Proverbs pack great truths into a few well-chosen words, no matter which language you speak. Check out this one from Belize: “Don’t call the alligator a big-mouth till you have crossed the river.” And this truism from Zanzibar: “When two elephants tussle, it’s the grass that suffers.” Martha and Grant discuss a new paremiography — a collection of proverbs — from around the world.

This episode originally aired October 4, 2008.

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Download the MP3 here (23.5 MB).

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A woman from Cape Cod is looking for a polite word that means the current wife of my ex-husband. She’s thinking about cur-wife, but somehow that doesn’t quite work. Neither does the phrase “that poor woman.” The hosts try to help her come up with other possibilities.

“It’s raining, it’s pouring.” But what exactly is the “it” that’s doing all that raining and pouring? This question from a caller prompts Grant to explain what linguists mean when they talk about the weather it. Hint: It depends on what the meaning of “it” is.

Your eyetooth is located directly beneath your eye. But is that why they’re called eyeteeth? A Boston caller would give her eyeteeth to know. Okay, not really, but she did want an answer to this question.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski invites Grant and Martha to busta rhyme with a word puzzle called Rhyme Groups.

You’ve seen people indicate emphasis by putting a period after each of several words, and capitalizing the first letter of each word. A Michigan listener wonders how this stylistic trick arose. Her question was prompted by this description of French model-turned-presidential-spouse Carla Bruni: “She’s got a cashmere voice and a killer body. Plays decent guitar and writes her own lyrics. Can hold her own with queens and statesmen. She. Must. Be. Stopped.” Jealous much?

Do you want to get down? Ask that in parts of Louisiana, and people know you’re not inquiring whether they care to dance, you’re asking if they want to get out of a car. A former Louisianan who grew up using the expression that way wonders if it’s French-inspired. The hosts proceed to use the phrase “get down” so much they end up with a dreadful K.C. and the Sunshine Band earworm.

Which is correct for describing a close family resemblance: spittin’ image or spit and image? Grant and Martha discuss the possible origins of these expressions, including a recent hypothesis that’s sure to surprise.

In this week’s episode of Slang This!, Dave Dickerson from the National Puzzlers’ League tries to guess the meaning of the terms cowboy up and money bomb.

If you’ve used the word sickly too many times in a paragraph and need a synonym, there’s always dauncy, also spelled donsie and dauncy. Grant explains the origin of this queasy-sounding word.

A Navy man stationed in Hawaii phones to settle a dispute over the difference between acronyms and initialisms. Here’s hoping he didn’t go AWOL to make the call.

Is English is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket? A Wisconsin grandmother thinks so, particularly because of all the ums and you knows she hears in everyday speech. The hosts discuss these so-called disfluencies, including how to avoid them and how to keep other people’s disfluencies from grating on your nerves.

We leave you with a couple other proverbs translated into English. They’re from David Crystal’s paremiography, As They Say in Zanzibar:

Proverbs are like butterflies; some are caught and some fly away. (Germany)

Teachers open the door; you enter by yourself. (China)

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38 Responses

  1. DancerInDC says:

    For the woman in Cape Cod, might I suggest the term, ex-in-law?

    My logic is that an in-law is a relative that you are only related to by marriage. And as this is related to the marriage of your ex-husband, squish those two terms together!

    Of course, this could create confusion if one wanted to extend the term to refer to your ex-husband’s sister, with whom you perhaps still maintain a relationship. I suppose in that case you could just use the term ex-sister-in-law.

  2. Tora says:

    Hello Martha and Grant!

    I’m a podcast listener from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK and I discovered your show on podcast within the last year or so (found you on the NPR podcast list). I quite enjoy listening to you guys, especially since I’m transplanted American. I tend to listen to most episodes, though not always immediately. Unfortunately, though I want to quite often, I never end up contacting you guys, because I’m always in the middle of an experiment when I’m listening. And I forget what it was I want to comment on or then I never have time when I’m actually at a computer. But this current experiment is taking place at a computer rather than in a sterile cell culture hood! With ten minute blocks of recording moving mitochondria under the microscope, I have some time to compose a message.

    In this episode, Keith from San Diego talked about being in a Cajun area of South Louisiana where they said “get down from the car” instead of “get out of the car”. You said that this is likely a calque from the French and they do something similar in Spanish.

    I completely didn’t realize that saying “get down” was anything at all out of the ordinary until Keith and you guys said it was strange. I had never thought about it before. When I was growing up, my parents said “get down” all the time. I’m not sure if I would say it, I think I’d say “get out”, but I’m not sure.

    In any case, I’m not from a French or Spanish speaking part of the US, actually, I mostly grew out outside of Pittsburgh, PA. My parents don’t speak French or Spanish either. They/we are from India and speak Telegu and Tamil, among other languages. My Telegu transliteration is nonexistent, but the literal translations of the words used for getting in “eku” and out “dhigu” of a car would be to “get up” and “get down”, same as you’d use for climbing up/down a tree or going up/down a ladder. I’m assuming that they directly translated that into English and that’s why I’m so used to hearing it. My Tamil’s not that great, but I think it may be the same there.

    It makes me wonder if English is the only language in which you get in and out of a car! ;-p

    Anyway, I really enjoy your show, and I’m glad I actually got a chance to comment on a show that I was listening to for once!

    -Tora Kirthika Smulders-Srinivasan (any guess as to the origins of my many names? though, saying I’m of Indian origin probably makes it too easy)

  3. Welcome, Tora! And thanks for this information:

    >>> My Telegu transliteration is nonexistent, but the literal translations of the words used for getting in “eku” and out “dhigu” of a car would be to “get up” and “get down”, same as you’d use for climbing up/down a tree or going up/down a ladder. >>>

    I hope you’ll enlighten us about the origins of your names. I don’t think I’m even going to try! :-)

  4. H says:

    Hi:
    I know some people who use the term “step-wife” for this relationship. It always makes people chuckle to hear, “My kids are staying with my step-wife for the weekend,” but they are usually able to quickly figure out that it means “the new wife of my ex-husband.”

  5. Thanks, H. (But does anyone ever mistake “step-wife” for a short form of “Stepford wife”?

  6. ShugarShocked says:

    I completely didn’t realize that saying “get down” was anything at all out of the ordinary until Keith and you guys said it was strange. I had never thought about it before. When I was growing up, my parents said “get down” all the time. I’m not sure if I would say it, I think I’d say “get out”, but I’m not sure.

    When I read this post, it immediately made me wonder if this phrasing didn’t evolve from horse & carriage days when one literally had to get up or down as needed from these lofty conveyances, or if in the wise opinions of the hosts that these constructions are gramatically necessary….

  7. Watchman says:

    My recommendation for a term for an ex-spouse’s new spouse is ‘prime’. It has all the necessary criteria, including an apparent positive connotation with neutral to negative undertones. Obviously ‘prime’ can mean ‘first in quality and excellence’, but it can also refer to the following:

    Though I am no mathematician, I seem to recall modified variables being referred to as ‘prime’, as in A becoming A1 or ‘A prime’ much the same way that the new modified spouse becomes spouse prime.

    To trim or prune (as you were pruned from the relationship)

    A time of maturity (a true backhanded complement)

    A number with no factor but itself and one (your ex)

    And lastly, and nastiest, is the mental image of old junker cars that have been wrecked and not yet cosmetically restored. The first ugly coat of paint, made to be covered by a subsequent attractive layer is sometimes referred to as prime or primer.

  8. dilettante says:

    ShugarShocked said:

    When I read this post, it immediately made me wonder if this phrasing didn’t evolve from horse & carriage days when one literally had to get up or down as needed from these lofty conveyances


    Which provides an irresistible opportunity to quote that old joke: “How do you get down from a horse?”

  9. Nika says:

    RE: wives of ex-husbands

    On Polish messageboards for divorcees and stepparents two curious Polish-English neologisms are used: “eksia” for an ex-wife and “neksia” for the new wife (in Polish sound “x” is usually transliterated as “ks”). Back-tranlating this into English, I guess it could be something like “the exie” and “the nexie”.

  10. Patti says:

    Following up on the “Worst. Episode. Evar (sic)” discussion…
    our local paper, The Rocky Mountain News, had a huge top of the front page headline (in 1-1/4″ high letters) the Saturday following last week’s financial meltdown. It read:
    Worst. Week. Ever.

    I guess a little humor for those much in need of it!

  11. Watchman, thanks for your post. And wow, that’s one big bundle of reasons! Maybe too many, in fact –I have a hard time imagining that one catching on.And yeah, I associate “prime” first and foremost with the idea of “first” (as in Latin “primus”) which would make it even more confusing. For me, anyway.:-)

  12. Which provides an irresistible opportunity to quote that old joke: “How do you get down from a horse?”

    Or we could just skip that one and go directly to “Why does a baby duck walk softly?”

  13. On Polish messageboards for divorcees and stepparents two curious Polish-English neologisms are used: “eksia” for an ex-wife and “neksia” for the new wife (in Polish sound “x” is usually transliterated as “ks”). Back-tranlating this into English, I guess it could be something like “the exie” and “the nexie”.

    Nika, I was not aware of this. Maybe someone will chime in and explain. It reminds me of Yiddish “nextdoorekeh” for a “neighbor.”

  14. Following up on the “Worst. Episode. Evar (sic)” discussion…
    our local paper, The Rocky Mountain News, had a huge top of the front page headline (in 1-1/4″ high letters) the Saturday following last week’s financial meltdown. It read:
    Worst. Week. Ever.

    Patti: Yes, a little humor, not to mention accuracy!

  15. Glenn Atkinson says:

    While I am blessed to remain married to my only wife, I use the term ex’s next. I leave the word “victim” implied unless pressed.

  16. dilettante says:

    martha said:

    Or we could just skip that one and go directly to “Why does a baby duck walk softly?”


    Don’t know that one – and the punchline is…?

  17. R H Draney says:

    DancerInDC said:

    For the woman in Cape Cod, might I suggest the term, ex-in-law?

    My logic is that an in-law is a relative that you are only related to by marriage. And as this is related to the marriage of your ex-husband, squish those two terms together!

    Of course, this could create confusion if one wanted to extend the term to refer to your ex-husband’s sister, with whom you perhaps still maintain a relationship. I suppose in that case you could just use the term ex-sister-in-law.


    This was the logic, I’m sure, behind the solution offered in the 1974 TV movie “Roll, Freddy, Roll!” In the movie, Tim Conway plays a man unsuccessful in almost every area of his life whose ex-wife (Ruta Lee) has remarried. The wife’s current husband (Jan Murray) bears him no ill will, and at one point greets him with a breezy “hey, it’s my husband-in-law!”

    This, and the implied counterpart “wife-in-law”, has the advantage (?) of being reciprocal; one’s spouse-in-law may be the current spouse of one’s ex, or the ex of one’s current spouse (in which regard it is exactly analogous to many other “in-law” terms).

  18. CajunNan says:

    Having grown up in Cajun country in South Louisiana, I also experienced odd looks from people when I would ask them if they were going to “get down at the store” or at the bank or where ever. Your listener in San Diego is in no way alone in this dilemma!

  19. Gr8scottNH says:

    For the woman on the Cape looking for a new word for her ex-husband’s new wife, how about “neogam?” Neo- for new and -gam for wedding or marriage. Both the prefix and suffix are from Greek I believe.

  20. rikchik says:

    I’m just catching up on podcasts and just heard the question about what to call your ex’s spouse. I have a friend who refers to his ex-girlfriend’s current boyfriend as his “Y”, both as a counterpart to “X” and as a homophone for “why” (as in, why him and not me?). It may sound a little derogatory but everyone involved is on good terms with each other.

  21. dhenderson says:

    The mention of the “get down from a car” calque reminded me of an old Justin Wilson routine, in which he exhorts an arriving visitor to “unclimb that train!”

    And as for the woman who wants a word for the current wife of an ex-husband, if none of the suggestions here are quite satisfactory for her, she could try the “There oughta be a word for…” section of Addictionary.

    Dan

  22. jmcintyre says:

    The few times I visited San Francisco, the locals (including conductors) referred to “getting down” from the cable car. I had never heard the expression, and remember thinking that it sounded strange, but it made sense in that situation.

  23. Richard Robinson says:

    Regarding the form of writing putting single words as sentences, I’d long been aware of that form, way before The Simpsons program.

    Shortly after listening to this WWW program, I read a short story that used it. The story, “Wildcat” by Poul Anderson was published in November 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF to fans). In the collection I was reading, this form also appeared in a story by the same author, “To Build A World”, published in 1964.

    Here’s the quote from the 1958 story: “Yeah. Sure. Classified. Arise, ye duly cleared citizens of democracy and cast your ballots on issues whose nature is classified. Great. Hopping. Balls. Of. Muck.”.

    While your attribution to the Simpsons show is interesting and may show where some younger users picked up the term, it was being used by writers in fiction in the 1950s (as you mentioned).

  24. Aaron says:

    Hi, I loved this episode.

    However, I was much amused at 48:13, when Lillian said “Well, you know, …” after complaining about precisely that phrase. This was especially entertaining since Martha had just complemented Lillian for “setting the bar high” with her flawless English.

    Didn’t you guys catch that?

  25. Aaron, I, you know, totally missed that! :-)

    Did we mention McKean’s Law during that call? “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.” I think that pretty much holds true — for all of us.

  26. Bruce says:

    I always knew the joke as “How do you get down from an elephant?”

  27. Ha! And dilettante, Bruce's joke reminds me that I neglected to answer your question about the punchline to “Why does a little duck walk softly?” The answer: “Because he can't walk, hardly.”

    YMMV. It may be funnier if the joke teller is 8 years old with a Southern accent.

  28. dilettante says:

    Thanks, Martha! Though I'll confess to not losing any sleep, wondering what the punchline might be.

  29. xheralt says:

    Richard Robinson said:

    I read a short story that used it. The story, “Wildcat” by Poul Anderson was published in November 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF to fans). In the collection I was reading, this form also appeared in a story by the same author, “To Build A World”, published in 1964.


    I would imagine that the style dates back even further than that, if one had the resources to research it (and cared to do so).  The style probably has existed for as long as writers have needed to capture an orator's speaking rhythm in text.  I could see this evolving into existence shortly after the dawn of movable type.

  30. hmm says:

    I was listening to this episode on the net this week, and I must say I was a little put off by the last caller commenting on disfluencies. I know that many people have issues with their use, but they are a natural part of spoken language (not just English). And, as Grant pointed out so nicely in the broadcast, they do serve a purpose.

    In my own experience as an ESL teacher, I have found that students of some cultures have more difficulty using them in their speech when using English. And, the students who lack these “disfluencies” actually sound less fluent. So, to me their omission is the true disfluency.

    There is an excellent book on the subject called “Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean” by Michael Erard, which discusses these “disfluencies,” as well as slips of the tongue. In it, Erard attempts to find where the distaste for these essential aspects of speech originates. I would recommend this book to anyone who is unable to recognize the value of “um,” “hmm,” “you know,” and the like.

  31. Welcome, hmm!

    In my own experience as an ESL teacher, I have found that students of some cultures have more difficulty using them in their speech when using English. And, the students who lack these “disfluencies” actually sound less fluent. So, to me their omission is the true disfluency.

    Never thought about it quite that way! Fascinating.

  32. yupkibob says:

    Greetings from Korea!

    Regarding the former spouse situation, I would recommend “c-poop” for Current Partner Of Old Partner or “c-pop” (for retentives who can’t imagine capitalizing and including the “of”)

    Love the show

  33. Hi, yupkibob — Nice to hear from you!

    I think you’re the first person to come up with “c-poop,” which certainly has a nice ring to it. :-)

  34. Cossette729 says:

    When the caller asked about spittin’ image or spit and image, I couldn’t believe that no one mentioned what I’ve long felt sure to be the origin of the phrase. I read that the idiom started out as “spirit and image,” which then turned into “spit and image” and then “spittin’ image.” I could be remembering incorrectly, but I believe I found this in Steve Mitchell’s book How to Speak Southern.

  35. mc2androb says:

    I too had heard “spirit and image” and furthermore heard it attributed to African American speech before it entered the general speech, consistent with the poster’s identification of a probable southern origin. From an “Occam’s Razor” approach this seems most likely – it doesn’t require invoking bizarre slang for spitting or employing outdated language forms as an explanation. It is also very easy to hear how the shortened form could have arisen in general speech. Finally, this phrase also clearly implies similarity in both character and appearance, consistent with the sense of common usage.

  36. EmmettRedd says:

    The upper canines are called eyeteeth. But, does anyone (besides me) on this forum call the lower canines, stomach teeth?

    Emmett

  37. Glenn says:

    I’ve heard it. And I understand it. But I don’t use it.

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