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At First Blush

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Book recommendations and the art of apology. Martha and Grant share some good reads, including an opinionated romp through English grammar, a Spanish-language adventure novel, an account of 19th-century dictionary wars, and a gorgeously illustrated book of letters to young readers. Plus, what’s the best language for conveying a heartfelt apology? Ideally, an apology won’t be the end of a conversation. Rather, it will be the beginning of one. Plus, a brain-busting word quiz, snow job, clean as a whistle, high muckety-muck, tip us your daddle, and a wet bird never flies at night, and lots more.

This episode first aired July 13, 2019.

A Highly Opinionated Guide to Better Writing

 Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is a highly opinionated, helpful resource for anyone who wants to become a better writer. 

What Makes a Good Apology?

 Which phrase conveys a more heartfelt, sincere apology: I’m sorry or I apologize? The answer depends less on word choice and more on context. Some useful books about the art of apologizing: Sorry About That by Edwin Batistella and I Was Wrong by Nick Smith. On the SorryWatch website, writers Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall weigh in on various apologies in the news.

Why He Became a Reader

 In A Velocity of Being, a collection of letters to young readers, writer Alexander Chee offers reasons as to why he became a reader himself.

As Clean as a Whistle’s Sound

 Fourteen-year-old Harry from Charlotte, Vermont, asks why we say something is clean as a whistle. The phrase refers not to a physical whistle, but to the purity of the sibilant sound.

Words-in-Common Brainteaser

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is about common bonds among seemingly unrelated words. For example, name the one word that unites the following three items: report card, USDA inspected beef, incline.

A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night

 Rachel from San Diego, California, says that her grandfather would occasionally answer questions with the phrase wet ducks don’t fly at night. It’s a variation of a wet bird never flies at night, a phrase that figures in a goofy joke about searching for the meaning of life. The phrase was popularized by deadpan comedian Jackie Vernon, who recorded a comedy album by that name. 

What We Say When Smoke Blows Our Way

 On our Facebook group, listeners discuss sayings that people use when they’re sitting around a campfire and smoke comes their way. Among them: I hate rabbits, I hate little white bunny rabbits, smoke follows the tenderfoot, and smoke follows beauty, but Beauty was a horse.

Off Like a Jug Handle

 Cody from Honolulu, Hawaii, says that when his family was setting out on a trip, his father would declare We’re off like a jug handle!

At First Blush

 Jeanne from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, is perplexed by the phrase at first blush, which would seem to have to do with embarrassment. But at least as early as the mid-14th century, another meaning of blush has been “glance,” so at first blush simply means “at first glance.”


 Daddle is an archaic term for “hand” or “fist,” and tip us your daddle is an invitation to shake hands.

More Book Recommendations

 Summer reading recommendations! Martha loves A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, a beautifully illustrated anthology of letters from well-known writers and others celebrating reading. The book is edited by Maria Popovic of Brainpickings and independent publisher Claudia Bedrick. Grant recommends The Dictionary Wars by Peter Martin, which chronicles the bitter rivalries among lexicographers, scholars, and publishers in Noah Webster’s day. He also enjoyed the Spanish-language version of Isabel Allende’s novel, The City of Beasts, an adventure story for young adults. Reading an electronic version of such a book, with the option to click on words to look up their translation, is a great way to learn a language.

Muckety-Muck, Muckymuck, Muckamuck

 Niesey from Laramie, Wyoming, is curious about the word mucky-muck, meaning “an important person,” and often “someone self-important.”  Usually spelled muckety-muck, or muckamuck, it’s  associated with the Chinook jargon of the Pacific Northwest, in which hayo makamak means “plenty to eat.” The longer version in English is high muckety-muck.

Icelandic for Cherry on Top

 In Icelandic, the phrase analogous to our cherry on top of the sundae, meaning “a little something extra,” translates literally as “the raisin at the end of the sausage.”

Loanwords with Altered Meanings

 John in Brattleboro, Vermont, is pondering words and phrases that change their meaning when they move from one language to another. For example, in Germany the English phrase public viewing doesn’t have to do with a wake, but a live sporting event. Similarly, in English, a la mode usually describes something topped with ice cream, a specialization of the French phrase that means “according the fashion.” And the Japanese imperative gambatte, from gambaru, meaning “doing one’s best and persevering to the bitter end,” is sometimes replaced by a word that sounds more like English, fighto!

Snow Job

 Lexi from Denver, Colorado, says her grandfather’s parting advice was always don’t let nobody give you a snow job. Where’d he get that saying, and what does it mean, exactly?

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

Photo by Wallace Howe. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer
Sorry About That by Edwin Batistella
I Was Wrong by Nick Smith
A Velocity of Being edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick
The Dictionary Wars by Peter Martin
The City of Beasts by Isabelle Allende

Music Used in the Episode

The EmperorDonald ByrdEthiopian KnightsBlue Note
The JauntPoets of RhythmDiscern DefineQuannum Projects
The Little RastiDonald ByrdEthiopian KnightsBlue Note
Little Money MakerThe MetersLook-Ka Py PyJosie
SouthwickMaceo and All The Kings MenDoing Their Own ThingHouse of the Fox
Dry SpellThe MetersLook-Ka Py PyJosie
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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