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The Bee’s Knees

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Let’s put the moose on the table: You have questions, and Grant and Martha have answers. For example, why would someone have an albatross around the neck? And what’s so cool about bees’ knees, anyway? Plus, jockey boxes, bailiwicks, and cute names for loved ones, from snookums to bubula. If a bartender ever serves you a mat shot, don’t try to beast it. You’ll regret it in the morning. This episode first aired June 25, 2011.

Terms of Endearment

 What pet names do you have for your loved ones? In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten shares the name his Mother used to call him — bubala, a term of endearment grandmothers might use in addressing children. We have all kinds of substitutes for the names of those we care about: sweetie, honey buns, snookums, etc. Martha opts for the Portuguese fofinha, meaning “fat, cuddly baby.”

Cute as Bee’s Knees

 What’s so cool about bees’ knees, anyway? The bee’s knees, a phrase meaning “cool” or “great,” dates back to the flapper era of the 1920s. It relates to an old definition of the word “cute,” referring to something small and nicely formed. The knees of a bee are just that, after all.

Jockey Box

 A bartender wonders about the origin of the term jockey box. In his world, a jockey box is a metal container for ice. However, in some parts of the western U.S., a jockey box is the glove compartment of a car, and much earlier, the term referred to boxes attached to the side of chuck wagons for holding feed or water. The caller also shares another bit of bartending slang, the so-called mat shot or Matt Dillon. It’s a glass of whatever liquor collects on the rubber mat on the bar, which some enterprising patrons order as a prank or a test of a strong stomach.

Mixed English Accents

 A listener in Romania learned English in the Southern U.S., but after going back home to where a British English is taught, people are having a hard time understanding his accent. Where we learn a language plays a big role in how we speak it.

Centricity Word Game

 Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a game called “Centricity”, emphasis on the “city.” For example, “Mickey ate all the fruit, leaving Minneapolis.” And as George H.W. Bush said to George W. Bush, “You can be president Tucson.”

Moose on the Table

 Has your boss ever used the expression “Let’s put the moose on the table”? This management buzzphrase, meaning “let’s address the problem everyone’s been avoiding,” is relatively new, showing up in print around the early 1990s. The phrase pops up in books by former Eli Lilly CEO Randall Tobias and management guru Jim Clemmer. In Clemmer’s book Moose on the Table, he tells a possible origin tale about a baby moose that crawled under a buffet table, only to be avoided by the patrons as it stank up the banquet hall.

Albatross Around Your Neck

 What does it mean to have an albatross around your neck? A political pundit, referring to a current candidate, mentioned “an alcatraz around his neck.” The proper version, with an albatross, originates from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, wherein a sailor shoots an albatross, bringing down a curse on the boat, and his shipmates force him to wear an albatross around his neck as a symbol of shame. Grant notes that the name “albatross” likely derives from the Portuguese or Spanish “alcatraz,” meaning “pelican” or “sea bird.” So perhaps an alcatraz around the neck isn’t so far off after all.

Beast Mode

 If something’s “the bee’s knees,” you can bet that it’s also beast. A sixth grade teacher wonders about the term beast being thrown around by her students. This synonym for “cool” or “good” is also used as a verb, as in “I beasted that exam,” or “I did extremely well.” The slang term “beast” is common slang in sports, as in, “That player is a beast on the field.” Former Cal running back Marshawn Lynch is notably famous for his signature playing style, beast mode.


 A few weeks ago, a listener was looking for a term to describe the copy of The Emperor’s New Clothes that he’d read many times as a child. In this picture book, the naughty bits were always cleverly covered up. Thinking he wanted a synonym for “fig leaf,” Martha had offered the word antipudic, from the Latin pudor meaning “shame.” Many listeners responded, suggesting that the word he really wanted was bowdlerize, meaning “to remove improper or offensive material.” This eponym comes from Thomas Bowdler, whose sister ghost-edited The Family Shakespeare in 1818 containing censored versions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Baby Department

 If you go to a department store, you’ll see the Men’s department, the Women’s department, and the Children’s department. So why do so many stores have a department that’s called simply “Baby”? Grant attributes the non-possessive nomenclature of stores like Baby Gap to tradition in the retail industry.

Messing Up Names

 A listener from San Diego, California, named Lois has been called Louise, Lori, Lauren, Louisa, and Rosa, to name a few. And of course, the Scott/Todd mix-up phenomenon continues. Do people ever mess up your name?

Vet Someone

 What does it mean to vet a political candidate? The word “vet” comes from veterinarian, specifically the ones who would examine a horse before a race to make sure it was healthy and eligible. Similarly, one might vet a candidate to make sure they’re up to snuff. The novelist John le Carre popularized the term in his political stories.

Wind Pudding and Air Sauce

 A listener from Wisconsin adds to the discussion on wind pudding and air sauce, explaining that where he’s from, wind pudding is old loggerspeak for “baked beans.”

Proununciation of Biopic

 How do you pronounce biopic? The proper way to mention the genre of biographical motion picture has always been “BUY-oh-pick,” as opposed to the mirror of myopic. It’s not unusual to mispronounce a word if the spelling does not clearly indicate how to say it. For example, Grant notes a common error people make in pronouncing misled to rhyme with “chiseled.”


 If something’s not in your bailiwick, it’s not in your jurisdiction or area of control. But what exactly is a “bailiwick”? Martha explains that the two words which make up the term — bailiff and wick — have specific meanings in Middle English. A bailiff, in the time of kings, was “a public minister of a district,” and a wick was simply a “town” or “village.” For example, Gatwick literally referred to a “goat village.” And Greenwich literally meant “green village” or “village on the green.”

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

Photo by Todd Huffman. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten
Moose on the Table by Jim Clemmer
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

Music Used in the Episode

The Tasman ConnectionDon BurrowsThe Tasman ConnectionCherry Pie
Trini BabyClaude PapeschHammond ElectriqueEMI
Dirty RedFunk IncHangin’ OutPrestige
Lucretia MacevilClaude PapeschHammond SpectacularEMI
I Can See Clearly NowFunk IncHangin’ OutPrestige
Freaky FrankieLefties Soul ConnectionSkimming The SkumMelting Pot
Red TriangleThe Bamboos4Tru Thoughts
Another Day In The Life of Mr. JonesThe BamboosStep It UpTru Thoughts
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

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