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Can of Worms

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What do you call a guy with a bald pate? A chrome dome? Maybe the lucky fellow is sporting a solar panel for a sex machine. Also, which would you rather open: a can of worms or Pandora’s box? Plus, ordinary vs. ornery, versing vs. versus, dishwater vs. ditchwater, the copyediting term stet, still hunts, and doozies. And if someone’s a phony, is he a four-flusher or a floor-flusher? Maybe he’s also a piece of work. This episode first aired October 20, 2012.

What People Say to Baldies

  Has anyone collected the stuff folks say to bald people? How about a busy road grows no grass, or God only made so many perfect heads — the rest he covered in hair. Jorge Luis Borges deemed the 1982 Falklands War between the UK and Argentina as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”


  If someone seems too good to be true, he may be a four-flusher. This term for “a fake” or “a phony” comes from the poker slang four-flusher, meaning someone who has four cards of a suit but not yet the full flush. Some people mistake the term as floor-flusher, like in the 1954 Popeye cartoon about a plumbing mishap that makes humorous use of this expression.

Dull as Ditchwater vs. Dishwater

  Is someone dull as ditchwater or dishwater? The more common phrase, which came into use much earlier, is ditchwater.

Way Back

  What do you call the rear compartment of a station wagon or minivan? Many know it as the way back, not to be confused with the regular back, which is more likely to have seat belts.


  Who knows if Harry means “hairy,” but we do know that the name Calvin means “bald.” It derives from the Latin calvus, which means the same thing, and is also the root of the term Calvary.

Miss Word Pageant Quiz

  Quiz Guy John Chaneski plays master of ceremonies for the Miss Word Pageant, a popularity contest for words based on their Google search frequency. For example, between bacon, lettuce and tomato, bacon takes the prize by far for most Google hits, while lettuce brings up the rear. What’d lettuce do for the talent portion?

Pandora’s Box vs. a Can of Worms

  What’s the difference between Pandora’s box and a can of worms? In Greek myth, the contents of the fateful box belonging to Pandora (literally, “all gifts” in ancient Greek) were a mystery. With a can of worms, on the other hand, you know the kind of tangled, unpleasant mess you’re in for. It’s worms.

Possessive for Names Ending With S

  Does the possessive “s” go at the end of a proper noun ending in “s”? What’s the possessive of a name like James — James’ or James’s? Either’s correct, depending on your style guide. The AP Stylebook says you just use an apostrophe, but others say to add the “s”. Your best bet is to choose a style and then be consistent.


  The term callow goes back to Old English calu, meaning “bald.” The original sense of callow referred to young birds lacking feathers on their heads, then referred to a young man’s down cheek, and eventually came to mean “youthful” or “immature.”


  The word stet was borrowed from the Latin word spelled the same way, which translates “let it stand.” Stet is commonly used by writers and editors to indicate that something should remain as written, especially after a correction has been suggested.

Cat’s Game

  Why do we refer to a draw in tic-tac-toe as a cat’s game? Throughout the history of the game, cats have been associated with it. In some Spanish-speaking countries, for example, it’s known as gato, or “cat.”


  Photos and tests from the Mars Rover show an abundance of hematite, a dark red mineral that takes its name from the Greek word haima, meaning “blood.” Another mineral, goethite, is named for the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an amateur geologist whose collection of 18,000 minerals was famous throughout Europe.


  Is versing, meaning “competing against someone,” a real verb? In the past thirty years, this term has grown in popularity because versus, when spoken, sounds like a conjugated verb. So youngsters especially will talk about one team getting ready to verse another. Similar things happened with misunderstanding the plural forms of kudos (in ancient Greek, “glory”) and biceps (literally, “two-headed”) — both of those words were originally singular.

Wolf Tickets

  To sell woof tickets, or wolf tickets, is African-American slang meaning “to threaten in a boastful manner.” Geneva Smitherman, a professor at Michigan State University who’s studied the term, believes it has its origins in the idea of a dog barking uselessly.


  The term doozy (or doozie), which refers to something good or first rate, may derive from daisy, as in the flower, sometimes considered an example of excellence. It might also have to do with the Italian actress Eleanora Duse, who toured the States in the 1890s. It doesn’t come from the Duesenberg automobile because the dates don’t work out. The slang term doozy was in use as early as 1903. The first Deusenberg wasn’t made until 1913 at the earliest, and they weren’t widely available to consumers until 1920. It’s possible the great cars gave the old slang new life, though.

A Few Reasonable Words

  Goethe wasn’t all about the minerals. He’s also quoted as saying, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” Goethe also said, “Everything is simpler than one can imagine and yet complicated and intertwined beyond comprehension,” which seems quite appropriate for a poet whose name graces rocks on another planet.

Still Hunt

  What does it mean if someone’s on a still hunt? This hunting term, for when you’re walking quietly to find prey, has been conscripted by the political world to refer to certain kinds of campaign strategies.

Extraordinary Meanings of Ordinary

  Can ordinary also mean “crude” or “crass”? This usage was more common in previous generations, but it is still acceptable. It’s also the source of ornery, meaning “combative” or “crotchety.”

A Real Piece of Work

  If someone’s a piece of work, they’re a real pain in the rear. Merriam-Webster defines a piece of work as “a complicated, difficult, or eccentric person.” The expression appears to derive from Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man!”

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

AP Stylebook

Music Used in the Episode

Walk On ByThe DecodersWalk On By SingleThe Decoders
I Got A WomanBooker T and The MG’sGreen OnionsStax
Baby Scratch My BackBooker T and The MG’sPlay The “Hip Hits”Stax
Bold and BlackRamsey Lewis TrioAnother VoyageCadet
Killer DillerThe SkatellitesKiller Diller 45rpmIsland Records
Booker LooBooker T and The MG’sBooker Loo 45rpmStax
Garden Of LoveThe SkatellitesFrom Paris With LoveWorld Village USA
UhuruRamsey Lewis TrioAnother VoyageCadet
I No Get Eye For BackHouston PersonHarmonyMercury
Warp Factor IIMontanaA Dance Fantasy / Warp Factor IIAtlantic
PainHouston PersonPain 12″ SingleBase Line
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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