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Blessing Box

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Is there such a thing as a “neutral” accent, and if so what does it sound like? And that quirk in the way southern Californians talk about freeways. They’ll say things like take the 405 and get on the 8. Why the definite article? Plus, those Little Free Libraries filled with books have inspired another kind of giving: little free pantries stocked with canned foods and other household items for anyone in need. They’re called blessing boxes. Also, Kabelsalat, vigesimal, a take-off puzzle, red rag, s’occuper de ses oignons, a holiday left on a wall, snake’s honeymoon, powdered it, throwing smoke, and why married couples may persist in calling each other Mother and Father long after their children are grown.

This episode first aired April 15, 2023.

Cable Salad, Octopus Leg Wire, and a Snake’s Honeymoon

 Germans have a wonderful word for that mess of wires and cables under computer workstation. It’s Kabelsalat, literally “cable salad.” In Japanese, it’s takoashi haisen, or “octopus leg wire.” Electricians sometimes refer to a tangle of wires as a snake’s honeymoon.

Take “The” 405 Like a SoCal Native

 Why do southern Californians refer to interstate thoroughfares with the definite article, as in the 405 or the 8? This usage is a result of the history of freeways in Southern California, and is heard in a few other places, including Phoenix, Arizona, and Buffalo, New York, as well as parts of Canada. NBC’s Saturday Night Live has had a lot of fun satirizing this Californian locution.


 If you know someone with a 20th birthday coming up, you’ll want to tuck this word away in your pocket: vigesimal. It means “having to do with the number 20,” and comes from Latin vigesimus, or “twentieth,” a relative of both vente and vignt, the words for that number in Spanish and French.

Really Powdered It!

 If a baseball is hit really hard, it’s said that the batter powdered it, used to refer to hitting or pitching that’s especially powerful, as if the ball had been fired from a cannon. Similarly, a pitcher with a blistering fastball is said to be throwing smoke.

The Very Astonishment of Being Alive

 In Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Bookshop|Amazon), Oxford University scholar Katherine Rundell offers a memorable quotation about the very astonishment of being alive.

Take-Off Quiz with John Chaneski

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a take-off puzzle this week, offering clues to rhyming two-word phrases made by removing the letter D from the beginning of one of them. For example, if your sound equipment was damaged in a flood, what are you left with?

Is There Really a Neutral Accent?

 Galen in White River, Arizona, asks: Is there really a “neutral” accent, and if so, what is it?

Shut Your Potato Trap and Give Your Redrag a Holiday

 As noted in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (Bookshop|Amazon), the term red rag, also redrag, is an old slang term for “the tongue,” as in the quotation he cites with a variant spelling of potato: Shut your potatoe trap, and give your redrag a holiday.

Wilful Waste Makes Woeful Want

 A caller in Cooperstown, North Dakota, remembers her West Virginia-born grandmother’s stern warning: Willful waste will lead to woeful want. The more common version, Wilful waste makes woeful want, goes back to the 18th century. Other versions include Waste not, want not and

Waste and want; save and have. Another goes Haste makes waste and waste makes want and want makes strife between the good man and his wife.


 Addie in Neenah, Wisconsin, seeks the origin of a word her grandfather used for gunk that gets stuck, such as a bit of food between one’s teeth. The dialectal term is likely ackempucky, which, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, refers to any of various sticky liquid or pasty substances, such as the gunk that gets stuck in the threads of a plumbing pipe. Its etymology is unknown, it dates at least back to the 1930s, and it has a lot of other possible spellings: uckempucky, uckumpucky, ukkumpucky, akempucky, ackumpucky, ukempucky, ukumpucky, and akumpucky.

Hoopla, a Dip in the Road

 After our conversation about whoopsy-daisy and other terms for a sudden dip in the road, Jane in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, reports that she’s heard people in Wisconsin and Minnesota refer to such a dip as a hoopla.

Drag it Through the Garden Burger

 Following our discussion with a Norfolk, Virginia, listener about ordering a burger all the way deluxe meaning “with all the condiments and toppings,” a listener from Pittston, Pennsylvania, weighs in with the phrase he and his friends grew up using: put it through the garden, a variant of run it or drag it through the garden. Restaurants sometimes advertise similar offerings with terms like dumpster burger, trash burger, garbage plate, and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink burger.

Know Your Onions

 Mike in Ukiah, California, grew up in the UK, where he often heard the expression to know your onions, meaning “to be knowledgeable about something.” He suspects the phrase is rhyming slang, but It’s most likely one of many metaphorical expressions based on being knowledgeable about products in a marketplace. The earliest seems to be from the 1840s, where to know one’s beans or to know beans about something was used the same way. But there are also the phrases know your apples, know your sweet potatoes, know your vegetables, know your oats, know your bananas, know your fruit, know your eggs, know your cucumbers, know your goods, know your groceries, and know your oil, all of which mean the same thing. There might also be some transference from a French expression, s’occuper de ses oignons, which literally translates as “take care of your onions,” which means “mind your own business.”

Something to Read, Something to Eat

 There are Little Free Libraries stocked with books, and there are also little free pantries filled with non-perishable foods and household items for anyone in need. They’re called blessing boxes.

Why Do Some Married Couples Refer to Each Other as “Mother” and “Father,” Even When Kids Aren’t Around?

 Rachel in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, wonders: Why do some longtime married couples refer to each other as Mother and Father?

Holiday, That Unmowed Bit of Yard, or Unpainted Strip of Wall

 Fernando in San Antonio, Texas, is curious about the use of the term holiday to mean a space on a wall that’s been covered unevenly and requires repainting. This usage goes back to the shipbuilding industry of the 1700s, when workers tarring the bottom of a boat would leave a holiday, or bare spot, as if they’d gone off on holiday. It’s also used in many other ways to mean the unfinished place or part of any work or surface.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell (Bookshop|Amazon)
A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Telephone GirlAssagaiAssagaiVertigo
Darkest LightLafayette Afro Rock BandMalikAmerica Records
A1 Bakery Pledge of AllegianceSurprise ChefEducation & RecreationBig Crown Records
VoodounonLafayette Afro Rock BandVoodounonEditions Makossa
Grinner’s CircleSurprise ChefEducation & RecreationBig Crown Records
MalikLafayette Afro Rock BandMalikAmerica Records
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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