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Animal Crackers

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Images of birds flutter inside lots of English words and phrases, from “nest egg” and “pecking order,” to proverbs from around the world—including a lovely Spanish saying about how birds sense light just before dawn. Plus, how do you define “fun”? Outdoor enthusiasts divide fun into three distinct categories, the last of which is something you’ve tried once but never want to do again. And, writing and editing advice from the great Toni Morrison. Also, posing for animal crackers, madder than a peach orchard boar, placeholder words, memorizing poetry, racing for pinks, a tricky quiz about eye rhymes, I’ll be John Browned, footercootering, why some people pronounce both as “bolth,” and more.

This episode first aired May 11, 2024.

Posing for Animal Crackers

 A Pennsylvania woman says that when her stepmother was frustrated by someone, such as when the driver ahead of her was dawdling at a traffic light, she’d express her irritation with Are you posing for animal crackers? This expression goes back at least to the early 1900s and has been said to indicate that someone’s being lazy or frivolous. A variant is Are you being a model for animal crackers?

Good Leather, Well Put Together

 Laura in San Antonio, Texas, says her handsome father describes himself as a fine piece of leather, well put together. This phrase is probably a reference to a fine leather shoe and the artistry it takes to put it together. For years, shoe companies advertised their wares with lines like, Good leather, well put together. Donnie Elbert’s song “Little Piece of Leather,” which includes the line She’s a little piece of leather and she’s well put together, helped popularize this saying.

The Soul’s Enameling Through Poetry

 In White Oleander (Bookshop|Amazon), novelist Janet Fitch touts the value of memorizing poetry with these memorable lines: Always learn poems by heart. They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.

Madder Than a Peach Orchard Boar

 If you’re madder than a peach orchard boar you’re angry indeed, or otherwise engaging in wild, unrestrained behavior similar to boars or pigs being let loose to gorge themselves on fallen fruit. Variations include crazier than a peach orchard boar, crazier than a peach orchard pig, crazier than a peach orchard sow, tipsier than a peach orchard sow, and as full of nuts as a peach orchard boar.

Quit Your Footercootering!

 In Appalachia, if you’re being lazy, stupid, or idle, you may be told to quit your footercootering.

Like a Tough Plough, Eye Rhymes Don’t Go Well

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has been puzzling over eye rhymes, words that look like they should rhyme, but they don’t, like tough and plough. What is the eye rhyme in the following sentence? When I play peekaboo with my [    ], I so enjoy the sound of her [    ].

Racing for Pinks and Pink Slips

 Wendy from Charlotte, North Carolina, was baffled when a co-worker asked, Are you ready to race for pinks? The phrase racing for pinks refers to participating in car races where the winner gets ownership of a car, the pinks referring to the pink-colored page in a multi-part document conferring the car’s title. The pink slip mentioned when someone is let go from a job refers to pink interoffice memo pages, that color signaling a message that’s more urgent than messages on white paper.

There are Three Types of Fun, Disallowing Type IV, the Feeding of Lemons to Babies

 Outdoor enthusiasts divide the idea of fun into three categories: Type I fun is guaranteed to be pleasant, like get-togethers with good friends, Type II fun is miserable when you’re having it, but enjoyable in retrospect, and Type III fun is simply harrowing, the kind you don’t want to have again, ever.

I’ll Be John Browned

 The phrase I’ll be a John Brownor I’ll be John Browned means “I’ll be damned” or “I’ll be hanged.” It’s a reference to the militant abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 led 21 men on a raid of the federal arsenal at what is now Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in order to seize weapons and encourage an armed rebellion.

A Bonus Letter L for Sayers of “Both” as “Bolth”

 Answers to our online survey of some 2500 respondents suggest that some 10 percent of English speakers pronounce both as “bolth,” and there’s apparently no regional component to this pronunciation marked by what linguists call an intrusive L.

Writing Failure is Simply More Data on Your Way to Success

 Several years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts devoted a whole issue of its magazine to the topic of “The Art of Failure: The Importance of Risk and Experimentation.” Writers, artists, and musicians all shared their insights about their creative process, and how to handle the failures that happen along the way. One of them, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, encouraged writers to regard failure simply as data that can help them get better.

Completely Comprehensible Vague Language

 Monica in Burlington, Vermont, says a friend recently told her that her day became kerfunkulated, and Monica knew what she meant without even asking. Why do we successfully infer the meaning of such words? Placeholder words such as thingamajiggy, doohickey, whatchamacallit, and dumaflache are vague terms that substitute for something else and serve a useful semantic function. If you can track down the book Vague Language by Joanna Channel (Internet Archive) it’s a useful resource on the effect of using such words and challenges the notion that it’s always desirable for one’s language to be precise. Another book along these lines is the collection of essays edited by linguist Joan Cutting called Vague Language Explored (Amazon).

Trailing Grandparents

 Following up on our earlier conversations about what to call grandparents who move house in order to be nearer their grandkids, Martha proposes trailing grandparents, patterened after the term trailing spouse, which refers to a situation where one spouse gets a great job in another town and the other moves with or after them and looks for a new job, too.

Birds Perched in The Tree of Language

 Birds inhabit many English words and phrases. The flower called larkspur is named for the way its blossom resembles the spur on the toe of a lark. Columbine derives from Latin columba, “dove,” a reference to the way this flower resembles doves huddled together. The coccyx, or tailbone takes its name from the Greek word for “cuckoo bird” because it’s shaped like a cuckoo’s beak. We speak of pecking order, nest egg, taking someone under one’s wing, and sometimes refer to a person’s nose or mouth as their beak. A lovely Spanish proverb goes La fe es el pájaro que siente la luz cuando el alba aún está oscura or “Faith is the bird that feels the light while the dawn is still dark.”

Conductor, Punch in the Presence of the Passenjare!

 In an article in The Atlantic magazine, humorist Mark Twain quoted a sing-songy bit of doggerel about conductors punching railroad fares that illustrates how colored paper has long been used to encode information.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

White Oleander by Jane Fitch (Bookshop|Amazon)
Vague Language by Joanna Channel (Internet Archive)
Vague Language Explored edited by Joan Cutting (Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
ReunionByron Morris and UnityBlow Through Your MindUniversal Sound
Wayfaring StrangerJeremy SteigWayfaring StrangerBlue Note
Sonido AmazónicoLos MirlosLos Charapas De OroInfopesa
In Search of TruthLonnie Liston SmithAstral TravelingFlying Dutchman
Guajira SicodélicaLos DestellosLos DestellosOdeon Del Peru
PolarizerJoe ThomasFeelin’s From WithinGroove Merchant
Ode to EthiopiaThe John Betsch SocietyEarth BlossomStrata-East
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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