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Burn Bag

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The slang coming out of Victorian mouths was more colorful than you might think. A 1909 collection of contemporary slang records clever terms for everything from a bald head to the act of sidling through a crowd. Plus, how to remember the difference between CAV-al-ry and CAL-va-ry. And: what’s the best way to improve how introverts are perceived in our society? For starters, don’t bother asking for help from dictionary editors. Also, collieshangles, knowledge box, nanty narking, biz bag, burn bag, yuppies, and amberbivalence. This episode first aired September 25, 2015.

Passing English of the Victorian Era

 “Mind the grease” is a handy phrase to use when you’re trying to sidle through a crowd. It’s found in 1909 volume of English slang called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Speaking of greasy, in those days something extravagant might be described as “butter upon bacon.”

Accent Imitation

 If you’re telling a story involving someone with an accent, and while relaying what so-and-so said, you imitate that person’s accent, is that cool? If your retelling starts to sound offensive or gets in the way of good communication, best to try paraphrasing rather than performing.


 Collieshangles is an old Scottish term for a quarrel, possibly deriving from the notion of two collie dogs fighting.


 We’ve previously discussed the term “going commando,” meaning “dressed without underwear.” It first appears in print in 1974, but likely goes back further than that. The scene in a 1996 episode of Friends, wherein Joey goes commando in Chandler’s clothes, likely popularized the saying.


 A Chicago-area listener suggests that approaching to a yellow traffic light and deciding whether or not to go for it might be described as amberbivalence. It’s somewhat like that decision you face when coming toward what you know is a stale green light—do you gun it or brake it?

Apt Email Address Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski wasn’t savvy enough way back when to snag an email address like john@aol.com, but he was clever enough to come up with a game about apt email addresses that serve as a pun on the word at. For example, a prescient lawyer might have claimed attorney@law.com.

Cavalry vs. Calvary

 What’s the difference between cavalry and calvary? The first of these two refers to the group of soldiers on horseback, and is a linguistic relative of such “horsey” words as caballero, the Spanish horse-riding gentleman, and cavalcade, originally a “parade of horses.” The word calvary, on the other hand, derives from the Latin calvaria, “skull,” and refers to the hill where Jesus was crucified, known in Aramaic as Golgotha, or “place of the skull.”

Knowledge Box

 Knowledge box is an old slang term for noggin; one 1755  describes someone who “almost cracked his knowledge box.”

Definition of Introvert

 An introvert in Baltimore, Maryland, is unhappy with an online definition of introvert, and is speaking up about wanting it changed. The definition describes an introvert as someone preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings—such as a selfish person, or a narcissist. The problem is, Google’s definitions come from another dictionary, and dictionary definitions themselves come from perceived popular usage. So the way to change a definition isn’t to petition lexicographers, but to change the popular understanding of a term.

Man Cave and She Shed

 What’s the female equivalent of a man cave? Some people are promoting the term she shed.

Ann Patchett Writing Advice

 Ann Patchett, the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, among other books, has some great advice about writing. She says the key is to practice writing several hours a day for the sheer joy of getting better, and find the thing that you alone can say.

Biz Bag

 The term biz bag, meaning a bag to stuff your discarded items in, comes from an old commercial for Biz stain-removing detergent.

Nanty Narking

 If you’re looking for a little nanty narking, try going back to the 19th century and having a great time, because that’s a jaunty term the British used for it back then.

Yuppies and Dinks

 Betamax players and hair metal bands may be trapped in the 1980’s, but the term yuppie, meaning young urban professional, is alive and well. Dink, meaning dual income, no kids, is also worth throwing around in a marketing presentation.

Secret Agent Burn Bags

 In the world of covert secret agents, a burn bag is the go-to receptacle for important papers you’d like to have burned rather than intercepted by the enemy.

Mau It Down

 A listener from Santa Monica, California, says he’s going to “mow something down,” as in, he’s going to eat a huge amount of food really fast. But when he writes it, he spells mow as mau, and pronounces it to rhyme with cow. Ever heard of this?


 A fly-rink, in 19th-century slang, is a bald head—perfect for flies to skate around on!

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

Photo by Vs Heidelberg Photos. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Passing English of the Victorian Era by James Redding Ware
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Music Used in the Episode

Heavy StakeoutShawn LeeNew York Trouble / Electric ProgressionTummy Touch
Street FreedomShawn LeeNew York Trouble / Electric ProgressionTummy Touch
Narrow EscapeSouls of MischiefThere Is Only NowLinear Labs
A Man And A WomanDavid McCallumMusic – It’s Happening NowCapitol Records
Womack’s LamentSouls of MischiefThere Is Only NowLinear Labs
Another Part of YouSouls of MischiefThere Is Only NowLinear Labs
Rototom FooleryShawn LeePsychedelic PercussionPedigree Cuts
If I Were A CarpenterDavid McCallumMusic – It’s Happening NowCapitol Records
Light StakeoutShawn LeeNew York Trouble / Electric ProgressionTummy Touch
Cool, Not ColdShawn LeeNew York Trouble / Electric ProgressionTummy Touch
Hong Kong HangTim Love LeeNew York Trouble / Electric ProgressionTummy Touch
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleUnreleasedUnreleased

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1 comment
  • On “yuppies”: Here’s a little more backstory on this word. It’s not surprising that it would surface in 1980 in Chicago, but since Dan Rottenberg, the author cited, did not claim to have invented it, he might not have known its origins.

    It’s derived, almost certainly, from “yippie,” the self-chosen moniker of the radical Youth International Party, founded by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and others in 1968. “Yippie,” of course,” is a tongue-in-cheek derivative of “hippie,” and I think was intended to express the freewheeling nature of the YIP. The YIP came to prominence later in 1968, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and it may be that the term yippie lingered in Chicago after the movement faded out.

    Jerry Rubin subsequently became an entrepreneur, and thus the prototypical yuppie as well. All or most of this is in the Wikipedia article on yuppie, BTW, with links from there to yippie. I knew a yippie or two in the early 70s, which is why the connection popped out to me when I listened to the podcast.

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