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Cute as a Button

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Did you ever wonder why we capitalize the pronoun “I,” but not any other pronoun? Also, the romantic story behind the term halcyon days, the origin of the phrase “like white on rice,” and the linguistic scuttlebutt on the word scuttlebutt. Plus, a pun-laden word game, hold your peace vs. hold your piece, nixie on your tintype, and no skin off my nose. This episode first aired February 2, 2013.

See the Word Wall

 Listeners have been posting photos of themselves with their favorite words on our Word Wall, including some that are new to us. For example, epalpebrate might be a good one to drop when describing the Mona Lisa in art history class, since it means without eyebrows. And menehune is a term for the tiny, mischievous people in Hawaiian folklore.

No Skin Off My Nose

 If it’s no skin off your nose, there’s no harm done. This idiom, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms suggests may come from boxing, means the same thing as no skin off my back or no skin off my ear. If you have other idioms in this vein, share them with us!

Speak Your Piece

 What’s the difference between speak your piece and speak now or forever hold your peace? While speaking your piece refers to a piece of information you want to share. Holding your peace relates to keeping the peace. This is a simple case of a collision of idioms.

Ain’t Poem

 For years, teachers have warned against using the word ain’t, apparently with some success. Emily Hummell from Boston sent us a poem that may have contributed: “Don’t say ain’t / your mother will faint / your father will fall in a bucket of paint/ your sister will cry / your brother will sigh / the cat and dog will say goodbye.”


 Have you heard the latest scuttlebutt around the water cooler? This term for gossip, which comes from the water-filled cask in a ship, is a literal synonym for water-cooler talk!

More on the Word Wall

 On our shared your favorite word yet?

Tom Swifty Word Game

 Our Puzzle Maestro John Chaneski has a great variation of his classic Tom Swifty game, based on adjectives that fit their subjects. For example, how did the citizens feel upon hearing that the dictator of their small country shut down the newspapers? Beware of puns!

Capitalizing I

 Does capitalizing the pronoun I feel like aggrandizing your own self-importance? Timna, an English Composition professor at an Illinois community college, reports that a student refused to capitalize this first person pronoun, arguing that to do so was egotistical. But it’s a standard convention of written English going back to the 13th century, and to not capitalize it would draw even more attention. When writing a formal document, always capitalize the I. It’s a pronoun, not a computer brand.

Nixie on Your Tintype

 If you want to sound defiant, you could do worse than exclaiming, “Nixie on your tintype!” This phrase, meaning something to the effect of “spit on your face,” popped up in Marjorie Benton Cooke’s 1914 book, Bambi (not related to the sweet little deer). Kristin Anderson, a listener from Apalachicola, Florida, shares this great poem that makes use of the phrase.

Flotsam vs. Jetsam

 Do you know the difference between flotsam and jetsam? In an earlier episode, we discussed flotsam, which we described as the stuff thrown off a sinking ship. But several avid sailors let us know that jetsam’s the stuff thrown overboard, while flotsam is the remains of a shipwreck. Thanks, crew.

Cute as a Button

 Paula from Palm City, Florida, wants to know: What’s so cute about buttons, anyway? Like the expressions cute as a bug and cute as a bug’s ear, this one seems to derive from cute meaning delicate and small. She raises another interesting question: Are the descriptors beautiful and attractive preferable to cute and adorable after a certain age? We want to hear your thoughts!

Halcyon Days

 The weeks on either side of the winter solstice have a special place in Greek mythology. In the story of Alcyone, the daughter of Aeolus, she marries Ceyx, who arrogantly dares to compare their relationship to that of Zeus and Hera. Such hubris is never a good thing in Greek myth, and Zeus causes his death. But the gods eventually take pity on the mortal couple, changing them into birds known for their devotion to each other. Those birds, named after Alcyone, were said to nest on the surface of the sea during calm weather, giving rise to our term halcyon days.

Like White on Rice

 Is white on rice a racist idiom? No! It simply means that if you’re on top of your tasks like white on rice, it means you’ve got it covered the way rice is covered in whiteness. In Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin, she relays a lyric from Frankie Crocker that goes, “Closer than white’s on rice; closer than cold’s on ice.” Now that’s close!

All Ate Up

 If something’s got you feeling ate up, then you might be consumed by the notion that it didn’t go perfectly. You’re overwhelmed, obsessed, or maybe you’re just exhausted. However, among members of the Air Force, ate up has long meant gung ho.

Banville Poem

 Via Maud Newton’s Twitter feed comes this gem from The Sea, by William John Banville: The past beats inside me like a second heart. If you see a great quote somewhere, tweet it to us!

Conversational Fillers

 How conversational fillers such as like and you know creep into our vernacular? Like most verbal ticks and pieces of vocabulary, we pick these things up from those around us. But contrary to some folks’ opinions, the use of like and you know don’t decrease one’s credibility. When used appropriately, they actually make it easier for people to relate to us.

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

Photo by Tony Hisgett. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
Bambi by Marjorie Benton Cooke
Talkin and Testifyin by Geneva Smitherman
The Sea by William John Banville

Music Used in the Episode

Yo Todo To YoThe Rugged NuggetsYo Todo To Yo 45rpmColemine
Battle Of CansThe Rugged NuggetsUnreleasedUnreleased
TsunamiThe Rugged NuggetsTsunami 45rpmColemine
Nasty HatsOrgoneOrgoneOrgone
Three FaccesMenahan Street BandThe CrossingDaptone
Seven Is the WindMenahan Street BandThe CrossingDaptone
VibromeyerOrgoneBacanoKillion Floor Sound
Quincy JonesMoney RunnerMusic From The Original Motion Picture: Money RunnerReprise Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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