If you say to someone the Spanish equivalent of you’re giving me green gray hairs (me sacas canas verdes), it means that person is making you angry. In Japan, the phrase that literally translates as “one red dot” refers metaphorically to “the lone woman in a group of men.” Martha and Grant discuss colorful idioms around the world, plus: making money hand over fist, don’t take a wooden nickel, names for the end of a loaf of bread, and where a sneeze may evoke the response, Scat, Tom! Get your tail out of the gravy!

This episode first aired Feb. 26, 2011. Listen here:

Download the MP3 here (23.8 MB).

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If you say to someone the Spanish equivalent of you’re giving me green gray hairs (me sacas canas verdes), it means that person is making you angry. In Japan, the phrase that literally translates as “one red dot” refers metaphorically to “the lone woman in a group of men.” Martha and Grant discuss these and other idioms collected online in Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project.

Is it proper to speak of servicing a customer, or does that sound too suggestive? Is it okay to use the word utilize instead of use? Is it pretentious to use the term formulate instead of simply form?

What do you call the end piece of a loaf of bread? Names for that last slice include heel, bread butt, kissing crust, bunce, skirk, krunka, truna, tumpee, canust, the nose, and in Spanish, codo, which means “elbow.”

In Spanish and French, if you have the equivalent of “a white night,” it means you didn’t get much sleep. In Sweden, if you have a “white week,” it means you didn’t drink a drop of alcohol.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a word puzzle about portmanteau words called “Say Can You See.”

Why do we say someone is making money hand over fist? Does it have to do with two competitors putting one hand over the other on a baseball bat to determine who’s up first? Or does it have to do with pulling a rope?

More great color idioms, this time from Serbo-Croatian: In that language, a phrase that translates as “I can’t see a white cat” means “I’m very tired,” and to “stare like a calf at a colorful door” means to “look upon something with surprise and wonder.”

A Dallas man says his father, who served in Vietnam, signed letters back home to the family with the phrase “don’t take any wooden nickels.” The hosts explain that this expression means “don’t let anyone swindle you.”

In Mandarin Chinese, if you’re big red and big purple, it means you’re “famous and popular.”

Scat, Tom! Get your tail out of the gravy!” In some parts of the country, especially the South, people say this after someone sneezes. But what does a cat warming its tail in the gravy boat have to do with sneezing?

Some foreign idioms involving color have been adopted whole into English. A case in point: French bête noire. Literally, it means “black beast,” and it’s used figuratively now in English to mean anything particularly disliked or avoided.

Grant recommends two blogs about writing well and copyediting: Merrill Perlman writes The Language Corner blog for the Columbia Journalism Review and Philip B. Corbett of the New York Times reports on actual grammatical and usage mistakes in that newspaper in his blog, After Deadline.

An Indianapolis listener has a copy of a wedding poem that refers to the thrice-happy pair. Is a thrice-happy pair three times as happy as anyone else? Martha explains that the idea goes all the way back to Roman poetry. Here’s an example from a translation of Horace’s Ode 1.13.

Does the expression petered out have to do with the Apostle Peter denying he knew Jesus? No, “petered out” may derive from the French peter, meaning to “pass gas.” Another theory is that the expression originated in mining and the use of saltpeter in explosives.

A fan of the TV series West Wing was puzzled by a character’s use of the term pulchritude. It’s a pretty ugly term for a word that means “beauty.” Check out what some other commenters are saying about the word.

Is it grammatically correct for a high school football team to call itself the Vanguards? A Wisconsin listener argues that Vanguard is already a plural noun.

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12 Responses

  1. Ron Draney says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    In Spanish and French, if you have the equivalent of “a white night,” it means you didn’t get much sleep. In Sweden, if you have a “white week,” it means you didn’t drink a drop of alcohol.


    And in Japanese, if you’re in your “white year“, you’re 99 years old. If you start with the character for “one hundred” and delete the horizontal stroke at the top (a stroke which, by itself, means “one”), you get the character for “white”.

    “one hundred”:
    hyaku

    “one”:
    ichi

    “white”:
    shiro

  2. Glenn says:

    I remember as a child being completely baffled about the term “White Sale.” I thought it meant that everything white was being sold at a reduced price.

  3. Ron Draney said:

    Grant Barrett said:

    In Spanish and French, if you have the equivalent of “a white night,” it means you didn’t get much sleep. In Sweden, if you have a “white week,” it means you didn’t drink a drop of alcohol.


    And in Japanese, if you’re in your “white year“, you’re 99 years old. If you start with the character for “one hundred” and delete the horizontal stroke at the top (a stroke which, by itself, means “one”), you get the character for “white”.

    “one hundred”:
    hyaku

    “one”:
    ichi

    “white”:
    shiro


    I did not know that, Ron. Nice to have a term for it. And yes, “white sale” used to baffle me, too. When I was very young, I figured it had something to do with January snow.

  4. Tim G says:

    On the topic of Krunka a “logical” rational for the word. Krunka is Icelandic for “to croak” as in a crow croaks, in Germanic cultures crows/ravens are linked tothe dead especially in battle and croaking is often slang for death, dead or end, the heel of the loaf is the end or death of a loaf Krunka. So logical I doubt this is really it, but wouldn’t it be nice. Personally it will always be the heel to me.

  5. johng423 says:

    THRICE: I’m not sure if this applies to the caller’s question directly, but I’ll offer it for consideration.

    I’ve read Bible commentaries that explain the Hebrews of ancient times would speak a word twice to emphasize it, and a word spoken three times expressed the ultimate or (as Martha put it on the podcast) the supreme. Examples:

    1) In the Old Testament, God is worshiped by angels crying, “Holy, holy, holy,” meaning He is supremely holy, the ultimate in holiness. (By the way, I’m told that God is not thrice-described with any other adjective. I haven’t checked that out for myself, but I can’t think of any passage in the Bible to dispute that claim.)

    2) In the New Testament, some sayings of Jesus begin (using King James language), “Verily, verily. . .” [in more modern English, "Truly, truly . . ."]. In doing so, He was emphasizing a point, conveying a meaning something like, “This is particularly important, so pay careful attention!” (In comparison/contrast, the apostle Paul in his letters sometimes used “This is a trustworthy saying” to bring similar emphasis, that is, to bring out statements of eternal truth that were reliable above and beyond any earthly circumstances.)

    3) Also in the New Testament, when the apostle Paul (definitely a Jew) prayed three times that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed, the contemporary Jewish mind would have interpreted “three times” as a description of extreme, exhaustive, absolute maximum effort. Similarly, God’s response, “My grace is sufficient,” to this thrice-prayed plea was His final word and ultimate decision on the subject. Paul recognized that as the end of the discussion, so to speak, and didn’t argue any more, but accepted that he would have to live with the “thorny” condition (whatever it was).

  6. Carol Piano says:

    About the words “serve” and “service.” I work for a bank. We offer a plethora of services, many of which are delivered indirectly.

    To say that I serve customers makes it sound like I actually have contact with customers. I don’t. So when I say “we service our customers”, I attempting to convey that I participate in the delivery of services, though I have no direct customer contact.

  7. johng423 says:

    WHITE SALE: I remember asking about this as a child. My mom said it was a sale of bed linens, so named because sheets, pillowcases, etc. were white (well, they were back then), and over time the sale also included other housewares such as towels. I can’t say she spoke with authority in terms of language and linguistics, but that was her explanation. With all the colorful accessories available today, it’s no wonder the phrase “white sale” doesn’t make much sense.

    (Martha – Since January is not the normal season for snow in the southern hemisphere, do stores there hold “white sales”? At a different time of year we do in the northern hemisphere? Or do they have similar January sales with a different name? Just curious.)
    ___

    FUN: I told my brother (who loves puns) about some of the categories of word play on your show. He immediately came up with this (maybe you’ve heard it before):
    What do you serve . . . twins? Pears (pairs).

    And I suppose this doesn’t qualify according to the one-word rule, but maybe you’ll make an exception:
    What do you serve . . . a child loudly demanding dessert? Ice cream (“I scream”).

    Over and out.

  8. ovz says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    More great color idioms, this time from Serbo-Croatian: In that language, a phrase that translates as “I can’t see a white cat” means “I’m very tired,” and to “stare like a calf at a colorful door” means to “look upon something with surprise and wonder.”


    In Russian one says “like a ram at a new gate“. The point is not so much surprise and wonder but being unable to identify the same thing because of appearance change. This is a derogatory idiom. It struck me that to make the Serbo/Croatian idiom the same we can just change colorful->colored. As it is it looks like the calf is just mesmerized but not that disfunctioned as Russian version implies.

    Does anyone have the knowledge of actual usage modes of the “stare like a calf at a colorful door” and if there exists a version stronger related to Russian one.

  9. Halszka says:

    About “krunka” or variants in spelling thereof – oh gosh.
    Hungarian wouldn’t be so very far off, I think, Grant.

    In Polish (mainstream) we have the word “kromka” which means exactly what your caller said – the very end of a loaf of bread. And all kids love it, especially when the bread is so fresh it’s warm – we still get that around here ^_^ The word your caller gave sound so beguilingly close I can’t help thinking it’s a very slight corruption of our “kromka”.

    How a Polish term for that would ever end up somewhere in the Pennsylvania Dutch I know not, but I wouldn’t call that entirely improbable.

    Fun Fact: in the mountains down south in Poland the call that part of bread “piętka” which translates as “(little) heel” :)

  10. Halszka says:

    Oh, sorry I’m going in installments here, I’m listening to the podcast right now.
    This Serbo-Croatian proverb must be an old, old one, the theme of a calf or a cow staring at a colorful gate seems to run in Slavic languages. In Polish we have “gapić się jak wół na malowane wrota [READS ROUGHLY: gapitsch shey yak vool na malovaneh vrotah]“, which translates literally as “to stare (at something) like a bull at a painted gate”, it means to stare at something in utter puzzlement or being completely dumbfounded about a situation. It does have a derogatory ring to it, that’s not a kind thing to say in a person’s face. It implies that the speaker thinks the person he/she speaks about is stupid, slow, incapable and/or incompentent.
    So, there’s that ^_^
    This podcast is great, feel like home :D

  11. ovz says:

    Halszka said:

    Oh, sorry I’m going in installments here, I’m listening to the podcast right now.
    This Serbo-Croatian proverb must be an old, old one, the theme of a calf or a cow staring at a colorful gate seems to run in Slavic languages. In Polish we have “gapić się jak wół na malowane wrota [READS ROUGHLY: gapitsch shey yak vool na malovaneh vrotah]“, which translates literally as “to stare (at something) like a bull at a painted gate”, it means to stare at something in utter puzzlement or being completely dumbfounded about a situation. It does have a derogatory ring to it, that’s not a kind thing to say in a person’s face. It implies that the speaker thinks the person he/she speaks about is stupid, slow, incapable and/or incompentent.
    So, there’s that ^_^
    This podcast is great, feel like home :D


    Yes, Polish variant also stresses that a piece of livestock does something dumb. Serbo-Croatian feel “out-of-ordinary” exactly because it indicates the calf as naively succumbing to pretty pictures but not a disfunctional one.

    BTW an older word for livestock in Slavic languages is “skot”, which comes from Germanic word for money but interestingly enough it is used in vary informal language as a curse word (for someone dumb and brutal) and in very official language to designate livestock.

  12. MarcNaimark says:

    Regarding Paris’s “Nuit blanche”, a wee correction. Grant may have conflated the Fête de la Musique, which takes place all over France, yearly on the summer solstice, and when all sorts of amateur and professional musical performances take place indoors and out, with the Nuit blanche, which takes place in Paris in October, and is a sort of giant indoor/outdoor one-night-only contemporary art festival. Although Paris likes to claim to have created the Nuit blanche, which happens elsewhere now, I myself recall participating in a similar event in Stuttgart, and I know it exists in other cities (these events, like the first edition of the Paris Nuit blanche, were more about events taking place in public buildings that are usually closed at night to the public, like libraries, hospitals, government offices, etc.).

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