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Catbird Seat

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Online recaps of Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be as much fun as the shows themselves. So why not recap classic literature — like, say, Dante’s Inferno? A literary website is doing just that. And, you’ve heard about the First World and the Third World — so where in the world is the Second World? Plus, animal stories, including how the aardvark got three “A’s” in its name, and why the catbird seat is the place to be. Also, the origins of crackerjack, mall, mad money, and the admonition “you might want horns, but you’re gonna die butt-headed!” This episode first aired November 16, 2013.

Fashionable Street

 Shopping malls take their name from the fashionable street now known as Pall Mall in London’s St. James area. The game of pall-mall, which involves hitting a ball with a wooden mallet, was once played there.


 Listen up, Scrabble players! Zax is a real word that refers to a kind of roofing tool.


 A small eating place where the food is not particularly good is sometimes called a grab-it-and-growl.

Crackerjack Fellow

 A crackerjack fellow is someone who’s excellent or first-rate. It’s most likely the same positive sense of crack found in terms like cracking good, crack team, and crack shot.

Giving Juan’s Clothes to Pedro

 The idiom “rob Peter to pay Paul,” means “to borrow someone from someone in order to repay someone else.” In Nicaragua, the same idea is expressed by a phrase that translates as “take Juan’s clothes to give them to Pedro.”

Quiz with the Letter “B”

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game of phrases involving the letter B.

Mad Money

 Mad money is the emergency cash a woman tucked away to get home safely if an evening out went badly. These days, it’s largely been replaced by cell phones.

Second World

 There’s a First World and a Third World, but what about a Second World? The Soviet Bloc countries once made up the Second World, but these terms are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Inflationary Language

 In an earlier episode, we played a game in which we raised the ante on words with hidden “numbers” inside them. For example, forever became five-ever. Many listeners wrote to share Victor Borge’s hilarious Inflationary Language video along the same lines.

Origin of Catbird Seat

 The legendary baseball announcer Red Barber is credited with popularizing the term the catbird seat, the enviable position in poker where you’re last to bet. James Thurber’s amusing story “The Catbird Seat” published in The New Yorker helped popularize it even further.

Tracking Notice Tweet

 Name developer and language observer Nancy Friedman tweeted this curious tracking notice from UPS: “Your package has experienced an exception.”

Swinging in Sync

 What do you say to the person next to you on the swings who’s in sync with you? How about, “Get out of my bathtub!”

Literary-Minded Blogs

 There’s some great stuff out there on the web. Among our current favorites are Stan Carey’s blog Sentence First, and The Paris Review, where they’re recapping Dante’s Inferno.


 The animal called an aardvark takes its name from an Afrikaans term meaning “earth pig.” The word is cognate with the English words earth and pork.


 Meetup is an increasingly common substitute for meeting, especially when the gathering’s meant to be less formal and attendance is optional.


 About that inflationary language: Writing on our Facebook page, Jen Lynch inflated the word tuba, calling it a threeba.


 “You might want horns, but you’re gonna die butt-headed!” This expression derives from butt-headed, meaning “without horns,” and shows up in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston.

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

Photo by dupo-x-y. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Music Used in the Episode

Hard TimesPiero UmilianiIl CorpoSound Work Shop
Good Morning SunPiero UmilianiTo-Day’s SoundLiuto Records
RisaieZallaPaesaggiCiak Record
Oxygene (Part III)Jean-Michel JarreOxygenePolydor
Soul HiThe Jive TurkeysBread & ButterColemine Records
Funky BrewsterThe Jive TurkeysBread & ButterColemine Records
Oxygene (Part IV)Jean-Michel JarreOxygenePolydor
Straight FireThe Jive TurkeysBread & ButterColemine Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

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