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An Ear for Wine

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Creative communication in a noisy world! Writing a clever 140-character tweet isn’t easy. But you know what’s even more impressive? Working all 26 letters of the alphabet into just one sentence! The term for that type of sentence is pangram. Naturally, there’s a whole Twitter feed featuring accidental pangrams from all over. And: More people are giving themselves coffee names to avoid confusion when ordering that cup to go. After all, what barista is going to misspell Elvis? And what’s the difference between a purse, a handbag, and a pocketbook? Martha and Grant root around for an answer. Plus: center vs. centre, capital vs. lowercase letters, the origin of sommelier, and an alternative to showering when travelling in an RV.

This episode first aired November 7, 2014. It was rebroadcast the weekend of January 4, 2016.

Pangram Tweets

 The disgruntled consumer who tweeted “My ‘prize’ in my Cracker Jack box…whoever does quality control needs to get fired” accidentally did something miraculous. This message includes all 26 letters of the alphabet, making it a pangram. The twitter feed @PangramTweets shares random pangrams from around the internet.

Origin of Sommelier

 A wine expert with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and a minor in French wonders about the origin of the term sommelier. It shares a root with sumpter, meaning “pack animal.” Sommelier used to refer generally to the person in charge of the provisions carried by a pack animal, and later came to specify the person who oversees the provisions in a wine cellar.

Book Potential

 “The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed,” writes Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby. As Solnit observes, it’s true that a book is just an inert object on a shelf that takes on a new life when opened: “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

Pronouncing Groceries

 Many people pronounce the word groceries as if it were spelled “grosheries.” The more common pronunciation, though, is the sibilant GROSS-er-reez.

Frozen Explorer Pangram

 Someone setting out to write a pangram drafted this tragic little tale: The explorer was frozen in his big kayak just after making some queer discoveries.

Adages from Memory Quiz

 Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a pretty good memory for adages and proverbs, but it’s not perfect. Here, he gives us some classic lines where the last word is off— like, for example, “a clear conscience is a soft willow.”

Purse, Handbag, or Pocketbook

 Do you call that carryall for personal items a purse, a handbag, or a pocketbook? The answer may depend less on your location and more on your age.

Webster’s Campaign for American Orthography

 There’s no difference in meaning between center and centre, but there is an interesting story behind the change in spelling. In the early 19th century, independence-minded lexicographer Noah Webster campaigned for a new American orthography. While his countrymen rejected the British spellings of centre, theatre, and defence, they rejected Webster’s attempts to replace soup with “soop” and women with “wimmen.”

Morning Stars

 We’ve talked before about that stuff that builds up in your eyes after a night’s sleep, and listeners keep chiming in with more, including googlies, eye-winkers, and from a listener who grew up in the Philippines, morning stars.

Georgia Baths and Marine Showers

 A Florida Gators football fan grew up travelling to road games in an RV. When it came time to wash up, her family members would take “Georgia baths,” meaning they’d wash their important parts in the RV sink. Beats the alternative Marine shower, where no water is necessary—just a ton of perfume or cologne to douse yourself with.

Writing that Evokes Home

 Is there a writer who best evokes the sense of being from the place that you call home? For Martha, Jesse Stuart’s writing about W-hollow in Kentucky perfectly captures that part of the Bluegrass State, while Grant notes that the 1982 book Blue Highways nails what it’s like to be a Missourian.

History of Capital and Lowercase

 There’s a reason why we have both capital and lowercase letters. As the alphabet went from the Phoenicians to the Greeks to the Romans, letters took on new sounds, and the need to write quickly brought about the introduction of lowercase versions. David Sacks does a great job of tracing the history of majuscules and minuscules in his book Letter Perfect.

Slash Symbol

 An election official in Arcata, California, wonders how the “/” symbol should be pronounced on ballots for the visually impaired. The symbol is becoming more and more popular as a kind of conjunction. In the U.K., they call it a stroke, or virgule, but in the United States, slash is the most common term. As University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan has pointed out, millennials have even taken to spelling out the entire word slash in texts.


 If your name is too difficult for the employees at Starbucks to accurately write on the side of a coffee cup, we suggest you take on a coffee-nym. Can’t go wrong with Elvis.

Etymology of Verb Reef

 To reef something, means to “tug hard” or “push vigorously,” as you might with a window that’s stuck. It comes from the sailing term reef, which refers to an action used to make a sail smaller.

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

Photo by Julie, Dave & Family. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z by David Sacks
Organizing Our Marvellous Neighbours: How to Feel Good About Canadian English by Joe Clark

Music Used in the Episode

Whistle SongNew MastersoundsTherapyOne Note Records
Soul SistaNew MastersoundsTherapyOne Note Records
The Old SpotClutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
Stop This GameNew MastersoundsTherapyOne Note Records
TreasureNew MastersoundsTherapyOne Note Records
WWIII (And How To Avoid It)New MastersoundsTherapyOne Note Records
Riff Raff RollinClutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
DetoxNew MastersoundsTherapyOne Note Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

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1 comment
  • Ear for wine
    Groceries, Dallas and north Texas: GROSS rees. Texas dialects frequently deletes phonemes or entire syllables, especially the terminal g in ing endings.

    Canadian: Moving to Vancouver was a light culture shock, especially spelling. My son observed “They spell long and talk short” (“our” endings, but social studies were “socials”). I was told, ” You can spell it either way [US or UK] but bank drafts must be spelled ‘cheque’.” But check marks are generally called “ticks”.

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