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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Music Used in the Episode
|Sweet Soul Music||Mohawks||Champ||Pauma|
|Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Park||Mohawks||Champ||Pauma|
|Tidal Stream||Piero Umiliani||Il Corpo||Sound Work Shop|
|In The End||Piero Umiliani||Il Corpo||Sound Work Shop|
|Rocky Mountain Roundabout||Mohawks||Champ||Pauma|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|