How do languages change and grow? Does every language acquire new words in the same way? Martha and Grant focus on how that process happens in English and Spanish. Plus, the stories behind the Spanish word gringo and the old instruction to elementary school students to sit “Indian style.” The English equivalents of German sayings provide clever ways to think about naps, procrastination, lemons, and more. Also: catawampus, raunchy, awful vs. awesome, man Friday, and no-see-ums.
This episode first aired April 2, 2016.
Ordered But Not Picked Up
If you’re looking forlorn and at a loss, a German speaker might describe you with a phrase that translates as “ordered but not picked up.” It’s as if you’re a forgotten pizza on a restaurant counter.
Indian Style No More
Sitting on the floor Indian style with one’s legs crossed is a reference to Native Americans’ habit of sitting that way, a practice recorded as far back as the journals of French traders. Increasingly, though, the expression is being replaced with the term criss-cross applesauce. In the United Kingdom, this way of sitting is more commonly known as Turkish style or tailor style.
Etymology of Catawampus
A nine-year-old from Yuma, Arizona, wants to know the origin of catawampus. So do etymologists. Catawampus means “askew,” “awry,” or “crooked.” We do know the word has been around for more than a century and is spelled many different ways, such as cattywampus and caddywampus. It may derive from the Scots word wampish, meaning to “wriggle,” “twist,” or “swerve.”
How Sour is It?
How sour is it? If you speak German, you might answer with a phrase that translates as “That’s so sour it will pull the holes in your socks together.”
Origin of Gringo
A sixth-grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas, is skeptical about a story that gringo derives from a song lyric. He’s right. The most likely source of this word is the Spanish word for “Greek,” griego, a term applied to foreigners much the same way that English speakers might say that an unintelligible language is Greek to me. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, imitated the sound of foreigners with the word barbaroi, the source of our own word barbarian.
What’s the meaning of the word raunchy? A woman in Indianapolis, Indiana, thinks it means something bawdy or ribald, but to her husband’s family the word can mean “icky” or “unpleasant.” She learned this when one of them mentioned that her husband’s grandfather was feeling raunchy. What they mean was that he had a bad cold. The word raunchy has undergone a transformation over the years, from merely “unkempt” or “sloppy” to “coarse” and “vulgar.”
Look at Myself From the Inside
A German idiom for “I’m going to take a nap” translates as “I have to take a look at myself from the inside.”
Adding New Words
A native of Colombia wants to know: Do different languages add new words in similar ways? He believes that Spanish, for example, is far less open to innovation than English.
Awesome and Awful
Awesome and awful may have the same root, but they’ve evolved opposite meanings. Awful goes back more than a thousand years, when it originally meant “full of awe” and later “causing dread.” Awesome showed up later and fulfills a different semantic role, meaning “fantastic” or “wonderful.”
A listener in Norwich, Connecticut, is going through a trove of love letters her parents sent each other during World War II. In one of them, her father repeatedly used the word hideous in an ironic way to mean “wonderful.” Is that part of the slang of the time?
An astute German phrase about procrastination translates as “In the evening, lazy people get busy.”
A young woman is puzzled when her boyfriend’s father says he was looking for someone who needs a good boy Friday. It’s most likely a reference to Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. The title character spends 30 years on a remote tropical island and eventually saves the life of an islander who becomes his helper. Crusoe decides to call him Friday, since that’s the day of the week when they first encountered each other. Over time, English speakers began using the term man Friday to mean a manservant or valet, and later the term girl Friday came to mean an office assistant or secretary.
The term no-see-ums refers to those pesky gnats that come out in the heat and humidity and are so tiny they’re almost invisible. The term goes back at least as far as the 1830s, and is heard particularly in the Northeastern United States.
Photo by Heather Kennedy. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Book Mentioned in the Broadcast
|Fanfare Dub||Prince Fatty||Mad Professor meets Prince Fatty in “The Clone Theory”||Evergreen Recordings|
|The Cylinder||Milt Jackson||The Ballad Artistry of Milt Jackson||Atlantic|
|Back Off Dub||Prince Fatty||Mad Professor meets Prince Fatty in “The Clone Theory”||Evergreen Recordings|
|Makin Whoppee||Milt Jackson||The Ballad Artistry of Milt Jackson||Atlantic|
|Torah Dub||Prince Fatty||Mad Professor meets Prince Fatty in “The Clone Theory”||Evergreen Recordings|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|