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.
Download the MP3 here (23.5 MB).
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!”
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