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A Dancer Who Walks for a Living

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You dream of writing the great American novel, but to make ends meet, you spend your days writing boring corporate reports. There’s a difference between writing for love and writing for a living — or is there? Does a heyday have anything to do with hay? Did getting dressed to kill originally refer to soldiers? Plus, toad-in-the-hole, deadwoods, due diligence, kibosh, clues, and an election-year word puzzle. This episode first aired November 17, 2012.

Finding Your Writing Inspiration

 Being a writer and making a living as a writer are often two different things. Maybe you’re writing poetry at night but by day you’re writing technical manuals or web copy. Journalist Michael Erard, whose day job is writing for think tank, describes such a writer as “a dancer who walks for a living.” How do you make the transition between the two? How do you inspire yourself all over again to write what you love?


 What do you call it when you’re about to jump into a conversation but someone beats you to it? Mary, a caller and self-described introvert from Indianapolis, calls it getting seagulled, inspired by an episode of The Simpsons in which nerdy Lisa works up the courage to participate in a conversation, but is interrupted at the last second by a screeching seagull.

In her new book, The Introvert’s Way, author Sophia Dembling refers to this experience as getting steamrolled. A different kind of interruption is getting porlocked, a reference to the visitor from Porlock who interrupted Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s reverie while he was writing the poem Kubla Khan and made him forget the rest of what he wanted to write. Have a better term for these unfortunate experiences?


 Leah from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, wants to know the origin of the name of the Delmarva Peninsula. It’s a portmanteau name, made of parts of the names of the three states that meet there: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University is a great source for more information.


 Do you keep copypasta on your computer? It’s that bit of tasty text you keep ready to paste in any relevant email or Facebook post. Grant has a great one for language lovers, based on eggcorns, those words or phrases that get switched to things that sound the same. Mustard up all the strength you can, it’s a doggy dog world out there!

Political Word Game

 Our Puzzle Master John Chaneski has a game inspired by the recent election season. From each clue, determine the word that begins with either D-E-M or R-E-P. For example, what’s the term for a part of a song that’s performed all over again? Try the quiz, and if you think of any others, email us!

Due Diligence

 Naomi, a Missoula, Montana, mom who’s writing a magazine essay, wants to know if due diligence is the appropriate term to denote the daily, household chores that her son’s new stepdad has taken on. The verdict: it’s a legal term. If you’re writing about personal experiences, stick with a phrase from a lower register of speech, like daily duties.

Arthur or Martha

 If you’re in a state of confusion, you might say I don’t know if I’m Arthur or Martha. It’s a slang phrase for “I’m confused” that you might hear in Australia or New Zealand, according to the Collins English Dictionary.

Dressed to Kill

 If you’re dressed to kill, you’re looking sharp. But does the expression have to do with medieval chivalry or military armor of any kind? Nope. The earliest cases pop up in text in the 1800s, based on the trend of adding the words to kill onto verbs to mean something’s done with force, passion, and energy.

Thumbnail Dipped in Tar

 If you’ve got crummy handwriting, you might say that it looks like something written with a thumbnail dipped in tar. But go ahead, dip that thumbnail and write to us anyway. If you’ve got notable handwriting of any sort, we want to see it!


 When you put the kibosh, or kybosh, on something, you’re putting a speedy end to it. This term, usually pronounced KYE-bosh, first showed up in print when Charles Dickens used it in 1836, writing under the pseudonym Boz. In that piece, it was spoken by a cockney fellow.

The Bagel

 Martha shares a favorite poem, “The Bagel,” by David Ignatow. Who wouldn’t like to feel “strangely happy with myself”? This and other gems can be found in Billy Collins’ book Poetry 180.

Advice from Zadie Smith

 For you writers toiling away at your day job, heed the advice of Zadie Smith: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” Wait, what? There has to be some satisfaction in this! Write to us about the simple pleasure that you find in the craft.

Names for an Egg in Toast Dish

 Five guys walk into a diner. One orders a toad in the hole, another the gashouse eggs, the third gets eggs in a basket, the next orders a hole in one, and the last fellow gets spit in the ocean. What does each wind up with? The same thing! Although toad in the hole can refer to a sausage-in-Yorkshire pudding dish, it’s also among the many names for a good old-fashioned slice of bread with a hole in it, fried with an egg in that hole, including one-eyed jack and pirate’s eye.

Heyday Origins

 When something’s in its heyday, its in its prime. What does that have to do with hay? Nothing, actually. It goes back to the 1500s, when heydheyday-originsay and similar-sounding words were simply expressions of celebration or joy. Grant is especially fond of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this term, from the John Skelton’s Magnyfycence, published around 1529: “Rutty bully Ioly rutterkin heyda.”

Eyeskip Errors

 Editors are great for picking up those double the’s and similar mistakes, known as eye-skip errors.

Annie Oakley Comp Tickets

 Do you refer to complimentary tickets to an event as Annie Oakleys? Or deadwoods, perhaps? The term Annie Oakley supposedly comes from a punched ticket’s resemblance to bullet-riddled cards from the sharpshooter’s Wild West shows. Deadwood is associated with the old barroom situation where you’d buy a paper drink ticket from one person and give it to the bartender. If you were in good favor with him, he might hand it back to you — that is, the piece of paper, or the dead piece of wood.

The Origin of “Clue”

 In one of history’s greatest stories about yarn, Theseus famously made it back out of the deadly Minotaur’s labyrinth by unspooling a ball of yarn so he could retrace his steps. In Middle English, such rolled-up yarn was called a clewe. Eventually, clew took on the metaphorical meaning of something that will lead you to a solution. Pretty soon, the spelling was changed to clue, and now we’ve got that awesome board game and of course, that blue pooch and his bits of evidence.

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

Photo by Ben Hosking. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Introvert’s Way by Sophia Dembling
Collins English Dictionary
Poetry 180 edited by Billy Collins
Oxford English Dictionary
Magnyfycence by John Skelton
Good Night, Blue by Angela Santomero

Music Used in the Episode

HurricaneShuggie OtisHere Comes Shuggie OtisEpic
It’s Too LateJohnny “Hammond” Smith BreakoutKUDU
Doin’ ItShuggie OtisIn Session InformationRPM Records UK
PurpleShuggie OtisFreedom FightEpic
Sparkle CityShuggie OtisInspiration InformationEpic
Chillaxin’ By The SeaGramatikStreet Bangers Vm 2Cold Busted
BreakoutJohnny “Hammond” SmithBreakoutKUDU
Rabbit Got The GunThe JB’sRabbit Got The Gun 45rpmPeople Records
To My Brother, Part IThe JB’sTo My Brother, Part I 45rpmPeople Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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