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Diamond Dust

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Diamond dust, tapioca snow, and sugar icebergs — a 1955 glossary of arctic and subarctic terms describes the environment in ways that sound poetic. And a mom says her son is dating someone who’s non-binary. She supports their relationship, but still struggles to use their preferred pronouns in a way that feels natural to her. Plus, A Way with Words is a show about language, right? How the word “right” contains a multitude of meanings. And: echar un coyotito, voluntold, autological words, stay interview, eyesights and farsees, a brain-busting quiz about hidden words, nieve penitente, cutting cots, and rhyming ways to say a casual goodbye in other languages, like the Dutch one that translates as “Bye, umbrella!”

This episode first aired January 15, 2022.

Rhyming Goodbyes

 For a casual goodbye in English, we might say See you later, alligator or After while, crocodile. Many languages have similarly silly rhyming goodbyes. In Spanish, you can say Ciao, pescao! or “Bye, fish!” In Dutch, it’s Aju paraplu! or “Bye, umbrella!” In French, you can take your leave with À plus dans le bus, “Later on the bus!” And in Swedish, there’s Tack och hej, leeverpaste! or “Thank you, goodbye, liver paté!”

To be Voluntold is to be Volunteered to do Something by Someone Else

 A speech pathologist in Greensboro, North Carolina, named Linda reports that when none of her coworkers offered to take up a task, their boss voluntold one of them to do it. A jocular combination of volunteer and told, this slang is often heard in the military. Linda says a friend of hers uses the term swallowship to mean the act of “sharing a meal in fellowship with others.” Linda herself praises students with the term smart attack, as in You just had a smart attack!

Using “Right?” in Conversational Flow

 Zack in Santa Barbara, California, is curious about what’s happening when someone interjects the expression Right? in the middle of a sentence or explanation without allowing time for the listener to respond. Expressions like Right? and You know? are tag questions, which can have any of several different linguistic functions. Depending on the situation, a tag question might be used to accomplish such things as building camaraderie with the listener, soliciting tacit agreement, holding the floor, or yielding it.

The Look Inside Word Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski finds that whenever he loses an item, he often forgets to look inside something else. So it’d be a lot easier if the name of the thing he was looking for was inside the name of the thing it’s already in. For example, if there’s something you need to scratch, in what room of the house might you find it?

How to Address a Child’s Nonbinary Partner

 Kathy in Beaumont, Pennsylvania, is a college instructor whose son is dating someone who is non-binary. Kathy’s eager to be supportive, but still struggles with using their preferred pronouns in a way that feels second-nature. Using language in an unfamiliar way can be difficult, given the paradigms she learned growing up, but time and exposure should make it easier to achieve her goal. One recommended resource: The documentary Disclosure is as revelatory about the representation of transgender people in film and TV as the 1996 film The Celluloid Closet was for onscreen depictions of lesbians and gay men.

Stay Interview

 The exit interview, an assessment that occurs when an employee leaves a company, has been a staple of office culture for years. Increasingly, though, employers are also conducting stay interviews, in which a worker is asked what the employer can do to ensure that the worker remains happy and well-compensated enough to remain there.

Unusual Measurements of Quantity and Distance

 Joseph in Houma, Louisiana, serves in the Coast Guard, shares a story about asking for directions when he was en route to an oil spill deep in Cajun Country. A local crawfisherman told him to go down the turning, twisting bayou for about four eyesights — in other words, go “as far as the eye can see, then from that point keep traveling as far as you can see, then do the same thing again, and then once more.” Years ago, a listener called this show to say that when he was West Virginia, a local resident advised him that his destination was six farsees away. In another instance, someone in Pennsylvania Dutch country was told to go two farsights, turn right, one go down, cross to a tree, and a right smart piece beyond. Approximate measurements in English include describing mud that is shoemouth deep or water that is straddle deep. Among loggers, an object might be described as axe-handle length, shorter than a hoop and a holler. A fathom was originally “the length of a man’s outstretched arms,” or “about six feet,” which also gave rise to the verb to fathom, meaning metaphorically “to get one’s arms around.” The mining term double-fist refers to a lump of coal approximately the size of two adjacent fists, also known as a cobble. The words gowpen and yepsen both mean “the amount that can be held in two hands cupped together.”

Oh, No, Martha’s Punning Again

 What kind of tomato really smells?

Lovely Names for Snow

 The 1955 Glossary of Arctic and Subarctic Terms is a collection of scientific and indigenous terminology that’s dated, but often poetic, which describes the features of an extremely cold landscape. Among those terms are diamond dust, also called snow mist is “the precipitation of fine ice crystals falling directly from the atmosphere with no cloud formation present.” Snow pellets are sometimes called tapioca snow, and a sugar iceberg is “an iceberg composed of porous glacier ice.” Nieve penitente, which is Spanish for “penitent snow,” refers to spikes or pinnacles of ice or granular snow left by the uneven melting of a snowbank or glacier. Nieve penitente is found in the high altitudes along the border of Chile and Argentina, and may be so named either because from a distance they look like penitents kneeling in the cold or they resemble the tall, pointed habits worn by certain religious orders in the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week.

Doofunny, Dofunny

 Nikki in Northampton, Massachusetts, wonders about a term her dad used for someone who’s a little odd or weird: do funny. As far back as the 1850s, Do funny or Doo funny was an amusing last name for characters in satire, whether in newspapers or onstage. Over time it joined a category of terms known as indefinite specifics, words that include doohickey, thingamajig, and whatchamacallit. Starting in the 1920s, there was a play called The Doo-Funny Family (Bookshop|Amazon) that was performed around the country, featuring slapstick and broad humor. In the African-American community, the term has also meant “a gay man.”

Cutting Cots

 Following up on our earlier conversation about the correct pronunciation of apricot, a listener who grew up among the apricot orchards of California’s Santa Clara Valley says the locals there pronounce it simply cot, and would speak of getting a summer job cutting cots.

Words that Looks Like What They Refer to

 Dan from Elmira, New York, wonders if there’s such a thing as “structural” onomatopoeia, where the visual appearance or architecture of a written word suggests the meaning of the word. For example, he says, the word level is a palindrome — a word spelled the same way backwards and forwards — and even has a fulcrum in the middle in the form of the letter V. Similarly, when spelled with lower-case letters, the word bed looks something like a bed, the word llama looks a bit like a long-necked animal, and if you squint, even the word dog resembles a little pup curled up. Some people have proposed the term logological for these instances, after the more established term autological, which denotes words with meanings reflected in their form, such as polysyllabic, a multisyllabic word that means “having many syllables.” The word terse is autological, because it’s a short word that means “succinct.” Sibiliant which describes something having a hissing sound, is sibilant itself.

Coyotito

 In Spanish, you can have a siesta, or mid-day nap, but it’s also possible to take un coyotito, literally, “a little coyote,” a slang term for sneaking in a quick snooze, much like a nocturnal coyote curling up for some sleep during the day.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Glossary of Arctic and Subarctic Terms
The Doo-Funny Family (Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
Blue’s CribIssac HayesTruck TurnerStax
Nick’s ThemeMagic in ThreesMagic in ThreesGED Soul
Texas SunKhruangbin & Leon BridgesTexas SunDead Oceans
BreakthroughIssac HayesTruck TurnerStax
Neal’s LamentMagic in ThreesMagic in ThreesGED Soul
Pursuit of the PimpmobileIssac HayesTruck TurnerStax
Dorinda’s PartyIssac HayesTruck TurnerStax
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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