzle Guy Greg Pliska presents a puzzle about William Snakespeare—you know, the great playwright whose works are just one letter different from those of his better-known fellow writer, William Shakespeare. It was Snakespeare, for example, who wrote that gripping prison drama, “Romeo and Joliet.”

Grant talks about a Jack Hitt article on dying languages in the New York Times, which points out that sometimes “the last living speaker” of a language…isn’t.

A caller named Brian wonders whether a co-worker was right to correct him for saying that something minor was “of tertiary concern.” Does tertiary literally mean third, or can it be used to mean more generally peripheral or not so important?

A Milwaukee man is mystified about the use of the word neé in his grandmother’s obituary.

A “Slang This!” contestant guesses at the meaning of the slang terms faux po and pole tax.

A caller is curious about the colloquial expression it has a catch in its getalong. She used it to describe the family’s faulty car. Her husband complained the phrase was too imprecise. Grant and Martha discuss this and similar expressions, like hitch in its getalong and hitch in its giddyup.

A California caller is puzzling over the expression have your cake and eat it, too. Shouldn’t it be “eat your cake and have it, too”?

Grant tells the story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who revived the use of Hebrew outside of religious contexts. In 1850, no one spoke Hebrew as an everyday household language; now it’s spoken by more than 5 million people.

That’s all until next week! May your getalong keep getting along.

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38 Responses

  1. Allan J. W. says:

    Very interesting to hear a person have such an intense aversion to ‘moist’ – and a Facebook group? WOW.

    Funny thing is my favorite words are ‘moist‘ and ‘nubbin‘. I’m not a big fan of ‘moister’ – I’ll say ‘more moist’. It’s a sound thing for me.

    Maybe it’s like black licorice which I also love. Maybe ‘moist’ is a word that polarizes people. Hmmmm.

  2. That was my reaction, Allan. Wow!

    Re “moister” vs. “more moist,” the sound thing is true for a lot of one-syllable words. Not to mention that “moister” just lends itself to too many bad puns. (Like, for example, “Smile when you say that, Moister!”)

  3. Al Lefcourt says:

    About Hebrew as a revived language:

    You’ve almost got it right. It’s not just that Hebrew was not spoken in the home “for millennia” before 1948, Hebrew was not spoken outside of Temple and prayer EVER before 1948, other than a few words that escaped into Yiddish (such as mishpacha – family) and presumably Ladino. Ancient “Hebrews” spoke Aramaic at home.

    There was some controversy about adopting Hebrew as the language of Israel because of this, with Orthodox Jews complaining about the dilution of the Holiness of the tongue by taking it out of the Temple.

    The dialect of Hebrew chosen was the Sephardic dialect, whose pronunciations differ slightly from the Ashkenasi dialect, causing immigrants from Europe to adapt to the local variety.

    Ladino is to Spanish what Yiddish is to German. Knowing what we know about Spanish Jews, it is not surprising that there are only a handful of Ladino speakers left – literally.

    My own prediction is that with Hebrew being spoken in Israel, Yiddish may well go the way of Ladino in a few generations, despite its deep cultural roots.

    But I am by no means a real expert on this. Talk to your local Rabbi.

  4. Danielle says:

    The wonderful and unfortunately defunct series “Dead Like Me” had a character with an aversion to the word “moist” also. I’d never heard of that phobia(?) before I saw the show. Now I find it’s a world-wide phenomenon. Who knew?

  5. Our colleagues at the blog Language Log have done a good bit of information-gathering about the phenomenon of “word aversion,” including aversion to “moist.” See their work here.

    Here’s where you can join the Facebook group I HATE the word MOIST.

  6. Felix the Black Cat says:

    I’m fine with the word “moist,” but, for reasons I can’t really explain, I can’t stand the word “skills.” It could be that I just don’t like the sound of it, or, since I started realizing I hated this word in high school, it might’ve been because of all those people constantly telling us how this or that would give you some sort of “skills” for college or the workplace, and they seemed to have some sort of fetish for that word, so perhaps it stems from that overuse, too. I remember wanting to scream, “What’s wrong with something like ‘talents’ or ‘abilities’?!” To this day, I can literally tolerate fingernails on a chalkboard much more easily than hearing the word “skills.” [Shudder]

    Grant Barrett said:

    Our colleagues at the blog Language Log have done a good bit of information-gathering about the phenomenon of “word aversion,” including aversion to “moist.” See their work here.

    Here’s where you can join the Facebook group I HATE the word MOIST.


  7. thisjessythere says:

    I had a friend who not only said “eXpresso”, but also “supposubly”, “li-berry”, and wrote the word “our” as “are”.
    “Are House, is a very very very fine House.”
    She was a friend of convenience back at that age when preferring the combination of Peanut Butter and Bannannas was enough to be BFF (Best Friends Forever)

  8. dhenderson says:

    I heard someone say that the most obscene word in the English language is “ointment.” Say it over and over to quickly elevate the squick factor.

    Dan

  9. Lizz says:

    I’m quite alright with “moist” as well, and I have an “I can’t stand hearing that word” word as well. Mine is “body.” It just seems like a dirty word to me. I cringe every time I hear it, no matter the context!

    Felix the Black Cat said:

    I’m fine with the word “moist,” but, for reasons I can’t really explain, I can’t stand the word “skills.” I remember wanting to scream, “What’s wrong with something like talents’ or abilities’?!” To this day, I can literally tolerate fingernails on a chalkboard much more easily than hearing the word “skills.” [Shudder]

  10. Anne says:

    “Expresso” makes me sad on the inside too! Although I would try to talk myself out of holding it against an otherwise reasonable person. It’s not like he chronically confuses their and they’re, which is definitely reason to end a relationship!

    Also- I was interested in the “have your cake and eat it too” question. I have heard that the word “have” is meant in the sense of “eat”, as in “I am going to have pizza for lunch” (which is a sense of that word that we use all the time but would probably never think of abstractly). Therefore, the saying means that you can’t eat your cake, and eat it too…

    Not sure if that interpretation has any general currency.

  11. Anne said:

    I was interested in the “have your cake and eat it too” question. I have heard that the word “have” is meant in the sense of “eat”, as in “I am going to have pizza for lunch” (which is a sense of that word that we use all the time but would probably never think of abstractly). Therefore, the saying means that you can’t eat your cake, and eat it tooNot sure if that interpretation has any general currency.

    The use of “have” in the saying doesn’t simply mean “possess” or “eat.” It means “to keep (unchanged or unharmed).” It means to keep your cake in perfect uncut, uneaten condition as well as to eat it and enjoy its flavor—which, of course, is impossible. You can only do one or the other.

    You can see this in one of the variants cited by the Oxford English Dictionary from 1815: “Our own government also…having got their cake, want both to eat it and keep it.”

  12. dilettante says:

    Anne said:

    Also- I was interested in the “have your cake and eat it too” question. I have heard that the word “have” is meant in the sense of “eat”

    Not sure if that interpretation has any general currency.


    I can’t speak to currency, but I remember as a child understanding “have” as “eat” and being puzzled by “have your cake and eat it too.”

  13. dilettante says:

    “X is the new Y” is a phrase form known as a snowclone. (Don’t recall if you’ve discussed these before.)

    Here’s a diagram of “X is the new Y” phrases that was done in 2005 and another from 2007.

  14. Yep, we’ve mentioned snowclones quite a few times.

  15. Bill Hinchberger says:

    I once wrote about a linguist who is recording the remnants of dying languages in the Amazon. He is also trying to work back to the original mother language of the region. The piece first appeared in Science magazine. See http://www.brazilmax.com/news.cfm/tborigem/pl_amazon/id/13.

  16. Mike S says:

    As soon as I heard Grant’s spelling of faux-po, I guessed what it was, even before Grant gave the choices. Being a German speaker, what I heard before Grant spelled the word was “Vopo” (short for Volkspolizei and pronounced “fo-po”). The Vopo was the state police force in the old German Democratic Republic and an expression still recognized by most Germans. A logical German pun to denote a fake policeman would be fauxpo. Could it be that this expression originated in Germany?

  17. It’s possible, Mike, but if there is a relationship, “Vopo” isn’t the origin of “po-po” or “faux-po.” The chain of slang is pretty clear here: po-po, meaning “police” and from which faux-po is derived, is slang dating to at least as early as 1990. That’s the year of German reunification. As far as I can tell, “faux-po” didn’t appear until last year.

    Separate co-creation of a clipping of “police” into “po” is the most likely explanation. There’s no evidence in the written record that I can find that supports “Vopo” as having been the father to “po-po” or “faux-po.” It may have come first but that is by no means sufficient to call it the source of the latter two slang terms. “Po-po” appears to have been coined independently from “Vopo” and first appears in the language of young black men in California.

    None of the military slang books (or general slang books, even) that I have include “Vo Po” or “VOPO” or “vopo,” which suggests that it was not common language to American soldiers and would mean that transmission back stateside would be very difficult, if not impossible. I do find it on the Internet and in a few books, but it is almost exclusively used by Germans or English-speakers discussing Germans who used the term.

  18. lister says:

    To the doctor who went on the date with that woman from Indianapolis:

    Lucky you! Can you imagine? If you hadn’t mispronounced “espresso”, you might have even married someone that petty and controlling. Whew! You dodged that bullet!

    Some people don’t understand that most relationships require compromise. In this online era, people think they can just keep clicking through personal ads and find Mr. or Ms. 100%. Life ain’t like that (yeah, I said ain’t, oh yeah I did). This doctor feller could have been wonderful in so many other ways. His inability to pronounce one particular word in no way impacts his capacity to love and care for another human being. And which is more important in the long run?

    I was a little disappointed in Martha for not pointing this out. Grant seemed to get it (kinda sorta).

    So Doc, if this woman calls back to invite you on a second date so she can put you through your paces and make you run some grammar gauntlet, please take my advice:

    RUN… AWAY!!

  19. Grammar Gauntlet! I may have to steal that, lister!

    Well, I think the caller had a sense of humor about the whole thing, and I doubt she’d drop such a seemingly fine catch as that fellow unless there were some other issues. But I do think Grant zeroed in on the most important point, which was that the pronunciation question might be an opportunity for her to explore how the guy responds to being challenged.

    I don’t think any single word should be some kind of make-or-break dating shibboleth. Unless, of course, you belong to that anti-moist Facebook group.

  20. lister says:

    Steal away!

    Ya know, Martha, I didn’t hear any humor in that caller’s voice. I think her attitude really put a bee in my giddyup, that’s for sure.

    And I think the anti-moisters have an real physiological reaction to that word. Whether it’s some form of synesthesia or something akin to that lady who went into seizures whenever she heard Mary Hart’s voice on TV, I don’t think there’s anything they could ever do to change their situation.

    The lady from Indianapolis just needed to chillax and it all could have worked out fine. It might have even been something they could laugh about as a couple in years to come.

    Thanks for your wonderful show!

  21. Glenn Peters says:

    I was cringing listening to your Slang This! contestant for this week. Someone needs to teach the him not to mumble so much! And, most importantly, he should learn not to write about himself in the third person.

    As for people misusing words — not a pronunciation thing, but I had a friend from work that was always using “rugged” to mean “tired”. After about a year of this, at one point he said the word and I looked up in amazement and exclaimed, “Hey, you used it correctly!”

    I was meaning to post some Snakespeare titles, but since I’m just getting over being ill, and I just saw “Snow Angels” in the theater, perhaps I should pass on the one title coming to mind.

  22. strehlow says:

    When I was growing up, my mother referred to my butt as a “po-po.” That being the place where the “lumpies” come from.

    “Expresso” bugs me too, but I suspect I might have a couple words that I chronically mispronounce, but no one has called me on them. One of my son’s PCA’s says “liberry” too. As well as mixing up some pronouns, I just can’t remember which right now. I just hope my son doesn’t catch on to them. He has autism, and has a very curious, intense, relationship with words. He is playful with them too. Once when he was 4 or 5, he read the word “notice” as “note-ice.” When we corrected him (note-iss), he pondered it for a while, then started rattling off “iss-rink, iss-hockey, iss-cube” and a few other similar constructions. Then giggled.

  23. shorthairedg says:

    Did anyone else think “Nest Side Story” as the answer to one of the Snakespeare quiz questions before they heard “West Side Stork?”

  24. strehlow — “po-po” and “lumpies”? Nice.

    Must be fascinating to watch your son play with words that way!

  25. shorthairedg – “Nest Side Story” definitely works for me! Let’s see if Mr. Pliska will allow it . . .

  26. Puzzle Guy says:

    shorthairedg said:

    Did anyone else think “Nest Side Story” as the answer to one of the Snakespeare quiz questions before they heard “West Side Stork?”


    Ooh…I like that. I wonder if there’s yet a third option, changing a letter in “Side”?

    Good alternate, shorthairedg – or can I call you shorthaired, for short?

    Puzzle Guy

  27. LeoKulonosen says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    A caller is curious about the colloquial expression “it has a catch
    in its getalong.” She used it to describe the family’s
    faulty car. Her husband complained the phrase was too imprecise. Grant
    and Martha discuss this and similar expressions, like “hitch in its getalong”
    and “hitch in its giddyup.”


    This really rang a bell with me. I once worked with a woman who
    came from the Caribbean who once asked me, “Could I show her how to
    snatch a report out of the computer.” I remember being startled by her
    phrasing thinking, “What an expressive concept!” Like I could reach
    into a computer somehow and grab a report. Being a programmer, I knew
    that was very far away from what it took to produce a report.

    My only response was, “How poetic!”

  28. Monica Sandor says:

    “A Milwaukee man is mystified about the use of the word “neé” in his grandmother’s obituary.”

    A very picky point: the acute accent should be on the first e: née.
    The logic behind this is of course that né is the past participle/adjective of the French verb natre, and the extra “e” is added on for the feminine form. One never rarely sees “né” used in this sense in referene to man, since they don’t generally change their names upon marriage – though I have seen it used to give the real name of someone know under a stage/pen name.

    A related faux-pas that grates on me is when people say “divorcée” with the double e even when they refer to a man. Of course “divorcé” also exists and is the masculine form.

  29. Monica Sandor says:

    I have a funny anecdote about “espresso”. It works the other way as well: once while I was travelling by overnight train from Munich to Rome, we pulled in to some northern Italian station at the crack of dawn. Half awake, I heard a loudspeaker on the platform announcing “Espresso”, and I thought that some enterprising soul was selling espresso (vendors often do run alongside trains stopped in the station hawking their wares). It turns out, they were simply announcing the imminent departure of our train, the “espresso da Roma”.

    In Italian, the term for an express train is therefore the same as for the wonderful coffee (in Italy you don’t even need to specify you want espresso – if you simply order coffee, it’s what you get. You may need to specify if you want a lungo (long), ristretto (short), macchiato (with a little frothy milk), caffè latte (lots of milk), etc.)

  30. erling says:

    An Indianapolis woman calls to say she a great first date with a doctor, but was horrified to hear him suggest they meet at an “expresso” shop. She asks for dating advice: Should she correct the guy, keep quiet about this mispronunciation, or just hope he never orders espresso again? Would you go out on a second date with someone who orders a cup of “EX-presso”?

    In my travels in Europe, and particularly in France, I have heard and seen this word. The French, when not simply refering to this drink as “café” tend to say and even write in menus “expresso”. In a way, this makes sense when thinking about the possible origin of the work “to press out”? (I’m guessing here…) from the latin “ex”. Could this be a possible variation of the word?

  31. Wordsmith says:

    I think so.
    People often get bugged about others saying “expresso” instead of “espresso”, without really knowing that “x” is often rendered “ss” (or “s”) in Italian: viz., “sesso” (sex), “esultare” (exult), “lassativo” (laxative), etc. This is due to assimilation; two conjunct consonants “agreeing” (if you will) on a single phoneme; in this case /s/ (or /z/).
    Yes, it ought to be pronounced “espresso”, but why is perhaps just as important. When in Rome

  32. Jim Carroll says:

    I agree that “Expresso” is not now a word.

    However, I propose that it be considered as a potential new entry in our lexicon.

    “Espresso” should continue with its present definition, and should connote espresso made in the traditional way, with a burr grinder, a tamper, steam, a knock-box, and all the like accoutrements.

    “Expresso” should connote “espresso” made using one of any number of “short cuts”, including pre-ground “Pods”, “all-in-one super-automatic” coffee machines, and possibly should connote even “espresso” ordered at a drive-through facility.

    What do members of the assembled multitude think?

    I’ll take my answer off the air

  33. Martin Watts says:

    Puzzle Guy said:

    shorthairedg said:

    Did anyone else think “Nest Side Story” as the answer to one of the Snakespeare quiz questions before they heard “West Side Stork?”


    OohI like that. I wonder if there’s yet a third option, changing a letter in “Side”?

    Good alternate, shorthairedg – or can I call you shorthaired, for short?

    Puzzle Guy


    The birdwatchers observing this could be part of the “West Hide Story”.

  34. Martin Watts says:

    Allan J. W. said:

    Very interesting to hear a person have such an intense aversion to moist’ – and a Facebook group? WOW.

    Funny thing is my favorite words are moist and nubbin. I’m not a big fan of moister’ – I’ll say more moist’. It’s a sound thing for me.

    Maybe it’s like black licorice which I also love. Maybe moist’ is a word that polarizes people. Hmmmm.


    She might not like two of Terry Pratchett’s novels, “Going Postal” and “Making Money”, with their main character M von Lipwig.

  35. EmmieKae says:

    lister said:

    Steal away!

    Ya know, Martha, I didn’t hear any humor in that caller’s voice. I think her attitude really put a bee in my giddyup, that’s for sure.

    And I think the anti-moisters have an real physiological reaction to that word. Whether it’s some form of synesthesia or something akin to that lady who went into seizures whenever she heard Mary Hart’s voice on TV, I don’t think there’s anything they could ever do to change their situation.

    The lady from Indianapolis just needed to chillax and it all could have worked out fine. It might have even been something they could laugh about as a couple in years to come.

    Thanks for your wonderful show!


  36. EmmieKae says:

    To Lister:

    I have to, at least slightly, disagree with you about the use of a word like “Expresso” on a first date. I think that frequent slip-ups such as this point to a much larger problem, that could certainly play a large role in a relationship: a general lack of attention to detail. I have to admit that “expresso” especially gets under my skin, but it is really the kind of person that can repeatedly mispronounce words without ever taking the time or putting in the effort to learn the proper way. So, I would agree with you that one minor slip-up is no reason to go running for the hills…BUT, I would see numerous “slip-ups” as a sign of bigger things to come!!

  37. hyunwoosun says:

    I LOVED the Snakespeare quizzes!! Haha. Thanks!

  38. tromboniator says:

    I know I’m coming into this more than a year and a half late, but just in case anybody else show up here:

    Particularly where language is concerned, people are very quick to criticize others, to say that what is strange to them is wrong. I’m guilty of this myself, and I’m trying to break myself of it. Dear friends, please check before you declare your righteousness. Expresso is a variant of espresso, according to (blast, I forgot to count) at least seven or eight online dictionaries. The first shops to dispense the beverage in the town that I grew up, back in the 50s, had neon signs which proclaimed EXPRESSO. I remember being shocked the first time I saw espresso, sure that someone had wasted money on a misspelled sign.

    That poor doctor wasn’t wrong or guilty of inattention; he was just in the minority. Last I checked, that’s not a crime.

    Peter

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