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Clean as a Whistle

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Finding that special bottle of wine can be tough, and even tougher if you’re not fluent in winespeak. “Strawberries, rhubarb, and hints of leather are present in the nose.” Say what? Plus, many folks wish each other “Merry Christmas.” But why don’t we use the word merry with anything else? Anyone ever wished you a “Merry Birthday”? Also, picks for Word of the Year 2012, and Quiz Guy John Chaneski presents his annual news of the year Limerick Challenge. And, do you pronounce the word scone to rhyme with “John” or “Joan”? This episode first aired December 22, 2012.


 Can a grenache really taste like strawberries, rhubarb, hints of leather and dutch cocoa, all over the course of a long swig? While it may sound ridiculous, it does pose the challenge: how would you describe a flavor? It’s not easy to talk about wine!

Clean as the Sound of a Whistle

 If something’s clean as a whistle, that doesn’t mean it’s shiny and spotless like a silver whistle in a referee’s mouth. The idiom refers to a whistling sound: That piercing noise is super-bright and finely edged on the ear.

Stuck His Spoon in the Wall

 If you say, “He stuck his spoon in the wall,” you mean that he died. In German, the person who’s deceased has passed along his spoon, and in Afrikaans, he’s jabbed his spoon into the ceiling. These expressions reflect the idea that eating is an essential part of life. An article in the British Medical Journal has a long list of euphemisms for dying, from the French avaler son extrait de naissance, “to swallow one’s birth certificate,” to the Portuguese phrase vestir pijama de madeira, “to wear wooden pajamas.”

Why “Merry” Christmas?

 Why must Christmas be merry, but no other holiday? What if you want a merry birthday? While merry‘s heyday was the 1800s, you still see the term, meaning “exuberant” or “joyful,” in phrases like go on your merry way or even merry-go-round.

Get Another Rib

 If a fellow’s getting married, you might say he’s getting himself another rib. What slang do you have for getting hitched?

Limerick Word Game

 Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a news of the year Limerick Challenge fit for word lovers and news hounds alike. Try to finish this one: When they speak of their great virtuosity / The team does not speak with pomposity / NASA’s rolling in clover / They’ve delivered a rover / aptly named _______?


 What’s the past tense of squeeze? Is it squeezed or squoze? While the former is the proper version, squoze is a real word used in several dialects. Ronald Reagan even used it in the 1980s.

“When The Sky Falls…” Proverb

 When the sky falls, we shall all catch larks. Or in other words, worrying about what’s going to happen won’t change it. If you’ve got a proverb you love, share it!

Pronouncing “Scone”

 Do you pronounce scone to rhyme with Joan or John? In Canada, about 40 percent of English speakers go for the soft o sound, as in John, compared to two third of those in the U.K. But in the United States, 90 percent rhyme it with Joan.

Words of the Year 2012

 Grant has compiled his ninth annual words-of-the-year piece for The New York Times Sunday Review section. Among these gems is the verb doxing, as in documenting someone’s life and share it on the web. What were your picks for the words of 2012?

Bump! Thank You M’am

 Do you have a saying for when you drive over a bump and plop back down? In the Northeast, it’s common to say thank you, ma’am, since the nodding motion of a head going over a bump is reminiscent of genteel greetings. It’s also known as a dipsy doodle, duck-and-dip, tickle bump, whoop-de-do, belly tickler, and how-do-you-do. Our favorite, though, is kiss-me-quick, a reference to seizing the opportunity when a bump in the road throws passengers closer together. The term goes back to the days of horse-drawn buggies.


 Do you have a favorite word? Martha’s is mellifluous, which means pleasing to the ear, but goes back to the idea of flowing with honey. If you have a favorite word, take a picture of yourself holding it up and send it in to our Word Wall!

Astonished by Wine

 If you’re a wine connoisseur, do you remember the moment when it really clicked for you, when you could comprehend and describe the flavors of a wine? In his essay Wine and Astonishment, Andrew Jefford contends that every wine writer and wine lover should remember what it feels like to be astonished by wine. Jefford’s essay Source/The Wine Writer is Dead is also directed at wine writers, but contains good advice for anyone interested in crafting prose.

Hobbies and Hobby Horse

 What’s your hobby? Or, rather, do you call your interests or passions hobbies at all, or does the word hobby connote something frivolous or strangely obsessive? The term hobby goes back to a nickname for a horse, which transferred to the popular hobby horse toy for children, who’d play with it incessantly, the way one might obsessively fuss over model trains.

Noisy River Proverb

 A noisy river never drowned nobody. Throw that one back at a blowhard sometime!

Advisor vs. Adviser

 R. Alan Smith from San Diego, California, is a strategic advisor. Or is he an adviser? There’s been a shift over the years from the -er spelling to the -or, but we’re pleased to announce that despite the style guides, advisor is the overwhelmingly preferred version, and is absolutely correct!

Higgs Boson

 Among Grant’s word-of-the-year picks had to be Higgs boson, that fundamental particle of matter discovered by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Above Board

 When something happens above board, it means things are clear and in the open. But this has nothing to do with being on board a ship. Rather, it comes from the term board meaning “table,” as in room and board, and has to do with poker players keeping their cards above the board, so as to prevent any underhanded sneaky stuff.

Massive Online Open Courss

 Any public-radio-listening polymath should know about MOOCs, or massive open online courses. These classes and lectures, often taught by the brightest minds at the most prestigious universities, are available online, often at no cost. They’re welcomed as a way for learning to reach people all over the world who’d never have to opportunity to learn this stuff otherwise.

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

Photo by Alex Brown. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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