What’s your choice for the 2011 word of the year? Grant shares some of his picks. Speaking of picks, why do football commentators seem to love the term pick-six? Also, great quotations from writers, the meaning of such Briticisms as cheeky and naff, the intentionally misspelled and mispronounced word “defulgaty” and a discussion of whether the term “ladies” is offensive. And does the insect called an earwig really crawl into people’s ears at night?

This episode first aired December 17, 2011. Listen here:

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Writers always seem to come up with brilliant quotes about writing, and why shouldn’t they? Douglas Adams has noted, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” And Gloria Steinem once quipped: “I do not like to write. I like to have written.”

What’s the difference between hand grenades and pomegranates? Not much when you think about their shape and the fact that they’re both packed tightly with small things, which is why both share a linguistic root with the word granular.

Grant offers examples from his latest words of the year list, including Crankshaft (the code name for the Osama Bin Laden), and basketbrawl, referring to the fight that broke out between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Chinese National Team.

Football, like most sports, brings its own set of idioms and jargon that ride the line between cleverness and cliche. The adjective multiple describes a player, an offense or defense, or even a whole team that has multiple threats or talents. And a pick six, one of the more exciting plays in football, is when a player makes an interception and scores a touchdown. For a more erudite take on the language of sports, David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” never fails.

Writers will appreciate this quotation from Burton Roscoe: “What no wife of a writer can understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of a window.”

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a quiz called Take-Offs. For each clue, remove the first letter of a word to get the second (or third) word in the puzzle. For example, in the first chapter of Moby Dick, Ishmael had to screw up his courage and join the crew. Or, I’ve been in the barber chair for an hour, my hair looks great, but it’s time to come up for air. Be sure to check out John’s new NPR show, Ask Me Another.

What is an earwig? Those skinny brown insects with pinchers coming out their backsides have a reputation in folklore for crawling through people’s ears and laying eggs in their skull. But really, earwigs are just simple insects that take their name from the Old English term “wicga,” meaning “insect.” The males do have one interesting anatomical feature, though.

A professional auctioneer shares some techniques for creating his mesmerizing, melodious patter. He explains that auctioneers are known as colonels, because colonels in the civil war were assigned with auctioning off captured property. And he warns to beware of so-called chandelier bidding. His final tip: Remember, at an auction, it’s cheaper to kiss somebody than to wave at them!

The 2011 words of the year list wouldn’t be complete without occupy, as in the Occupy protests that sprang up in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. And Zuccotti lung? It’s an illness that made its rounds among the camped-out protesters.

Have you ever been faced with a defugalty? This ironic misspelling and mispronunciation of difficulty popped up in a Dashiell Hammett novel, The Glass Key, in 1931. It’s often said with a tongue in the cheek, but, as in the case of the Hammett novel, it refers to the mispronunciations of the uncouth or uneducated.

Is the term “ladies” an offensive way to refer to a group of women? As a recent discussion on Ask Metafilter revealed, many interpret it as outdated, condescending, or patronizing. The hosts conclude it all depends on context.

What does cheeky mean? How about the words twee and naff? A British ex-pat says she finds it hard to convey the nuances of these adjectives to her American friends.

What’s Lady Macbeth talking about when she urges Macbeth to “screw your courage to the sticking point“? This image of mustering up bravery most likely has to do with tightening the strings of a crossbow.

If your iPhone’s Siri thinks that two meetings in one day is not bad, does that make her an optimist? Since when did cellphones start making value judgments?

Nobody likes a humblebrag. That’s when someone complains about, say, having to choose among their dozen college acceptance letters. Harris Wittles, a writer on television’s Parks and Recreation, runs the Twitter handle @Humblebrag, where he retweets those ironic complaints akin to Arianna Huffington’s tweet: “About to take off from Milan to Istanbul and none of my three blackberries are working.”

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12 Responses

  1. EmmettRedd says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    Writers will appreciate this quotation from Burton Roscoe: “What no wife of a writer can understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of a window.”

    That quote may apply to anyone with a creative bent. When I am contemplating my (even experimental) research, few would probably think I was working. However, I have learned that a computer in my lap sometimes lets me think and also lets me appear to work.

    Emmett

  2. Ron Draney says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    Writers always seem to come up with brilliant quotes about writing, and why shouldn’t they? Douglas Adams has noted, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

    That reminded me of a quote about another sort of writing. When a young composer asked Rossini for advice on when to compose an overture, he replied:

    Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair out. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty…. I composed the overture to Otello in a little room in the Barbaja Palace where the baldest and fiercest of directors had forcibly locked me up with a lone plate of spaghetti and the threat that I would not be allowed to leave the room alive until I had written the last note

  3. ablestmage says:

    As for a synonym of cheeky I would use on the sly to describe that type of person. Someone who stirs up trouble with the intention of humor, or being argumentative just to loosen someone up, someone trying to break up the seriousness or strict, traditional nature of something by daring an oddball feat to mix things up, I would describe as on the sly..

    As for twee, perhaps ultra-feminine?

    As for the sticking point, as someone who took Archery in college, there’s a point at which you draw back a simple/recurve bow to the point where you’re not straining to pull it back as much as you did for the rest of the draw, and there is a little point that you can just sense is just far enough and it seemingly sticks in place, feeling like the proper point to stop drawing back that you can feel in a tactile sense. As far as “screwing up” your courage “to the sticking point,” seems to me as to provoke or gather up your courage to the point at which it carries its own momentum and results in action upon it, almost akin to the point at which you stop drinking and find yourself suitably drunk, or the point at which you find yourself in such dire straits that you’re willing to accept any job at all, discarding your previous standards against burger flipping or washing dishes. Baldrick, the character from the British show Blackadder, in the holiday special known as Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (an interesting comedic take on the classic tale) suggests at one point that he and Blackadder “screw up their eyes” hard to wish for something..

  4. iancorey says:

    When I’m at a family wedding my nephews never fail to come to me and, before asking if they can play a game on my phone, ask me to order them a Grenade Juice. A custom I taught them years ago to pack a punch into the otherwise girly Shirley Temple.

  5. notblushing says:

    Re: humblebrag

    The term “humblebrag” doesn’t work for me.

    I have the same issue the (telephone) listener did; there isn’t anything humble about this type of comment, so humblebrag doesn’t seem like a fitting name to describe it.

    Where I come from, we call these “bragplaints”.

  6. bleemoo says:

    Related to humblebrags are what my social circle calls “first world problems.” You could see a lot of them on twitter last week: “I really wanted the black iPhone, but I got the white one instead. Christmas is ruined!”

     

    On a completely different note, at the beginning of the episode you talked about the importance of content over grammar. That reminded me of a quote from Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957). Making the same point you did (in service of another point), he says:

    1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

    2. Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

    It is fair to assume that neither sentence (1) nor (2) (nor indeed any part of these sentences) has ever occurred in an English discourse. Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally “remote” from English. Yet (1), though nonsensical, is grammatical, while (2) is not grammatical.

    “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is a favorite phrase of mine. The wikipedia article on the phrase has further interesting anecdotes about it.

  7. barry says:

    Recently I read (in a source that escapes me at the moment) a list of neologisms for 2011. One of the words listed was earwig, which was defined as a song that keeps running through one’s head. The German word for the insect is Ohrwurm, which perhaps not coincidentally has long been used in the same idiomatic form. I would be curious to know if this use of earwig is, in fact, recent and if anyone else has heard of it.

  8. Lynne says:

    Australians use “cheeky” a lot, too. I was in Sydney looking for a birthday card for my cousin in the USA and asked the clerk for something cheeky. I finally chose a card with a humorous rear view of a man mowing his lawn in the buff, although I don’t know whether the pun on “cheeky” was appreciated by either clerk or cousin. I don’t think “on the sly” works for “cheeky,” though. Cheeky behavior is actually more in-your-face and sassy.

    This kind of problem with translation, even from English to English, is behind the affectation that students often have on returning from studying abroad–of using a foreign word in conversation because it’s “better,” even though it’s over the head of everyone else. I confess to doing this years ago when I studied German in Vienna. And now I use “cheeky,” “bum,” and “dodgy” when I probably shouldn’t. Sigh.

  9. Lee says:

    barry said:

    Recently I read (in a source that escapes me at the moment) a list of neologisms for 2011. One of the words listed was earwig, which was defined as a song that keeps running through one”s head. The German word for the insect is Ohrwurm, which perhaps not coincidentally has long been used in the same idiomatic form. I would be curious to know if this use of earwig is, in fact, recent and if anyone else has heard of it.

    Earworm, yes – earwig, no.  (Perhaps earwig, in this context, has crossed over from German to English?)

  10. booktiger says:

    I have to say that two American words for CHEEKY immediately occurred to me that convey a bit more of the original nuance of the British — at least, I hope so, since I've been using these for a while! :) I use either SASSY or SAUCY, depending on the context.  

    SAUCY seems to me to only be applicable to women (oh, lord, is it all that pirate stuff in the air these days that made this happen — “saucy” wench, of course, is the first phrase that pops to mind).  

    SASSY conveys both the meanings that Grant referred to, I think, regarding the boy who flirts with an older woman: shooting above his station, but points for bravery.  I use it with girlfriends and also with children, and I clearly differentiate between SASSY and SMART MOUTHED/SMART ALECK, both of which are definitely negative and more associated with rudeness.

    Then again, I have kind of an idiosyncratic vocabulary, so perhaps I'm the only person who uses these words anymore?  And what do you think — close enough in meaning to pass on to your British listener as a substitute for CHEEKY? :)  

  11. Gary says:

    Humblebrag really isn’t very accurate, fluid, or symbolic. I rather like boast beef; the more obvious the boast the thicker the cut.

  12. perditechno says:

    Instead of humblebrag, I would call it brat brag.

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