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By a Landslide

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How do you transform ancient Chinese script for use in the modern age? English uses a keyboard with just 26 letters, but the first Chinese typewriter looked like a small table under a huge disk with more than 4,000 characters. A new book chronicles the innovators who adapted the Chinese writing for use with modern technology. Plus, in poker, why is a pair of aces and a pair of eights known as a dead man’s hand? And some people credit Winston Churchill with the phrase Never pass up the chance to sit down or go to the bathroom. There’s no evidence he ever said that, but a similar bit of advice once circulated among British royalty. Plus, getting pipped, puzzling over proverbs, vittles vs. victuals, do the messages vs. do the errands, sakura-fubuki, a friendly word for your ex’s new sweetie, and the German word that translates as “mouse cinema.”

This episode first aired March 11, 2023.

Mouse Cinema is a Stuart Little-Sized Display

 In German, the electronic dashboard display on a car has a picturesque name. It’s Mäusekino, literally, “mouse cinema.” The Hungarian term for “mouse cinema,” egérmozi, is often applied to various kinds of small electronic displays, such as the screen on a mobile phone.

Why the New York Times Spelling Bee Didn’t Include That Word

 Puzzling over the New York Times Spelling Bee, Jordan in Cheyenne, Wyoming, played the word pipped, but was surprised that the game disallowed it. He remembers hearing the word in stories about the historic 1954 Miracle Mile race between Sir Roger Bannister and John Landy. It’s true that the word is commonly used in British English, but as Bee editor Sam Ezersky has explained, the game’s answers are selected from curated lists compiled from some dictionaries and not others, and those parameters are also part of the challenge.

“Vittles” a Victim of Fanciful Philologists

 Caroline in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalls her grandparents often used vittles to mean “food.” The word vittles derives from Latin victualis, meaning “nourishment” or “sustenance,” an etymological relative of such words as vitality and vitamin. Latin victualis passed into Old French, and along the way lost that hard C sound, becoming vitaille. After a form of this was borrowed into English, 16th-century scholars reinserted the C to make it look more like the original Latin. But the C-less pronunciation stuck around. Today the word can be spelled victuals or vittles, but both are pronounced to rhyme with littles. For a splendid introduction to the cuisine, folkways, foodways, language, and history of Appalachia, check out food writer Ronni Lundy’s book Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes (Bookshop|Amazon).


 In Japanese, sakura means “cherry blossom.” When the spring wind blows through the blooming trees, you have a sakura-fubuki 桜吹雪 or “cherry blossom snowstorm.”

Puzzling Proverbs Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski is puzzling over proverbs around the world, but he asks for help remembering the last word of each. For example, he knows there’s a German proverb that translates as “A clear conscience is a soft willow.” No, that’s not quite right. What’s the last word of this adage?

What’s a Nice Term for Your Ex-Spouse’s New Spouse?

 Cindy from Henderson, Kentucky, enjoys a wonderful relationship with her ex-husband’s new wife, and she’s looking for a word to indicate their special connection. The sister of your husband is your sister-in-law, of course, but what’s a good word for the spouse of your ex? She’s considered the term sister-out-law, but that doesn’t feel right. We’ve discussed this question before, and listeners suggested ex-in-law or wife-in-lawor step-wife. Others define the person in relation to their children, as in my son’s stepmother. We’re turning on the siren, putting the cherries and berries on the roof, and calling out for more suggestions! Have a better word for the new partner of your former spouse? Tell us!

Inky Pinky Stinky Winky

 After our conversation about jinx and the verbal games that ensue when two people accidentally say the same word at the same time, a Kansas listener shared this ditty she heard as a youngster: Jinx! Buy me a coke / Inky pinky stinky winky / Flush it down the toilet sinky / Allay hoo, allay hoo / King of France wet his pants /Right in the middle of the ballroom dance/ Nee nee nee nee nee / Nee nee nee nee nee nee nee UH!

A Tale of Two Towns, a Landslide, and a Disputed Origin

 Anthony in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is suspicious of a story about the origin of the phrase win by landslide. According to local lore, the Wyoming towns of Jackson and Kelly competed to become the county seat of Teton County. In 1927, a massive landslide dammed the Gros Ventre River, creating a lake. That dam later broke and wiped the town of Kelly off the map, supposedly leading people to say that Kelly lost by a landslide. That’s not the origin of the phrase, though. The phrase won by a landslide denoting a resounding political victory appears decades earlier in the 1850s. There’s an even earlier term for this geological phenomenon, landslip, which goes back to the early 1600s. In the segment Grant mistakenly mentions the Wyoming Historical Society as a place to go for more information. Instead, he should have mentioned the Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum.

Vouching for Your Good Name

 If you vouch for something, you guarantee that what you’re saying is true. In the early 14th century, vouch was a transitive verb that meant “to summon into court to prove a title.” Vouch was adapted into English from an Old French word meaning “to call” or “summon.” The root of both words is Latin vocare “to call,” the root also of such words as vocal, vocation, evoke, provoke,and convoke. The word voucher followed a somewhat similar path, originally voucher was a legal term that meant the “calling of a person into court to warrant the title to a property.” In the 17th century, voucher was used to mean “a business receipt,” or in other words, “evidence of a transaction.”

Instead of a Long Island Iced Tea, Maybe Go for a Catalina Island Buffalo Milk

 Writer Ian Bogost has a clever proposal for a drinking establishment that every copy editor will love: “A bar called The Copy Desk where they offer an alternative to your drink order and you get kind of really upset for a second but then realize, no, that’s in fact a better order.”

Adapting the Chinese Script for Technology Has Been an Incredible Feat

 The new book Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern (Bookshop|Amazon) is a fascinating history about the colorful characters who attempted to reinvent the complicated Chinese script to adapt it for use with modern technology. It’s by Jing Tsu, a professor of East Asian Languages and Literature and Comparative Literature at Yale University.

What’s a “Dead Man’s Hand”?

 Artie in New Bern, North Carolina, wonders why a poker hand consisting of a pair of aces and a pair of eights is called a dead man’s hand. Legend has it that when Wild Bill Hickock was killed during a poker game in 1876 in the Dakota Territory, he was holding two aces and two eights, thus the term dead man’s hand. However, there are problems with this story. First, there are no contemporaneous accounts of it — the term doesn’t show up for another 50 years — and second, the name dead man’s hand has applied to a number of different card combinations, including two pairs, three jacks and a pair of tens, or red eights.

When “Messages” Means “Errands” or Going to the Shops

 Irv in Montreal, Canada, says that in his city, English speakers will typically use the word messages where others might use errands, as in I’m going to do some messages. The oldest meaning of the word errand is “message,” “news,” or “tidings.” In modern Scots, someone doing errands is said to go the messages, and a shopping bag might be called a message bag. In Scotland and Ireland, the phrase do the messages may more often mean shopping for someone else rather than oneself, and thanks to migration patterns, this locution is also heard in parts of the Caribbean. In French, faire des commissions, including the French-speaking parts of Canada, can mean “run errands” or “deliver messages.”

Always Make Water When You Can

 Madison in Wilmington, North Carolina, says that whenever her family was about to leave the house, her grandfather would tell them to take Churchill’s advice, which they all understood to be a reminder to use the bathroom before setting out. The saying Never pass up the chance to sit down or go to the bathroom is often erroneously attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. However a similar bit of counsel appeared in the memoir of his contemporary, King Edward VIII, after his abdication titled the Duke of Windsor. In his book A King’s Story (Amazon), he says that one of the few bits of positive advice he ever received was Never miss an opportunity to relieve yourself and never miss a chance to sit down and rest your feet. Researcher Nigel Rees has unearthed evidence the idea goes back even further among the royals as Always make water when you can.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes by Ronni Lundy (Bookshop|Amazon)
Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern by Jin Tsu (Bookshop|Amazon)
A King’s Story by Edward, Duke of Windsor (Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Old FriendOkoNskiMagnoliaColemine Records
Sunshine ManHarold AlexanderSunshine ManFlying Dutchman
Dark MoonOkoNskiMagnoliaColemine Records
What’s Going OnLes McCannTalk To The PeopleAtlantic
Quick CityHarold AlexanderSunshine ManFlying Dutchman
North CarolinaLes McCannTalk To The PeopleAtlantic
Walking To A HomeOkoNskiMagnoliaColemine Records
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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