When does a word’s past make it too sensitive to use in the present? In contra dancing, there’s a particular move that dancers traditionally call a gypsy. But there’s a growing recognition that many people find the term gypsy offensive. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. Plus, the surprising story behind why we use the phrase in a nutshell to sum things up. A hint: it goes all the way back to Homer’s Iliad. Also: games that feature imaginary Broadway shows and tweaked movie titles with new plots, plus put mustard on it, lately deceased, resting on one’s laurels, and throw your hat into the room, plus similes galore.

This episode first aired February 19, 2016.

Download the MP3.

 Movies With -ing Added
A game making the rounds online involves adding the ending -ing to movie titles, resulting in clever new plots. For example, on our Facebook group, one member observed that The Blair Witch Project becomes The Blair Witch Projecting, “in which high-schooler Blair Witch reads too much into the inflection of her friends’ words.”

 Rest on One’s Laurels
Which is correct: rest on one’s laurels or rest on one’s morals? The first one right phrase. It refers to refusing to settle for one’s past accomplishments. In classical times, winners of competitions were awarded crowns made from the fragrant leaves of bay laurels. For the same reason, we bestow such honors as Poet Laureate and Nobel Laureate.

 Put Some Mustard On It
When someone urges you to put some mustard on it, they want you to add some energy and vigor. It’s a reference to the piquancy of real, spicy mustard, and has a long history in baseball.

 Sneeze-Horn
Need a synonym for “nose”? Try this handy word from a 1904 dialect dictionary: sneeze-horn.

 Music Between Segments
Those little musical interludes on radio programs, particularly public radio shows, go by lots of names, including stinger, button, bumper, and bridge. By the way, the fellow who chooses and inserts them in our show is our engineer and technical editor, Tim Felten, who also happens to be a professional musician.

 Broadway Show Puzzle Quiz
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about Broadway show titles—but with a twist.

 Gypsy Dance Move
There’s a long tradition in contra dancing of a particular move called a gypsy. Many people now consider the term gypsy offensive, however, because of the history of discrimination against people of Romani descent, long referred to as gypsies. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. We explain why they should.

 Erin Brockoviching
In the game of adding -ing to movie titles, Erin Brockovich becomes Erin Brockoviching, the story of a crotchety Irishwoman’s habit of complaining.

 Late Meaning Deceased
When is it appropriate to use the word late to describe someone who has died? Late, in this sense, is short for lately deceased. There’s no hard and fast time frame, although it’s been suggested that anywhere from five to 30 years is about right. It’s best to use the word in cases where it may not be clear whether the person is still alive, or when it appears in a historical context, such as “The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 in honor of the late John F. Kennedy.”

 Strangers on a Training
In the game of appending -ing to a movie title to change its plot, the movies Strangers on a Train and Network both become films about corporate life.

 Old Similes
A simile is a rhetorical device that describes by comparing two different things or ideas using the word like or as. But what makes a good simile? The 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases, by Yale public-speaking instructor Grenville Kleiser, offers a long list similes he’d collected for students to use as models, although some clearly work better than others.

 In A Nutshell
In a nutshell refers to something that’s “put concisely,” in just a few words. The phrase goes all the way back to antiquity when the Roman historian Pliny described a copy of The Iliad written in such tiny script that it could fit inside a nutshell.

 Kitchen Neck Hair
Among many African-Americans the term kitchen refers to the hair at the nape of the neck. It may derive from Scots kinch, a “twist of rope” or “kink.”

 More Old Similes
Some of the more successful similes in Grenville Kleiser’s 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases include the sky was like a peach and like footsteps on wool and quaking and quivering like a short-haired puppy after a ducking.

 Throw Your Hat Into the Room
To throw your hat into the room is to ascertain whether someone’s angry with you, perhaps stemming from the idea of tossing your hat in ahead of to see if someone shoots at it. Ronald Reagan used the expression this way when apologizing to Margaret Thatcher for invading Grenada in 1983 without notifying the British in advance.

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

Photo by jeffreyw. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Broadcast

Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Enough Is Enough New Mastersounds Made For Pleasure Royal Potato Family
Gandayina Vula Viel Yes Yaa Yaa Vula Viel Records
Super Strut Deodato The Roots of Acid Jazz Sony
Bewa Vula Viel Yes Yaa Yaa Vula Viel Records
Give Me A Sign Nigel Hall Ladies and Gentlemen… Nigel Hall Feel Records
Cigar Time New Mastersounds Made For Pleasure Royal Potato Family
Sideman Lonnie Smith The Roots of Acid Jazz Sony
High And Wide New Mastersounds Made For Pleasure Royal Potato Family
Volcano Vapes Sure Fire Soul Ensemble Out On The Coast Colemine Records

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