Why do some puns strike us as clever, while others are plain old groaners? Martha and Grant puzzle over this question. Also, the difference between baggage and luggage, a royal word quiz, the “egg” in egg on, what to call someone who doesn’t eat fish or seafood, Hawaiian riddles, and why we say “You bet your sweet bippy!”
This episode first aired May 28, 2011.
Download the MP3 here (23.5 MB).
When President Barack Obama had the Oval Office redecorated in soft browns and beige, The New York Times headline read: “The Audacity of Taupe.” The hosts discuss how puns work, and what makes them clever. Martha recommends John Pollack’s new book, The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics.
What do you call someone who doesn’t eat fish? A caller wants to know, but not because of dietary requirements. He’s a string bass player who plays in an ensemble that’s tired of being asked to perform Schubert’s famous composition, the Trout Quintet.
Martha and Grant tells him he has several options. Among them: non-pescatarian, anti-marinovore, anichthyophagist — and, of course, non-seafood eater.
What’s the difference between baggage and luggage? After all, it’s not as if anyone confesses to having emotional luggage. The hosts conclude that usually the word “luggage” specifies the container, while “baggage” is more likely to refer to that which is lugged inside the container.
Martha shares a quotation from Joseph Addison, no fan of puns: “If we must lash one another, let it be with the manly strokes of wit and satire: for I am of the old philosopher’s opinion, that, if I must suffer from one or the other, I would rather it should be from the paw of a lion than from the hoof of an ass.”
Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a royal quiz in honor of the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William. He celebrates the wedding of the King and Queen with clues to answers that contain the letters “K” and “Q” next to each other. The answer to “The band that recorded ‘Take Five,’” for example, is the “Dave BrubecK Quartet.”
Where’d we get a word like skyscraper? Martha explains the image literally refers to scraping the sky, but first applied to the topmost sail on a ship, and later to tall horses, and high fly balls in baseball. There are similar ideas in other languages, as in the Spanish word “rascacielos” and French “WolkenkratzerWolkenkratzer.” In German, the word is picturesque as well. It’s “Wolkenkratzer,” which literally means “cloud-scratcher.”
Grant shares some fill-in-the-blank puzzles from a listener. For example, “There’s one w______ on a u________” and “There are 5 d________ in a z_________ c__________.”
A listener remembers her mother used to say, “Your Monday is longer than your Tuesday.” This phrase offered a subtle way to notify someone that her slip was showing. Other expressions convey that warning as well, including “Monday comes before Sunday” and “Saturday is longer than Sunday.” Also, if someone whispers “Mrs. White is out of jail,” it’s time to check to see if your slip is showing. Ditto if you’re told you have “a Ph.D.,” but you’ve never earned that degree. In this case “Ph.D” stands for “Petticoat Hanging Down.”
Martha’s been reading the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English again, and stumbled across a synonym for “fried chicken.” It’s preacher meat.
“The Die is Cast” is the title of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A listener and his wife disagree about what kind of “die” is meant here. It’s not a reference to metallurgy — it’s a quotation attributed to Julius Caesar. When he crossed the Rubicon to lead a campaign against his enemies, he supposedly declared, “Alea jacta est.” The word “alea,” which refers to one piece of a set of dice, is an ancestor of the modern English word “aleatory,” which means “by chance.”
What happens when a clock gets hungry? It goes back four seconds. Martha talks about how puns weren’t always considered “bad.” Cicero praised them as the wittiest kind of saying, and Shakespeare made plenty of them, for both serious and comic effect. In the early 18th century, though, things changed. Pamphlets with titles like “God’s Revenge Against Punning” began appearing, and the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson denounced them as “the last refuge of the witless.”
Martha and Grant discuss why some puns work and others don’t. Martha recommends John Pollack’s observation in The Pun Also Rises describing how “for a split second, puns manage to hold open the elevator doors of language and meaning as the brain toggles furiously between competing semantic destinations, before finally deciding which is the best answer, or deciding to live with both.”
Where’d we get the expression “You bet your sweet bippy!”? It’s from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a zany television show from the late 1960s. The word “bippy,” by the way, means “butt.” The phrase “You bet your sweet bippy” is a linguistic descendant of earlier versions that go back to at least the 1880s, when phrases like “You bet your sweet life” were commonly used.
The show also popularized such phrases as “Sock it to me!” and “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.”
Why are some American place names pronounced differently than the famous place they were named after? Why is Cairo, Ill., pronounced “KAY-roh”? Why do Midwesterners pronounce Versailles as “Ver-SALES” and the New Madrid Fault as “New MAD-rid”? Grant explains that these names are far removed from their earlier incarnations and function as a sort of shibboleth among the locals.
Martha springs another pun on Grant: Knock-knock. Who’s there? Tarzan. Tarzan who? “Tarzan Stripes Forever.”
Why do we speak of trying to egg on a person, meaning to urge them to do something? Martha explains that the “egg” in this case has nothing to do with chickens. This kind of “egg” is derives from an old root that means to “urge on with a sharp object.” It’s a linguistic relative of the word “edge.”
Grant wraps up with some Hawaiian riddles from the book Riddling Tales From Around the World, by Marjorie Dundas, including this one:
My twin was with me from the day I crawled
With me till the day I die
I cannot escape him
yet when storms come, he deserts me