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A Hole to China (episode # 1368)

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Have a question about objective pronouns? Whom ya gonna call? Wait–is that right? Or would it be “who ya gonna call”? “Whom” may be technically correct, but insisting on it can get you called an elitist. It’s enough to make you nervous as a polecat in a perfume parlor! And if you really want to dig a hole all the way to China, don’t start anywhere in the continental United States–you’ll come out at the bottom of the ocean! Plus, how to pronounce the name of the Show-Me State, catfishing, gallon smashing, and what it means to conversate.

This episode first aired March 29, 2013. It was rebroadcast the weekends of September 23, 2013, and September 8, 2014.

National Grammar Day

 March 4 was National Grammar Day, an occasion that prompted thoughtful essays and discussions about grammar, as well as a Tweeted Haiku Contest, for which Martha served a judge. Arika Okrent, author of In The Land of Invented Languages, took the prize with this one: “I am an error/ And I will never reveal myself/ After you press send.” Actually, that tweet became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because she soon followed up with an apt correction: Make that “send”.

Digging to China

 The idea of digging a hole to China surfaces as early as 1872 in a Chamber’s Journal fiction piece about beavers and engineers. Unfortunately, digging from almost anywhere in the United States would lead you to open water on the other end. To dig straight through to China, you’d have to start shoveling in Northern Argentina. There’d also be a few pesky physics problems to work out, like the fiery, molten mass at the center of the Earth. Here’s how to find out where you’d end up when you start digging from anywhere on the planet, and how to make an earth sandwich with your antipodes.

The Classic Case of Who vs. Whom

 Whom you gonna call about discrepancies regarding who and whom? Grant and Martha, that’s who. Although whom to contact is a correct use of whom, it’s fast becoming obsolete, with growing numbers of people viewing it as elitist, effete, or both. But fair warning: Do not correct someone on this unless you’re sure you have your facts straight!

Serial Comma Haiku

 Here’s another tweeted haiku from Liz Morrison in San Diego: “Serial comma/ Chicago yes, AP no/ You bewilder me.”

Professions as Verbs Quiz

 Quiz Master John Chaneski has a game about professions that match their respective verbs. What, for example, does a tutor do?


 Conversate, a variation of the word converse, is part of African-American Vernacular English, but with a slightly different meaning. To conversate is “to converse raucously.” This word goes back to at least 1811, and it’s well-known to many African-Americans. It’s commonly heard in the Bahamas and Jamaica, as well.

Grex Root

 Martha spoke recently at an Audubon Society event, where she traced the role of the Latin stem greg-. It’s a form of the Latin word grex meaning “flock” or “herd.” This root appears in many English words involving groups, including aggregate, congregate, gregarious, as well as the word egregious–literally, “standing outside the herd.”

At Sixes and Sevens

 Cain from Dublin, Ireland, wonders why sportscasters in his country often say a team’s at sixes and sevens when they’re looking disorganized or nonplussed. The leading theory suggests that sixes and sevens, primarily heard in the United Kingdom, comes from a French dice games similar to craps, called hazard, wherein to set on cinque and sice (from the French words for five and six) was the riskiest roll.

Old Ed’ards Sayings

 Old Ed’ards sayings were plentiful in the 1930s, when the Lum and Abner radio show was a hit in households across the country. Lum Edwards, who made up half of the cornball duo, would offer up such wise sayings as “I always found that the best way to figure out what tomorrow’s weather was going to be is to wait until tomorrow comes along. That way you never make a mistake.”

Gallon Smashing and Catfishing

 Did you know that the word rack can also mean “one thousand,” as in, he has four racks, or four thousand dollars? Here’s another slang term: Gallon Smashing. It’s the latest craze in pranks involving gallons of milk, a grocery store aisle to smash them on, and plenty of free time to waste. And of course, no slang roundup could fail to mention catfishing, the practice of lying to someone on the Internet in order to manipulate them, as in the case of former Notre Dame star Manti Te’o and noted Pacific Islander uberprankster Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

Better American Speech Week

 On the occasion of National Grammar Day, University of Illinois linguist Dennis Barron has pointed out some arresting posters from a wartime version from the early 20th century. They’re from a 1918 Chicago Women’s Club initiative called Better American Speech Week, a jingoistic campaign tinged with nationalism and ethnocentrism.

Nervous as a Polecat

 Stanley Wilkins, a listener from Tyler, Texas, shares the idiom nervous as a pole cat in a perfume parlor. A polecat, more commonly known as a skunk, also fronts such gems as mean as a polecat, nervous as a pole cat in a standoff with a porcupine, and tickled as a polecat eating briars. In other news, Grant admits that, from a reasonable distance, he enjoys the mephitic emanations of Mephitis mephitis.

Wrist Rockets

 A while back, we talked about the game Going To Texas, where two kids hold hands and spin around until they fall over dizzy. Becca Turpel from San Diego, California, said she knows the game as Wrist Rockets. Others have identified it as Dizzy Dizzy Dinosaur. Has anyone ever called it Fun?

Vocal Variants of Missouri

 How do you pronounce Missouri? The late Donald Lance, a former professor from the University of Missouri at Columbia, compiled the exhaustive research that became The Pronunciation of Missouri: Variation and Change in American English, which traces the discrepancy between Missour-ee and Missour-uh all the way back to the 1600s. Today the pronunciation mostly divides along age lines, with older people saying Missour-uh and younger ones saying Missour-ee. The exceptions are politicians, who often say Missour-uh to sound authentic or folksy.

Haiku for Yoga Teacher

 Nancy Friedman, who writes the blog Fritinancy, tweeted this haiku for National Grammar Day: “Dear yoga teacher/ if you say down once more/ I’ll hurt you, no lie.”

A Pound of Pennies

 If someone’s a pound of pennies, it means they’re a valuable asset and a pain in the butt, all at the same time. Grant and Martha are stumped on the origin of this one, though it is true that a pound of pennies comes out to about $1.46. One suspects that this guy’s banker felt the same way about him.

Chick Verb

 Have you heard chick used as a verb? Runners and triathletes use it to refer to a female passing a male in a race, as in You just got chicked!

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

Photo by Port of San Diego. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

Music Used in the Episode

Tighten Your WigGalacticCrazyhorse MongooseVolcano
Hamp’s HumpGalacticCrazyhorse MongooseVolcano
This Ain’t WorkThe New MastersoundsBe YourselfOne Note
Crazyhorse MongooseGalacticCrazyhorse MongooseVolcano
Witch DoctorGalacticCrazyhorse MongooseVolcano
Get A Head OnGalacticCrazyhorse MongooseVolcano
Better Off DeadThe New MastersoundsBe YourselfOne Note
Bosco’s CountrySugarman 3Pure Cane SugarDaptone Records
Pure CaneSugarman 3Pure Cane SugarDaptone Records
Country GirlSugarman 3Pure Cane SugarDaptone Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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  • Thanks for getting my “forbidden” status removed. Pleasure and education has returned!

    Hole to China: When they were drilling the mohole (to the Mohorovicic discontinuity between the earth’s crust and mantle), I half-facetiously said, “if successful, they will bring in a volcano like an oil gusher.” When my geology professor said that if you drill far enough, you will strike water, I replied, “Yes, the Indian Ocean.” I think I was like Caulfield in the comic strip Frazz.

    Reply to those who think “whom” is improper: “Can’t you be objective?”

    AP no (in haiku): I agree, but prefer APA to Chicago.

    Tutor: If the subject is wind instruments, they tutor tooters to toot.

    More properly, a European polecat is what is being sold as ferret today; less smell, but same family. European invaders misnamed the skunk, thinking it was the closest New World thing to the European polecat. The mink is probably closer.

  • I use «whom » commonly, but only after a preposition (to whom, by whom). It seems unnatural to me as just a direct object (Whom am I supposed to meet?)…

  • The “pound of pennies” item reminded me of a saying used in the gay community that references the duality of something being desirable but also a nuisance. That saying is “She’s a pretty little dress, but a bitch to iron.”

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