Need a good Scrabble word? Grant shares some of his favorites. Also, why do we call those classic screwball films madcap comedies? And what does it mean to walk in a crocodile? Plus mondegreens, naval slang, learned vs learnt, and “No way, Jose!” And what do you call that flourish at the bottom of John Hancock’s John Hancock?

This episode first aired March 12, 2014.

Download the MP3.

 Favorite Scrabble Words
Need a Scrabble word with q or z? Grant shares some of his favorite legal Scrabble words: qi (the circulating life force in Chinese philosophy), qat (a leaf chewed in some cultures for stimulating effects), and za (a shortening of the word “pizza”). He’s inviting listeners to challenge him on the game Words with Friends or WordFeud on the iPhone or Android: search the username grantbarrett. What good is a smartphone without smart friends?

 Belly Up
Where do we get the phrase “belly up”? The expression has made its way to the bar, but the original belly up belonged to a dead fish.

A listener wonders why his girlfriend remarks “hubba-hubba” when he’s dressing up for the night. The flirty call had its heyday in the 1940s, when World War II soldiers would see a pretty lady walking down the street. Although no one’s sure of the origin of “hubba hubba,” new research suggests it might have evolved from a catchphrase used by the “Ki Ki, the Haba Haba Man,” an employee of P.T. Barnum.

 Joe with Cow and Sand
There’s nothing like some joe with cow and sand in the morning. That would be “coffee with milk and sugar” in World War II naval slang.

 Rhyming Headlines Quiz
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game of rhyming headlines based on the 1937 Variety issue, “Sticks Nix Hick Pix,” claiming that rural folks avoid movies about rural folks.

 Madcap Comedy
What is a madcap comedy? A fan of classics like Bringing up Baby wonders about the origin of the term. Martha explains that years ago, the word cap sometimes referred to one’s “head.” So if someone’s “madcap,” they’re crazy in the head. And of course, what would Shakespeare’s Henry IV be without the “nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales”?

Did you say “shtreet”? The str sound is becoming shtr in the mouths of English speakers. Grant explains that this pronunciation of “street” as “shtreet” is simply a feature of language — sort of the consonant version of a diphthong.

 Paraph on Old Signatures
What do you call that embellishment at the bottom of old signatures, like the hash-marked line beneath John Hancock’s name? It’s called a paraph, originally used as a distinct mark to protect against forgery.

A listener was confused when she heard a radio announcer say a man had “Amanda Lynn” in his hands, only to find out that it was “a mandolin.” These funny misheard phrases are called mondegreens, a term coined in Sylvia Wright’s 1954 Harper’s article, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” It comes from a mishearing of the song “The Bonny Earl of Moray”: “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray, and laid him on the green.” Another example: “Olive, the other reindeer” for “all of the other reindeer” in the song about Rudolph. Other misheard lyrics.

 Poem about Telling Stories
Grant reads from a listener’s favorite poem by Lisel Mueller called “Why We Tell Stories.” It reads in part: “We sat by the fire in our caves,/ and because we were poor, we made up a tale/ about a treasure mountain/ that would open only for us.”

 Favorite Librarian
Martha shares an email from a longtime listener, Lois Teeslink of Vista, California, about a favorite childhood librarian.

 No Way, Jose!
What’s the source of the phrase “No way, Jose”? And who in the world is Jose? Grant says the expression doesn’t show up in print until 1973, contrary to the oft-repeated story that it appeared in The Village Voice during the 1960s. The phrase “No way” was often used then; the name Jose was likely tacked on just because it rhymes.

 Acting in Haste
The saying “act in haste, repent at leisure” is typically a warning that means “if you make a hasty decision, you’ll have plenty of time to mull over your mistake later.” It’s likely a variation of an older version, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure.” David Foster Wallace had a most apt use of the phrase in his novel Infinite Jest: “The shopworn ‘Act in Haste, Repent at Leisure’ would seem to have been custom-designed for the case of tattoos.” Be it a tattoo or a marriage, it’s wise to think about the consequences before you act.

 Walk in a Crocodile
Did you ever walk in a crocodile? In Britain, a crocodile can be “a group of children walking two by two in a long file.” The phrase came up in an interview with the stylist Vidal Sassoon, who, as a child in London walked in a crocodile to school with other Jewish students being heckled by Nazi sympathizers. (Here is an interesting interview with him on Fresh Air.)

 Learned vs. Learnt
Are we tested on what we’ve learned, or what we’ve learnt? Grant explains how efforts to replace the “t” verb ending with “ed” gradually took hold in the United States, but not in Britain. Affiliated nations, such as Australia, New Zealand, and India, also use the “t” form. Either way, they’re both correct. Grant recommends some books on Indian English: Dialects of Indian English and Contemporary Indian English.

 Listeners’ Favorite Proverbs
“Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” said the radio comedian Fred Allen. Listeners are invited to share their favorite modern proverbs like this one, as well as their favorite classics.

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

Photo by Samantha Marx. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Dialects of Indian English by Sailaja Pingali
Contemporary Indian English by Andreas Sedlatschek

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Find Yourself The Meters Trick Bag Sundazed
Darling, Darling, Darling The Meters Struttin Sundazed
Pamukkale The Whitefiels Brothers Earthology Now-Again
Ariya Fela Kuti The Underground Spiritual Game Quannum Projects
Zombie Fela Kuti Zombie Knitting Factory
Gentleman Fela Kuti Gentleman Knitting Factory
Sam Yelesh The Whitefiels Brothers Earthology Now-Again
Afro Beat Blues Ojah with Hugh Masekela The Chisa Years BBE
In The Pocket King Curtis and The King Pins In The Pocket ATCO
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Billie Holiday All Or Nothing At All Polygram Records
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