You’ve been reading a book but you’re just not into it. How do you quit it, guilt-free? How do you break up with a book? Also, what do you ask for when you go through the grocery checkout line: bag, sack, or something else? Plus, brung vs. brought, a swim swim, cuddywifters, pinstriped cookie-pushers, a road trip word game, and more.

This episode first aired November 3, 2012.

Download the MP3.

 Not Finishing Books
How do you know if it’s time to break up with a book? You’ve into the book 50, maybe a 100 pages, but you’re just not into it. Is there something wrong with quitting before the end? Tell us where you draw the line.

 Curing Verbal Crutches
Let’s say an expression you use really bothers your friends or coworkers. Maybe you end sentences with whatnot or etcetera, or you use um as a placeholder, and you want to stop doing it. Here’s a tip: Enlist someone you trust, and have them police you, calling your attention to it every time you use that verbal crutch. It should cure you pretty quickly.

 Aptronym Word Game
A while ago, we played a game involving aptronyms, those monikers that really fit their owners. For example, picture a guy holding a shovel standing next to a hole. His name might be Doug. But a Tennessee listener wrote to suggest another answer: the guy with the shovel might just as well be called Barry. A number of listeners also suggested Phil/. Have a better aptronym to share?

 Going Downhill
If you say something’s going downhill, does that mean things are getting better or worse? Here’s the rule: if something’s going downhill, it’s getting worse, but if things are all downhill from here, they’re getting better.

 More Tom Swifties
Remember Tom Swifties, those puns where the adverb matches the quote? How about this one: “I love reading Moby-Dick,” Tom said superficially.

 Twenty Questions
Our Puzzle Master John Chaneski has a game that should last through your longest road trip. It’s a variation of “20 Questions” called “Animal, Mineral or Vegetable.” He gives you a word and you have to find the animal, mineral or vegetable embedded in it. For example, which of those three things is contained in the word soaking?

 Brung vs. Brought
Mike from Irving, Texas, has a co-worker who regularly uses brung instead of brought. Is it okay to say “he brung something”? The word brung is a dialectal variant that has existed alongside brought for centuries. It appears in the informal phrase dance with the one what brung ya (or who brung you, or that brung you), which suggests the importance of being loyal.

 No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
The phrase “no bucks, no Buck Rogers,” made popular by the 1983 film The Right Stuff, has seen a renaissance in usage among pilots. That is, if you don’t pay them what they believe they’re worth, they’re not going to fly.

 Pinstriped Cookie-Pushers
We got a call from Sarah in Dresden, Germany, who’s applying to work for the State Department as foreign service officer. She was curious about an article that contained the term pinstriped cookie-pusher. According to William Safire’s Political Dictionary, this bit of derogatory slang came into use in the 1920s to refer to diplomats who were perceived as soft or even effeminate. These men in pinstriped suits would attend receptions at embassies where they’d push cookies instead of paper.

 Wine Whale
If a waiter marks your date as a WW, you know you’re in for a special bottle of wine. The wine whales, as they’re called, take their name from the Vegas whale: those folks who play big at the tables, to the tune of hundreds of thousands or even millions.

Will, a listener from South Burlington, Vermont, says he always considered willy-nilly to be his own special phrase. But he’s realized over the years that its original meaning has been replaced. What was originated as will I, nill I or will he, nill he — that is, with or without the will of someone — has come to mean “haphazard.” This transformation likely has to do with its rhyme.

If someone’s a cuddywifter, are they a) a wine snob, b) left-handed, or c) a circus clown? Folks in Scotland and Northern England refer to left-handed people as cuddywifters, along with a host of other terms.

 Gold in the Sky
After re-reading Stephen Crane’s short story The Open Boat, Martha is reminded of one of Crane’s poems about perspective, known as A man saw a ball of gold in the sky.

 Bag vs. Sack, Paper vs. Plastic
If someone asks for their groceries in a bag, does that mean they want paper or plastic? Jean-Patrick in Dallas, Texas, has had plenty of experience bagging groceries, and says his customers use the term bag specifically to mean the paper kind. We don’t have evidence that there are different names for these containers in different parts of the country, but we’d love to hear from you on this one.

 Constrastive Focus Reduplication Redux
When someone’s going for a swim swim, it means they’re doing it for real, laps and all, and not just frolicking. If they’re going to a party, that’s probably going to be less party-like than a party party. These are examples of what linguists call contrastive focus reduplication, in which we emphasize a term, or suggest the purest meaning of a term, by reusing it rather than tacking on another adjective. For example, you might just like someone, but then again you maybe you like like them.

 Other Half, Dear Husband
When it comes to marriage, you’ve got to work with your OH — that is, your other half. Lexicographers for the Oxford English Dictionary are tracking this initialism, as well as DH, or dear husband, for possible inclusion in future editions.

 Liketa, Liked To
I liked to died when that ol’ toad-strangler crashed through the veranda! The Southernism liked to, also known as the counterfactual liketa, derives from the sense of like meaning “nearly.”

 Wendell Berry’s “The Real Work”
One of Kentucky’s finest, Wendell Berry, wrote this in his poem “The Real Work“: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do / we have come to our real work.” Indeed, a smooth life is often a boring life.

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

Photo by Señor Codo. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Safire’s Political Dictionary by William Safire
Oxford English Dictionary
Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Beery

Music Used in the Broadcast


Funky, Funky Twist The Gaturs Wasted Funky Delicacies
The Booger Man The Gaturs Wasted Funky Delicacies
Yeah, You’re Right The Gaturs Wasted Funky Delicacies
The Rat Cage Beastie Boys The Mix Up Capitol
Heads Down Blue Mitchell Bantu Village Blue Note
The Kick Rhythm Machine The Kick 45rpm Tramp Records
Howlin’ With Fred The Apples Kings Freestyle Records
Thirst The Apples Attention! AME
Dramastically Different Beastie Boys The Mix Up Capitol
The Power The Apples The Power 45rpm Freestyle Records
Looking For Trouble The Apples Fly On It AME
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
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19 Responses

  1. clouds12 says:

    Great episode. Got me hooked from the start.

  2. Robert says:

    I quit relentlessly if the author doesn’t talk to me 1/4 way into the book. And doing this in store with coffees in spare times takes care of any vague guilts economic or intellectual or whatever. The unfamiliar authors I weed first by the book covers- contrary to the old wisdom, the jacket designs are great tell of what you are getting. The stores are wonderful places that may soon be gone with the wind.

  3. Peter says:

    When the caller asked about “whatnot” my heart leapt. At last, Grant and Martha have the opportunity to blast this incredibly annoying verbal tic. Imagine my disappointment when they said it was just an somewhat informal version of etcetera. The dictionary may agree with them but I think that in common use it’s simply tacked on to the end of sentences which don’t contain a proper list. It functions as a space filler kind of like “ya’ know”. The Urban Dictionary says it’s a more “hip-hop” way of saying etcetera. I agree that it is most common in black speech but the first person who I can remember using it in this way was a white guy I worked with nearly 30 years ago. It has only become more common since then. I wince every time I hear it.

  4. Robert says:

    I hear and see it often, even in plural whatnots. Yes I agree with Grant and Martha who sound like they are ok with it.
    Whatnot can be a mild challenge, like ‘you name it!’, meaning the things I am talking about are so numerous and inclusive that whatever you can think of, of course within reasons, I’ve got.
    On the scale of vulgar to proper, I’ll rate these 3 at about the same point, 3/4 to proper– whatnot, you name it, and what have you.

  5. tatiana.larina says:

    Nancy Pearl, a librarian who has her show on books at KUOW, once talked about the rule of 100. You deduce your current age from 100 and the result is the number of pages you read before you decide whether you want to go on with the book or not. Which means that when you reach the age of 100, you can judge a book by its cover.

  6. Jackie says:

    I have too many books to read to waste time on a bad one.   I used to finish every book I started.   Then came Cold Mountain.   I can usually read a book in a day or two.   That book took me three weeks.   I forced myself to read it.   Everyone was raving about it.   I kept thinking it would get better.   It didn’t.   It was horrid to the very end.   The day after I finished it, I donated it to my local library.   I didn’t even want that thing on my bookshelf.   Since then, I give a book 50 pages.   If it doesn’t have me by then, oh well.   I’m on to something else.  

    I broke that rule recently for J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, her first foray into adult literature.   When I hit page 113 and still had little clue where the book was going, I gave up.   I took it back to the library for another patron to labor over.   Rowling needs to go back to Hogwarts.

  7. Robert says:

    One fun way to think of novels is how the author is so giving herself up, exposing x ray nook and cranny of his brain, begging forbearance and understanding. Authors cannot help that , good or bad, no matter how realistic or novelistic the style. You cannot have that talking face to face.

  8. Heimhenge says:

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky, or maybe I just screen my books carefully enough, but I don’t think I’ve ever not finished a book once started.

    Now I couldn’t say the same about magazine or newspaper articles, which are probably 75% of my reading these days. Unlike with a library book, I pay for all those subscriptions and feel more compelled to read them cover-to-cover. Still, if an article hasn’t hooked my by the 2nd or 3rd paragraph, I usually move on.

  9. Glenn says:

    Wow! I am stunned and possibly impressed. I would have thought that Murphy’s Law would have a corollary analogous to the programming one: “Every nontrivial program has at least one bug.” Maybe “Every serious reader has set down at least one loser book.” C’mon. What about the one your Aunt Flo sent you and you felt you had to give it a shot, but just couldn’t stomach? Or the one that was assigned in your college freshman writing course, and you just ran out of time? Or the “Touring Mozambique” guide you thought you would finish on the flight? ‘Fess up!

  10. Glenn says:

    Or the OED? Or the Bible? Or Encyclopedia Britannica — you pick the volume?

  11. Heimhenge says:

    OK, I’ll ‘fess up … if you include books I was assigned   to read in school, sure, some I didn’t finish by choice, some I ran outa time. I recall struggling with Heart of Darkness and Metamorphosis, neither of which I ever finished, nor plan to. And there was this one book called Symmetry that I actually requested as a gift, but it turned out to be way beyond what I could understand … pretty graphics, but too deep into number theory. I skipped much of the text, but enjoyed the CGI graphics.

    And since you bring it up, I actually did read the entire Encyclopedia Americana back in high school. I’ve read “parts” of the Bible, only because I don’t see it as a continuous narrative. And I’ve never owned an OED … but I saw one once at a library. Impressive tome, albeit too big for my typical needs. Got by with my Webster’s all through school and beyond. Of course in these days of online dictionaries, I rarely take it off the shelf.

    But I swear, of those I chose for myself, I believe I have a near-perfect track record. So feel free to be possibly impressed.   🙂


  12. Glenn says:

    Loved Metamorphosis. Hated Heart of Darkness. Had to read the latter when I was in college to help a younger cousin on a paper for high school. Had to read it twice then resorted to Cliff Notes for the only time in my life.

    We got a C.

  13. tromboniator says:

    I bailed twice on  Great Expectations, about fifty years ago and again about five or six years ago, both times about ten or twelve pages in. I tried  A Tale of Two Cities three or four years ago, might have made it halfway through, but just hated it. Dickens and I don’t get on well.

  14. Glenn says:

    Now Dickens is a great topic. I believe his work was originally published in serial installments. Reading Dickens straight through is a bit like watching a year’s worth of local news broadcasts in one sitting. After I learned about how he intended it to be read, I tried reading a chapter a day, and to my surprise I found it quite enjoyable. Teachers, take note!

  15. tromboniator says:

    On the other side of the coin, we Theodore Dreiser,  An American Tragedy. I wanted desperately to put it down – I think it’s the most depressing novel I’ve ever read – but I kept wanting to know if things could possibly get any worse. Sure enough, they did. I’ll never read it again, but I’m glad I got through it.


    Thanks for your recommendation, Glenn. Perhaps I’ll try your approach to Dickens.

  16. I wonder if “whatnot” doesn’t sound to her supervisor as being related to “whatever”? I would agree that “whatever” (even if catching on) is informal, even if “whatnot” is not.

  17. BMayer says:

    I was raised in Philadelphia, lived in Florida for decades, and now live in Texas. I never heard sack in reference to grocery bag until I heard my mother-in-law use it. She uses for both paper and plastic. She was raised in Illinois. She also uses “ticket” instead of “receipt”. I never heard this before or since by anyone else.

  18. tromboniator says:

    I’ve just remembered A Confederacy of Dunces. I don’t recall how far into it I got – started off enjoying it – but at some point it just exhausted me and I threw* it away.



  19. EmmettRedd says:

    BMayer said

    I was raised in Philadelphia, lived in Florida for decades, and now live in Texas. I never heard sack in reference to grocery bag until I heard my mother-in-law use it. She uses for both paper and plastic. She was raised in Illinois. She also uses “ticket” instead of “receipt”. I never heard this before or since by anyone else.

    “Ticket” is sometimes used here in southwest Missouri.