Starting this year, Scripps National Spelling Bee contestants not only have to spell words correctly. A controversial new rule means they’ll have to answer vocabulary questions, too. Also, when it comes to reading text, do you prefer “paper” or “plastic”? Some research suggests that comprehension is slightly better when you read offline instead of on a screen. And the term winkle out, plus bike slang, the military origin of “I’ve got your six,” why the word awfully isn’t awful, and where you’ll find onion snow.

This episode first aired May 10, 2013.

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 New Spelling Bee Rules
The Scripps National Spelling Bee, long beloved for its youngsters stammering out words like appoggiatura, is about to change this year, when they’re also forced to define words like appoggiatura. Officials added two rounds of computerized vocabulary tests to the early rounds of the tournament. In some circles, though, this new rule spells C-O-N-T-R-O-V-E-R-SY.

 Got Your Six Origin
If someone’s got your six, it means they’ve got your back. This expression comes from the placement of numbers on an analog clock, and appears to have originated with military pilots.

 Half a Hole
Is there such thing as a half a hole? Most holes are whole holes, but even half holes are whole holes, if you think about it. In any case, it’s a fun conundrum, sort of like asking someone if they’re asleep. Children’s book author Robert McCloskey had some fun with a similar idea in a little ditty in one of his Homer Price stories.

Michel de Montaigne once wrote, “A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.” This is a classic example of chiasmus, or a reversal of clauses that together make a larger point.

 Initia-rithmetic Game
Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska takes a break from his music career to bring us a game called Initia-rithmetic. For example, if he says there are 4 P’s depicted on M.R., what do those initials stand for? The answer to that one is, you might say, monumental.

 Bike Shop Slang
Lesley Tweedie from Chicago, Illinois, owns a bike shop, and shares some slang from her workplace. A boomerang bike is one of those bikes that goes out the door and comes back 20 minutes later for another repair. JRA refers to those instances when someone was just riding along when something broke down. And a bikeochondriac is someone who comes in claiming there’s something wrong with it, but the wrench (a bike mechanic) just can’t find the problem.

 Sore Finger
When someone’s fly is down, do you say XYZ for “Examine your zipper”? For a change of pace, you might try another euphemistic expression used the Southern United States and South Midlands: Is your finger sore? As in, Is your finger too sore to zip up your pants?

 Draft and Draught
What Americans call a cold draft, the British call a cold draught. Noah Webster deserves most of the responsibility for changing the British spelling. Regardless of how they’re spelled, both words rhyme with “daft,” not “drought.”

 Onion Snow
In parts of Pennsylvania, a late-spring dusting of light snow is called onion snow. It’s a reference to the way little green onion shoots are poking through the white.

 E-Reader Comprehension
Is an iPad just a magazine that doesn’t work? The now-classic video of a child thumbing over a magazine to no effect comes to mind given a recent article in Scientific American about our comprehension of things read on e-readers as opposed to printed books. As it turns out, we retain slightly more when reading a real book.

 Awfully Isn’t Awful
Awfully might seem like an awful choice for a positive adverb, as in awfully talented, but it makes sense given the history of awful. Once intended to mean “filled with awe,” it’s now a general intensifier. The process of semantic weakening has meant that awfully, along with terribly and horribly, has become synonymous with the word very. Actually, the word very went through a similar process. Very derives from Latin verus, “true,” and is cognate with verify.

Amber from Berlin, New Hampshire, works in a prison, and wants to know why those ominous double sets of prison doors are called by the feminine-sounding name sallyport. Going back to the 1600s, a sallyport was a fortified entrance to a military structure. The name comes from Latin salire, meaning “to go out” or “to leave.”

 Winkle it Out
If something needs to be carefully extracted, you’ll want to winkle it out. This Britishism comes from winkles, those edible snails that must be gingerly pulled out of their shells.

 Ish and Ishpee
Keep the ishpee out of your mouth. One caller’s parents used to shout “Ishpee!” when he or his siblings would try and eat dirt, marbles, or whatever they found on the floor. He wonders if this expression is unique to his family. It may be related to the exclamation “Ish!”, which is used particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, when encountering something really disgusting. Ish may derive from similar-sounding words expressions of disgust from Scandinavian languages.

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

Photo by striderp64. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Broadcast

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Inland Emperor Greyboy Allstars Inland Emperor Knowledge Room Recordings
Trashtruck Greyboy Allstars Inland Emperor Knowledge Room Recordings
Chalupa Jungle Fire Fire Walker / Chalupa Colemine Records
Bomb Pop Greyboy Allstars Inland Emperor Knowledge Room Recordings
Multiplier Greyboy Allstars Inland Emperor Knowledge Room Recordings
Planet of the Superkids Greyboy Allstars A Town Called Earth Greyboy Records
Flight To St. Vincent Poets of Rhythm Impeach The Precedent Kajmere Sound Recordings
Fire Walker Jungle Fire Fire Walker / Chalupa Colemine Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

2 Responses

  1. EmmettRedd says:

    Concerning ‘Sore Finger’, I have not heard it in southwest Missouri. ‘Roun here, ‘your barn door is open’ or ‘close your barn door before your horse (or mule) gets out’. My nearly 88-year old dad says his mule would have to get up first.

  2. Heimhenge says:

    I’ll second “Your barn door is open.” Grew up in Wisconsin, and there were a lot of barns in that state, so no surprise. Less common was “Can you feel the breeze?” but I didn’t hear that too much until I got into college (same state). Maybe a college euphemism motivated by a desire to rise above the common? Haven’t heard the Arizonan equivalent since I moved here in 78, and that’s probably because by then I’d learned to be more diligent about checking my barn door.  :)