If you’re inappropriately focused on the minutiae of a project instead of the bigger picture, you’re said to be bike-shedding. Grant talks about that modern slang term and Martha discusses a word that goes way back in time, right back to “In the beginning,” in fact. The word is tohubohu, and it means a “mess” or “confusion.”

This episode first aired February 7, 2010.

Download the MP3.

Grant and Martha discuss a new term, bike-shedding, and an old one, tohubohu.

 Swan Song
Where’d we get the term swan song? A caller says this expression came up in conversation just before her retirement and she wonders about its origin. Martha reads email from listeners suggesting alternatives to the word retirement.

Is the word criteria singular or plural?

 Make it a Double Quiz
Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is about phrases that suggest a pair of words that are spelled alike, except that in one of them, a letter is doubled. Try to guess the two nearly identical words suggested by this phrase: “Wagered on a root vegetable.”

 English Derivatives of Tagalog
It’s likely America’s greatest linguistic export: O.K. A caller raised in the Philippines is curious about its origin. The hosts give him an answer, and also point out a familiar word in English that derives from the caller’s native language, Tagalog.

 Female vs. Woman
When is it more appropriate to use the word female as opposed to woman?

 Slang Quiz with David Pogue
David Pogue, technology columnist for The New York Times, grapples with a slang quiz. First he shares own his favorite slang term, nonversation, then tries to guess the meaning of the archaic technological slang terms planktonocrit, phenakistoscope, and sphygmograph.

 Regional Pronunciations of Crayon
What’s the correct pronunciation of crayon? Is it cray-on? Cran? Crown? Here’s a dialect survey map that shows the distribution of these pronunciations.

 A Mother’s Playful Interjections
A Green Bay, Wisconsin, caller is curious about her mother’s playful interjections. If someone said, “Well,” her mother would add, “Well, well. Three holes in the ground.” If someone started a sentence with “So” she’d interject, “Buttons on your underwear!” Or if someone said, “See,” she’d add “Said the blind man as he picked up a hammer and saw.” And if they were watching a movie and the dramatic tension rose, she’d declare, “The thought plickens!” The caller wonders if those expressions date back to a particular era or context, and says she’s now taught them to her Indonesian husband.

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

Photo by Originalni Digitalni. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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8 Responses

  1. mj says:

    I was so excited to hear on the program teaser that you’d be discussing “female” and “woman.” But you let the caller off too easily. When you asked, “How would you say that you preferred a female doctor?” she said “A doctor that is a woman…Or, a doctor that is not male.” That’s not consistent! Why is okay to say male but the word “female” is semi-taboo?
    Can I offer my theory on why so many people use “woman” as both a noun and an adjective? In the 1970s, proponents of women’s lib made a bit deal about the then-accepted useage of calling women “ladies” (or “girls”)and insisted that women be called women. Thus “lady engineers” and “lady doctors” turned into “woman engineers” and “woman doctors” because people substituted “woman” for “lady” whether “lady” had previously been used as a noun or an awkward adjective.
    And everyone was left thinking that “female” was somehow non-PC also.

  2. Leaflady says:

    I confess to using the word “female” frequently, and in my case it’s related to age — my own and also the age of the females I’m referring to. When I was in college in the mid-60s, we still referred to one another as “boys” and “girls.” “Women” were at least 25! Despite being a MS. Magazine subscriber through the 70s and 80s, not to mention simply living through 40 years of culture and media since then, I still find it hard to think of a female under 21 as a “woman.” I’ll call females 18-22 or so “young women.” If I’m talking about a group of females of mixed ages, I’ll use “females,” as I just did! And if it’s an adjective, I’ll always use “female.”

    Incidentally, in thinking about this subject, it also struck me that — for me at least — the term “young girl” indicates a female in her teens or early 20s, while the term “young boy” seems to fit grade-school age! Am I the only one who thinks that?

  3. johng423 says:

    “The thot plickens” – A friend of mine loves to shock other people. His expression was, “The plot clots.” (Sounds to me like an unexpected bloody murder in a mystery film.) *shudders*

  4. Debby with a why says:

    male and female: I agreed with the caller about the awkwardness of using “female” as a noun, but I find the equivalent use of “male” just as awkward. Either sounds to me like police jargon or corporate human relations department weaselese. And I’m perfectly happy to use either as an adjective, in case I feel the need to refer to a female or male engineer or doctor.

    As for crayons, I just remembered a story my mother told me long ago. When she was a little girl, she distressed a boy in her class by telling him that Santa Claus wasn’t real, and in his distress, he grabbed her leg, rubbed her foot back and forth on the ground, and said, “Crane, crane, why don’t you write?” She was just as confused as you are at this point, but then she worked out that he was referring to her middle name, Crane. To him, that word was the same as “crayon.” (I don’t know if this is a matter of dialect or idiolect, but it took place in upstate New York, not far from Buffalo.)


  5. gspencer9 says:

    I’m currently a student at the infamous Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The statistics professors (especially) and, come to think of it, everyone else use data as a plural word. This is first place where I’ve heard the term used consistently, surprisingly consistently. Those data are… These are the correct data… All of the data were… When I first arrived, I had the tendency to use data in the singular. Now, after a year, I’ve been peer pressured into changing all my verbs to plural when using the word data. Sometimes I get the impression that it’s kind of used as an identification tool – who’s a member of the club?? If you use data as a singular word, it’s OK — you’ll catch on soon. No one sneers or corrects. The unspoken rule is simply taught by example. Meanwhile, sometimes at work, I catch myself on the cusp of using data-plural. Then I correct myself and use data-singular in order to not seem too self-righteous. I might have some serious data/self-esteem issues to work through.

    In God we trust. Ask everyone else for data.

  6. Lychee says:

    My mother also used to say “the thought plickens” on occasion. She also used the “so… buttons on your underwear”, although it later got shortened to just “buttons”. A friend of mine said in the Little House on the Prairie books they said, “So… buttons to ice cream and see if they’ll stick.” I remember my mother also replying to “hey” with “is for horses, and also for cows, but not good for children to put in their mouths.” The “blind man” one was also used quite a bit, usually by my punster uncle. We learned never to greet him with “what’s up?” or we’d get “the sky… clouds… airplanes… price of gas, etc”. “What’s new?” would get, “New York, New Jersey… New Caledonia.” And all of them made us kids groan and roll our eyes.

  7. Debby with a why says:

    I’m a co-author of a book on data visualization. Early in our writing process, we had to decide whether to use data as a plural or a singular word, and our publisher (Springer) allowed us to make our own decision. We chose the singular form, “data is,” and we referred to single items as data values or data records or some such thing. To us, the more “correct” form has come to sound stilted. We surveyed our colleagues and a few other books, and it seemed to us that both usages are equally common in formal writing these days.

    gspencer9 said:
    I’m currently a student at the infamous Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The statistics professors (especially) and, come to think of it, everyone else use data as a plural word.

  8. jopa123 says:

    mj said:

    When you asked, “How would you say that you preferred a female doctor?” she said “A doctor that is a woman…Or, a doctor that is not male.”


    I noticed this, too. The caller had a real issue with the word “female” but the word “male” rolled off the tongue without a second thought. I had to replay the podcast to see if I had heard that right.

    I think it might be a temperament thing. Men, in general, just don’t care that much what they are called as long as the point gets across. Whereas women may feel that they have not had enough respect throughout the ages and these terms carry more power, one way or the other. Like the Ms. versus Mrs. issue, etc.

    Just a thought.

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