Which came first, orange the color or orange the fruit? And what’s a busman’s holiday? Martha and Grant talk about bumbershoots, brollies, nursery rhymes, and alternatives to the word “unicycle.” Plus, an app-inspired quiz, favorite oxymorons, and the origin of “put that in your pipe and smoke it“! If the Google Books Corpus doesn’t sound like fun, think again. And by the way, shouldn’t more than one company be allowed to sell Monopoly?

This episode first aired June 20, 2011.

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You know those words whose meanings never seem to stick in your mind, no matter how many times you flip back to the dictionary? Martha wrestles with the term atavistic, meaning “the tendency to revert to ancestral characteristics.” She now remembers it by the Latin root it shares with the Spanish word for “grandfather,” abuelo. Grant, in turn, shares his revelation that upwards of actually means “more than,” not “up to.”

A unicycle enthusiast wonders if his unicycle can be properly called a bike. To avoid the four-syllable mouthful, the unicycle community (yes, there is one) sometimes calls it a uni, but for the general public, the term “bike” works. Martha reveals that she once spent a summer teaching herself to ride a unicycle, and doesn’t mind calling it a bike. Grant notes the general rule that once a word has left its etymological root, it can be used for whatever we need it for.

Rihanna’s hit “Umbrella” may not have had the same ring if she’d referred to being “under my bumbershoot.” Nonetheless, bumbershoot, bumberell, brolly and bumbersol, among others, are all playful alternatives to umbrella that even Mary Poppins would appreciate. Grant explains that bumbershoot, itself an American slang term, derives from the Latin umbra, meaning “shadow,” and chute, as in “parachute.”

Twitter’s 140-character format has made way for a whole new brand of comedy writing. See Judah Friedlander: “More than one company should be allowed to sell Monopoly,” or Stephen Colbert: “It doesn’t always pay to get up early. If you’re a worm, you just get eaten by that early bird. So sleep in, worms.”

In the mood for a word puzzle? Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has an app for that. This week’s quiz features solutions starting with the letters app. Someone afraid to take care of the bug problem in their apartment doesn’t want to “app-roach” them!

Is it worth using proper pronunciation if it makes you sound ignorant or misinformed? Contrary to the common understanding, the word forte is actually pronounced “fort.” Grant describes forte as a skunked word; it’s a losing situation no matter how you use it. For the sake of clarity and conversational flow, it’s best instead to say that something is a “strength,” a “strong suit,” or is “in one’s wheelhouse.”

Do you ever spend your off-time doing something work related? This is known as a busman’s holiday or a postman’s holiday, as in the British understanding of holiday as a vacation or time off work. Research for a dictionary entry on postman’s holiday led Grant to an old French ragtime song called “Le Facteur en Balade,” or “The Postman on a Walk”. In the proper sense, a postman’s holiday might consist of a leisurely walk along the same route whereon he delivers the mail. Let’s just hope it doesn’t involve getting chased by dogs.

Some listeners are madly in love with oxymorons, and they continue to share their favorites. One listener has a great T-shirt that reads “An oxymoron a day keeps reality away.” Another says his favorite oxymoron is “Dodge Ram.”

A listener from Richmond, Virginia, remembers an old game called buckeye that consists of metaphorically pulling someone’s leg, then calling Buckeye! and tugging one’s own lower eyelid. Martha suggests that it may be related to a 19th-century use of buckeye that refers to “something or someone inferior,” like a country bumpkin or a rube. Thus, calling “Buckeye!” may be equivalent to calling someone a sucker for getting tricked, or punk’d. Still, any explanation for the eyelid exposure is still pending.

Grant is pleased as punch about BYU Professor Mark Davies’ new Google Books Corpus, which contains entries for every word ever in the entire Google Books database. In addition to parts of speech and definitions, the site provides contextual examples for each word. For example, the database has revealed that the word “suitcase” is often preceded by the adjective “battered.” Writers, teachers, English learners and language enthusiasts will love prospecting in this lexical goldmine.

Home again, home again, jiggity-jig! A listener wonders about the origin of this phrase her Mother often used. Grant and Martha trace it back to another mother: Mother Goose. The full line goes, “To market, to market, to buy a fat pig, home again, home again, jiggity-jig.” It does not, contrary to a highly visited Google result, originate from the movie Blade Runner (though it’s a cute scene nonetheless).

Listeners have been sharing some of their personal Scrabble rules, including new uses for the blank tile. For example, one variation allows for the tile to be removed and reused, so if Grant were to play the blank tile as an “E” and Martha has an “E” in her tray, she can swap the tiles and then use the blank for her own play. Just be sure to use it, because nobody likes someone who bogarts the blank tile!

Downton Abbey, a program featured on Masterpiece Theater, provided a handful of colorful expressions that date surprisingly far back. “Like it or lump it,” meaning “deal with it,” is found at least as early as 1830 and takes from the old verb lump meaning “to look sulky or disagreeable.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, a contemporary favorite meaning “Take that!” actually shows up around 1820. As for the phrase you’re sailing perilously close to the wind, meaning “be careful not to overstep” — well, we haven’t caught wind of the origin of that one.

Databases like the Google Books Corpus can also be used to follow text over time. For example, as the women’s suffrage movement grew around 1910, words relating to women’s rights grew in popularity and frequency of usage.

What came first, the color orange or the fruit? The original term is Sanskrit and refers to the fruit. As the fruit traveled west, the word came with it. Grant notes that, like the terms for parts of the body, the names of colors travel very well in language because we’re constantly speaking and writing about them. The term “orange” became what it is in English after the fruit made it to the French town Orange.

Martha shares a quip that’s all too true: “I don’t find it hard to meet expenses. They’re everywhere!”

Support for A Way with Words also comes from National University, which invites you to change your future today. More at http://www.nu.edu/.

We’re also grateful for support from the University of San Diego. Since 1949, USD has been on a mission not only to prepare students for the world, but also to change it. Learn more about the college and five schools of this nationally ranked, independent Catholic university at sandiego.edu.

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55 Responses

  1. bradcarp says:

    “Sailing perilously close to the wind” is a phrase that means you are about to stop making forward motion, or in this case, as it was said to an employee (if I recall the reference correctly), he is about to lose his job. Here’s where it comes from: a sailboat can not sail directly into the wind; it needs to sail at angles to the wind. When a sailboat is sailing “upwind,” or towards the direction from which the wind is blowing, it is also said to be sailing “close to the wind.” (The angles, in this case, might be something like 35 to 45 degrees from whence the wind blows.) As a sailboat tries to squeeze its way even closer to the prevailing direction (and it would actually be an “apparent” wind direction that it would be sailing towards), the forward edge of the sail, or “luff,” begins to, well, luff, or shake a bit, showing the sailor that he is beginning to sail “to close to the wind.” At this point, the sail begins to lose its laminar flow, and the sail stalls thus making the boat slow and lose its momentum.

    Hope this helps.

    Best etc.

    BCC

  2. Ron Draney says:

    To Martha’s atavistic and Grant’s upwards of I’ll add my own personal vocabulary blind spot: dilate. It’s always felt to me like it should mean exactly the opposite of what it does. I sense that I’m being influenced by such words as “diminish”, “decay” and “deteriorate”, where the initial “d” implies a feeling something “becoming less”.

    I suspect some people have a similar problem with drought; many’s the time I’ve noticed someone using it to describe conditions I’d associate with flooding. Maybe it’s the initial “dr-” that links it to words like “drink” and “drown”.

  3. EmmettRedd says:

    Ron Draney said:

    To Martha’s atavistic and Grant’s upwards of I’ll add my own personal vocabulary blind spot: dilate. It’s always felt to me like it should mean exactly the opposite of what it does. I sense that I’m being influenced by such words as “diminish”, “decay” and “deteriorate”, where the initial “d” implies a feeling something “becoming less”.


    Dilate was once a problem for me too. It is much less so now, but I cannot explain why except maybe by memorization.

    Emmett

  4. Heimhenge says:

    Ron Draney said:

    I suspect some people have a similar problem with drought; many’s the time I’ve noticed someone using it to describe conditions I’d associate with flooding. Maybe it’s the initial “dr-” that links it to words like “drink” and “drown”.


    I suspect you’re right about the “dr” start of the word. “Dilate” was never a problem for me, nor was “drought.” “Draught” (as in beer) had me screwed up for awhile, until I saw it in print.

    Where I see a lot of confusion and misuse is with “dearth” vs. “plethora.” And that’s a bit weird, since it’s got the “d” starting it.

  5. JanMM says:

    A unicycle has one wheel, a bicycle two, a tricycle three, a quadcycle four, etc. As a longtime League of American Bicyclist member, I am protective of cycling language; I’m ok with people riding unicycles or trikes but not with talk of “three-wheel bikes”.
    A cyclist could be riding a cycle with various numbers of wheels. Not the case with a bicyclist or triker.

  6. Ron Draney says:

    Martha and Grant are pretty loosy-goosey about whether something can be a “bike” when it doesn’t have the “two” of what the name refers to, but that’s no surprise. They handily dismissed my suggestion that you can’t use “between” with three or more things because the very word contains a form of the number “two”.

    (And in English, too. You don’t even have to wait for a break with a Greek root for that one.)

  7. tromboniator says:

    Ron, I’ve been known to disagree with you every once in a while, but I’m rock solid with you on the between thing. And what about “between each”? I suppose I can put it between this one, but no way it’ll go between that one.

  8. DebD says:

    I’m so glad they finally named the person who does the music for the show (or maybe it’s the first time I’ve heard it). Thank you, Tim Felton, for choosing such interesting and funky tunes!

  9. Glenn says:

    Ron Draney said:

    Martha and Grant are pretty loosy-goosey about whether something can be a “bike” when it doesn’t have the “two” of what the name refers to, but that’s no surprise. They handily dismissed my suggestion that you can’t use “between” with three or more things because the very word contains a form of the number “two”.

    (And in English, too. You don’t even have to wait for a break with a Greek root for that one.)


    As for personal choice, I, too, agree with Ron and tromboniator about between. But I think we are in a minority in maintaining a distinction between between and among.

    It seems that the difficulty with pressing bike into strained service has to do with the lack of a common collective term for the class of vehicles. What word should one use to refer to unicycles, bicycles, tricycles, etc.? Cycles doesn’t work well, because it already means something quite distinct. I propose we start using the word pedalia as a collective for foot-powered vehicles of any wheel count. Short of that, I suppose bike will have to fill the role of the collective.

  10. Heimhenge says:

    I don’t like “bike” as the collective, since it also includes motorcycles. And it’s a truncation of “bicycle” which implies “two wheels.” That’s why we also have the word “trike.” And what would we truncate “unicycle” to? Monike? [tripod, bipod, monopod]

    “Cycle” is also used to refer to motorcycles, and has the other connotation of “periodicity” that Glenn pointed out.

    The suggestion of “pedalia,” though a bit obscure, seems the most accurate to me. That would also include those 4-wheeled toy cars kids play with. Otherwise we’d be stuck with something far more cumbersome, like “human-powered vehicle.” Does “anthropomotivator” work? Nahhh … got spell-checked, as did “pedalia.”

  11. MarcNaimark says:

    Re “buckeye”, I’ve posted in another thread:

    The French have the same gesture, pulling down the lower eyelid with the index figure for an index. BUT it has the “opposite” meaning. It doesn’t mean that the person making the gesture has tried to fool the second person, but that the person making the gesture doesn’t believe something said by the second person. It’s more like “yeah, right, I’ll buy that” with a sarcastic tone, or “you’re pulling my leg” or “stop joshing me”. It corresponds to the expression “mon oeil” (my eye). The expression and the gesture can be used together or separately.

  12. MarcNaimark says:

    About “orange”, you could have talked about why the “n” disappeared. I forget that phenomenon where “un napperon” becomes “un apperon*”. Similarly the “n” got transfered to the article at some point (Spanish? Italian? French?). Certainly in France “un narange*” would easily be heard as “un orange”, especially under the influence of the city of Orange.

    And in a twist, the color orange became the symbol of the House of Orange, a title held by the House of Nassau, who became kings of the Netherlands.

    Hence Ulter’s “Orangemen” after protestant King of England William of Orange, the colors of Princeton University, etc. etc.

  13. imajoebob says:

    I’m sorry, but allowing people to make up foreign words is simply not acceptable to me. When someone pronouncing forte says “for-TAY,” they are not just employing the wrong language of the chosen word, they aren’t even using a real word! The Italian word for “strong” is pronounced FOR-tay. There is also no such word in French or Spanish. Accepting this is akin to accepting quince (kwins) as a susbstitute for fifteen (hey, it’s how they spell it in Spanish). Also, based on general usage, Italian uses forte more often for ethereal applications, like music or the wind (a vento forte)

    But at the most basic, use of the French ‘forte” is not a substitution for a missing English word or phrase; it is an idiom used for specific meaning and emphasis. My strengths may include maths, reaching items on high shelves, and mowing the lawn. But arguing is my forte.

    To add my two cents to the unicycle/bike falderal, my exhibited precision (who said “nit-pick?”) rejects bike as a substitute. My first idea was to refer to them as “ukes,” but that’s already taken. Instead I suggest “uikes,” pronounced: yikes. I hope Martha finds it appropriate.

  14. Glenn says:

    imajoebob said:

    I’m sorry, but allowing people to make up foreign words is simply not acceptable to me. When someone pronouncing forte says “for-TAY,” they are not just employing the wrong language of the chosen word, they aren’t even using a real word! The Italian word for “strong” is pronounced FOR-tay. There is also no such word in French or Spanish. Accepting this is akin to accepting quince (kwins) as a susbstitute for fifteen (hey, it’s how they spell it in Spanish). Also, based on general usage, Italian uses forte more often for ethereal applications, like music or the wind (a vento forte)

    But at the most basic, use of the French ‘forte” is not a substitution for a missing English word or phrase; it is an idiom used for specific meaning and emphasis. My strengths may include maths, reaching items on high shelves, and mowing the lawn. But arguing is my forte.

    To add my two cents to the unicycle/bike falderal, my exhibited precision (who said “nit-pick?”) rejects bike as a substitute. My first idea was to refer to them as “ukes,” but that’s already taken. Instead I suggest “uikes,” pronounced: yikes. I hope Martha finds it appropriate.


    Yikes. I will backpedal on the discussion of bike.

    However, I will weigh in on the forte melee. English is full of spellings, pronunciations, and entire words that have resulted in errors, misunderstandings, and orthographic pronunciations. (Employee ends in the sound -ee, not -ay, as in fiancee). In fact, the fairly prolific ending -ee, c.f. mentee, is universally pronounced as spelled.

    Do you remember a previous podcast in which Martha and Grant discuss the pronunciation of coyote? They mention that the now rarer and dialectic two-syllable pronunciation is actually truer to the original word than the common three-syllable pronunciation. Guess What: coyote

    The fact is that many native English speakers have taken a word of French origin forte, originally pronounced like “fort”, and have begun to pronounce it “fortay.” After all, more people are familiar with music than are familiar with fencing. It is possible this pronunciation change happened because people were unfamiliar with the specialized French noun, and have been influenced by a more common and identically spelled Italian musical term forte, pronounced “fortay.”

    This kind of mistake is neither shocking, nor a reason to dismiss the alternate pronunciation. It is one important mechanism by which English has enriched over the centuries.

  15. EmmettRedd says:

    imajoebob said:

    Instead I suggest “uikes,” pronounced: yikes. I hope Martha finds it appropriate.


    I LIKE UIKE.

  16. imajoebob says:

    Glenn said:

    This kind of mistake is neither shocking, nor a reason to dismiss the alternate pronunciation. It is one important mechanism by which English has enriched over the centuries.


    Despite my apparent vehemence, I generally agree. Anglicizing a word is very different from substituting one foreign word or phrase for another. I say “On-velope.” If you want to say “En-velope,” that’s fine with me. Like Thee and Thuh. But fort is part of an idiom. Substituting the French forte for Grant and Martha’s less self-conscious “strong point” is one purpose of using the phrase. It’s a specific construction. That’s why I have the opposite reaction when people say “for-TAY.” You want me to recognize how talented you are by your display of ignorance? Somebody who claims a certain “jenny sez kwoy” obviously lacks it.

    Despite its French origin, I have no doubt that most people would reject “nave” or “nive” as a substitute for naive. Or worst, “na-eeh-vay,” which would be the Italian pronunciation. Depending on your Latin teacher, you may say “Veni, vidi, vici,’ or you could be saying “Weni, widi, wiki.” But that’s a matter of dialect, not vocabulary. I’m sure most everyone would reject “Carp dye um” as an acceptable idiom, because it’s not in anyone’s dialect. Just like for-TAY.

  17. Ron Draney says:

    Glenn said:

    …I will weigh in on the forte melee. English is full of spellings, pronunciations, and entire words that have resulted in errors, misunderstandings, and orthographic pronunciations. (Employee ends in the sound -ee, not -ay, as in fiancee). In fact, the fairly prolific ending -ee, c.f. mentee, is universally pronounced as spelled.


    Having established this principle, it remained only for English to do exactly the opposite for the word lingerie.

  18. Glenn says:

    Right. I’ve heard lots of French words pronounced with a spurious -ay sound at the end. There is a Glade commercial in which so-called friends mock the housekeeper by calling the product Glah-day.

  19. Halszka says:

    About “buckeye”

    I don’t know where we got it from but we have the gesture with a very similar meaning but with a different phrase accompanying it. The difference in meaning is that it’s not the person pulling somebody’s leg that does this but the person who thinks their leg is being pulled ;P. In other words, if you hear an incredible story that seems completely made up and unbelievable you pull your lower eyelid down with your index finger and usually that’s enough of a signal of your incredulity. But every now and again this gesture is accompanied by the phrase “tu mi jedzie (pociÄ…g)” – in loose thanslation “see the (train) going here?”
    I never heard the phrase explained in terms of its etymology, but if I may be allowed a jab at how this relic can be explained – the message sent with this gesture/expression combo is that the story you’re being told is as believable and credible as a dream you might see “on the inside of your eyelids”. At least that is what I would intuit from the context in which the gesture and phrase are typically used :)

  20. DeadBeatPope says:

    I am the caller who originated the bike/unicycle question. When a unicycle is referred to as a bike it is usually a child who says it or someone putting little effort into their vocabulary. Using a more obscure or complicated word won’t help in the field. If I tell my wife that I went on a bike ride she will think I rode a bicycle (which I can also do!) so I don’t use “bike” to mean unicycle. If someone points at my unicycle and says “nice bike” I will say thanks.

    The reason that I brought it up is that I have seen many online entries from unicyclists complaining or correcting people who call their unicycles bikes based on the argument that the ‘BI’ in bike still means two just as in bicycle. This always hit me as a little stuffy and suspicious because “bike” has been around awhile doing plenty of heavy lifting on its own and has made its own life. Not only can you call your Harley Davidson a bike but there are water bikes and skate bikes and who knows what other contraptions have borrowed the word.

    Just in case this topic hasn’t been confusing enough be comforted to know that there are multi-wheeled unicycles which are tall (giraffes) and have wheels stacked on top of one another transferring the force instead of a chain. This arrangement requires the rider to pedal backward with an even number of wheels or forward with and odd count. Are they still unicycles? Seems to me less confusing if the modifier trumps the prefix of the root word.

  21. CheddarMelt says:

    Riders of bicycles, motorcycles, tricycles, unicycles, and similar vehicles are called cyclists, so I would call the vehicles themselves “cycles.”

  22. tromboniator says:

    EmmettRedd said:
    I LIKE UIKE.


    As in Dwight David Ueisenhower?

  23. EmmettRedd says:

    tromboniator said:

    EmmettRedd said:
    I LIKE UIKE.


    As in Dwight David Ueisenhower?


    I had independently thought up “uike” and its pronounciation, yike, but did not have time to write it up because a proposal deadline was looming. However, once it was published, I wanted to support it. What better way than to recycle a campaign slogan from a popular president? It was also short enough that it did not impact my proposal writing work. Its punnynish did not hurt either.

    Emmett

  24. tromboniator says:

    I can just see him uiking down the halls of the White House.

    Peter

  25. DeadBeatPope says:

    I have just learned the word velocipede. It is an umbrella term for a human powered vehicle with one or more wheels. I won’t use it though because nobody knows it. Proper but ineffective.

  26. tromboniator says:

    I wouldn’t say nobody knows it; I’ve been familiar with it for decades. None of the definitions I’ve found is as general as you suggest. They pretty much insist on two or three wheels, powered by feet on the ground or crank attached to the front axle. I think that velo is used these days to refer to matters of the bicycle.

  27. EmmettRedd says:

    And, in about 1 year, there will be a lot of activity in an velodrome in England.

  28. Heimhenge says:

    I too knew the term “velocipede” but thought it referred only to those older style bicycles that had a huge front wheel and small back wheel. But at least according to Wiki, it is indeed an “umbrella” term for any human powered vehicle. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velocipede.

    Curious though, in that Wiki article, all but one of the sample photos show that older style bicycle as examples.

  29. tromboniator says:

    Oops, forgot Wikipedia; but none of the dictionary definitions…

  30. DeadBeatPope says:

    I forget where I encountered the word but will admit getting the definition from wikipedia.

  31. neeser says:

    In Japan, kids pull an eyelid, stick their tongue out and make a ‘blergh’ sound, as a way to taunt somebody. I love the ‘buckeye’ bit though, how cool! At my job, we sometimes do it when we’re in a mischievous mood.

  32. The0ne says:

    I’ve been trying to catch up on the shows online myself and the buckeye sure had me laughing. I do remember encountering the word as a very young kid, most likely from my reading addiction, and I remember it referring to a faulty eye of a horse. That’s how I remember it. However, the part that had me laughing hard was that our people, Hmong, have something similar. As the previous posted said, as kids we do this sometimes to taunt other kids or just to be silly. You don’t have to do anything but pull the bottom eyelid down and kids get the meaning.

    If I’m not mistaken this is common among Asians. My parents use the term to lecture us even if we didn’t do anything, but rather to prevent us from acting “silly”.

  33. Heimhenge says:

    Well, I don’t know if there’s any overlap or etymology related this use of “buckeye,” but the Ohio State Buckeye’s are so named for “chestnuts.” The chestnut tree is native to Ohio, and chestnuts look like the eyes of a deer (big and brown) and are referred to as either “chestnuts” or “buckeyes” in the Midwest.

    Could it be that the act of pulling down one’s lower eyelid makes the eye appear larger, like a buck’s eye?

    The ironic thing is that, due to shifting climate zones from global warming, the chestnut tree population is declining in Ohio, and moving north into Michigan, which just happens to be one of Ohio’s longstanding athletic rivals.

  34. jwwatkin says:

    Late in on this, but new to this forum.
    Re forte: Perhaps I missed it, but the obvious reference for me is the dynamic marking in music f which is always in English pronounced fortay with a very slight accent of the first sylable. There are very much fewer piano students these days and playing in a band or an orchestra may seem positively archaic to many, but in my family knowing music and its terminalogy is the norm, as it was in many American families a century ago.

    I rarely hear forte pronounced fort, even when there is no obvious musical connection. When I do, I find it an oddity and presume that the person using that pronunciation has no musical education and is likely not from around here.

  35. katydid says:

    About “buckeye” — bear with me, because this is a long speculation –
    I’ve never heard this slang or seen this little ritual trick, but I mostly grew up in Virginia & Martha’s mention about an old use for the term that meant second-rate triggered an idea. These are the elements of it:
    Word Detective says, “Apparently the buckeye tree was considered useless and annoying by early settlers, and as of the mid-19th century the adjective “buckeye” (as in “buckeye lawyer”) was synonymous with “second-rate” or “incompetent.”
    Cassell’s (2005) Dictionary of Slang adds the notion of a rustic country person as well as the definition of Buck-eyed: adj. [mid-19thc+] (US Black) having eyes considered out of the ordinary, cross-eyed, squinting, protruding, etc. [SE buck, to project].
    I don’t know if this is coincidence or confluence, but given the fact that these two slang terms come from the same era, I can’t help but think that they might be related or perhaps co-evolved with each other. Not quite sure what “SE buck, to project” refers to, except that SE means “standard English.” At any rate, we’re getting closer to a connection between someone with funny eyes and an incompetent rustic country person who could be easily fooled.

    It may be too much of a leap to make, but all of this made me think of my studies on ‘poor white trash’ in graduate school, reading the passionate frustration with which 19th c. scholars described poor whites in the South (who were mostly the descendants of poor Scots-Irish & English prisoners whose greatest crime was usually poverty) as lazy, bony, sallow, lank-haired, with misshapen heads, dull sunken eyes, “awkward manners, and a natural stupidity or dullness of intellect that almost surpasses belief” (D.R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States, 264.). Growing up in the South, we all know about this stuff but are too polite to talk about it much these days. It’s the Deliverance stuff. But, as it turns out, there was some science to the story.

    At the turn of the last century, hookworm disease was discovered in epidemic proportions in this population and a campaign set out to erradicate it. Most people in that social class didn’t wear shoes, walked in feces-contaminated soil (didn’t have outhouses, etc.), and caught the worm through breaks in the skin — hookworm only grows in tropical and subtropical soil, thus its presence in the South. Then they craved dirt because of the hookworms (and earned another nickname: clay-eaters) & re-infected themselves — a vicious cycle. Despite the fact that severe hookworm infection causes mental retardation when acquired in infancy, as well as severe anemia (sallow, lazy, bony) & many of the other physical symptoms observed by Hundly & others, the campaign to transform poor whites into model citizens by treating hookworm disease didn’t work…because its true cause was poverty. Turns out the healthy immune system (made so by good diet & the other hallmarks of a good standard of living) can either keep hookworm at bay or eliminate it. In the end, it took longer to bring about the social change that was needed to end that depth of poverty.

    Anyway, this is all gross and to say that maybe “buckeye” is a reference to this throw-away class of people that were seen as stupid and ignorant and funny-eyed due to malnutrition and the maladies of poverty.

    I don’t think it’s the “my eye” interpretation, because, as someone else pointed out, that has the opposite meaning: “I see you, I see through your game.”

    And buckeye could be some other reference altogether! This was just what jumped to my mind.
    Thanks. I LOVE this show!

    **ps: The symptoms of drooping, sunken or yellow eyes may have been the hallmark chosen and codified by this slang ritual — that, actually, now that I think of it, is starting to ring a bell. Not in relation to pulling someone’s leg and not with the word “buckeye,” but pulling the lower lid down to indicate idiocy, backwardness, etc. I’d have to have to ask old-timers to be sure.

  36. Lee says:

    Heimhenge said:

    I too knew the term “velocipede” but thought it referred only to those older style bicycles that had a huge front wheel and small back wheel. But at least according to Wiki, it is indeed an “umbrella” term for any human powered vehicle. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velocipede.

    Curious though, in that Wiki article, all but one of the sample photos show that older style bicycle as examples.


    I first encountered velocipede in Wodehouse years ago. I would have assumed that he was referring to one of those 19th-century contraptions.

  37. Glenn says:

    As a schoolboy in France in the 70s, I encountered the term used for bike: vélo. That led me to discover the complete form of the French word was vélocipède. That in turn led me to discover the unfamiliar word in English, velocipede.

  38. Theowyn says:

    imajoebob said:

    I’m sorry, but allowing people to make up foreign words is simply not acceptable to me. When someone pronouncing forte says “for-TAY,” they are not just employing the wrong language of the chosen word, they aren’t even using a real word! … But at the most basic, use of the French ‘forte” is not a substitution for a missing English word or phrase; it is an idiom used for specific meaning and emphasis. My strengths may include maths, reaching items on high shelves, and mowing the lawn. But arguing is my forte.

    I agree entirely. ForTAY is wrong on every level.

    Bike is already loaded enough in that it refers to both bicycles and motorcycles. Please, let’s not start adding unicycles and tricycles as well! By the way, does anyone know why tricycle is pronounced with a short ‘i’ instead of the long ‘i’ used in all the other ‘cycles’?

    Re Between and Among: I am staunchly opposed to using these interchageably. Between implies two whereas among can mean any number more than two. Using one to mean the other is confusing – at least to me – and that surely is not our purpose.

  39. Lee says:

    Theowyn said:

    Bike is already loaded enough in that it refers to both bicycles and motorcycles. Please, let’s not start adding unicycles and tricycles as well! By the way, does anyone know why tricycle is pronounced with a short ‘i’ instead of the long ‘i’ used in all the other ‘cycles’?


    Er, you pronounce tricycle with a short ‘i’? I’ve never heard it pronounced that way. Furthermore, I’ve never heard unicycle pronounced with a long ‘i’. (I suppose this could be regional. I’ve lived all my life in California; I grew up in SoCal, and presently live in the Bay Area.)

  40. tromboniator says:

    First half of my life (so far) in New York (State), second half in Alaska: I’ve never heard anyone, anywhere, even in jest, use a short i in tricycle, nor a long i in unicycle. What baffles me is why the y in bicycle and tricycle is pronounced like a short i, but in unicycle and motorcycle it’s a long one.

  41. Glenn says:

    My guess about the long and short y in cycle has to do with syllabic stress. In the historical versions where the stress immediately precedes the y, there would be a push to shorten the y vowel. When the preceding stress is more distant, then the y receives secondary stress.

    BI-cy-cle
    TRI-cy-cle

    MO-tor-CY-cle
    U-ni-CY-cle
    EX-er-CY-cle
    GI-ga-CY-cle
    HE-mi-CY-cle
    re-CY-cle
    A-qua-CY-cle
    HY-dro-CY-cle

    However, as far as newly formed compound words are concerned, I suspect we would treat the cycle part as a separate word, and employ a fixed stress on the y, regardless of preceding stress patterns. Batman might ride a Batcycle, pronounced BAT-CY-cle, and not a BAT-cy-cle, which sounds like a frozen bat, or the result of a successful attack by Mr. Freeze.

  42. Theowyn says:

    Lee and Tromboniator, I meant the short ‘i’ sound in ‘cycle’ which is the common part in all these words.

    Glenn, thank you for that explanation. That makes a lot of sense.

  43. Lee says:

    Theowyn said:

    Lee and Tromboniator, I meant the short ‘i’ sound in ‘cycle’ which is the common part in all these words.

    Glenn, thank you for that explanation. That makes a lot of sense.


    Ah! I was wondering where you found an (actual) ‘i’ in motorcycle :-) That should have clued me in to the fact that you were referring to the pronunciation of the ‘y’…

    Yes – thanks, Glenn!

  44. DeadBeatPope says:

    Lee said:

    Theowyn said:

    Bike is already loaded enough in that it refers to both bicycles and motorcycles. Please, let’s not start adding unicycles and tricycles as well!


    DO you think bike would buckle under such duty?

    I am not satisfied with the wiki definition for velocipede. If people know this word they relate it to the Penny Farthing. Here is another definition though:

    Velocipede in English
    tricycle; any of various types of early bicycles propelled by pedals attached to the front wheel or by the rider pushing his feet along the ground .

    I say uni for unicycle. Most unicyclists do too and that won’t change. I have heard it called a tricycle as often as a bike and have even heard it referred to as a unicorn.

  45. hippogriff says:

    Lots of topics this time.

    Martha’s bruising from unicycle is from staying on too long.  When you lose it, bail out – safer than a bicycle as you don’t have a frame to get tangled in and land on your feet.  Large front wheel antique bicycle: unicycle with training wheel.

    Etymologically, umbrella (little shadow) and parasol (with the sun) shield from sun, only secondarily from rain.

    A fort is a military strong point; for-tay is loud.  Why would one name a car “loud”?  Like Nova (no go or exploding star) or Vega (brightest star in Lyre[liar]).

    Dodge Ram: You have to dodge the Ram.  A command, not an oxymoron.  Bring back athlon (prize for athletic performance) instead of the oxymoronic athletic scholarship.

    Orange: In heraldry tenné, related to tawny, before the fruit arrived.

  46. sky says:

    Wish the show I heard today had been updated to reflect the input of this forum… But here’s my take on the eyelid pulling.

    Growing up in Southern California in the ’50s-’60s, it was something pretty much universal: to dismiss someone (as in to “diss” them) by pulling down on any cheek below your eye, so as to elongate the eye downward. Especially among the surf crowd, if one of us wanted to say “f*** you” to another in a semi-joking way, we’d pull down the eye. Even on other beaches we’d visit, with the locals there, the intent seemed immediately recognized.

    Now how this came to be, I’d figured, was from the culture of jokes, “dirty jokes,” specifically. Perhaps hard to conceive of, these days, but back then most perceived wisdom arrived via jokes. Usually from construction workers — a very large sampling, so many of us young men were divided into either construction worker-employment/mentality or else going to college, and that was a wide gulf separating us. It was an epic phenomena (to use the language of the day), a large cultural “fad,” and I and other students in anthropology in universities I attended used to spot the trends that would move like waves through our culture (pre-hippie), the topics transmitted via these crude, often off-color jokes told over lunch boxes.

    The relevant joke here involved a group studying ape communication, how gorillas seemed to be communicating with humans. Koko was the celebrated ape of the day and perhaps propelled the ironic veracity of the joke. Anyway this joke centered around the idea of a joke being played on the zoologists studying the apes’ language, who finally learned that a gesture they thought was affectionate really meant “f you.” The gesture of course was the pulling down of the eye.

    There were then — and I assume it continues, somewhere in academia — people studying the influence of joke-telling among blue-collar workers. Important factors have changed in our culture since then (loss of blue-collar dominance, new modes of communication, reliance on media, less humor…), but I thought the topic was fascinating enough that others might be intrigued too. 

  47. ablestmage says:

    Darn — “neeser” beat me to it. I was going to say the Japanese have a gesture involving pulling down one lower eyelid by placing the index finger on the upper cheekbone and pulling down to expose more of the eye, often sticking out their tongue and making a nyaaaahhh sound.. but I have no idea why. I watch a lot of untranslated, unsubtitles Japanese TV and have seen this dozens of times, but never really knew the context..

  48. rosswood40 says:

    ablestmage said:

    Darn — “neeser” beat me to it. I was going to say the Japanese have a gesture involving pulling down one lower eyelid by placing the index finger on the upper cheekbone and pulling down to expose more of the eye, often sticking out their tongue and making a nyaaaahhh sound.. but I have no idea why. I watch a lot of untranslated, unsubtitles Japanese TV and have seen this dozens of times, but never really knew the context..

    Don’t they also say baaaka (バカ) while doing it? Sounds almost exactly like buckeye….

  49. rosswood40 says:

    neeser said:

    In Japan, kids pull an eyelid, stick their tongue out and make a ‘blergh’ sound, as a way to taunt somebody. I love the ‘buckeye’ bit though, how cool! At my job, we sometimes do it when we’re in a mischievous mood.

    Don’t they say baaka with this?

  50. rosswood40 says:

    MarcNaimark said:

    Re “buckeye”, I’ve posted in another thread:

    The French have the same gesture, pulling down the lower eyelid with the index figure for an index. BUT it has the “opposite” meaning. It doesn’t mean that the person making the gesture has tried to fool the second person, but that the person making the gesture doesn’t believe something said by the second person. It’s more like “yeah, right, I’ll buy that” with a sarcastic tone, or “you’re pulling my leg” or “stop joshing me”. It corresponds to the expression “mon oeil” (my eye). The expression and the gesture can be used together or separately.

    They do the same in Israel….

  51. windwardsailor says:

    Re: Orange. Martha, you’ll find this especially interesting, if you haven’t heard it yet. In Puerto Rico, the fruit has an unexpected name: china. As a student of Spanish, but not a native speaker, during an extended stay in the west of the island, I heard friends refer to the citrus fruit as una china. When I asked, they gave me an etymology of sorts, which sounds completely plausible, that the word came from the printing on the crates that originally brought the fruit to the island. I’m not sure if that usage is unique to PR, but I tend to think it is. In Cuba, for example, I didn’t hear china at all, only naranja.  

  52. Ron Draney says:

    That’s interesting. Lately I’ve been noticing in the bilingual supermarket ads that the Spanish (of the Mexican variety, at least) name for cantaloupe corresponds to “Chinese melon”.

  53. ablestmage says:

    rosswood40 said:

    ablestmage said:

    Darn — “neeser” beat me to it. I was going to say the Japanese have a gesture involving pulling down one lower eyelid by placing the index finger on the upper cheekbone and pulling down to expose more of the eye, often sticking out their tongue and making a nyaaaahhh sound.. but I have no idea why. I watch a lot of untranslated, unsubtitles Japanese TV and have seen this dozens of times, but never really knew the context..

    Don’t they also say baaaka (バカ) while doing it? Sounds almost exactly like buckeye….

    Yes, and “baka” means “idiot” =P

    I just came back to this thread to offer a pop-culture reference to this gesture.. I’m watching the Alien sequel, Aliens (1986) and the black commanding officer of the marines, after coming out of stasis with the rest of the crew half-dressed and barefoot, has a brief conversation with a subordinate (loosely)..

    Subordinate: Ooh, this floor is cold!
    Officer: Oh, you want me to fetch you your slippers?
    Subordinate: Would you sarge? That’d be great!
    Officer: Look into my eye.. (pulls down left eyelid)

  54. jock123 says:

    In re: “Bumbershoot”/ “bumberchute” for “umbrella”, I’d be interested to know why some Americans appear to think it is a British word?
    As Martha and Grant discuss in the programme, the word is found in the U.S., not the U.K.; however, the couple of times I’ve come across the term, it has been put, by Americans, into the mouths of British people, apparently to identify them unambiguously as British…
    The first time I came across it was as a youngster reading a “Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” book by Michael Avallone, in which seemingly to boost his “Cockney” persona, the character Mark Slate (the eponymous Girl’s British side-kick) is made to mention a bumbershoot.
    I have also now just seen a repeat of the Frasier episode “My Coffee with Niles”, in which Daphne expresses thanks to Niles for using the word “bumbershoot”, as an example of her mother tongue – I wonder if Jane Leeves had heard the word before?
    Has anyone heard this being said in the U.K., and does anyone have an example of it being used by Americans, in America, as American English, rather than cod British?

  55. Robert says:

    If they made actors say “Bumbershoot” ,“bumberchute” to suggest Britishness, they would certainly succeed on me, though I cannot explain why- they just sound British. If the actor played an American, I would find that very peculiar.

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