When it comes to learning new things, what’s on your bucket list? A retired book editor decided to try to learn Latin, and ended up learning a lot about herself. There’s a word for someone who learns something late in life. And when it comes to card games, how is it that the very same game goes by lots of different names? What you call Canfield, other people may call Nertz! Finally, a bit of vulture culture: Words for these birds depend on what they’re doing: A kettle of vultures is swirling in the air, while a group of vultures standing around eating is called … a wake. Plus, “cat’s eyes,” “Bott’s dots,” “dumpster fire,” spagglers, Dan Ratherisms, “pussle-gut,” and “let’s blow this pop stand.”

This episode first aired July 29, 2016.

Download the MP3.

 Road Cat’s Eyes
A restaurant review in the Myanmar Times describes a steak that “could not have been more middle-of-the-road if it was glued to a cat’s eye.” This analogy makes sense only if you know that “cat’s eye” is a term for the reflective studs in the middle of a road that help drivers stay in their own lanes.

 Egyptian Card Games
Card games often go by several different names, like Canfield and Nertz, or Egyptian Racehorse and Egyptian Rat Screw, or B.S. and Bible Study. These names, and the rules for each, vary because they’re more often passed from person to person by word-of-mouth rather than codified in print. Incidentally, the use of the word Egyptian in various card game names stems from the fact that playing cards supposedly originated in Egypt.

 Kennywood is Open
A woman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, say that there, if someone’s fly is open, instead of saying “XYZ” for “Examine Your Zipper,” many people say “Kennywood is open.” Kennywood, it turns out, is a nearby amusement park.

 If a Frog Had a Pouch
A San Diego, California, woman is baffled by her husband’s saying: “If a frog had a pouch, he’d carry a gun.” It has to do with wishing for the impossible, similar to the saying “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” It’s one of many Dan Ratherisms, folksy sayings popularized by the Texas-born CBS newscaster.

 Dumpster Fire
The trendy term “dumpster fire,” meaning “a chaotically horrible situation,” may have originated with sportswriters.

 Odd Word Out Word Game
Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s quiz is a challenge to find the odd word out, etymologically speaking. For example, which word doesn’t belong in the following group? Bigot, saloon, quiche, tornado.

 Mordida!
In Spanish, mordida literally means “a bite,” but it’s a kind of bribe. It predates the English phrase “put the bite on someone” by more than a hundred years. One proposed etymology for the Spanish term is that divers rescuing treasure from wrecked Spanish galleons were allowed, on their final dive, to keep as many coins as they could bring up crammed into their mouths. Another story goes that the underlings of a Spanish nobleman collected a special tax to help pay for his extensive dental work, then simply continued the practice after the work was paid for. Both of these colorful stories are probably too colorful to be believed. “Mordida!” is also a popular cry at birthday celebration in parts of Latin America, where the birthday boy or girl is encouraged by cheering guests to plunge face first into a cake.

 Spagglers and Mary Washington
A listener in Abilene, Texas, says that his Maryland relatives always referred to asparagus as spagglers, so he was shocked when he got to college and realized no one else knew what he was talking about. This vegetable goes by lots of other names, including spargus, spiro grass, asper guts, dusty roots, and aspirin grass. In upstate New York, it’s even called Martha Washington or Mary Washington.

 Cafeteria Jello
No word if Dan Rather coined this phrase, but “shakier than cafeteria jello” describes something that’s pretty jiggly indeed.

 Pitched Battle vs. Pitch Battle
Is it a pitched battle or a pitch battle? Originally, a pitched battle was conducted according to traditional rules of warfare, which called for combat in a prearranged time and place. The pitch in this term has to do with positioning, in much the same sense as to pitch a tent.

 Bott’s Dots
“Bott’s dots” are little round pavement markers, named for California highway engineer Elbert D. Botts.

 Opsimaths
Having retired as a New York book editor, and looking for a way to fill her time, Ann Patty embarked on the study of college-level Latin. She chronicles those studies and the life lessons learned in Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin. Someone who begins to learn late in life is called an opsimath. What’s on your opsimathic bucket list?

 Pussle-Guts
A caller from Vermont says his Mississippi-born grandfather always called him a pussle-gut, and admonish him about an unseen wampus cat. The former, also spelled puzzle-gut, simply means “a fat or pot-bellied person,” the pussle being related to pus, as in the bodily ooze. American folklore is full of stories about the wampus cat, a terrifying, hybrid mythical creature.  

 Forked End Down
A listener in Springfield, Illinois, recalls that an elderly relative would respond to the question “How are you?” with the answer “Forked end down.” By that, he meant, “I’m fine.” If you’ve ever drawn a stick figure, you know that the forked end is where the feet are, so forked end down means someone’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. In the American West, “forked end up” long referred to the unfortunate position of a rider thrown from a horse.  

 Kettle of Vultures
A hike in San Diego’s Mission Trails Regional Park has Martha pondering terms for turkey vultures. A flock of vultures in flight is called a kettle, a committee, or a volt, while a group of vultures feeding on carrion is called a wake.

 Blow This Pop Stand
“Let’s blow this popsicle stand” is an adaptation of “Let’s blow this pop stand,” meaning to leave a place, and in a way that’s showy. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

 Eyeshine
The glow in the eyes of some animals is called eyeshine, and the adjective that describes such shimmering in a cat’s eyes is chatoyant, from French for “cat.”

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

Photo by 5chw4r7z. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Broadcast

Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin by Ann Patty

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
The Jungle Oddisee Mental Liberation Instrumentals Mello Music Group
Rhymes Get Written Oddisee Mental Liberation Instrumentals Mello Music Group
Bold And Black Ramsey Lewis Another Voyage Cadet
Cold For That Oddisee Mental Liberation Instrumentals Mello Music Group
When Everything Changed Oddisee Mental Liberation Instrumentals Mello Music Group
Uhuru Ramsey Lewis Another Voyage Cadet
What’s Crazy Oddisee Mental Liberation Instrumentals Mello Music Group
Down Under Oddisee Mental Liberation Instrumentals Mello Music Group
Volcano Vapes Sure Fire Soul Ensemble Out On The Coast Colemine Records

Leave a Reply