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A savory Sicilian sausage roll is always a hit for the holidays. This dish goes by a long list of names that are equally delicious to say. Plus, why are those promotional quotes you see on the back of a book called blurbs? The guy who coined the word also wrote that familiar poem about being a purple cow. And, book recommendations: a sweet story about childhood in postwar London, a recent novel by a longtime prison inmate, and a theoretical physicist’s memoir about growing up in Albania, and the possibility that our universe isn’t the only one. Also, bang in sick, salts through a widow woman, how come, gumple-foisted, problems with pesky prepositions, son como uña y mugre, a variation on the swimming-pool game Marco Polo, bunking, twagging, skiving, mitching, and why you don’t want a box with five handles.

This episode first aired December 10, 2022.

An Episode of Sparrows

 The 1955 book An Episode of Sparrows (Bookshop|Amazon) tells the story of life on a small street in post-war London, largely through the eyes of children. Author Rumer Godden grew up in India and what later became Bangladesh, and her writing reflects the rich, careful vocabulary she acquired there.

Over to Visit or Down to Visit?

 Alicia from Prairieville, New York, has a dispute with her new husband over the word over. She said, I’m going over to visit my dad, and he argued that because her father lives southeast of them, she should say going down to visit her dad. Is word over properly used to suggest directions that could be described more specifically? Prepositions in any language are tricky. Linguist John Taylor has written about meaning in such cases in terms of end points — and in this case, both speaker and hearer knew the starting point and end point under discussion, so the meaning was clear.

Are You a Bromide or a Sulphite?

 Early 20th-century humorist Gelett Burgess is credited with coining the word blurb for “a bit of promotional language,” such as recommendations on a book jacket. To create a buzz for his 1906 book Are You A Bromide?, Burgess devised advertising copy featuring a shouting woman named Miss Belinda Blurb next to text effusively praising the book, which jokingly divided people into two categories: Bromides, given to boring and sedate pronouncements, and Sulphites, who are peppy and energetic. This helped popularize the use of bromide, which came to mean more generally “platitude” or “cliché.” Burgess also wrote the poem “The Purple Cow.”


 If someone’s sulky or ill-tempered, you can always call them gumple-foisted, a Scottish term.

Marco! Solo! Dodo! Pogo!

 Everybody in the pool! Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is inspired by the call-and-response game “Marco Polo.” The object is to guess the similarly assonant second names of fictitious explorers whose first name is also Marco. For example, which Marco discovered the now-extinct flightless birds on the island of Mauritius?

Bang In and Bang Out Sick

 When Sean in New York City contemplated telling his boss he wasn’t coming into work the next day, he texted a friend that he might bang out sick. He wonders about the phrase, which he picked up from his father, a police dispatcher in New York City. The more common expression is bang in sick, although both variants are used. In his 2006 book The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English (Amazon), Grant traced the phrase back to the 1980s, although he’s since followed it back to the 1960s. It’s particularly common among firefighters, police officers, and other civil servants in New York, Boston, and other cities along the U.S. East Coast.

Like Fingernail and Dirt

 Listeners in Bogotá, Colombia, share a favorite Spanish saying, Son como uña y mugre, which literally means “They’re like fingernail and dirt.” It refers to people who are especially close to each other, which English-speakers might describe as thick as thieves.

How Come “How Come?”?

 How come the expression how come came to be used as an interrogative? This Americanism arose in the mid-1800s, and is still widely used in informal contexts.

Off the Front Page and Off the Back

 Jared in Kaiser, Oregon, wonders about his father’s response when someone asks how he’s doing: I’m staying off the front page and I’m staying off the back page. Although this specific phrase isn’t widespread, it may have to do with the old adage that a woman’s name should appear only three times, referring to her birth, her wedding, and her death. Traditionally, the back pages of newspapers have been the place for obituaries or crime news.

Bringing Strength with Comfort

 Look up the verb comfort in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll see that in the 13th century, this word meant “to strengthen.” It comes from Latin fortis meaning “strong,” the source of fort, fortify, and forte.

Books: Regimes, the Cosmos, and Incarceration

 Quntos KunQuest has been incarcerated at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, since 1997. His new novel This Life (Bookshop|Amazon), which draws on his experiences there, has earned acclaim in The New Yorker. KunQuest’s characters are vividly rendered, and voice artist Sean Crisden does a superb job of bringing them to life in the audio version. Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond (Bookshop|Amazon), by cosmologist and theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton, is partly a memoir of her childhood and teenage years living under the totalitarian communist regime in Albania, and partly a discussion of her research into the possibility that our universe is just one of many multiverses. Voice artist Xe Sands brings a warmth and sure-footedness to the audio version, making even the most challenging scientific explanations a pleasure to listen to.

A Sicilian Sausage Bread Goes by Many Names

 Alice in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, says her Sicilian husband’s family enjoys a kind of sausage bread called binulata, which is made from dough rolled up with sausage, cheese, onions, and olives. Names for versions of this traditional dish include imbriulata, mbriulata, mignolata, miscata, miscate, amiscata, mpignolati, briolate, and bignolati. It is believed that the word goes back to Greek embryon, suggesting the idea of something “enclosed within a casing.”

Making a Wine Shop Out of a Raisin

 In English, someone who’s making a big deal out of nothing is said to be making a mountain out of a molehill. Other languages use different fanciful images to convey the same idea. In Swedish, the image of someone is “making a hen out of a feather.” In Icelandic, they’re “making a camel out of a gnat,” and in Arabic, they’re “making a wine shop out of a raisin.”

Like Salts Through a Widow-Woman

 Marissa in Tallahassee, Florida, is puzzled when a friend observes that coffee goes through her like salts through a widow-woman, meaning that the beverage makes its way swiftly through her digestive system. The expression, which has been around since the 1860s, refers to the use of Epsom salts as a laxative. In other versions of this analogy, different verbs are used, including lit out, disappeared like, and hurried like. The list of what the salts are sometimes said to go through includes a hired girl, a tall Swede, a sick child, a weak man, a sick cow, a sick horse, a goose, and even a skeleton.

Bunking, Mitching, and Skiving

 In the United States, playing hooky from school is often called skipping school. Lots of other terms for truancy throughout the English-speaking world. In South Africa and India, it’s bunking. In England, you might describe that activity as wagging, kipping, twagging, or skiving. And in Ireland, you’re sometimes said to be mitching.

Box with Five Handles

 Barb in Battle Creek, Michigan, reports that when she was a small child, a neighbor from Georgia said she would bring her a box with five handles for her birthday. Barb was overjoyed until she learned that the phrase is actually a joking euphemism for “a whomp upside the head with a hand,” or in her case “a spanking.” A box with five nails is a variant.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer GOdden (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English by Grant Barrett (Amazon)
This Life by Quntos KunQuest (Bookshop|Amazon)
Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond by Laura Mersini-Houghton (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

It’s Your ThingShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesAtlantic
In The BagNat AdderleyIn The BagJazzland
YouShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesAtlantic
Natural WomanShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesAtlantic
More Today Than YesterdayShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesShirley Scott and the Soul SaxesAtlantic
Sister WilsonNat AdderleyIn The BagJazzland
Pelle Di LunaPiero UnilianiLa Ragazza Dalla Pelle Di LunaOmicron
MahéPiero UnilianiLa Ragazza Dalla Pelle Di LunaOmicron
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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