Eels, orts, and Wordle! Sweden awarded its most prestigious literary award to a book about…eels. The Book of Eels reveals the mysterious life cycle of this sea creature and its significance for famous figures from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud. Plus, what’s an ort? It’s the last bit of food left on a dinner plate — and whether or not you finish it can be a matter of manners. Also, an audio puzzle inspired by the popular game Wordle. Harder than it sounds! Plus ginnels, twittens, nerds, Not on your tintype!, piling Pelion upon Ossa, things to say after a sneeze, and a lovely poem about elevators. Ta-da!
This episode first aired March 26, 2022. It was rebroadcast the weekend of December 24, 2022.
On our Facebook page, listeners are sharing colloquial sayings they’ve heard used to describe events. These phrases include I haven’t had so much fun since the horse kicked Father, I haven’t had so much fun since the hogs et my little brother up, and I haven’t had so much fun since the barn burned down. If something’s amusing — or is supposed to be — someone might also ironically note that they haven’t laughed so hard since Maggie fell out of the hearse.
Dexter in Clintonville, Alabama, reports that his Minnesota-born wife was baffled after she sneezed and he responded with Scat cat! Across the American South, this phrase and variations of it serve as an informal response when someone sneezes. Other versions include Scat there, your son bit your tail off!, Scat, cat your tail’s on fire!, Scat cat, get your tail out of the gravy!, Scat cat, get your tail out of the butter! No one’s sure how this expression came to be, although it may have to do with the ancient belief that a sneeze involves releasing an evil spirit from the body. Other ways to wish a sneezer well, of course, include Bless you!, as well as German Geshundheit!, and Spanish ¡Salud!, both of which literally mean “health.”
The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World (Bookshop|Amazon) by Patrik Svensson, translated by Agnes Broome won Sweden’s highest literary prize. Although Svensson himself has described this volume as a “strange and nerdy” book, it’s a fascinating combination of science, folklore, metaphysics, and personal memoir. But don’t go looking for information about electric eels, also known as Electrophorus electricus and knifefish. That’s an entirely different species.
Jen from Omaha, Nebraska, wonders about a phrase that her father used. He’d say Not on your tintype! meaning “Not on your life!” Another version is Nixie on your tintype!
Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is inspired by the popular letter-guessing game Wordle, specifically that next-to-last guess before the real answer is found. For example, if the penultimate guess is WAIST, which two letters might be switched to form the winning word?
Julie from Jacksonville, Florida, shares a lovely story of her husband’s increasing use of the word Ta-da! In lieu of other words or to point out a success. Ta-da! references the sound of a musical flourish, such as that of a trumpet.
In The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Bookshop|Amazon), Simon Winchester refers to piling Pelion upon Ossa, meaning “making a difficult situation even more difficult.” Pelion and Ossa are the names of mountains in Greece, and the phrase alludes to Greek myths in which two nine-year-old giants who tried to pile mountains on top of each other in order to climb up to the lofty heights of Mount Olympus in order to declare war on the gods. Spoiler: the attackers lose.
Kristin lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, grew up in England, where public footpaths between buildings are called ginnels in Yorkshire and twittens in Sussex. Other terms around the country for these pathways include chare, snicket, jitty, jigger, and wynd. In the United States, though, they’re usually just called alleys or alleyways. A desire path is an unofficial path formed by people or animals Other terms for various types of routes used in North American English include gangway, trace, deer run, and cow trail.
Jane in Tippecanoe, Indiana, was intrigued by a phrase she encountered while reading Kinky Friedman’s Armadillos and Old Lace. (Bookshop|Amazon). She remembers hearing the phrase crazy as a bedbug, and wonders about Friedman’s use of the phrase crazy as a Betsy bug. Both phrases refer to the insect behavior — the erratic movements of bedbugs and the stridulation, or shrill noise, of Odontotaenius disjunctus. The latter also goes by such colloquial names as patent-leather beetle, bessy bug, and best bug.
Our conversation about the jargon of elevator design and maintenance inspired listener La Donna Ourada to write a moving poem called “Terminal Landing,” about how riding a metaphor can be a metaphor for life.
What’s the origin of the word nerd, referring to “an unfashionable person”? Does it come from Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo? (Amazon). Incidentally, a nerdle is a dollop of toothpaste on a toothbrush. Sometimes spelled nurdle, this slang term also denotes a styrofoam pellet.
In The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Bookshop|Amazon), the great scientist writes, “If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”
Christine in Santa Cruz, California, says her well-traveled father always used the phrase I’ve seen the elephant and heard the owl to mean “I’m not easily deceived” or “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes.” The expression seen the elephant may date back to the 1500s and refer to a menagerie kept at the Tower of London.
An ort is a small bite of food left on one’s dinner plate. Also known as the manners bit or manners piece, because some people consider it polite for guests to leave that last bite, which suggests that the host provided enough for everyone to feel sated. A favorite of crossword constructors, the handy word ort dates back to the 15th century, when it meant “a bit of fodder that farm animals didn’t bother to eat.”
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson, translated by Agnes Broome (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Bookshop|Amazon) by Simon Winchester|
|Armadillos and Old Lace by Kinky Friedman (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|If I Ran the Zoo? by Dr. Suess (Amazon)|
|The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Bookshop|Amazon)|
Music Used in the Episode
|The Other Side||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down||Colemine Records|
|Step Down||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down||Colemine Records|
|Groove Holmes||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capitol Records|
|Boardwalk Bump||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down||Colemine Records|
|In 3’s||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capitol Records|
|La Fachada||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down 45||Colemine Records|
|Love Age||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down||Colemine Records|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|