Why do auctioneers talk so fast? Martha and Grant discuss the rapid-fire speech of auctioneers, and how it gets you to bid higher. Also, why so many books have ridiculously long titles, where you’d have sonker for dessert, and an appreciation of that children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. Plus, “different from” vs. “different than,” the origin of suss out, words that apparently entered English in 1937, and the many names for those little gray bugs that roll up into a ball.

This episode originally aired November 5, 2011.

Download the MP3 here.

 Roly Polies, Sow Bugs, Wood Lice, or What?
What do you call those little gray bugs that roll up into a ball? They go by lots of names: roly poly bugs, potato bugs, sow bugs, chiggypigs, dillo seeds, basketball bugs, bowling-ball bugs, and wood lice, to name a few.

 Why We Capitalize the Pronoun “I”
If you’re wondering why we capitalize the letter “I” when we don’t capitalize the first letters of other pronouns, the answer’s simple. It’s easier to read. Martha recommends a book offering a detailed history of every letter of the alphabet. It’s Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z, by David Sacks.

 Fast-Talking Auctioneers
Why do auctioneers talk so fast? The hosts say it’s partly to put you into a trance, partly to increase the sense of urgency, and partly to sell off lots of items in a short amount of time. More details in an article in Slate magazine. You can learn some of the basics of auctioneering from videos on YouTube.

 1937’s Words
On wordorigins.org, etymologist Dave Wilton is going through the Oxford English Dictionary year by year to find the earliest citations for various words, which offer an unusual linguistic glimpse into that particular year. The year 1937, for example, is the first in which we see the terms “four-by-four,” “cliffhanger,” and “iffy.”

 Double-Dog-Dare Word Puzzle
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle called “Double Dog Dare.”

 Long Book Titles
Why are some book titles so incredibly long? A caller complains about book-title inflation, usually consisting of a shorter title followed by a colon and a longer subtitle that seems to sound important and ends with the words “and What To Do About It.” Grant explains that such extra-long book titles have long been a form of search optimization by publishers and marketing departments. The more searchable keywords in the title, the more copies sold.

 Different Than vs. Different From
Which is correct: “different from” or “different than”? Martha explains that the grammatically correct choice is almost always “different from.”

 More Book Titles With Letters Missing
Martha plays another round of the Books With A Letter Missing game.

 Laundry List
A caller in Hamburg, Germany, wants to know where we got the term laundry list. Grant explains that it derives from a time when people of a certain class sent their laundry out to be cleaned. It’s usually associated with a collection of things that are routine or involve drudgery or something negative. Funny how no one ever offers a laundry list of compliments.

 More 1937 Words
More words that entered the language around 1937: “Spam,” “telecast,” and “whoops.”

 Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth, the beloved children’s book by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, turns 50 this year. There are two new 50th anniversary editions of the book. As Adam Gopnik notes in a New Yorker magazine article, the book is the closest thing American literature has to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Martha shares her favorite passage from the book, a description of various kinds of silence.

 Sonker Cobbler
Care for another helping of sonker? That’s another name for deep-dish cobbler. There’s a Sonker Festival each year in Surry County, North Carolina, one of the few places where you’ll hear this regional term.

 Even More 1937 Words
More words that entered the lexicon around 1937: Yiddish “bupkes,” meaning “nothing,” and “zaftig” meaning “plump,” “soft,” or “juicy.”

 Suss Out
What does the term suss out mean? It’s often heard in police and journalistic jargon, and means to “take a forensic approach to finding out an answer.” It probably derives from the verb “suspect.”

 Quisquillious
Quisquillious describes something that’s trashy or worthless. It derives from the Latin for “rubbish.”

 Unobtanium
In the movie Avatar, the characters battle over a rare and valuable mineral called unobtanium. A mechanical engineer says he had a hard time getting into the movie because in his world, the word unobtanium means something different.

 Not Have Way
Martha quotes Steve Martin’s aphorism about language: “Some people have a way with words. Some people not have way.”

Photo by sashafatcat. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z by David Sacks
Oxford English Dictionary
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
I Feel The Earth Move Lonnie Smith Mama Wailer Kudu
Horny Tickle Clutchy Hopkins Walking Backwards Ubiquity Records
Bidi Man Robert Walter Spirit of ’70 Greyboy Records
Soul Dream The Greyboy Allstars West Coast Boogaloo Greyboy Records
Fried Grease The Greyboy Allstars West Coast Boogaloo Greyboy Records
Rocktober Clutchy Hopkins Walking Backwards Ubiquity Records
Hardware Robert Walter Super Heavy Organ Magnatude Redcords
Rivers of Babylon Robert Walter Cure All Palmetto Records
Jan Jan Robert Walter Spirit of ’70 Greyboy Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Song Book UMG Recordings
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