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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s witches’ knickers! What do you call stray plastic bags that litter the landscape? Also, what it means to do something like a boss, how to hyphenate correctly, and why we say we have a crush on someone. Also, similes from the 1800s and the truth about what happens when a bull is loose in a china shop.
This episode first aired January 14, 2012.
What do you call plastic shopping bags that litter the landscape? Some know them as witches’ britches or witches’ knickers. Others prefer urban tumbleweeds. In the film American Beauty, Ricky Fitts famously called them one the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. Either way, despite the effort to introduce reusable bags, the plastic variety continues to accumulate. Lori Robinson of Santa Barbara has even gone so far as to collect them from Tanzanian villages and distribute the more sustainable variety.
Bull in a China Shop
A clumsy person may be known as a bull in a china shop or a bull in a china closet. The former came into use first, in the early 1800s, but bull in china closet is more evocative. Plus, according to the MythBusters, a bull in a china shop is surprisingly nimble.
To Crush on Someone
When did the expression have a crush on someone come into use? The television series Downton Abbey has dropped this and other fun bits of language, but no need to worry about its historical accuracy — crush has been around since the early 1880s. To mash on someone or crash on someone are idioms in the same vein, and may derive from the idea of an emotional collision between two prospective flames.
As they say in Wasika, Minnesota, “If I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture.”
Nym Word Game
Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a new word game titled “The Secrets of Nym.” In Alcoholics Anonymous, denial is said to stand for “Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying,” which is a backronym. An acoustic guitar could be considered a retronym. And an editor named “Daily” is an example of an aptronym.
Six Degrees of Do-You-Know
When someone finds out where you’re from, do they ask if you know so-and-so? The cynics out there may refer to this as the six degrees of stupid, but even urban dwellers can admit that the answer is “yes” more often than the odds would suggest. How do you respond in those cases? Is there a term for those questions?
Elephant in a Pottery Store
The Spanish equivalent of our “bull in a china shop” analogy translates to “like an elephant in a pottery store.”
Like a Boss
Where does the meme like a boss come from? The original boss may be the rapper Slim Thug, whose 2005 track “Like A Boss,” from the album Already Platinum (which never went platinum), lists the myriad tasks he performs like a boss (e.g. “When I floss / like a boss”). In 2009, Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live and The Lonely Island made a video entitled “Like A Boss” featuring Seth Rogen, which describes further boss-like activities (e.g. “promote synergy / like a boss”).
Does evidence-based have a hyphen? Why, yes it does, because evidence-based functions as an adjective. While style guides indicate that we’re using fewer hyphens, evidence-based is an important one to keep intact, even when used after the verb (e.g., “the research is evidence-based”).
Large as Life
Here’s another great simile: large as life and twice as natural. As in, “Did you really see Elvis?” :Yep, he was large as life and twice as natural.”
On the Big Drum Followup
It’s been a puzzle to track the origin of the saying good night, sleep tight, see you on the big drum. Perhaps it’s an innocent mixup that takes from the Robert Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter, which reads, “good night, sleep tight, I’ll see you on the Brigadoon.”
“You’d better behave, or I’ll knock you from an amazing grace to a floating opportunity!” This African-American saying, used as a motherly warning, first popped up in the 1930 play Mule Bone by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Infra dig, short for the Latin phrase infra dignitatum, means beneath one’s dignity or uncouth. Abbreviated Latin phrases like infra dig have become standard after old English schoolboys used to shorten them while studying classical texts.
Here are some easy similes: easy as winking or easy as breathing. If you prefer a tough one, try as difficult to grasp as a shadow.
Slow as Moses
We all know the idiom slow as molasses, but slow as Moses does just as well. After all, he spent 40 years trekking to the Promised Land, and even described himself as slow of speech and of tongue.
Written Language is Like…
The 19th Century French writer Adolphe de Lamartine said that written language is like a mirror, which it is necessary to have in order that man know himself and be sure that he exists.
Polysemes and Syllepsis
In their song “The Old Apartment,” The Barenaked Ladies sang, “crooked landing / crooked landlord / narrow laneway filled with crooks.” “Crooked” there is an example of a polyseme, or one word that has multiple meanings. Similar to this is the syllepsis, wherein one word is applied to other words in different senses (e.g. Alanis Morissette: “You held your breath and the door for me”).
Here’s one that’s sure to lull a restless child into sleep: “night night chicken butt ham head yoo hoo!”
Photo by Martin Cathrae. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Broadcast
|A Dictionary of Similes by Frank Jenners Wilstach|
|Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns|
|Mule Bone by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston|
Music Used in the Broadcast
|Love Bowl||Lonnie Smith||Live At Club Mozambique||Blue Note|
|Giving Up Food For Jah||The Lions||Jungle Struttin||Ubiquity|
|Charly Theme||Ravi Shankar||Charly Original Soundtrack||World Pacific|
|Rocco||The Johnny Rocco Band||Rocco||Festival Records|
|Solar Level||The Johnny Almond Music Machine||Patent Pending||Deram|
|I’m Alive||Johnny Thunders||I’m Alive 45rpm||Calla Records|
|Thin Man Skank .||The Lions||Jungle Struttin||Ubiquity|
|Main Title||Ravi Shankar||Charly Original Soundtrack||World Pacific|
|Top and Low Rent||Plone||For Beginner Piano||Matador|
|Robot Ton||Anthony Hobson||Millennium||Music De Wolfe|
|Sweet Soul Music||The Lions||Jungle Struttin||Ubiquity|
|Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off||Ella Fitzgerald||Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book||Verve|
I”m so glad Martha brought up pash in the segment on the age of the word “crush”, and even gladder that it was identified as short for passion, which makes it unique among all the other words mentioned in that it”s clearly derived from an appropriate longer word. I can”t recall exactly where it was, but I”m remembering a movie or TV show in which a woman who time-travels to the 1920s is asked if a certain man is “your pash”, and then when she appears puzzled the other character explains the origin.
On the bull in the china shop, I think it was recidivist prankster Alan Abel who arranged to lead a bull through one of New York City”s high-end china shops, promising to pay for any damage. The bull was so non-destructive that Abel had to break a couple of dishes himself so the film crew would have something interesting to record.
I first encountered boss in the video-game context in Kirby”s Dream Land on the original (read “monochrome”) Gameboy.
Don”t think it qualifies as a true simile, but an equivalent expression for “big as life and twice as natural” is “all wool and a yard wide”. That one ought to take some explaining!
Re: Slow as Moses
I grew up hearing my uncles use the phrase “slow as Christmas” – which I took as a reference to the fact that Christmas takes a whole year to come around. For a kid anticipating the coming of Christmas, it can feel even longer. After falling into the habit of using the phrase, I found myself shortening it to to a single-word expletive. I'd be waiting for a something (e.g. waiting for a computer to boot up) and impatiently growl, “Christmas!”
I know this as zeugma. Is there some fine distinction between zeugma and syllepsis?
During this episode”s stray plastic bag discussion, did anyone else think of the Katy Perry firework song? The opening words are: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind wanting to start again?” Only if she had access to the word (that escapes me) discussed in the episode, she could have shaved off a few seconds of the song.
Only if she had access to the word (that escapes me) discussed in the episode, she could have shaved off a few seconds of the song.
Even better, that there was a word she could have used that would have shaved away the entire song. Better yet, how about a word that would eliminate plastic bags?
Denial: Of course, the related phrase is “Denial is not just a river in Africa.” But another response to denial is “Watch out for the hippos and crocks.”
Do you Know…: My parents encountered the flip side of this while on tour of Reformation sites in what was still the DDR. It was the usual introduction time, what’s your name and where are you from? My father said, “We live in the country but near a little town in Texas called Bonham.” The East German guide brightened and said “Sam Rayburn!” He was an American history buff, and unlike most US citizens, knew the long-time Speaker of the House was indeed from Bonham.