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Kissed Her on the Stairs
Grant Barrett
San Diego, California
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Do Americans use the same sign language as the British? And what do Japanese people use instead of umm? Plus, why do we vote at polling places? What goes into file 13? All this, a word quiz, commode vs. toilet, saditty and bougie, and cute stuff that kids say!

This episode first aired December 1, 2012.

Download the MP3.

 Evolving Sign Language
All languages evolve, and sign language is no exception. The British Sign Language Corpus Project has collected footage of nearly 250 deaf people across the U.K., revealing lots of changes, especially as the internet has made it easier for hearing-impaired people to sign to more people. For example, the sign for French people is no longer a stereotypical mustache twirl — it’s now made with a sign for rooster, the unofficial symbol of France.

 Toilet vs. Commode
Why do some folks call the toilet a commode? At one point in history, the commode was a piece of furniture you’d put a chamberpot in. Today, commode is still a common term heard in the American South. Elsewhere, the term commode denotes a kind of cabinet, causing confusion when journalists mistook reports of Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham taking a bribe in the form of a pair of antique commodes worth more than $7000. What do you call your porcelain throne?

 Discourse Particles
So, um, where do those, er, filler words come from? Discourse particles, as they’re also known, are used to fill those gaps when we’re thinking of what to say but don’t want to lose our turn in a conversation. English isn’t the only language that has them, either. Spanish speakers often use este, and in Japanese, it’s eto. Michael Erard has written at length about the subject in his book Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.

 Sign Language for “Telephone”
If you had to say the word telephone in sign language, you’d probably do the thumb and pinky to the head. In the past, though, it was one fist to the ear, one fist to the mouth — just like the old fashioned candlestick phone! The current sign is still a bit skeuomorphic.

 Idiom Word Game
Our Puzzle Guy John Chaneski has a game for all the idiom-lovers out there. For each category, three letters match with different phrases. For example, name three things you can hold, starting with the letters C, G, and T. These are open-ended questions, so let us know if you think of more answers!

 File 13
If you’re going to put something in file 13, is it headed to a) a top-secret folder, b) a Christmas stocking, or c) trash can? It’s the trash! This term first became popular in the 1940s during WWII as military slang, and by the late 60s had fully entered civilian speech. Other jocular expressions for the same thing include round file, circular file, or file 17.

 Charmed, I’m Sure
It’s tough to say what generation was best at sarcasm and snark, but the 50s made a good case with I Love Lucy. Charmed, I’m sure, one of those sugarcoated jabs used when meeting someone you’re dubious about, was one of Ethel’s hallmark lines. Of course, the phrase goes back to the 1850s. Long live sarcasm.

 What American English Sounds Like
A while back we talked about what English sounds like to those who don’t speak it. Martha shares an evocative excerpt from Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Hunger of Memory, where he describes the “high nasal notes of middle-class American speech.”

 Sitting High, Looking Low
When politicians, authority figures, or bureaucrats ignore those who need help, they’re said to be sitting high and looking low. This idiom, almost exclusive to the African-American community, goes back to 1970s. It’s also used in a religious sense, where God is sitting high and looking low, meaning He takes care of the small things.

 Cute Things Kids Say
Some of the things kids say are so cute, it’s a crime to correct them. Over time, they’ll fix their pronunciations of callipitter (caterpillar), so enjoy those mistakes while they last. If you have a favorite little-kid mispronunciation, tell us!

 Sign Languages Differ Just as Spoken Languages Do
If someone uses American Sign Language, can they fully communicate with someone in Bolivia? Or France? Or even England? No! In fact, ASL derives from the French system in use in the early 19th century, and they’re still 60% similar. British Sign Language, which arose independently, would be mostly unintelligible to an American signer.

Oh, those saditty gals think they’re all that, don’t they? Saditty, or seditty, goes back to the 1940s, where it first appears in news articles from African-American publications. It applies primarily to women act like they’re better than others, or who seem stuck up. Bougie, as in bourgeois, has a similar use among African Americans.

 Scorpion Lizards
Plenty of lizards are scary looking, but that doesn’t make them scorpions. Even so, there are places like Western Virginia where the word scorpion is used to refer to a lizard, such as the five-lined skink, known for its distinctive blue tail.

 Where Does Voting “Poll” Come From?
Why do we vote at a polling place? Pol in Middle English simply meant head, and polls are the place where heads are counted. The Middle English word for head also gives us get polliwog, a young frog with a wiggly head, and tadpole, those toads and other little amphibians that for a while look like they’re all head.

 Nouns Without Articles
Sometimes people say they are in studio, in hospital, or going to prom — but there’s no the in there! In plenty of dialects, it’s common to drop such articles, making anarthrous nouns, or nouns without articles.

 Children’s Rhyme
“First I gave her peaches, then I gave her pears, then I gave her 50 cents and kissed her on the stairs.” If you’ve got a children’s rhyme to rival this gem, share it with us!

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

Photo by John Goodridge. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean by Michael Erard
Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Chuco Lalo Schifrin Boulevard Nights Original Soundtrack Warner Brothers
Roller Coaster Lalo Schifrin Towering Toccata CTI
Try A Little Tenderness Soul Flutes Trust In Me CTI
Quiet Village Lalo Schifrin Black Widow CTI
In The Middle Of The River The Crusaders Unsung Heroes Blue Thumb
Baia Lalo Schifrin Black Widow CTI
Trust In Me Soul Flutes Trust In Me CTI
Deep Gully Outlaw Blues Band Breaking In Stateside
Jacaranda Luis Bonfa Jacaranda Ranwood Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
Ron Draney
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Seems I’ve got a few things to touch on from this episode. I’ll take them one at a time:

  • I never had much confusion with toilet vs commode, but I still get in trouble when I refer to washing my hands in the lavatory. Is it just because my father was a plumber that I define the word as what other people call a sink?
  • The “discourse particle” that Grant pronounced as er, and said was unique to British English, is actually just the British spelling for the sound we in the US write as uh. Most British dialects don’t pronounce R after a vowel as a separate sound but rather as a sign that the preceding vowel is lengthened. (Recall the introduction to Winnie the Pooh where Christopher Robin explains why the bear is called Winnie ther Pooh.)
  • I wonder if the practice of calling lizards scorpion is responsible for something I remember from the phase of my life when I dabbled in astrology. In Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, the sign Scorpio is identified as “the Scorpion, Eagle or Gray Lizard”. That never made sense to me at the time, but in light of the regionalism your caller described I can see how the other animals might have found their way into the Zodiac. (There actually are both an eagle and a lizard among the recognized constellations, but they’re well out of the path of the ecliptic and thus don’t figure in astrological matters.)
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“First I gave her peaches, then I gave her pears, then I gave her 50 cents and kissed her on the stairs.”
Yes, very pretty and sweet and innocent, but optionally dark and sinister, no ?
The genius of the thing !

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Examples of using a definite article (or not) can be kind of funny, both in the sense of “peculiar” and in the sense of “humorous.” For instance, I’ve noticed that place nicknames created by college students may or may not include “the.” I haven’t yet recognized a pattern.

Examples without “the”
– Instead of saying, “We’re going to the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant,” it gets shortened to “We’re going to B-Dubs” (no “the”).
– Similarly, they don’t go to “the Baskin-Robbins place” for ice cream, but to “Skin-Bins” (again, no “the”). [A friend had to explain that the term comes from Ba-SKIN Rob-BINS.]

Examples with “the”
+ Among University of Michigan students, the Undergraduate Library is affectionately known as “the UGLY.”
+ I also read that John Rockefeller had given a large amount of money to a university in New York to build a new library; in return, they named it after him. Students quickly dubbed it “the Rock,” but the administration objected (perhaps thinking it was disrespectful) and demanded that students no longer use that term. They complied with this new “law,” in letter if not in spirit: Now the library is fondly known as “the John.”

Beyond college – omitting the definite article: I remember reading a news story about a company where the employees had cleverly named their conference rooms so they could have some fun with (or at the expense of) co-workers. So if one of the staff members was attending a meeting, the receptionist might say, for example, “He’s not in his office at the moment; he’s in Sane” or “… in Cognito” or… (you get the idea).

Fort Worth, TX
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I think the use of the article, “the”, is not arbitrary nor is it exclusive to college students. (Although the strange names probably are.)   I believe it depends on whether or not the name of the place is possessive.   For example: Walgreens is possessive, or at least it seems to be, so people will usually say, “I’m going to Walgreens”, no article. Target is not possessive so people will usually say, “I’m going to the Target”, article is used. This is just my own observation, not intended to be a rule, and it is certainly not a consistent use since people will say whatever may come to mind.

We used to make fun of my mother because she would leave off the article and make a name possessive even when it wasn’t intended to be so. For example: “I need to buy some things at Walmart’s”.

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Lots of times, it’s just pure practicality-

You say to someone in the neighborhood, ‘I am at the McDonald’ — it can mean if you want to find me, that’s where.

You say to someone 100 miles away, ‘I am going to McDonald’ — it only means I am going to have burgers.