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Why do auctioneers talk so fast? Martha and Grant discuss the rapid-fire speech of auctioneers, and how it gets you to bid higher. Also, why so many books have ridiculously long titles, where you’d have sonker for dessert, and an appreciation of that children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. Plus, “different from” vs. “different than,” the origin of suss out, words that apparently entered English in 1937, and the many names for those little gray bugs that roll up into a ball.
This episode originally aired November 5, 2011.
Roly Polies, Sow Bugs, Wood Lice, or What?
What do you call those little gray bugs that roll up into a ball? They go by lots of names: roly poly bugs, potato bugs, sow bugs, chiggypigs, dillo seeds, basketball bugs, bowling-ball bugs, and wood lice, to name a few.
Why We Capitalize the Pronoun “I”
If you’re wondering why we capitalize the letter “I” when we don’t capitalize the first letters of other pronouns, the answer’s simple. It’s easier to read. Martha recommends a book offering a detailed history of every letter of the alphabet. It’s Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z, by David Sacks.
Why do auctioneers talk so fast? The hosts say it’s partly to put you into a trance, partly to increase the sense of urgency, and partly to sell off lots of items in a short amount of time. More details in an article in Slate magazine. You can learn some of the basics of auctioneering from videos on YouTube.
On wordorigins.org, etymologist Dave Wilton is going through the Oxford English Dictionary year by year to find the earliest citations for various words, which offer an unusual linguistic glimpse into that particular year. The year 1937, for example, is the first in which we see the terms “four-by-four,” “cliffhanger,” and “iffy.”
Double-Dog-Dare Word Puzzle
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle called “Double Dog Dare.”
Long Book Titles
Why are some book titles so incredibly long? A caller complains about book-title inflation, usually consisting of a shorter title followed by a colon and a longer subtitle that seems to sound important and ends with the words “and What To Do About It.” Grant explains that such extra-long book titles have long been a form of search optimization by publishers and marketing departments. The more searchable keywords in the title, the more copies sold.
Different Than vs. Different From
Which is correct: “different from” or “different than”? Martha explains that the grammatically correct choice is almost always “different from.”
A caller in Hamburg, Germany, wants to know where we got the term laundry list. Grant explains that it derives from a time when people of a certain class sent their laundry out to be cleaned. It’s usually associated with a collection of things that are routine or involve drudgery or something negative. Funny how no one ever offers a laundry list of compliments.
The Phantom Tollbooth, the beloved children’s book by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, turns 50 this year. There are two new 50th anniversary editions of the book. As Adam Gopnik notes in a New Yorker magazine article, the book is the closest thing American literature has to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Martha shares her favorite passage from the book, a description of various kinds of silence.
Care for another helping of sonker? That’s another name for deep-dish cobbler. There’s a Sonker Festival each year in Surry County, North Carolina, one of the few places where you’ll hear this regional term.
Even More 1937 Words
More words that entered the lexicon around 1937: Yiddish “bupkes,” meaning “nothing,” and “zaftig” meaning “plump,” “soft,” or “juicy.”
What does the term suss out mean? It’s often heard in police and journalistic jargon, and means to “take a forensic approach to finding out an answer.” It probably derives from the verb “suspect.”
Quisquillious describes something that’s trashy or worthless. It derives from the Latin for “rubbish.”
In the movie Avatar, the characters battle over a rare and valuable mineral called unobtanium. A mechanical engineer says he had a hard time getting into the movie because in his world, the word unobtanium means something different.
Not Have Way
Martha quotes Steve Martin’s aphorism about language: “Some people have a way with words. Some people not have way.”
Photo by sashafatcat. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Broadcast
|Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z by David Sacks|
|Oxford English Dictionary|
|The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer|
Music Used in the Broadcast
|I Feel The Earth Move||Lonnie Smith||Mama Wailer||Kudu|
|Horny Tickle||Clutchy Hopkins||Walking Backwards||Ubiquity Records|
|Bidi Man||Robert Walter||Spirit of ’70||Greyboy Records|
|Soul Dream||The Greyboy Allstars||West Coast Boogaloo||Greyboy Records|
|Fried Grease||The Greyboy Allstars||West Coast Boogaloo||Greyboy Records|
|Rocktober||Clutchy Hopkins||Walking Backwards||Ubiquity Records|
|Hardware||Robert Walter||Super Heavy Organ||Magnatude Redcords|
|Rivers of Babylon||Robert Walter||Cure All||Palmetto Records|
|Jan Jan||Robert Walter||Spirit of ’70||Greyboy Records|
|Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off||Ella Fitzgerald||Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Song Book||UMG Recordings|
I was surprised to hear Grant say that he doesn”t think of “suss” as particularly British, but that may just be a function of where he first noticed the word. For many Americans, their first experience with the word came in these lyrics:
Hey you getting drunk, so sorry!
I”ve got you sussed.
Hey you smoking Mother Nature!
This is a bust!
Hey hung up old Mr. Normal,
Don”t try to gain my trust!
“Cause you ain”t gonna follow me any of those ways
Although you think you must
That”s from “We”re Not Gonna Take It”, from the Who”s “Tommy”.
As per the laundry list call, I would guess that ” shirt,WOD ” would mean ” wet or dry “. Though it’s commonly used as ‘ work out day ‘ which perhaps could apply too. It’s funny because what first came to mind for me was ” worn on dad “.
Also, I hear “suss” and immediately hear in a southern drawl “come on y’all, suss out a dance parnter”.
Grant did well to mention that excessively long titles are nothing new. One of the prized possessions in my library is an 1880 “History of the World”, whose title goes on for a good ten lines or more beyond those four words.
Going back still further, one of the best-known works of literature from the early 18th century has the official title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, better known to most readers now by the shortened version: Gulliver’s Travels. At least the full version doesn’t conclude with and What You Can Do About It.
I’d like to see the laundry list that Grant was reading from. I cannot find it in google books. I haven’t heard the phrase “laundry list” often, but it had always puzzled me, so thanks for the explanation.
As for woodlice, my local council (in Scotland) calls them “slaters” (on their list of things you can pay for them to deal with), and my mum (from Devon) calls them “fat pigs”. I note that the wikipedia article says that several of the nicknames relate to pigs. I wonder why? I didn’t know what sort of creature you were talking about at first, not having heard of “pill bugs” etc. I am now wondering if the woodlice in my childhood home are ones which roll up to protect themselves, or not. There’s a project for when I next visit!
In Wisconsin, where I grew up, we called them ball beetles. Of course, I don’t think they’re actually “beetles,” but my grade school curriculum didn’t include entomology.
But it did inspire me and my science nerd buddies to try and build what is now called a “diwheel” transporter. I’d include a link, but with the current state of this forum I fear it would be stripped out. Just Google “diwheel” and switch to the images page. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
Ours was much smaller than those you’ll see. And the rider rotated with the wheels. It wasn’t motorized, so all it could do was roll on downhill grades, powered by gravity. Had about 4 feet between the two wheels, so it was pretty stable and none of us ever wiped out. We were trying to answer the “scientific” question of what it felt like to be a ball beetle kicked across the floor. Answer … pretty damn dizzy. I think we’d hit 1-2 rotations per second tops, as we only ever tried it on a shallow grassy grade at the local park. Lotsa bystanders asked to try it. We shoulda’ charged for the ride.
Heimhenge, a bunch of my friends and I invented your diwheel about forty-two years ago when I was in seventh grade. We took one of the wooden spools the utility companies use to transport cable from the back yard of a neighbor who was using it as a picnic table, pried one or two of the slats out of the axle part, and stuffed the smallest kid in the neighborhood into it. Then we turned the spool up on its “wheels” and let it roll down the street. We stopped after one run because a car coming out of a side street was almost hit when the spool rolled past.
I don’t remember what the “test pilot” had to say about the experience.
About “different from” and “different than”… your explanation makes perfect sense to me, a speaker of American English.
Since living in Europe, though, I’ve noticed people saying “different to”, which really sounded strange to me. Turns out it’s common in spoken British English. Whodathunk?
Oxford Dictionary’s take on it: http://oxforddictionaries.com/page/differentfrom_us
Great episode, as always! Thank you.
Noah, the whole discussion of “different than” and “different from” set my teeth on edge. My brain kept insisting “it’s different to“. I notice you say it’s common in Europe in spoken language. I’m English. I think I would invariably say “different to” even in formal written English (although perhaps I would get pulled up for it?).
Similarly, I was jarred by the discussion, the previous week, of ways to tell the time. Both “ten of five” and “ten till five” sound alien to me. I would understand “till”, but I might need to double check “ten of five” before relying on it. In Britain it’d be “ten to five.” In Scotland I’m further confused by “the back of five” which I think means “a little before five,” but different people seem to use it differently (or I get myself muddled), so I mentally translate it to “around five,” then smile and nod.
Similarly, I was jarred by the discussion, the previous week, of ways to tell the time. Both “ten of five” and “ten till five” sound alien to me. I would understand “till”, but I might need to double check “ten of five” before relying on it. In Britain it’d be “ten to five.”
Decades ago, I encountered a charming British couple on the street in London. They asked me for the time. I told them it was a quarter of 5. They were very confused, and repeated “quarter of five” several times. Their confusion confused me. Finally, the young man said to the young lady “I think he means quarter till five.” At which point his partner brightened and thanked me very much.
Since then I have used till instead of of. I am mildly alarmed that you would find till alien. Must I now retrain again?
Hm. I thought I’d chimed in on this one, but I can’t find my entry.
Since the “quarter of” construction was rarely used where I grew up, I’m still to this day confused when I hear it. I am always left trying to figure out whether the speaker means “quarter til” or “quarter after.” “Quarter after” makes more sense to me, since it’s a quarter of the way through the named hour. Could someone suggest how “of” relates to “before”?