Martha and Grant talk about phrases you love to hate, like “Do you mind if I put you on hold?” They also talk about mountweazels, jakey bums, picklebacks, and step-ins. And which is the proper term: mothers-in-law or mother-in-laws?

This episode first aired January 16, 2010.

Download the MP3.

 Phrases We Love to Hate
Some words and phrases you just love to hate: “Your call is important to us.” “Do you mind if I put you on hold?” And how about those annoying mid-dinner announcements like “This is a courtesy call”? Martha and Grant talk about some of those phrases and why they make us cringe.

 Raring to Go
Is it rearing to go or raring to go? Champing at the bit or chomping at the bit?

 Mothers-in-Law vs. Mother-in-Laws
Which is correct: mothers-in-law or mother-in-laws?

 Jakey Bums
A listener from Clifton Park, New York, says her grandfather was a police officer who used the term jakey bum to refer to undesirable characters.

 Novel Novels Word Quiz
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a word puzzle called “Novel Novels,” in which he gives clues to the names of novels similar to familiar ones, except for one letter. Try this one: “This offbeat novel is based on an incident concerning a nudist club and an official at a nearby university.” Stumped? Think Norman Mailer’s novel with all the fugs in it.

 Dictionary Mountweazels
A Woodbridge, Connecticut, caller tells the story of coming across the following definition for jungftak in Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (1943): “n. A Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enable[d] to fly,—each, when alone, had to remain on the ground.” For years, he wondered whether such a bird actually exists. Grant explains that this type of dictionary entry is what lexicographers call a mountweazel—a fake definition used to catch copyright infringers who would take a dictionary’s content and publish it as their own.

 Might Could
A Charlottesville, Virginia, woman says her husband, a New Yorker, makes fun of her for using the expression might could, as in, “We might could go to dinner later.” The hosts talk about this and other double modals. Incidentally, here’s the funny clip Martha mentions featuring Rosemary Clooney and Marlene Dietrich singing “Too Old to Cut the Mustard.”

 Premature Evacuation
You’ve kept that old gadget in your garage for years now, but you never use it, so you finally throw it out. The very next day, you discover you need it. Shouldn’t there be a word for needing something you just threw away? Martha reports that over in the A Way with Words discussion forum, listeners came up with, among other things, “premature evacuation.”

 Slang This with Jack Lynch
This week’s “Slang This!” contestant is literary historian Jack Lynch, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park. He tries to guess the meaning of three slang terms: one throat to choke, pickleback, and step-ins. By the way, Lynch is an associate professor of English at Rutgers University, has published his own helpful guide to grammar and usage.

 Mum or Mom
A New Zealander who relocated to Texas wonders why she grew up saying Mum, but people in the United States say Mom.

 Onomatopoeia Spelling Tip
Martha offers a tip on how to spell onomatopoeia. Sort of.

The old word wittol refers to a man who knows that his wife is having an affair and is okay with it. The behavior still exists today, but almost no one knows the word. A caller in Albany, New York, wonders why.

Need a word for the place on your back that you can’t reach to scratch? Martha has it for you.

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

Photo by Ginny. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (1943)
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch
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13 Responses

  1. eli_damon says:

    Which is correct: mothers-in-law or mother-in-laws?

    Grant: I disagree with you on this, not only because “mothers-in-law” sound unnatural to me personally but also on theoretical grounds. If you insist on breaking down a phrase grammatically you must also break it down semantically as well. But “mother-in-law” cannot be broken down semantically. There is no legal relationship at all between, for example, a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. If I was to try to interpret the phrase literally, I would have to conclude that my “mother-in-law” was the woman who adopted me when I was a minor.

    Also, regarding Martha’s discussion of double modals, there are many southern expressions, including double modals, that are really useful and I resent not being able to use them (not can using them?). I have lived in Vermont and Massachusetts most of my life and it just doesn’t feel right when I try to use those expressions but I resent it because they would fill some glaring gaps in my dialect.

  2. Eli, I can see your points, but trying to apply logic and law to language in order to determine what is right is the wrong way to go about it. Some things in English (especially idiomatic features) are what they are and shouldn’t be overexamined or else they collapse. Which is why “our mothers-in-law” is right but so is “my in-laws.”

    As for double modals, I believe what we usually recommend to people is that they just go ahead and speak how they wish, but to be aware that some people aren’t going to like how they’re saying what they’re saying. If you can tough it out and don’t mind rephrasing or restating after just about every time you use a double modal, then by all means go ahead. But the onus is on the speaker, not the listener, in most situations.

  3. Ron Draney says:

    Maybe it’s my interest in the 1920s, but I recognized “step-ins” as underwear immediately.

  4. poohbear72579 says:

    Speaking about the double-modals… I, too, am originally from “the South” (Louisiana, to be precise) and I grew up with a phrase that I’ve since dropped from my everyday usage but I do have an affinity for it. Spelled in correct English, it’s “must have not have” which would be used in place of “must not have” as in “He must not have remembered that smoking is not allowed.” The way it was pronounced, though, has always given me a chuckle: “musstanotta”. [He musstanotta knowed that smokin’ ain’t allowed here.]

  5. poohbear72579 says:

    Ron Draney said:

    Maybe it’s my interest in the 1920s, but I recognized “step-ins” as underwear immediately.

    My grandmother, who was born in the late 30s and who was our babysitter when we were children, ALWAYS referred to underwear as “step-ins”. I love it, too, but mostly because it’s a remembrance of her.

  6. Glenn says:

    As a northerner who didn’t grow up with double modals, I want to go on record as saying two things: they are a wonderful topic to study; they make tremendous sense to me.

    In a sentence such as
    She maybe should have looked twice before marrying him.
    To me, the maybe shifts my perspective jarringly from the personal she to the impersonal it may be, because it is certainly not she who may be.
    She might should have looked twice …
    seems much more fluid.

    So, I guess I’m confessing that I have a serious case of modal envy.
    (I might should say I have a serious case of modal envy.)
    I have a hunch I have quasi-modal envy?

  7. Kaa says:

    Your brief discussion of all the various ways to refer to one’s maternal parent reminded me instantly of this video:

    (It’s a clip from The Family Guy with Stewie trying to get Lois’s attention.)

  8. Kaa says:

    Martha, Grant, is “used to could” a double modal? I have lived all my life in the south (Alabama and Georgia) and both my parents are also native southerners (Alabama and Arkansas). I grew up hearing things like “Well, she shouldn’t ought to have done that,” or “I can’t move anymore like I used to could.”

    Note, of course, that “shouldn’t ought to have” becomes “shouldn’t oughtta’ve” and “used to could” becomes “yoosta could.” 🙂

    I know it’s “She probably shouldn’t have done that” and “I can’t move like I used to be able to,” but the southern way just flows better, frankly, and sounds more like people actually talk and not how people in books talk.

    (I’m an aspiring author, so getting dialog to sound right but still be readable is a constant struggle.)

  9. Ron Draney says:

    Would it be out of line to ask for a link to a collection of mountweazels? I have to think that once any particular copyright trap has caught and exposed someone, it becomes less effective and should probably be retired to the public domain, and I think we’d all enjoy reading about some of them.

  10. Glenn says:

    It doesn’t list lots, but it still is a good read, and has another fine example.
    New Yorker

  11. Ron Draney says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    One brief lift of mountweazels is here:

    Nice “lift”, thanks. (Or was that supposed to be a “long s”?)

    I suppose the maintainer of that page will want to add “jungftak” to his glossary.

  12. mbower says:

    Martha, I’m a little slow in listening to your podcasts but I just listened to this one.

    I listened to the recording you put out as a link for the “Too old…” song. It was OK.

    YOUR rendition was wonderful!! I loved it. I might have to write down the words and memorize it so I can spout it off when the time is right.

    Funny, funny rendition.

    Michael Bower
    Ashburn, VA