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Bless Your Heart

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This week, it’s backhanded phrases, those snarky remarks that come sugar-coated in politeness, like “How nice for you,” “Oh, interesting!,” and the mother of all thinly veiled criticism, “Bless her heart.” Also this week, free reign vs. free rein, the origin of the one-finger salute, and what it means if a Frenchman has “big ankles.” And Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings stops by to try his hand at a slang quiz. This episode first aired October 31, 2009.

Sugar-Coated Snark

 You’ve been on the receiving end of backhanded phrases, and admit it, you’ve used them, too. A discussion on Ask MetaFilter prompts Grant and Martha to talk about the ways people use sugar-coated snark. By the way, if you want a fancy word for veiled criticisms like “bless her heart” and “let me know how that works out,” it’s charientism, from a Greek word that means “the expression of an unpleasant thing in an agreeable manner.”

Free Reign vs. Free Rein

 Is it free reign or free rein? Ruling or riding?

Back Forty

 The back forty refers to a remote area of a large piece of land. Grant has the origin of that phrase.

The One-Finger Salute

 What do English bowmen, the French, and lopped-off digits have to do with the classic middle-finger insult? Absolutely nothing. A San Diego truck driver wonders about the true origin of the one-finger salute. There’s a great debunking of the English archers story here.

“High” School Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski says he’s been visiting some “niche” high schools, all of which have the word “High” in them, maybe in reverse of a standard phrase. How about this one: “The school where they study phantoms, ghosts, and apparitions.” That would be Spirits High.

Marriage With vs. Marriage To

 A caller who grew up in Australia has a question about wedding-invitation etiquette in the U.S. She wonders: Shouldn’t an invitation refer to a daughter’s “marriage with” the groom rather than a “marriage to” him?

Etymology of Graveyard Shift

 A man who works nights in a mortuary in Brookings, Oregon is curious about the origin of—what else?—graveyard shift.

Origin of Brown as a Berry

 Quick, picture a berry: Is it blue? Red? Then where’d we get the English expression brown as a berry?

Slang Quiz with Ken Jennings

 It’s “Slang for $500.” All-time Jeopardy! Champion Ken Jennings tackles his next logical challenge, the A Way with Words slang quiz. Ken puzzles over the meaning of brummagem and pluck of a pig, and tries to guess an usual meaning for the term daylight. More about Ken at his website, www.ken-jennings.com.

Mischief Night

 In many neighborhoods, the night before Halloween is the night when pranksters run around wreaking all kinds of mischief–toilet-papering houses, spraying windows with shaving cream, ringing doorbells and then running away. A Connecticut woman remembers calling that night Goosey Night, and is surprised when friends call it Mischief Night. In fact, that prankfest goes by lots of other names, including Corn Night, Picket Night, and Devil Night.

Big Ankles

 In English, we say that someone who’s egotistical has a big head. But in French, according to a caller, the person is said to have big ankles. Why ankles?


 Grant shares a quirklum.

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

Photo by Graham Hellewell. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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