This week, it’s headlines that make you do a doubletake, like “Child’s Stool Great for Use in Garden.” Martha and Grant discuss a few of these bloopers, also known as crash blossoms. Also, if you unthaw something, are you freezing it or unfreezing it? Do hotcakes really sell that fast? What’s the likelihood of getting people to use a new gender-neutral pronoun? And Grant shares the story behind the term knucklehead. This episode first aired December 12, 2009.
Some call them crash blossoms, those funny turns of phrase that copy editors may or may not intend, like “Milk Drinkers Turn To Powder.” More about crash blossoms in this article in Good by Mark Peters.
A Pensacola man says he’s invented a gender-neutral pronoun, and wants to know how to popularize it. He’s not the first to try, as shown by linguist Dennis Baron’s chronology of failed attempts to create and popularize epicene pronouns.
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz called “Scronsonants.” The object is to guess two-word phrases containing a pair of words starting with the same three consonants. Here’s one: “I get a particular joy from the pain of others, but I had to learn how to do it. So I attended ___________.”
“You knucklehead!” Where’d we get an epithet like that? Grant tells the story about the wartime cartoon that helped popularize the term. Check out the adventures of R.F. Knucklehead in LIFE magazine. More about cartoons used for war-time education.
A Southern California woman says she was caught up short when she enthused, “It’s the bomb,” and a 12-year-old had no idea what she was saying. Does our slang need to change as we grow older? Why do we say “the bomb”?
In an earlier episode, the hosts talked about the slang term bobo, meaning “stupid” or “inferior.” Many listeners wrote in to discuss about their own use of bobo and its variants, and to point out that bobos also refers to a kind of cheap canvas shoes. Grant reports on some of their emails.
How should you pronounce the word jewelry? That prompts a conversation about the transposition of letters and sounds called metathesis— not only in jewelry, but many others including realtor, foliage, larynx, and introduce.
Here’s a handy word: fomite. It means “an inanimate object that can transmit an infectious agent” like a doorknob handle or a comb infested with head lice. It also has a picturesque Latin origin. Martha explains, and shares a related word: Dracula sneeze.
If you have a word lover on your gift list, Martha and Grant have book recommendations for you. For adults, Martha recommends linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s collection of essays, The Years of Talking Dangerously. For kids, Grant’s been enjoying David Shannon’s work, which includes, Good Boy, Fergus!, No, David!, David Smells!, and David gets in Trouble.
A woman from Dallas wants to know about a verbal habit she grew up with in her Cajun French speaking Louisiana family. It’s use of repetition for emphasis, as in, “it’s hot, but it’s not hot hot.” Grant explains how reduplications, or a repetition of a word or part of a word, appear in many languages, including Cajun French. For more, check out Albert Valdman’s French and Creole in Louisiana, and Mary Ellen Scullen’s paper “New Insights Into French Reduplication“.
Photo by Randall Chancellor. Used under a Creative Commons license.