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Bottled Sunshine

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If you catch your blue jeans on a nail, you may find yourself with a winklehawk. This term, adapted into English from Dutch, means “an L-shaped tear in a piece of fabric.” And: What’s your relationship with the books on your shelves? Do the ones you haven’t read yet make you feel guilty — or inspired? Plus, we’re all used to fairy tales that start with the words “Once upon a time.” Not so with Korean folktales, which sometimes begin with the beguiling phrase “In the old days, when tigers used to smoke…” Plus, excelsior, oxtercog, wharfinger, minuend, awesome vs. awful, googly moogly, and eating crackers in bed.

This episode first aired November 17, 2018.

Unusual Word for Ordinary Things

 A teacher of English as a second language asks our Facebook group to name some unusual words for ordinary things. The group’s suggestions include winklehawk, which means an L-shaped tear in cloth, and diastema, which means a gap between one’s teeth. In his 1926 book History in English Words, Owen Barfield offers this lyrical observation about etymology: “Words may be made to disgorge the past that is bottled up inside them, as coal and wine, when we kindle or drink them, yield up their bottled sunshine.”

“Patient” Noun vs. “Patient” Adjective

 Gila in Woodridge, Connecticut, wonders if there’s a connection between the adjective patient, meaning able to withstand delay, pain, or problems, and the noun patient, meaning a person who is sick. Both derive from Latin adjective patientem, describing someone who suffers or tolerates. These words are related to the term passion meaning suffering, as in the Passion of Christ, and passionflower, the name of that odd-looking blossom that is said to symbolize the whips, nails, and other instruments used to torture Jesus.

When Tigers Smoked

 In English, fairy tales often begin with the phrase “once upon a time.” In contrast, Korean folktales often begin with “In the old days, when tigers used to smoke,” or similar phrases, such as “In the old, old days when tigers smoked tobacco pipes” and “In the old days, when tigers smoked long pipes.”

“Brand” in “Brand New”

 Is the brand in brand-new connected to the kind of brand left by a hot iron?

Librarians, Trail Guides

 Writer Anne Lamott memorably compared librarians to trail guides, leading people through the forest of shelves and aisles.

Misunderstood TV Show Brain Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle features intentional misunderstandings of the names of familiar movies and TV shows. For example, if John refers to a creepy Netflix show set in the 1980s called More Unusual Objects, what’s the program he really means? Also: The Latin comparative adjective excelsior means higher, and also happens to be the state motto for New York. But a member of our Facebook group notes that it’s also a term for fine wood shavings used as stuffing or packing material.

Bum Rush

 Chris from Castro, New York, is curious about bum rush or bum’s rush, which refers to forcibly removing someone from an establishment. In 1987, Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show popularized the use of bum rush to mean something different — not roughly escorting someone out, but rather a rowdy crowd pushing their way into an establishment or show without tickets or paying admission. Rapper Chuck D has said that this term also alludes to Public Enemy’s effort to push its way to the top of music business and into the national consciousness.

Oxter and Oxtercog

 The English word oxter means armpit, and to oxtercog someone is to carry them by the armpits. The term derives from the image of each of two people locking one shoulder under an armpit of the person carried, like a cog fitting into a wheel.

Have a Nice Rest of Your Day

 Cora from Cleveland, Ohio, notes that cashiers in stores often say good-bye to her with the phrase “Have a nice rest of your day.” She’s charmed by its use, and wonders if the phrase is on the rise and whether it’s confined to a particular geographic region.

Spit in Air and Jump Through It

 Victoria from Tallahassee, Florida, weighs in on our discussion about terms for an extremely quick bath. When Victoria was young, her great-great grandmother from Poland, when checking if Victoria had indeed washed herself, would ask, “Did you spit in the air and jump through it?”

Billy Tape Measure

 Mary says her Illinois-born husband and father-in-law refer to a measuring tape as a billy. The word billy is used in a slangy sense to refer long lengths of metal, such a billy knife, and a Billy Box is a kind of toolbox, but the use of billy to mean a measuring tape is extremely rare.


 A minuend is a quantity from which something is to be subtracted. The amount subtracted is called the subtrahend.

The Pleasure in Partially Read Books

 What’s your relationship with the books in your personal library? Some people feel inspired by the books still have left to read, while others feel guilty seeing them staring down from the shelves. Writer Kevin Mims finds value in yet another category: books you’ve read only partially and may revisit.

Kick Out of Bed for Eating Crackers

 David from Trophy Club, Texas, wonders about the phrase “I wouldn’t kick them out of bed for eating crackers.” This jocular expression has been around since the early 1940s, and indicates that someone is so lovable they could do something incredibly annoying and still be adored. In the early 20th century, baseball hall of fame pitcher Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia Athletics was notorious for eating animal crackers in bed, and his roommate on tour, Osse Schreck, hilariously insisted to his bosses that Waddell should refrain from doing so.


 In our Facebook discussion about unusual English words for ordinary things, a listener points out the term wharfinger, which means someone who manages a wharf.

Awesome, Awful, and Semantic Drift

 Lawrence from San Antonio, Texas, wonders if spelling is a factor in the different meanings of awful, which describes something negative, and awesome, which describes something positive. Spelling doesn’t come into play here; in fact, for years the word awful was actually spelled with an e after the w. The difference in these words is the result of what linguists call semantic drift. Something similar happened with the words terror, terrific, and terrible.

Great Googly Moogly

 Lisa from Chesapeake, Virginia, says her father used to say good googly moogly! to express surprise, delight, or emphasis. There are several versions of this exclamation, which derives from a catchphrase used by radio DJs in the 1940s and 1950s.

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

Photo by Ruth Hartnup. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

History in English Words

Music Used in the Episode

Mahdi The Unexpected OneTower Of PowerLights Out: San FranciscoBlue Thumb
Four PlayFred Wesley and The Horny HornsA Blow For Me A Toot For YouAtlantic
Knock Yourself OutTower Of PowerEast Bay GreaseSan Francisco Records
The JauntPoets Of RhythmDiscern / DefineQuannum Projects
Back On The Street AgainTower Of PowerEast Bay GreaseSan Francisco Records
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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