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Bug in Your Ear

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Is there something inherent in English that makes it the linguistic equivalent of the Borg, dominating and consuming other languages in its path? No, not at all. The answer lies with politics and conquest rather than language itself. Plus: a new baby may be lovingly placed in a giraffe and spend time in the Panda room, but where is that? And: it’s not easy to learn how to roll your Rs. In fact, even some native Spanish speakers have trouble with it. Yes, there’s a word for that, too! All that, plus a crossword-puzzle puzzle, a bug in your ear, the origin of slob, long johns vs. maple bars, mentor, stentorian, You can put your boots in the oven, but that don’t make ’em biscuits, and lots more.

This episode first aired December 7, 2019.

Rob: Verb and Name

 After our conversation about first names that are also verbs, such as Grant, Bob, and Sue, a university freshman in Laramie, Wyoming, wrote to share a funny story about his dad’s name, Rob.

Put a Bug in One’s Ear

 Jamie from Calais, Vermont, says an unfortunate experience with an insect made her wonder about the expression to put a bug in your ear or put a bug in one’s ear, meaning “to make a strong, insistent suggestion to someone.” An older expression, to put a flea in one’s ear, is a translation of a French phrase that also means “to insert an irresistible notion,” particularly an erotic one.

Slob’s Irish Origin

 The English word slob, denoting “an untidy, sloppy, or lazy person,” derives from the Irish Gaelic word slab, which means “mud.”

Is Scheming Negative or Neutral?

 Bill, a substitute teacher in Fishers, Indiana, says that while visiting South Africa, he was surprised to hear an acquaintance use scheme to mean simply “a plan,” without no negative connotation whatsoever. In the UK and Commonwealth countries, scheme as a noun is simply neutral, although scheming implies something nefarious.

Fail-Safe vs. Fail-Proof

 A discussion on the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange about things that can still be useful even if they longer function properly, such as escalators and moving sidewalks, included several intriguing expressions involving partial failure. Graceful degradation refers to the ability of a computer or network to maintain limited functionality even if part of the system fails to work properly. Similarly, fail-safe is not the same as failproof; the latter describes something “incapable of failure,” while the former describes something that won’t cause damage even if it does fail.

A Crossword Puzzle Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is cruciverbalist’s delight: a collection of his favorite crossword clues! For example, what’s the four-letter answer to the clue “First Place”?

Is English Widespread Because It’s a Better Language?

 John in Williamsburg, Virginia, ponders whether English is the linguistic equivalent of the Borg, dominating and consuming all languages its path. There’s nothing inherent in English that makes it superior to or more likely to win out over other languages. It’s economic, military, social, and political power of the countries that use a language that makes a language successful, regardless of the merits of the language. English is itself the result of several conquering events that quashed or absorbed other languages in the British Isles, and then the worldwide success of the British Empire and the United States of America made the resulting language widespread.

Trouble Rolling or Trilling Rs in Spanish

 Marcie from Fort Worth, Texas, grew up in Chile speaking Spanish, but her 10-year-old daughter has trouble rolling her Rs. This difficulty or inability to trill one’s Rs is called rhotacism, and it’s not uncommon in Spanish-speaking countries.

Stentorian Origin

 The adjective stentorian, meaning “extremely loud,” comes from the name of brazen-voiced Stentor, a Greek herald in The Iliad, whose voice was said to be as powerful as that of 50 men. The noun and verb mentor come from The Odyssey. In that Greek poem, Athena assumes the guise of a man named Mentor, who advises the son of Odysseus.

Long John Donuts

 Max from Sacramento, California, is curious about why the long, frosted doughnut with no filling that he grew up calling a long john goes by so many other names, including longie, bar doughnut, chocolate bar, maple bar, and maple stick. Food names like these often vary widely from region to region. In some parts of the United States, those filled pastries called eclairs are also called long johns.

Stranger: Shall I Play Mother?

 One old sense of the word stranger means “a lone tea leaf floating in a cup of tea.” A longtime superstition holds that such a lone leaf means a stranger will soon show up at the door. In Britain, a host may offer to pour a cup of tea with the question Shall I be mother?, recalling the way children having a tea party may offer to serve. Meryl Streep delivers this line while playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Neonatal Unit Jargon

 Katie in East Thetford, Vermont, shares medical slang and jargon from her work in the neonatal intensive care room at a hospital, including doorbell for “an alarm”; giraffe, “a special bed with controls for heat and humidity”; and PANDA Room, an acronym for “Preterm and Newborn Diagnostic Area,” formerly known as the Resuscitation Room, until a parent pointed out how ominous that name sounds.

Flesh Fly vs. Horsefly

 Rhonda in San Diego, California, and her husband have a dispute over the proper nomenclature for flies that occasionally wing their way into their home. He wants to call a large fly a horsefly, but she has a biology and animal-husbandry background and knows that this particular red-eyed insect is actually called a flesh fly rather than a horsefly. Is it worth insisting that her spouse call it by the correct name?

Mixing Up He and She in English as a Non-Native Speaker

 Sayed lives in Houston, Texas, but grew up in Pakistan speaking Urdu and Punjabi. As someone who began learning English two years ago, he finds that he often mixes up gendered pronouns. It’s not surprising that he would confuse he with she and him with her, however, since his native language doesn’t designate gendered pronouns at all.

That Don’t Make ’Em Biscuits

 Don from Munday, Texas, is fond of the phrase You can put your boots in the oven, but that don’t make ’em biscuits, which is a way of saying that even if you call something by a different name, that doesn’t change its essential nature. A more common version: Just because a cat has kittens in the oven, that don’t make ’em biscuits.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Iliad
The Odyssey

Music Used in the Episode

Here Comes The Meter ManThe MetersThe MetersJosie
Cissy StrutThe MetersThe MetersJosie
Make The Road By WalkingMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
Thankful ‘Bout YourselfThe BlackbyrdsCity LifeFantasy
You Can’t Beat Two People In LoveLynn CollinsWe Want to Parrty, Parrty, ParrtyPeople Records
Tired Of FightingMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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