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Clever Clogs

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Ribbon fall. Gallery forest. You won’t find terms like these in most dictionaries, but they and hundreds like them are discussed by famous writers in the book Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape. The book is an intriguing collection of specialized vocabulary that invites us to look more closely at the natural world — and delight in its language. Also, how and why the Southern drawl developed. Plus, the phrase It’s a thing. This expression may seem new, but It’s a thing has been a thing for quite a long time. How long? Even Jane Austen used it! And: hourglass valley, thee vs. thou, bitchin’, a word game inspired by Noah Webster, Willie off the pickle boat, who did it and ran, Powder River! Let ‘er buck!, and shedloads more.

This episode first aired December 21, 2019.

Home Ground: Landscape Language

 Hourglass valley, ribbon fall, gallery forest, and ephemeral creek may not be in standard dictionaries, but they’re terms often used in parts of the United States to denote features of the landscape particular to various places. Writers Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney have gathered more than 800 of these terms and asked well-known authors to research and write short entries about each of them. The result is Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, a lovely compilation that poses the question: What do we lose if these words are forgotten? 

How Long Has “It’s a Thing” Been a Thing?

 Victoria in Madison, Wisconsin, is curious about saying something is a thing, meaning that a particular phenomenon exists or is genuine. This phrase has been around since at least the time of Jane Austen, who used it in Pride and Prejudice. Other phrases involving the word thing include my thing is meaning “what concerns me is” and the thing of it is meaning something along the lines of “the most significant element is.”

Pop Your Clogs, Clever Clogs

 Annie in Bend, Oregon, says that while living on a narrowboat in England several years ago, she encountered some intriguing slang: clever clogs, a slightly derogatory term for someone who’s a bit too smart for their own good, and pop your clogs, a euphemism that means “to die.” An earlier similarly sarcastic term was clever britches

No U Quiz

 Inspired by Noah Webster’s spelling reform, Quiz Guy John Chaneski came up with a puzzle that involves removing the letter U from one word to form another. For example, what two words are clued by the following statement? “I used to live in a building meant for human habitation, but now I live in a flexible tube for carrying water.”

Where Does the American Southern Drawl Come From?

 Barbara in Norfolk, Virginia, wonders about the drawl of Southern American English. A great resource on how people perceive others’ dialects is the work of linguist Dennis Preston and his book Perceptual Dialectology.

Blind Creek

 The term blind creek refers to evidence of a waterway that’s dried up, although water can still be found if you dig far enough. It’s one of more than 800 terms defined in Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape.

Thee, Thou, You, and Ye

 Mark in Indianapolis, Indiana, wonders about the history of the second person singular and plural in English. At one time, thee and thou were singular, and you and ye were plural. By the early 17th century, thou and thee as familiar terms of address had been replaced almost entirely, except in certain dialects.

Off the Pickle Boat

 Greg in New York, New York, says that when he looked a bit disheveled, his mother would say You look like Willie off the pickle boat. The phrase goes at least as far back as the 1890s, and the proper name has varied. The person on the pickle boat has been, among others, Annie, Molly, Charlie, and Chauncey. Among those who race seacraft, a pickle boat is slang the last boat to arrive.

A Borrowed Day

 An email from Sam Rittenberg in New York, New York, describes his mother’s use of borrowed day, a term so closely associated with her that her family had it inscribed on her tombstone.

Powder River, Let ’Er Buck

 John from Bremerton, Washington, is puzzled by a radio announcer’s use of the hortatory phrase Powder River! Let ’er buck! The rollicking, rootin’-tootin’ story of this phrase is told in Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West, an acclaimed collection of cowboy lingo and folklore, by historian Ramon F. Adams.

Open Book Rock Formation

 An open book is a rock formation that looks just like its name. This specialized term is one of hundreds collected and explained in the book Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape. Such a rock formation is also called a dihedral.

Who Did It And Ran

 Susan in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, recalls that when someone looked less than presentable, her mother would tell them they looked like who did it and ran. Variants include who did it and ran away or who messed you up and ran away. The common thread is the suggestion that some kind of altercation occurred and the person who’s still present was on the losing end.


 In colonial times, a sugarloaf was refined sugar molded into a cone. The term sugarloaf later extended to a mountain that resembled one.

Bitchen, Bitchin’ Slang May Be Older Than You Think

 Holiday calls from Carlsbad, California, to ask about the term bitchin’, or bitchen, meaning “great.” In the 1920s, the word was negative, but like bad, sick, ill, and wicked, this word developed a positive or emphatic sense. Surprisingly enough, the earliest record we have of the word used in this sense is from 1957 in the oh-so-wholesome book series Gidget!

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape
Pride and Prejudice
Perceptual Dialectology
Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West

Music Used in the Episode

Slouchin’Lonnie SmithThink!Blue Note
Miss PoopieJimmy McGriffElectric FunkBlue Note
The ChampThe MohawksThe ChampPama
Hip JiggerThe MohawksThe ChampPama
The Bird WaveJimmy McGriffElectric FunkBlue Note
Soul VibrationsDorothy AshbyAfro HarpingCadet
GamesDorothy AshbyAfro HarpingCadet
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul Ensembleut On The CoastColemine Records

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