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Bouncy House of Language

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Some people proudly embrace the label cancer survivor, while others feel that’s not quite the right word. Is there a better term for someone who’s battled cancer? Writers and listeners share the best sentence they’ve read all day. Plus, koofers and goombahs, Alfred Hitchcock and MacGuffins, why we put food in jars but call it canning, and why ring the door with your elbow means BYOB.

This episode first aired June 14, 2013. It was rebroadcast the weekends of January 6 and November 17, 2014.

Most Interesting Sentences

 Ever read a sentence that’s so good, you just have to look up from the page to let it sink in? Grant offers one from Ezra Pound: “The book should be a ball of light in one’s hands.”

Lick That Off The Grass

 When someone says He didn’t lick that off the grass, it means he’s inherited a behavior from relatives or picked it up from those around them. This phrase is particularly common in Northern Ireland.

Ring The Doorbell With Your Elbow

 Don’t bother showing up to a party unless you’re ringing the doorbell with your elbow. In other words, BYOB.

Similar Names for “Goose”

 Brian from Edison, New Jersey, is pondering this linguistic mystery: The Mid-Atlantic convenience store chain Wawa has a goose as its logo. The Algonquin term for “goose” is wawa, and the French for “goose” is oie, pronounced “wah.” Is there a connection between the French and Native American terms? It’s probably just another example from a long list of linguistic coincidences resulting from the limited amount of vocal sounds we can make.

Categorical Allies Word Game

 Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska invites us to play Categorical Allies, a game of two-word pairs where the last two letters of the first word lend themselves to the start of the second, and both words fit into one category. For example, what word might follow the name Job? Or the title A Christmas Carol?


 Say you’ve been busy all semester throwing a Frisbee and drinking juice out of a funnel, and now it’s finals week. How are you going to study? Just get yourself a koofer! These old tests, which some universities keep around in their libraries, can be great guides in prepping for a current test. Virginia Tech alums claim the term originated there in the early 1940s. In any case, many universities now have koofers, and many are available online at koofers.com.

Etymology of Canning

 Why do we call it canning if we’re putting stuff in glass jars? The answer has to do with when the technique was discovered. The process of canning came about in the late 1700s, when thin glass jars were used. Factories soon switched to metal cans because they were durable and better for shipping. But after Mason jars came about in the mid-1800s, the process of preserving things at home kept the name canning.

Tweets of Great Sentences

 Sam Anderson, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, tweets the best sentence he reads each day, like this from D.H. Lawrence describing the affection of Italians: “They pour themselves one over the other like so much melted butter over parsnips.”

Cancer Survivors

 Should people living with cancer be referred to as cancer survivors? Mary from Delafield, Wisconsin, a breast cancer survivor herself, doesn’t like the term. Nor does Indiana University professor emerita Susan Gubar, who discusses this in an eloquent New York Times blog post. Many people living with cancer feel that the word survivor, which came into vogue in the early 90s, now seems inadequate. Some argue that having cancer shouldn’t be their most important identifying feature. Others suggest calling themselves contenders or grits. Have a better idea?

Ohio Listener’s Favorite Recently-Read Sentence

 Kevin Whitebaum of Oberlin, Ohio, has a favorite sentence from P.D. James’s A Taste for Death: “The original tenants had been replaced by the transients of the city, the peripatetic young, sharing three to a room; unmarried mothers sharing social security; foreign students-a racial mix which, like some human kaleidoscope, was continually being shaken into new and brighter colours.”

Variations of Ishpy

 A while back, we talked about ishpy, a popular word among Nordic immigrants meaning something that a child shouldn’t touch or put in their mouth. It turns out that lots of listeners with ancestors from Norway and Denmark know the term ishpy, along with ishie poo, ishta, and ish, all having to do with something disgusting or otherwise forbidden.

Linguistic One-Upmanship

 When is it okay to correct someone’s grammar? Grant offers two rules: Correct someone only if they’ve asked you to, or if they’re paying you to. Otherwise, telling someone they should’ve used I instead of me is just interrupt the conversation for no good reason.

Application Over Appetizer

 Nick Greene, web editor for The Village Voice, tweeted, “Modern society’s greatest failing has been letting Application defeat Appetizer in the War For What Can Be Called an App.” There’s always antipasti.


 Goombah, sometimes spelled goomba, is a term for Italian-Americans that’s sometimes used disparagingly. Physicians use the same word for the blobs on CT scans indicating a possible tumor, but this sense probably derives from the evil mushrooms in Super Mario Bros., known as goombas. The game was released in 1986, right about the same time that doctors picked up the term.

Long Arms Sentence Tweet

 Here’s a great sentence by Phil Jackson, tweeted by writer Sam Anderson: “I was 6’6″ in high school … arms so long I could sit in the backseat of a car and open both front doors at the same time.”

Hitchcock’s MacGuffins

 A MacGuffin isn’t the name of a breakfast sandwich, but it could be — that is, if a movie involves characters trying to get that sandwich. The MacGuffin, also spelled McGuffin or maguffin, is any object in a film that drives the story forward, like the secret papers or the stolen necklace. Alfred Hitchcock made the MacGuffin famous, and explained it this way in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.”

Sentence on The Disease of American Writing

 Judy Schwartz from Dallas, Texas, sent us the best sentence she read all day. It’s from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” Have a sentence that stopped you in your tracks? Send it our way.

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

Photo by Steve Winton. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

A Taste for Death by P.D. James
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Music Used in the Episode

Plenty NastyDiplomats of Solid SoundPlenty NastyRecord Kicks
Come In My KitchenDiplomats of Solid SoundPlenty NastyRecord Kicks
The Funky TurkeyThe Jive TurkeysBread & ButterColemine Records
Cookie TimeDiplomats of Solid SoundInstrumental, Action, SoulPrescription Records
Come OnThird Coast KingsThird Coast KingsRecord Kicks
Cop It ProperThird Coast KingsThird Coast KingsRecord Kicks
The JT StrutThe Jive TurkeysBread & ButterColemine Records
Crush ItThird Coast KingsThird Coast KingsRecord Kicks
Tonic StrideThird Coast KingsThird Coast KingsRecord Kicks
RoughneckThird Coast KingsThird Coast KingsRecord Kicks
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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