When you had sleepovers as a child, what did you call the makeshift beds you made on the floor? In some places, you call those bedclothes and blankets a pallet. This word comes from an old term for “straw.” And: What’s the story behind the bedtime admonition “Sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite”? Plus, when grownups are talking about sex or money, they may remind each other that “little pitchers have big ears.” It’s a reference to the ear-shaped handle on a jug, and the knack kids have for picking up on adult topics and then spilling that new knowledge elsewhere. Plus, a word game, lick the calf over, lady locks, when clothes become laundry, towhead, build a coffee, and more.
This episode first aired March 9, 2019.
Lick the Calf Over
In response to our earlier conversation about the phrase to lick the cat over, meaning to repeat a laborious process, many listeners say they use the phrase lick the calf over to mean the same thing. Among the writers who have used it this way: Zora Neale Hurston.
Melanie in San Antonio, Texas, wonders about the use of the word pallet to mean improvised bedding on the floor. It goes back to a French term for it, paillet, which comes from a word meaning straw. The word also appears in some translations of the Biblical book of John, in which a newly healed man is told to pick up his pallet and walk.
When Do Clothes Become Laundry?
Kevin in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, disagrees with his wife over the question: At what point do clothes become laundry?
Word Quiz: Proper Names Hiding in Other Words
Quiz Guy John Chaneski is puzzling over words containing hidden proper names. For example, John just ordered a piece of jewelry for his wife to wear around her neck. What three-letter dude is hiding inside that word?
Towheaded and Towhead
Someone who’s towheaded has very light blond hair. Tow is an old word for flax, and flaxen-haired is a synonym for towheaded. Towheaded can also describe someone with tousled hair.
Jejune and Jejunum
Jejune, meaning insipid or superficial, comes from Latin jejunus, meaning empty. The same root gives us jejunum, the part of the small intestine that is usually empty when autopsied. The same idea of emptiness is reflected in the related French and Spanish words for the first meal of the day, dejeuner and desayuno — in other words, breakfast, or that which breaks the fast and ends the emptiness.
Lady Locks Pastry
Dave in Council Bluffs, Iowa, has fond memories of Hough Bakeries in Cleveland, Ohio, which made a treat called lady locks. Sometimes called lady locks, foam rollers, and clothespin cookies, they featured puff pastry rolled around a small cylinder — much like women used to roll their hair on hot curlers — and baked and filled with a tasty cream. In Austria, a similar version goes by the name Schaumrollen, which translates as foam rolls, and Schillerlocken, a reference to the impressive locks of the German poet Friedrich Schiller.
Peek and Plumb
If you’re in a peek and plumb town, it’s a small one. You’ll have time for just a peek at it before you’ve plumb passed it by. A variant of plumb is plum, meaningly completely or utterly.
Intentional Misspellling of Business Names
Andrea in San Diego, California, noticed a new restaurant with a name spelled in a curious way. Is there a term for this kind of intentional misspelling used in advertising? Onomastics is the study of naming, and a good source for information about the product-naming business is Nancy Friedman’s blog Fritinancy.
Our conversation about losing a day to the International Date Line prompted Jaquelyn from Ishpeming, Michigan, to share that she and her friends refer to a seemingly interminable stretch of days as a Beatles week, as in the Fab Four’s song “Eight Days a Week.”
“Little Pitchers Have Big Ears” Meaning
Pat in Aubrey, Texas, wonders why adults discussing a certain topic may warn each other that children are within earshot with the expression “little pitchers have big ears.”
In parts of the United States, the verb to build is used to mean prepare a food or beverage, so you might build a coffee or build a lemon pie. This use of to build appears in a lot of literature of the Old West.
“Colder Than” Similes
John in Seguin, Texas, says his mother used to use a phrase that sounded like colder than a well-digger’s clavicle. Why would she use that term, if that’s what it was? Clavicle comes from a Latin word that means little key.
The Spanish word for straw is paja. In Italian, it’s paglia, which also gives us the name of the opera Il Pagliacci, the Italian word for clowns. In the past, clown costumes were made of the same fabric used to cover straw mattresses.
“Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite” Origin
Claire from Wilmington, North Carolina, wants to know the origin of the phrase “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” She heard a story she heard about the saying having to tightening ropes that support mattresses, which is not the origin. Sometimes this phrase involves insects other than bedbugs, such as mosquitos or fleas. It’s a sweet bedtime saying that’s especially appealing because of its rhyme. A longer version that dates back at least to the late 1800s goes: “Good night, sleep tight, wake up in the morning bright, do what’s right with all your might, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Funny Laboratory Sign
A listener leaves us a voicemail about a sign his high school science teacher posted in the classroom to encourage students to keep the noise down. It read “Laboratory — more of the first 5, less of the last 7.” As in more of the first five letters in the word, labor, and less of the last seven letters, oratory.
Photo by coniferconifer. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Music Used in the Broadcast
|Put your Hand In The Hand||Ramsey Lewis||Upendo Ni Pamoja||CBS|
|Comencemos||Jungle Fire||Tropicoso||Nacional Records|
|Why Can’t We Live Together||Jimmy Smith||Blacksmith||Pride|
|Collage||Ramsey Lewis||Upendo Ni Pamoja||CBS|
|The Black Messiah||Cannonball Adderley||The Black Messiah||Capitol Records|
|Tokuta||Jungle Fire||Tropicoso||Nacional Records|
|On The Up||Melvin Sparks||Akilah!||Prestige|
|Something You Got||Jimmy Smith||Blacksmith||Pride|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|