Anagrams, rebuses, cryptograms — Martha and Grant swap stories about the games that first made them realize that playing with words and letters can be fun. Also this week, what’s a jitney supper and where do you eat graveyard stew? The hosts explain the origin of the term hang fire and why Alaskans sound like they’re from the Midwest, and take on a debate about whether an egregious falsehood is a bald-faced lie or a bold-faced lie.

This episode first aired June 5, 2010.

Download the MP3.

 Games with Words and Letters
What games first made you realize that words and letters make great playthings? Martha describes puzzling, as a child, over the odd combination of letters, F-U-N-E-X, until she finally figured out the joke. Grant talks about discovering anagrams as a youngster, and how word puzzles in the newspaper became a daily ritual.

 Hang Fire
An office worker in Indianapolis is mystified when a British colleague sends an email telling her to hang fire. It has to do with faulty firearms.

 Unclear Instructions Using “Up To”
“Call up to 24 hours in advance to make a reservation.” Do those instructions mean you can call until 24 hours before the deadline, or that you should call within 24 hours of it? When a San Diego listener assumed it was the former, she was surprised to be wrong.

Did you know the POTUS (President of the United States) has a BOTUS? Grant explains what a BOTUS is.

 Name Dropping Word Quiz
Quiz Guy Greg Pliska’s word game this week is “Name Dropping.” The answer for each set of clues will be a word that has a common first name hidden somewhere in it; when that name’s removed, the remaining letters spell a new word. For example, the first clue is “one of the seven deadly sins,” the second is “the grain consumed by one-fifth of the world’s inhabitants.” Subtract the latter from the former, and you get a woman’s name.

 Graveyard Stew
A Charlottesville, Virginia, caller says that when she was a child and recovering from an illness, her mother fed her a kind of milk toast she called graveyard stew. Is that strange name unique to her family?

 Up or Down Vote
During the health care debate in Congress, there was lots of talk about an “up-or-down vote.” A Montana listener finds this expression annoying. What’s wrong with plain old “vote”?

In youth slang, totes is short for “totally.” Grant talks about new, lengthened version of this slang shortening.

 Bold-Faced vs. Bald-Faced
A Carlsbad, California, couple has a running debate over whether an egregious whopper is correctly called a bold-faced lie or a bald-faced lie.

 Twitter Data-Mining
The Library of Congress is archiving the entire content of Twitter. Grant explains why that’s a gold mine for language researchers like David Bamman at Tufts University. You can see some of the results Bamman’s compiled at

 Contents of a Jitney Supper
What do you eat at a jitney supper? Jitney?

 Alaskan Accent
Why do people from Alaska sound like they’re from the Midwest?

 Tend Your Own Rat-Killing
A caller who grew up in Arkansas says his mother used a colorful expression instead of “mind your own business,” which was “tend to your own rat-killing.”

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

Photo by Karsten Seiferlin. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Chokin’ Whitefield Brothers In The Raw Stones Throw
Rampage Whitefield Brothers In The Raw Stones Throw
Baubles, Bangles, and Beads Deodato Prelude CTI
Weyia Whitefield Brothers In The Raw Stones Throw
Prowlin’ Whitefield Brothers In The Raw Stones Throw
September 13 Deodato Prelude CTI
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
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10 Responses

  1. ablestmage says:

    My dad bought me a children’s book when I was little called “C D B!” which was illustrated on the cover with two kids pointing at a flower-perched insect, as if to say, “See The Bee!” so that if children at least knew their ABC’s, they could read this book. I suspect the origin of the text-message abbreviation “OIC” (for “Oh I see”) came from this book, published in 1968. I recall a few pages, like “U R N D L-F-8-R” (“You are in the elevator”) vividly, and periodically refer verbally to elevators to this day as “elefayter” for that reason.

    It’s a good thing I had the summary of the episode, as I thought Grant was saying “bodice” instead of “botus” =) I was like, “huh? A blackberry is a bodice? I don’t get it.”

    I think it might have been better to clarify “yes or no” vote as “thumbs up or thumbs down” vote as relating specifically to “up or down”.. Incidentally, my fifth grade social studies teacher would sometimes throw in false information to see how many of the students would get fooled by it. He once told us that in ancient times there used to be a thumbs-sideways vote in place of thumbs down, because to make a thumbs down to have to kind of lift your elbow up, so that there had only been thumbs-up and thumbs-sideways then. All of the kids from that year had been divided up into red, orange and green groups to denote which clusters of kids needed more help with their learning (and would move as a group from classroom to classroom, so no reds would be mixed with orange, etc), and to my knowledge he never threw out any of the falsities to any group than the green group, presumably the kids who needed the least help and could potentially figure out that it was false. I had just been moved mid-year from the orange group to the green group as a kind of promotion, and was fooled by the falsity, only years later to bring it up in conversation with a good friend of mine from green group, only to have him ask me, “You know he was kidding, right?”

  2. telemath says:

    They Might Be Giants has a song on their children’s album, “Here Come the ABCs,” titled “U R N X.” The entire song consists of one-letter words. A sample:

    I C U N U R O K – “I see you, and you are okay”

  3. Ron Draney says:

    Re: milk toast. I spent the summer of ’74 as a candystriper in our local hospital, and the disconnect between reality and the kitchen staff was a source of endless amazement. One patient ordered a “milk toast”, and when the dumbwaiter came up there was a glass of cold milk and a plate of toast (with, if I remember right after all these years, a pat of butter on the side).

    This is the same kitchen that once sent up “green beans, red bread and yellow Jell-O”. That time, I think they were just pulling our leg.

  4. johng423 says:

    “Call up to 24 hours in advance to make a reservation.”

    I certainly agree with all of you that there are much better ways to phrase this to remove any possible ambiguity.

    And from a practical standpoint, it does not make sense (to me) to limit the reservation period to within 24 hours of the event. That would mean accepting reservations right up to the last minute (literally) – in which case, what’s the point? Usually an event coordinator would want a final count 24 hours (or more) before the event.

  5. bakert says:

    When I hear about an “up” or “down” vote I think about the Roman leaders giving the thumbs up or down on a gladiator’s life. Is it a possability this is playing in somewhere?

  6. Robbo says:

    Hang fire — I’m an artilleryman in the US Marines, and we use the term ‘hangfire’. We use it as a noun, but otherwise the same as you described it on air. For more explanation than you might want:
    Artillery ammunition is (mostly) separate-loading, meaning unlike a modern rifle round, the primer, powder (in a bag), projectile, and fuze are all discrete parts that are assembled just prior to loading and firing.
    If the primer doesn’t fire, or if it fires but fails to ignite the powder, or if the powder doesn’t fully combust, you end up with a round (or ‘projo’ or ‘jo’) in the tube. Then we say something like, “we’ve got a hangfire on Gun 2.”

  7. Wendy in Oregon says:

    My thought exactly. As Grant & Martha said, an up-or-down vote is on the substance of the matter itself, not the procedural foofarah around it. Therefore, the vote determines whether the measure ‘lives or dies’ just as the thumbs ‘up or down’ determined the fate of the gladiators and Christians back in the Coliseum.

    bakert said:

    When I hear about an “up” or “down” vote I think about the Roman leaders giving the thumbs up or down on a gladiator’s life. Is it a possability this is playing in somewhere?

  8. My Young Padawan says:

    I guess I fall opposite of Grant, Martha, and the caller about “up to” meaning a maximum. I’ve always heard “up to” meaning “no more than”, so I’m somewhat confused as to how that is ambiguous. I know there is also a mathematical definition of “up to”, but as far as I know it has nothing to do with a minimum value. I’ve also checked a couple dictionaries that have this preposition, and haven’t found anything supporting a “more than” interpretation.

  9. CheddarMelt says:

    I have heard “up to” used to mean “until.” I think that’s where the confusion comes from.

  10. My Young Padawan says:

    Yeah. I was talking to a friend and that’s what we decided. There was also something on Merriam-Webster’s under the definition for “up to” that seemed to have that sort of idea.