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Cathead Biscuits

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Ever eaten golden catheads for breakfast? Yum! A listener shares this Southern term for big, fluffy biscuits. Also, how did people greet each other before “hello” became a standard greeting of choice? What does it mean if someone’s fair to middling? How do you pronounce “bury”? Is the phrase whether or not redundant? Should we use try to or try and? And if Sam and them are coming, who exactly is “them”? Plus, Grant and Martha share some classic riddles, and Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a word game of animal name mash-ups. This episode first aired April 2, 2011.

Rock Riddle

 “What happens when you throw a yellow rock into a purple stream? It splashes.” (Ba-dump-bum.) Grant and Martha share this and other favorite riddles, some with deceptively obvious answers.

Pronouncing “Bury”

 Why do we pronounce bury like berry and not jury? The word originates in the Old English term byrgan, and the pronunciation apparently evolved differently in different parts of England. Grant explains why many terms go mispronounced if we read things without hearing them out loud.

Telephone Greetings

 What do you say when you answer the telephone? On the NPR science blog, “Krulwich Wonders,” Robert Krulwich notes that hello did not become a standard greeting until the Edison Company recommended the word as a proper phone greeting. Before that, English speakers used a variety of phrases depending on the circumstance, from “hail” to “how are you?” One thing’s certain: If we’d followed Alexander Graham Bell’s recommendation, we’d all be greeting each other with “Ahoy!”

Potato Riddle

 “A riddle, a riddle, I suppose, a thousand eyes and never a nose.” Nothing shakes up the dinner table conversation like a good potato riddle!

Animal Hybrids Quiz

 Greg Pliska, musical director for the Broadway show War Horse and our very own Quiz Guy, has a puzzle about Animal Hybrid Phrases combining two common expressions involving animals. For example, what do you get when stuffed animal stocks go down? A Teddy Bear Market.

Golden Catheads

 Ever had golden catheads for breakfast? A native of Tennessee wonders about the origin of this term meaning “biscuit” — specifically, ones that are light, fluffy, and about the size of, well, a cat’s head. Martha explains how the names of many foods derive from their resemblance to other things — a head of cabbage, for example.

You’re the Berries

 A listener has spent the last 30 years looking for the origin of the playful phrase “you’re the berries.” This affectionate expression first appears in literature in the 1908 book Sorrows of a Showgirl, then made its way into popular slang by the 1920s. However, it seems to disappear during the next decade, and it remains only as a relic heard in the vernacular of those who lived during the era.

Try And vs Try To

 Should we use try and or try to? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says it’s grammatically permissible to “try and go to the store,” or to ask someone to “try and speak up.” However, a fan of formality ought to stick with try to. Still, Grant warns against trying to force logic on the English language by creating rules that don’t exist. Jack Lynch has an opinion on it, too.

Counterfeit Riddle

 “Whoever makes it tells it not. Whoever takes it knows it not. Whoever knows it wants it not. What is it?” Martha shares this old riddle.

Word Birth

 The question of how children acquire language has long intrigued parents and scholars. MIT cognitive scientist Deb Roy recently found a novel way to study what he calls “word birth.” He wired his home with cameras and microphones, and recorded his infant son’s every utterance as he grew into toddlerhood. He then combined the 90,000 hours of video and 140,000 hours of audio into some astonishing montages. Dr. Roy shared his findings at a TED conference. More visuals and audio from the study in this article from Fast Company.

Fair to Middling

 If you’re fair to middling, you’re doing just fine. A native of the Tennessee mountains wonders about the origin of this phrase her good-humored grandfather used. As it turns out, fair to middling was one of the many gradations a farmer would hear in the 19th Century when they’d bring in their crop — usually cotton — to be priced and purchased.

Whether or Not

 Is the phrase whether or not redundant? Well, take this sentence: “Whether or not you like it, Martha is dressing as a ballerina.” Would that sound right without the or not? Now, the or not is technically redundant, but depending on the case, it’s best to pick the wording that won’t distract the reader or listener. The person in charge of the New York Times Style Manual comments on the question.

Liberian Proverb

 “Only the grass dies when elephants fight.” This Liberian proverb is a reminder that it’s the powerless who suffer when governments or factions fight.

“And Them” Colloquialism

 If Sam and them are going to be here after while, can the “and them” mean just one additional person? In some parts of the country, it could be Sam’s wife, or Sam’s entire softball team. A listener from Texas shares this charming colloquialism.

99 Clump Riddle

 “What goes 99, clump?” “If you woke up at night and scratched your head, what time would it be?” Grant has the answers to those riddles.

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

Photo by Jules Morgan. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Sorrows of a Showgirl by Kenneth McGaffey
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

Music Used in the Episode

Something’s Got To GiveBeastie BoysCheck Your HeadCapitol Records
Jan JanGrant GreenLive at The LighthouseBlue Note
Bold and BlackThe Ramsey Lewis TrioAnother VoyageCadet
Ease BackGrant GreenAin’t It Funky NowBlue Note
UhuruThe Ramsey Lewis TrioAnother VoyageCadet
Melt!Flying LotusMelt!Warp Records
On The Sunny Side Of The StreetJimmy SmithBack At The Chicken ShackBlue Note
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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