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.

Download the MP3.

 Encyclopedia Britannica Spines
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.

 A Bad Penny Always Turns Up
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.

 Rolling in the Deep
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.

 Taking Umbrage
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.

 Furniture Word Quiz
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.

 High School Clique Names
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?

 The Great Recession
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.

 “Tang” Menu Mystery Solved
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.

 Washrag vs. Washcloth
Which is correct: washrag or washcloth? Whether you use one or the other isn’t likely so much about regional dialects as class differences.

 Nicknames for Tourists
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?

 Vaccine Etymology
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.

 Folksy Putdowns
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!”

 Favorite Letters of the Alphabet
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 Broadcast

Encyclopedia Britannica
Just My Type by Simon Garfield
Word-Book of Virginia Folk-Speech by Bennett Wood Green

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
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
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19 Responses

  1. Heimhenge says:

    We had the equivalent of “nerds” but they weren’t called that back in the 60s. Ngrams shows a curious spike for “nerd” in the early 1800s, but it’s not used in the same way. The big spike occurs in the 1980s, and is attributed to Dr. Seuss, who used it to describe a character in If I ran the Zoo. The movie Revenge of the Nerds cemented it into the vocab as a synonym for tech types. See also here.

    I was a nerd in the 60s, but we (and others at my high school) referred to that clique as simply “lab coats.” I’m pretty sure that was a local euphemism.

    And yes, we had “jocks” and “farmers” (this was the Midwest) but not “grits” or “heshers.” We did have one clique you didn’t mention, and that was “greasers.” Those were the hotrod and bike fanatics. You could reason with a jock, but you never messed with the greasers.

  2. dialyn says:

    I must be blind but I read the Rolling Stone article and I see no explanation of “rolling in the deep” by Adele or anyone else.   Please help.   Thank you.

  3. ablestmage says:

    We always called the kids described, as stoners. They had a hacky-sack club, they wore beat-up jeans x days in a row, a faded holey T-shirt bearing the AC~DC/etc logo, had hair that hung over their eyes, etc. Even if they didn’t do drugs, they hung out with pro-legalize thinkers, were thought to have consumed alcohol, did smoke, would skip class, wore wallet chains, and were either pierced or still deciding what to get pierced or where to get their tattoo.. I was a loner-nerd-goth (minus the sense of style) blend, myself.. (Wichita Falls, Texas, HS c/o 1996)

  4. Phil Travis says:

    Grant Barrett said:

     Also, what’s the meaning of the phrase “rolling in the deep“?


    My buddy introduced me to the term “Rolling deep” a year or two ago.   To him, it means something like “with a large group of people”.       For example, you might say “Don’t mess with me, I’m rolling deep.”   which means: “I’ve got a large group of people with me so watch out!”   It seems like both a defensive position (strength in numbers) as well as a bit of a threat (“you’re outnumbered”).

  5. Ricky Wilks says:

    Having grown up in rural Louisiana, I used the word washrag my entire life and never thought twice about it until just a couple of years ago. I took a weekend job at a very high end home-goods store in a wealthy suburb of Boston. Because of the look on a particular blue haired lady’s face when I slipped and said “washrag,” that word hasn’t come out of my mouth since.

  6. afortner says:

    In Austin we call people from out of town “Austinites” because we’re growing so fast, there’s hardly anyone who’s actually from here!

  7. cstrange says:

    I’ve been intrigued with high school clique names from the time I heard they existed. I heard jocks and stoners or greasers from people I met at camp from rural Indiana. I heard of jocks, stoners, and ropers (cowboys) at the high schools in Fort Worth when my college classmates discussed high school. I went to high school in Indianapolis in the late 1970s and never heard such designations, but maybe that is because I was a loner and didn’t care about joining a group. I do recognize the grits or Hessians discussed on the program I just didn’t know they had a name. Four of my children have gone to high school in a fairly large school in Texas and don’t use those designations. They thought it was just in the movies.

  8. telemath says:

    I grew up in rural northern Nevada.   The cowboy types were “kickers”  (short for “shit-kickers”, a reference to regularly walking through cow manure).   Then there were the jocks and stoners.   I honestly can’t remember if our group was actually called geeks, nerds, or something else.   For a short while, our small group was  labeled “the troublemakers”.

  9. lapachamama says:

    In my 20’s, I lived in Summit County, Colorado, which has four ski areas and is almost always full of tourists.   As you might imagine, the scenery is stunning in all directions, all year long.   Because of this, it is not uncommon for tourists to drive slowly, gaping at the scenery (often ignoring a growing line of traffic behind them).   So the most common term for tourists there is “gapers”.

    When I explained this term to my parents, they said, “Oh, that sounds like us!”.

  10. Ed in VT says:

    Wash rags?   We called them bath rags.

  11. Vicki Novak says:

    I’ve always called them washcloths, but I do remember my grandmother and father using washrag. They pronounced it “worsh-rag,” though! Back when my father and I used to fly a small plane, I also heard the word washrag used for the place at the airport where you could wash your airplane (like a self-service car wash, but for planes). Pilots would call on the radio and ask to taxi to the washrag.

  12. Glenn says:

    Let me guess: eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania for your forebears.

    And welcome!

  13. cajunnan says:

    I also grew up in rural Louisiana and always used the word washrag. I was shocked at hearing this episode that the word would have a negative connotation. I think since moving away from Louisiana, I have used the term washcloth, but never because I thought negatively of “washrag”.


    Ricky Wilks said:

    Having grown up in rural Louisiana, I used the word washrag my entire life and never thought twice about it until just a couple of years ago. I took a weekend job at a very high end home-goods store in a wealthy suburb of Boston. Because of the look on a particular blue haired lady’s face when I slipped and said “washrag,” that word hasn’t come out of my mouth since.

  14. micamber says:

    Michigan, of course, is two peninsulas connected by the grand Mackinaw Bridge.
    This leads the residents of the Upper Peninsula to call visitors from the Lower Peninsula “trolls” – because we live
    under the bridge.

  15. jennythereader says:

    In my school in the mid-1990’s  those kids were usually call “hillers,” after the hill behind the school where they would hang out and smoke. Their style of dress tended towards trenchcoats and ratty jeans, accessorized with heavy boots and wallets on chains.

  16. mcduffee says:

    @jennythereader – We called them Hill-kids! same thing. Gloucester, Mass??

    also: EVERY single time I go for a bike ride with more than 3 people (sometimes 3) we exclaim that we are rolling deep. We get a crew of people to go out for a ride and yell ROLL DEEP. Or if we are planning to get a group together, we will say “we will be rolling deep tonight” I can’t remember the first time I heard it – but it seems to always be when I’m cycling.

  17. Rae says:

    we called the popular girls the Sunshine Girls because they were all blond (natural or otherwise)

  18. I went to a Catholic girls high school in Chicago and never knew or used any particular words to describe different types of girls or the groups they associated with. I have never used the term “rolling deep” or “rolling in the deep” and wouldn’t have known what it meant. I have used washrag or washcloth interchangeably (but probably washcloth more often) but never thought negatively about washrag.

  19. Bob Bridges says:

    Heimhenge, I graduated from high school only shortly after you, and though I don’t remember when the term started we had “nerds” by the time I graduated in ’72.   (I never saw it in print, though, and spelled it “knurd” until much later.)   That was in western Pennsylvania, and the nerds were mostly the kids who knew how to run the AV equipment; there were no computers, of course, and I don’t remember that it was applied to math and science students specifically.

    The closest I got to that was making the regular morning announcements over the PA system; that may have counted, but I don’t remember being called a nerd myself.

    Vicki, my family was like yours:   We called them “washcloths” (and I still do) but my grandparents called them “wash rags” or “warsh rags”.   Dunno where the extra ‘r’ crept in, but for what it’s worth that was in Wisconsin.

    I’ve probably quoted it here before, but:

          In New England ouah ‘r’s disappeah;
          To wheah, I have no ideerrr.