This week it’s butterflies, belly flowers, plot bunnies, foxes, and cuckoos. Also, writing advice from Mark Twain and a wonderful bit of prose from Sara Pennypacker’s book Pax. And are there word origins? Well, does a duck swim? We’ll hear the stories of polka, smarmy, bully pulpit, and the exes and ohs we use to show our affection. Plus! Sarcastic interrogatives, the echo questions we give as answers to other people’s no-duh queries.

This episode first aired July 8, 2017.

Download the MP3.

 Hilltopping
Hiking in the mountains, Martha kept noticing butterflies at about 4,000-to-5,000 feet above sea level. Those butterflies are hilltopping. It’s when male butterflies of many species go to high points to advertise their fortitude and genes to the female butterflies.

 How are Polka Dots and Polka Music Connected?
Judy in Huntsville, Alabama, has hundreds of song lyrics playing on auto-shuffle in her head. When the Polka Dot Polka started playing, she began to wonder how polka dots came to be associated with the music. It turns out that the polka dance craze of the early 1800s — named after the Polish word for a Polish woman — gave its name to a lot of things, including this fabric pattern.

 Mark Twain’s Writing Advice
Writing advice from Mark Twain, who was not a fan of adjectives. In The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, he says, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” He also wrote a letter with clever, useful advice that still holds true for the modern writer.

 Sarcastic Interrogatives
When you would ask the father of Chris from Reno, Nevada, something to which he thought the answer was obvious, he’d answer with jokey phrases like “Is a pig pork?” or “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “Does a bear poop in the woods?” (but with a different verb!). These sarcastic interrogatives, also known as a kind of echo question, are wonderfully discussed in an article by Charles Clay Doyle titled “Is the Pope Still Catholic?” in the journal Western Folklore. (The article is free with registration.)

 The Cuckoo and Coccyx Connection
The Greek word for the cuckoo bird, kokkux, is related to our word coccyx, the tailbone, because the bone looks like the bill of a cuckoo.

 Pun Word Missing Quiz
Our New York City quiz guy John Chaneski joins us for a punny word quiz. How to play: There’s a pun with a key word missing. You need to fill in the blank. For example, if you don’t pay your e_______, you get repossessed. The answer: exorcist. Get it?

 What Does “Bully” Mean in “Bully Pulpit”?
Steve in Bend, Oregon, asks: Does bully pulpit mean what people think it means? Is the bully the same as the bully you might find in a schoolyard? What did Teddy Roosevelt really mean when he said he had a bully pulpit? There’s an old meaning that has fallen away that changes how we understand the phrase.

 The Origins of “Shoo-In”
Hamid in San Diego, California, says that his wife is a job recruiter who finds people to fill high-profile positions. She will come home and say, “This candidate’s a shoo-in.” What’s the story with shoo-in? Where does it come from? It has something to do with an old slang term for rigging a horse race. It’s not, shoe-in, by the way, although that is a common misspelling, and it has nothing to do with footwear. There are many everyday terms that come from horse-racing, such as the term hands-down.

 The Much Longer Version of Basketball Horse
Growing up in Kentucky, where the state religion seems to be basketball, Martha played a lot of rounds of horse, where players compete to make baskets from the same court positions, shot for shot. If you miss, you get a letter from the word horse. If you get all the letters, you lose. Basketball star Steph Curry instead challenged a bunch of high school students to a game of sesquipedalian. We’ve talked about long words like that before.

 Tattoo Music Exclamation
Rodney in Suffolk, Virginia, is interested in the word tattoo. His grandmother didn’t use it to mean skin art. She used it to rave about seeing a great concert or band: “It was just such a wonderful tattoo!” It might have something to do with a musical military tradition involving a tattoo (of Dutch origin) that is unrelated to the skin tattoo (which has a Tahitian origin).

 Belly Flower
A belly flower is a small low-growing flower you have to get down on the ground to see.

 “Pax” by Sara Pennypacker
Martha recommends Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, a book targeted at children but in which adults will find much to admire and mull over. In preparing the book, Pennypacker spent a great deal of time studying the behavior of foxes. Martha shares a particularly perfect passage.

 The Japanese Notion of Sleeping with Your Feet in Someone’s Direction
Zach from Plano, Texas, watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In it, a protegé of the star sushi chef ends a long explanation about how much he’s learned from his mentor by saying, “I don’t sleep with my feet in his direction.” What does this Japanese expression it mean?

 Man-eating Spiders
Man-eating spiders! Martha tells a charming story about how illustrators and authors work together when they make children’s books.

 Smarmy Smarm
Greg, calling from Norfolk, Virginia, says that when he uses the word smarmy, some people seem not to know it. What does it mean? Where does it come from? Is it even a real word? It’s related to an old verb meaning to smear or be-daub. It’s kind of like the word unctuous.

 X and O and Kisses and Hugs
Andrea in Haslett, Michigan, and her six-year-old daughter Neevee had a question about the way we show love in writing. When they were texting back and forth with Neevee’s daddy, she got to wondering where where we get X and O for kisses and hugs. It may have something to do with the way people used to sign and kiss important documents, and the Christian cross.

 Plot Bunnies
Plot bunnies are writing ideas that you can’t get rid of. The only way to purge yourself of the ideas is to write them!

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

Photo by Melissa Dooley. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Pax by Sara Pennypacker
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Stutter Steps Clutchy Hopkins and Fat Albert Einstein High Desert Low Tide Aural Tradition
Song For Wolfie Clutchy Hopkins Walking Backwards Ubiquity
Libra Stripes Polyrhythmics Libra Stripes KEPT Records
Zero G’s Clutchy Hopkins and Fat Albert Einstein High Desert Low Tide Aural Tradition
Horny Tickle Clutchy Hopkins Walking Backwards Ubiquity
Papusa Strut Polyrhythmics Libra Stripes KEPT Records
Nightshade Clutchy Hopkins and Fat Albert Einstein High Desert Low Tide Aural Tradition
The Wash Clutchy Hopkins and Fat Albert Einstein High Desert Low Tide Aural Tradition
Volcano Vapes Sure Fire Soul Ensemble Out On The Coast Colemine Records