Pickle, baboon, cupcake, snorkel, pumpkin, Kalamazoo—let’s face it, some words are just plain funny. But what makes some words funnier than others? Martha and Grant consider this question with an assist from Neil Simon’s play (and movie) The Sunshine Boys. Also in this episode: “There are three words in the English language that end in -gry. Angry and hungry are two of them.” The hosts explain how this aggravating riddle works—and doesn’t work. And what’s a shivaree?

This episode first aired May 16, 2009. Listen here:

Download the MP3 here (23.5 MB).

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Do you know this diabolical riddle? “There are three words in the English language that end in -gry. Angry and hungry are two of them. What’s the third?” The hosts explain that the answer’s not as simple as you might think.

Does the expression to boot, as in “I’ll sell you this Hummer and throw in a free tank of gas to boot,” have anything to do with booting up a computer?

In an earlier episode, the hosts discussed the phrase all over it like a duck on a junebug, which refers to doing something with great eagerness. Martha shares an email from a Wisconsin listener who’s watched plenty of ducks interact with junebugs and offers a vivid description of what that looks like.

In this week’s puzzle, Quiz Guy John Chaneski is looking for phrases in which the only vowel is the letter A. Try this clue: “This person said, ‘I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It’s permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant, sometimes it is fearful, but nevertheless, it is inevitable.” Hint: The speaker’s first name is the same as one of this show’s hosts.

What do you call the wheeled contraption that you push around the grocery store? Shopping cart? Shopping carriage? Shopping wagon? Buggy? A former Kentuckian wonders if anyone besides her calls them bascarts. Check out this dialect map featuring these and other names for this device.

One definition of a shivaree is “a compliment extended to every married couple made up of beating tin pans, blowing horns, ringing cowbells, playing horse fiddles, caterwauling, and in fine, the use of every disagreeable sound to make the night hideous.” Also spelled charivari, this old-fashioned form of hazing newlyweds often involved interrupting them in the middle of the night with a raucous party. A former Hoosier calls to discuss boyhood memories of a shivaree and wonders about the source of this term.

How do you pronounce February? Is it FEB-roo-air-ee or FEB-yew-air-ee?

A husband and wife have a long-running dispute over whether the word scissors is singular or plural. Is it a scissors or a pair of scissors?

Grant recommends a couple of favorite children’s books by Kate Banks and Georg Hallensleben: Baboon and The Night Worker.

Martha explains the story behind the expression “richer than Bim Gump.” Find out more about the long-running comic strip that inspired it here.

The names Australia and Austria are awfully similar. Is it a coincidence?

The H1N1 virus has a lot of people wondering about pandemics vs. epidemics. Grant explains the difference.

Martha explains the origin of the word coin, as in “to coin a phrase.”

A Way with Words is sponsored by Mozy:

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22 Responses

  1. Ron Draney says:

    In addition to words with K, I’ve found (from many hours of trying to make up my own joke responses listening to “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”) that words with “dark L” are also funny. When the structure of a question requires a verb, “yodel” always works, and if a noun is needed, “poodle”.

    The implication, of course, is that “pickle” simply can’t miss.

    Now, about that “pair of scissors” thing….

    Not long ago, I was witness to a multinational discussion about the pluralness of “compass”. (That’s the thing you draw circles with, not the one that tells you which way is north.) Many of the Brits insisted that the drawing tool was “a pair of compasses”.

  2. ArteNow says:

    I’ve been on a shivaree… When I was around 10 (this would have been in 1972 in central Iowa) my cousin got married and a bunch of reletives and neighbors got together a month or two later after dark and after the lights had gone out at my cousin’s house. We all quietly slipped up to the house, propped a horse fiddle up against the outer wall under their bedroom window and, on cue, suddenly started making an outrageous racket all around the house. The horse fiddle alone, could do that, especially propped up against the house to conduct the vibrations.

    I remember thinking the whole thing was very strange. Especially after hearing stories from my aunt and Mom and others about other sivarees. My aunt talked about putting baby chickens in their bed and my mom talked about how, when she and my dad got married, she labeled all the canned goods in the pantry with a grease pencil because she expected a shivaree and that someone would take the paper labels off all the cans.

    Maybe my cousin had heard those storied too, because they never opened the door and eventually we all went home. Waking them up with a lot of noise and a sort of party I can understand but the pranks sounded kind of mean.

    The question I have about all this is…does a horse fiddle serve any other purpose than to make a really loud obnoxious noise? I’d never heard of it before and never heard it mentioned in any other context.


  3. ! ! ! ! Sounds wild, Arte. But now you have me wondering: What IS a horse fiddle?? Is it like a musical saw?

  4. ArteNow says:

    Well, you have to remember I was only 10 at the time…and that was the only time I’ve ever seen one. But I remember it being a wooden box sort of thing, several feet tall, with a big cogged wheel in the middle attached to a crank. There were sheets of metal that touched the cogs so that when you turn the crank it would strike the metal plates with each tooth of the wheel as you turned it. It’s kind of like sticking a playing card in the frame of a bicycle so that it makes noise when you ride the bike. Only we’re talking serious cog teeth and metal here. The thing makes an unholy racket.

    That’s why I can’t envision it having any other purpose than to make noise. It’s not at all musical and it’s very loud.

  5. dilettante says:

    Would this describe it? “…a gigantic watchman’s rattle, a hickory spring on a cog-wheel. It is called in the West, a horse-fiddle, because it is so unlike either a horse or a fiddle.” (Edward Eggleston, The End Of The World: A Love Story)

    There’s a representative picture here. Looks like a gragger (Purim noisemaker) to me.

  6. Glenn says:

    In an orchestra’s percussion section the instrument shown in the picture is called a ratchet. So they ARE musical, after all. I recall its being used in Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and in Anderson’s Syncopated Clock for comic and light-hearted effect. They clearly tend to have a novel effect.

    The Wikipedia article makes reference to the Yiddish term “gragger” as well as the Hebrew “ra’ashan.”


  7. Max says:

    Words with “K” are funny, no doubt about it. But if you don’t mind a bit of cinematic nit picking…the character of “Ben” in The Sunshine Boys was played by Richard Benjamin. The stars were, of course, Walter Matthau and George Burns. But did you know that the Burns part was to have been played by Jack Benny. Burns is said to need lots of convincing to step into the role after his good friend, Mr. Benny, died.

    All in all, another excellent episode! Thanks.

  8. leahbrooks says:

    I listened to the podcast yesterday and enjoyed it all, especially the part about the “Gumps”- a cartoon I had never heard of before. Today, on my facebook page, someone posted that they were “getting up the gumption” to do something. Immediately I wondered if this wonderful word, gumption, had any connection with the Gumps! No, it’s another false cognate!

  9. Crossed my mind, too, leahbrooks, but you’re right. Yeah, if I had a free few days, I’d probably try to find a collection of those cartoons and read them straight through. It’d be interesting to see how/whether they mirror the 00’s.

    (Which reminds me, did we EVER come up with a word for this decade???)

  10. ArteNow says:

    dilettent – the link you provided looks like a hand-held thing you would twirl around in the air. Take that and make it bigger by several orders of magnitude and make all the inner parts out of iron…the horse fiddle we used was probably a foot wide and 3 feet long, the box part was made out of heavy lumber and it took a fairly strong person to turn the crank while the box stayed stationary. The men took turns because they could only crank for so long.

    So the principle is the same with the inner gear and something to flap its teeth against, just the size and heft are different.

  11. Peter says:

    I can comment on a couple of topics.

    While I don’t say “bascart” (baskart?) in everyday speech, (I say “shopping cart”) I am sure I have seen the word on a sign at a grocery store—one of those signs reminding shoppers to “return their baskarts to the corrals provided.” I live in Knoxville and shop almost exclusively at Kroger but I can’t say where I saw the sign. I do have occasion to go to Louisville from time to time so it could have been there. Next time I got Krogering I’ll check the signs. Possibly I pass the a sign with the word baskart several times a week and simply ignore it.

    Baskart is a word I keep in the back of my mind; it echoes there every time I think “shopping cart”. I’m spelling it with a K because I agree with Grant that it sounds like a trademarked name and my experience says that trademark inventors favor wacky spelling.

    On another note: my wife is from Louisville and sometimes says “a scissors.” I makes me crazy.


  12. MarcNaimark says:


  13. Glenn says:

    Words with “oo” in them are also funny (but only when pronounced as in “moo”). This accounts for “baboon” and “moose.” It puts the fun in “boo,” “goop,” and “toot.” It gives a double kick to “Kalamazoo” “Kazoo” and “Kooky.”

  14. Gedaly says:

    Don’t forget “poop!” A very funny word consisting of two plosives and an “oo.” Plus the bathroom humor bonus. I also find the combination of m+p pretty funny. Blimp is a very funny word. Same with hump, jump, rump, dump, etc.

  15. Christopher Murray says:

    Concerning the divergence of similar words in different languages, the example I remember from learning Spanish in school is “Maria removiendo el brasero.”

    Incidentally, I only heard this and your other recent episodes yesterday when I finally got around to figuring out why I stopped getting your podcast a month or so ago. The podcast feed I was using at kpbs.org had stopped working without notice. If you change your feed again, can you include a short announcement in the existing one? Thanks.

  16. Incidentally, I only heard this and your other recent episodes yesterday when I finally got around to figuring out why I stopped getting your podcast a month or so ago. The podcast feed I was using at kpbs.org had stopped working without notice. If you change your feed again, can you include a short announcement in the existing one? Thanks.

    Sorry about that Christopher, but that feed changed more than 18 months ago and it has had a 301 redirect on it the whole time, which means that any podcatching program should automatically switch to the new podcast feed address without you having to do anything. Those sorts of redirects are the standard way of indicating that content has moved permanently. What podcatching program do you use?

  17. Christopher Murray says:

    What podcatching program do you use?

    I use Juice, then listen either on my computer or on a memory card or MP3 CD in my car.

    I started listening in October 2007 after hearing a recommendation from Charles Hodgson of Podictionary. I can’t remember if I found the feed from the index at npr.org or directly from kpbs.org.

    Anyway, I’ve substituted the new feed URL and am up-to-date again, but was worried for a few weeks.

  18. cmalkus says:

    I would like to point out that comedy Ks have have played a major role in the comedy stylings of everybody’s favorite TV clown Krusty! Thats right, The Simpsons have been relying on this humorous sound for years. In fact in the episode titled “Faith Off” (s11e11), Krusty loses his voice from “cramming too many ‘K’ sounds into a punch line.” When cured by a faith healer Krusty remarks, “Have you gone completely ferkakta? Hey! I got my comedy ‘k’s’ back. King Kong, cold-cock, Kato Kaelin. Hey, you Gentiles are all right!”

  19. AnMa says:

    Shame on you, Grant! It was Richard Benjamin, not Woody Allen!

  20. Peter: Thanks a million. Now I can’t get that “Let’s go Krogering!” song out of my head . . . :-)

  21. Cmalkus, I lurve Krusty, but somehow missed that episode! Thanks for the heads-up.

  22. Cmalkus, I lurve Krusty, but somehow missed that episode! Thanks for the heads-up.

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