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Awkward Turtle

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Do you say something happened on accident or by accident? Is text-messaging destroying our kids’ writing ability? Where do horseradish, zarf, and ignoramus come from? This episode first aired October 10, 2009.

College Slang Collection

 Grant and Martha discuss a new collection of college slang compiled by UCLA linguistics professor Pamela Munro. Learn more about it and order a copy here.


 A Burlington, Vermont, caller wants to know: Is horseradish so named because of this root’s strong resemblance to part of a horse’s anatomy?

Zarf Origin

 The word zarf means “a metal cupholder,” but a Scrabble enthusiast says other players always challenge his use of that word. He wants to know its origin.

Anagram Riddle

 What word in the English language is an anagram of itself? Hint: It’s a trick question.

Official Names Puzzle

 Puzzle Dude John Chaneski has a quiz about the unofficial terms for familiar things that have less familiar official names. “The Academy Awards of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” for example, are unofficially called the Oscars. So what’s the unofficial name for what’s officially known as Chomolungma?

On Accident vs. By Accident

 If you use the expression on accident rather than by accident, it probably says less about where you live and more about how old you are.

Reading by Candlelight

 Is there a word in the English language that means “to read by candlelight”? A listener in Kittery Point, Maine, used to read the dictionary every night as a teenager and came across such a word. She’s been racking her brain to remember it.

Myths About Handedness

 An Orange County, California, listener describes how both his left-handed parents were forced as children to learn to write with their non-dominant hand. Their handwriting looked unusual, to say the least. Grant discusses myths about handedness and recommends the book Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by Tamara Thornton. By the way, if you’re looking for the word that means “written toward the left,” it’s levographic.

Awkward Turtle Slang

 Here’s a bit of campus slang accompanied by a hand gesture: awkward turtle. Grant explains what it means and how it’s used.

Texting and Writing Ability

 Text-messaging is destroying our kids’ ability to write, right? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.


 In a few parts of the country, such as eastern Wisconsin, the more common term for “water fountain” is bubbler. A man who heard the term frequently in Rhode Island wonders: How did bubbler make it all the way over to Rhode Island, but seemingly skip the states in between?

Origin of Ignoramus

 The story behind the word ignoramus is big fun. It involves a bumbling lawyer, a six-hour farce from the 17th century, and a Latin legal term. See? Big fun.

Clever Veggie Names

 If you need proof that language is powerful, here’s some. Researchers at Cornell recently reported that kids are more likely to eat their veggies if they’re told the food has enticing names like “X-ray Vision Carrots” and “Dinosaur Broccoli Trees.” Wonder how big a grant the researchers got to study what every parent already knows.

The Vowel “W”

 Did you learn the vowels as “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u,” and sometimes “y” and “w”? A caller who was taught that in second grade was left wondering: When and where does “w” function as a vowel?

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

Photo by Ratha Grimes. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by Tamara Plakins Thornton

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