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Baby Blues

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A hundred years ago, suffragists lobbied to win women the right to vote. Linguistically speaking, though, suffrage isn’t about “suffering.” It’s from a Latin word that involves voting. Plus: military cadences often include Jody calls, rhyming verses about the mythical guy who steals your sweetheart while you’re off serving the country. But just who is Jody, anyway? And, maybe you’ve resolved to read more books this year. But how to ensure your success? Maybe start by rearranging your bookshelves for easier viewing. And think of reading like physical fitness: Sneak in a little extra activity here and there, and you’ll reach your goal before you know it. Also, bless your heart, baby blue, a brain teaser about the words no and not, wall stretcher, desire path, neckdown, sneckdown, and can’t dance, and too wet to plow, and more.

This episode first aired February 8, 2020.

The Five-Minute Linguist

 The 5-Minute Linguist is a book of short, accessible essays by linguists who answer the  questions they commonly hear from laypersons. For example, what’s the difference between a language and a dialect? What causes someone to have a foreign accent? The book is based on an annual competition held by the Linguistic Society of America.

Origin of Suffrage

 Ronna from Jackson, Wyoming, asks about the word suffrage, meaning “the right to vote.” It goes back to the Latin word suffragium, which in ancient Rome meant a “voting tablet,” but  beyond that, this word’s origins are murky. In the U.S., women pushing for the right to vote a century ago were known as suffragists; in Britain, they were derisively referred to with the diminutive, suffragette.

Dirty and Filthy Meaning Very or Good

 Colin in West Hartford, Connecticut, says his teenagers admiringly use the word dirty to describe a great athlete, and use filthy to describe one who’s especially talented. Although this positive usage of originally negative words may sound new, both words have been used as intensifiers for well over 100 years.

Get the Wall-Stretcher

 Following up on our conversation about practical jokes played on newbies in the workplace, a San Diego, California, listener shares his own story about being sent on an errand to find a wall stretcher.

No Not Word Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is about words that begin with the letters N-O and N-O-T. For example, figure out what two terms are clued by the following sentence: I’m not taking off my hat, but I feel like I’m falling asleep.

Linguistic Hedges and Conversational Softeners

 Paul in Dryden, New York, says when he lived in Tennessee, he knew that when someone began a sentence with Bless his heart, that phrase would usually be followed by the word but, plus a criticism of that person. Now that he’s living in New York State, he finds people preface those criticisms differently, usually with a phrase like Now don’t get me wrong. Why do people use these kinds of conversational softeners? Do these linguistic hedges vary from region to region?

Altered Signs, Altered Meanings

 After our discussion about altered signs with new meanings, Kitty from Burlington, Vermont, shares a funny story about the letters on the side of a rental truck.

Why Do We Say “Baby Blue”?

 Danil, a ninth-grader in Traverse City, Michigan, says his class is curious about the term baby blue. This color name apparently has to do with the pale eye color of some newborn babies. A poem reprinted in newspapers across the United States in the 1860s included the phrase eyes of baby blue and may have helped popularize the term.

What Do You Call Unofficial Paths?

 An unofficial trail formed by people, animals, or erosion is called a social path, a desire path, or a cow path.

Saying Pee Ay for Pennsylvania

 Why do so many people in the Keystone State refer to it with the letters P-A rather than sounding out all the syllables in Pennsylvania? Especially when they say a city in that state and then Pee Ay?


 In the Scots language, pree means “to taste” or “sample.” If you pree someone’s mouth, then you give them a kiss on the lips. It’s a variant of the word prove, and cognate with Spanish probar, to “taste.”

How To Read More Books in a Year

 If you’re determined to increase the number of books you read in a year, there are lots of strategies, such as rearranging the location of your bookshelves and thinking of reading the same way you think about trying to get in 10,000 steps every day.

Who is “Jody” in Jody Calls?

 Jody calls are military cadences based on the exploits of Jody, an imaginary character blamed for all the things that might go wrong back home while a soldier is deployed, such as losing one’s girlfriend or car. In a master’s thesis, University of Massachusetts graduate student Travis Salley argues that such call-and-response marching songs are largely rooted in the African-American musical tradition. The origin of the Jody character himself is unclear although slang expert David Maurer posited a connection with a character in California prison slang. 

Traffic Neckdown

 Like Bott’s dots and cat’s eyes, the word neckdown comes from the language of traffic flow regulation. A neckdown is an extension of a curb that widens the path for pedestrians and slows moving vehicles. Also called curb extensions, bulb-outs, bump-outs, and elephant ears, they’re a means of slowing traffic without using signs or lights. A sneckdown is a neckdown naturally formed by cars driving on snowy streets.

Can’t Dance, Never Could Sing, and Too Wet to Plow

 Mike in Nicholasville, Kentucky, remembers that his grandfather sometimes accepted an invitation with Can’t dance, and too wet to plow meaning that he “might as well.” A longer version goes Can’t dance, never could sing, and it’s too wet to plow, and the idea is that if a field is too wet, it’s impossible to accomplish the work of plowing, so any alternative activity is welcome.

How Windy is it in Australia?

 How windy is it? Ask in Australia and, you might get a snarky answer that involves a description of a hen trying hard to lay an egg.

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

Music Used in the Episode

Sweet Soul MusicMohawksChampPauma
Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde ParkMohawksChampPauma
Tidal StreamPiero UmilianiIl CorpoSound Work Shop
Senor ThumpMohawksChampPauma
Hip JiggerMohawksChampPauma
In The EndPiero UmilianiIl CorpoSound Work Shop
Funky BroadwayMohawksChampPauma
Rocky Mountain RoundaboutMohawksChampPauma
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

Book Mentioned in the Episode

The 5-Minute Linguist

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