The disturbing sensation you feel when almost-human characters seem downright creepy is called the uncanny valley. Speaking of creepy, do you know someone with a morbid fear of clowns? There’s a term for that, too. Why do politicians suspend a campaign instead of just ending it? How is it that the sentence Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo actually makes sense? Plus, onomatopoeia for the digital age, a magic word quiz, and the kippie bags and vaporwakes you’ll find in the airport security line.
This episode first aired March 10, 2012.
What is it about lifelike robots and the humanoid characters in movies like The Polar Express that feels so disturbing? Robotics scientist Masahiro Mori dubbed this phenomenon the uncanny valley. There are lots of interesting articles explaining this creepy sensation in Slate, Wired, and on the NPR blog.
When investing or trading stocks, the last thing you want is to take a bath — or, for that matter, a haircut. The first of these refers to getting cleaned out of money. The second is an allusion to being left with as little as two bits, or 25 cents.
Suspend vs. End a Campaign
Why do politicians say they’re going to suspend a campaign? Aren’t they really just ending it? Under Federal Election Commission funding regulations, politicians can continue to collect money for paying off campaign fees well after an election, so long as their campaign is just suspended. William Safire’s Political Dictionary remains the best reference for such political terminology.
Commas With Modifiers
Would you prefer a low, six-figure salary or a low six-figure salary? With the comma, there are two independent modifiers for the salary; it’s six figures and by the speaker’s standards, it’s low. Without the comma, it’s simply less than $500,000.
Magical Word Game
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a magical puzzle, the answers to which contain the word magic. For example, a motel sign in the ’70s might have included the enticement Magic Fingers, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a practitioner of literature featuring magic realism.
Whoa vs. Woah
How do you spell the exclamation that rhymes with the word “woe”? Is it woah or whoa? The correct spelling in the United States is whoa, but when words are primarily transmitted orally, spelling often varies.
Happy Figures of Speech
If you’re as happy as if someone were throwing pork at you, you’re pretty darn happy. And if something is higher than a cat’s back, it’s pretty darn high.
Post-9/11, we’ve heard a lot of new jargon pertaining to travel and security. An example is vaporwake, that term for the airborne trail we leave of our natural scent, perfumes, and the odor of any drugs or weapons we may be carrying. Another example of Transportation Safety Administration terminology: puffer machine, the device that’s used to read your vaporwake by blowing a puff of air on you.
English Noun Genders
Why don’t nouns have gender in English they way they do in Spanish, French, or German? Before the Middle English period, nouns in English were either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Over time, however, we’ve moved away from the semantically arbitrary practice of assigning genders to objects that have none. In other words, the linguistic notion of grammatical gender is completely different from biological and social notion of natural gender. Read a chapter about it from Gender Shifts in the History of English by Anne Curzan.
Kippie bags, named after the former TSA head Kip Hawley, are those quart-sized bags we put toiletries in when going through airport security.
Grant has collected some modern onomatopoeia for the technological age. Try untz, for the beat in dance music, or wub, for the common dubstep sound. Pew pew! works for lasers and beep for a computer’s beep is a modern classic.
Cheap and Expensive
Can you describe a price as cheap or expensive, or are those words only properly applied to the item for sale, rather than the price?
Absenteeism is a problem in the workplace, but so is presenteeism. That’s when people who should stay home to nurse a cold or flu insist on coming in to work, risking a turn for the worse or infecting everyone around them.
When it comes to words like reckon, is it true that Southerners preserve the Queen’s English?
What do you call a fear of clowns? Coulrophobia, from the ancient Greek term for “one who walks on stilts.” Perhaps coulrophobia is a creepy cousin of the uncanny valley. This article from Scientific American explains further. Here’s video of a woman who is afraid of clowns.
Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo
How many buffaloes can you fit in a sentence? Eight? How about 40? The sentence Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is a staple of introductory linguistics classes because it’s a great illustration of polysemy, in which one word can have several different meanings and parts of speech. In this case, example, buffalo can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, and a proper noun. It makes more sense to think of it this way: “Buffalo-originating bison that other Buffalo bison intimidate, themselves bully Buffalo bison.”
Photo by TenSafeFrogs. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Broadcast
|1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose|
|Safire’s Political Dictionary by William Safire|
|Gender Shifts in the History of English by Anne Curzan|
|Humpty Dumpty||Placebo||Ball Of Eyes||CBS|
|Destiny’s Children||Freddie Hubbard||Keep Your Soul Together||CTI|
|Son of Mr. Green Genes||Frank Zappa||Hot Rats||Reprise Records|
|Oh! Oh! Here He Comes||Herbie Hancock||Fat Albert Rotunda||Warner Brothers|
|Four Play||Fred Wesley & The Horny Horns||Four Play||Atlantic|
|Brawling Broads||Roy Ayers||Coffy||Polydor|
|Mr. Magician||Mystic Merlin||Mr. Magician 45rpm||Capitol Records|
|Fat Albert Rotunda||Herbie Hancock||Fat Albert Rotunda||Warner Brothers|
|Papa Was A Rolling Stone||Sidney, George, and Jackie||Papa Was A Rolling Stone 45rpm||Attack|
|The Mail Must Go Through||The Cult||The Mail Must Go Through||Starburst Records|
|Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off||Ella Fitzgerald||Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book||Verve|