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Beside Myself

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The new Downton Abbey movie is a luscious treat for fans of the public-television period piece, but how accurate is the script when it comes to the vocabulary of the early 20th century? It may be jarring to hear the word swag, but it was already at least 100 years old. And no, it’s not an acronym. Also, a historian of science sets out to write a book to celebrate semicolons — and ends up transforming her views about language. Plus, one teacher’s creative solution to teen profanity in the classroom. Two words for you: moo cow. Also, demonyms, semicolons, neke neke, a brain teaser about the Greek alphabet, go-aheads, zoris, how to pronounce zoology, and everything’s duck but the bill.

This episode first aired November 2, 2019.

Guaranteed Way to Curb Swearing at School: Moo Cow!

  In response to our conversation about how to handle swearing in high-school classrooms, a longtime teacher shares a strategy that works for her. She insists that anytime students want to swear in her presence, they should instead say the words moo cow.

Keep Your Eye on the Donut

  Carol from Falmouth, Massachusetts, is curious about this bit of wisdom from her father: As you travel through life, whatever your goal, keep your eye on the doughnut, and not on the hole. The Mayflower Coffee Shop chain, based in New Jersey and New York in the 1920s and 1930s, had a similar slogan. Word historian Barry Popik has collected other versions, including Between optimist and pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist the doughnut sees, the pessimist the hole. An earlier version: As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eyes upon the doughnut and not upon the hole.

First Names That Also Work As Verbs

  Some proper names could also function as verbs. For starters, there’s Grant, Bob, Josh, Mark, Chip, and Sue.

Everything’s Duck But the Bill

  Gabriel Ray from Virginia Beach, Virginia, wonders about the history of something his grandfather used to say in a shoulder-shrugging way: Everything’s duck but the bill. The origin of this phrase is unclear, but it’s similar to a couple of old proverbs: Nothing ruins a duck like its bill and A wise duck takes care of its bill both serve as warnings to be careful with the things coming out of one’s mouth, or metaphorically, out of one’s bill.

Fred Allen Quotes

  The old-time radio performer Fred Allen had some great one-liners, such as Hanging is too good for a man who likes puns; he should be drawn and quoted. He also said I like long walks, especially when taken by someone who annoys me. Among his most profound observations: A human being is nothing but a story with skin around it.

Greek Letter Word Game

  Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle involves subtracting the names of Greek letters from sentences. For example, the name of which Greek letter could be removed from the following sentence to leave another English word? I piled my gear on the horse that was in front.

How Are the Names of People from Places Decided?

  Gina from Athens, Texas, wonders if there’s any rhyme or reason to the names we give to the denizens of a particular place. There are a few general rules for creating demonyms, the names applied to the denizens of a particular locale. George R. Stewart, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, has written extensively on the topic of municipal onomastics, including the books Names on the Land and American Place Names. But there are so many exceptions to any general rules for how demonyms are formed that your best bet is simply to memorize them.

Neke Neke

  The giant statues of Easter Island are called moai. They’re the subject of a Nova/National Geographic special about who those statues might have been moved into place. The technique that islanders used to move them may have involved tugging at ropes tied around the statue and extending out opposite sides. The statues could then be moved by tugging from alternate directions and “walked” the way you might move a heavy object like a refrigerator. The indigenous term for this technique is neke neke, which translates as “walking with no legs.”

Pronouncing Zoology

  Jimmy and his high-school classmates wonder about the pronunciation of words like zooplankton, zoology, and zoological. The traditional pronunciation for many scientific terms that start with zoo- is to use a long o rather than an oo sound. The reason stems from the fact that the original Greek roots for these words use two different Greek letters — omega, which is a long o, and omicron, which is a short one. These days, though, the word zoo, short for zoological garden, influences the way lay people pronounce those words.

To Be Beside Onself

  Peter in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, asks how the expression I’m beside myself came to mean “upset” or “unsettled.” The phrase suggests an out-of-body experience and came into English in the 14th century via a French translation of the Aeneid.

Semicolon Book

  Science historian Cecelia Watson’s splendid new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark is her long love letter to an underappreciated punctuation mark.

Swag, Meaning Bunting

  Marian in Norfolk, Virginia, says a character in the new Downton Abbey movie uses the term swag meaning either “bunting” or “stuff,” and wonders if its use in the film is a linguistic anachronism. In fact, swag was used with both those meanings long before the early 20th century, when that story takes place.

Talking As Equals in the Workplace

  Matt, a new college grad in Austin, Texas, wants guidance about what kinds of things are appropriate to share during conversations in the workplace. Sociolinguist Janet Holmes has extensively researched and written about this topic, including in Power and Politeness in the Workplace with Maria Stubbe.


  Suzanne in Williamsburg, Virginia, but grew up in Southern California, where she used the term go-aheads for the rubber-soled shoes that other people call flip-flops or rubber thongs or zoris.

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

Photo by Tim Reckmann. Used and modified under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Names on the Land by George R. Stewart
American Place Names by George R. Stewart
Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson
Power and Politeness in the Workplace: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Talk at Work by Janet Holmes and Maria Stubbe

Music Used in the Episode

ComencemosJungle FireTropicosoNacional Records
TokutaJungle FireTropicosoNacional Records
TokutaJungle FireTropicosoNacional Records
Ain’t She SweetRoger Rivas and The Brothers of ReggaeLast GoodbyeRivas Recordings
Kung FuCurtis MayfieldKung Fu 45Curtom
Heading WestRoger Rivas and The Brothers of ReggaeLast GoodbyeRivas Recordings
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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