What did you call the cliques in your high school? Were you a member of the nerds, the jocks, or maybe the grits or the heshers? Also, what’s the meaning of the phrase “rolling in the deep”? Why do we say something’s turned up like a bad penny? And is it proper to refer to our recent economic problems as the Great Recession? Plus, favorite letters of the alphabet, taking umbrage, fudgies vs. flatlanders, and washrag vs. washcloth. This episode first aired May 5, 2012.
Now that the Encyclopedia Britannica is going to an online-only format, one of many things we’ll miss is the accidental poetry on the books’ spines. In the age of endless digital information, volumes like Accounting-Architecture and Birds-Chess point to the tomes that contain everything you’d need to know and nothing more.
The saying a bad penny always turns up has been turning up in English since the 15th century, when counterfeit pennies would often surface in circulation. As pennies have lost their luster, the phrase has lived on; see the line “Don, my bad penny,” from this season of Mad Men.
What does rolling in the deep mean, as sung by Adele? In her Rolling Stone interview from February, she traces it to British slang for close friends that have each other’s backs.
To take umbrage means to take offense or be annoyed at something. It comes from the Latin umbra, meaning “shadow,” as in umbrella. So to take umbrage is to sense something shady, or suspect that one has been slighted.
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game about words and phrases that involve furniture or parts of a house. For example, if you want to see your lover but you only have two hours, that’s a tight window of opportunity. And if you invest in, say, smartphones for pets — only to see your savings go down the drain — we’d say you’ll be taking a bath.
In high school, were you a jock or a nerd? How about a grit, or perhaps a Hessian, hesher, metalhead, or greaser — the dudes with roughed-up denim jackets, metal boots, and cigarettes in their shirt pockets — are an essential part of the student body, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about their name. What did you call that crowd?
Should the Great Recession be talked and written about as a proper noun? Recessions tend to be vague in their scale and timelines, so it’s problematic to mention them as proper nouns. Perhaps the similarities in sound between Great Recession and Great Depression have encouraged this usage by government officials and members of the press.
In a previous episode, we came upon a word mystery in a 1947 menu from Jackson, Mississippi, that mentions tang. The mystery has been solved! It wasn’t the drink, and it wasn’t the fish; it was Cudahy Tang, one of over a hundred knockoff brands of Spam, a canned meat product.
Due to their fondness for treats, tourists in some parts of Michigan are known as fudgies or conelickers. In Vermont and Colorado, they’re called flatlanders. And Californians refer to the Arizona beachcombers and Zonies. What do you call tourists in your area?
Vaccines take their name from vaccinia, the virus that caused cowpox. It was the original ingredient used to vaccinate people against smallpox. Stefan Riedel, a pathologist at the Baylor University Medical Center, offers a detailed history of the centuries-long fight against smallpox.
A collection of Virginia folkspeak from 1912 includes this zinger about a proud person: “He doesn’t know where his behind hangs.” And here’s a choice insult: “I’d rather have your room than your company!”
Do you have a favorite letter? The sound or typeface varieties of a letter can really catch us. For more about the visual and emotional properties of various letters, check out Simon Garfield’s book about fonts, Just My Type. Grant also recommends One-Letter Words by Craig Conley, a surprisingly lengthy dictionary of words made up of just one letter.
Photo by puuikibeach. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|Just My Type by Simon Garfield|
|Word-Book of Virginia Folk-Speech by Bennett Wood Green|
Music Used in the Episode
|Rolling In The Deep||Adele||21||Columbia|
|Everything Is Everything||Buddy Terry||Electric Soul||Prestige|
|Pamukkale||Earthology||The Whitefield Brothers||Now-Again|
|It’s Your Thing||Señor Soul||It’s Your Thing||Double Shot Records|
|Dingo Dog Sled||Karl Denson Trio||Lunar Orbit||Bobby Ace Records|
|Sam Yelesh||The Whitefield Brothers||Earthology||Now-Again|
|If You’ve Got It, You’ll Get It||The Head Hunters||Survival Of The Fittest||Arista|
|Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off||Ella Fitzgerald||Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book||Verve|