Everyone knows you don’t start a sentence with but. But why? Also, how voice recognition technology is changing the way we think and write and what English sounds like to foreigners. Plus, where cockamamie comes from, oddly translated movie titles, trucker slang, patron vs. customer, hash marks, pungling, paralipsis, and more.

This episode first aired October 27, 2012.

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Quiz time! Does pungle mean a) a baby platypus, or b) “to put down money.” It’s the latter. Pungle is most common in the western United States. It comes from the Spanish pongale, an imperative meaning “put it down.” For example, you might pungle down cash at a poker table or a checkout counter.

Michelle, a middle school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, says her students believe they’ve invented a new word for “an injury received from a fist bump or dap.” They say they created fistumba as a combination of fist and Zumba, the popular dance exercise. They’re wondering how to improve their chances of spreading this new word, and they’ve been discussing the children’s book Frindle, by Andrew Clements, which is about inventing and trying to popularize a new term.

“I won’t even mention how beautiful she is, but you should really see her photo.” Rhetorical statements like this one, where the point is actually made by pretending to avoid it, is often called paralipsis or paraleipsis. It comes from a Greek word meaning “to leave aside.”

In truck driver slang, a bedbugger is “a moving van that hauls furniture.” That’s one example of trucker lingo that Martha picked up during her appearance on The Ben Merens Show on Wisconsin Public Radio.

 Hash Marks
Kathleen from Hebron, Connecticut, is curious about the term hashtag. She associates it with the symbol #, which she calls a pound sign. When that symbol, also known as a hash mark, doublecross, hatch mark, octothorpe, or number sign, is appended to a keyword, the whole thing is known as a hashtag. It’s used on Twitter, among other places, to help label a message on a particular topic.

 Yard Sale Word Quiz
If you’re a fan of yard sales, you’ll love this game from Puzzle Guy John Chaneski. Suppose you go yard-saling, but only at the homes of famous people. The items you find there are all two-word rhymes. At the house of one powerful politician, for example, you find he’s selling his flannel nightclothes. Can you guess what they’re called?

 Is Cockamamie Yiddish?
Richard from San Diego, California, has a hard time believe that the term cockamamie didn’t start out as Yiddish. Although the word was adapted by Jewish immigrants in New York City to refer to transferable decals, it comes from French décalcomania. Cockamamie, or cockamamy, is now used to describe something wacky or ridiculous, and it’s often heard among those familiar with Yiddish.

 Translated Movie Titles
What film title, when translated from its Spanish version, is known as An Expert in Fun? It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! Now take a crack at decoding these two: Love without Stopovers and Very Important Perros.

 Patron vs. Customer
Suzie, who used to work at the Dallas Public Library, is wondering why librarians are being asked to refer to their patrons as customers. Does the word customer make consulting a library and borrowing books feel too much like a transaction? Eric Patridge, in his 1955 book The Concise Usage and Abusage, explains that you can have a patron of the arts, but not of a greengrocer or a bookmaker. What do you think people who use a library should be called?

 More Pungle
Back in 1867 a newspaper in Nevada used the verb pungle to lovely effect: “All night the clouds pungled their fleecy treasure.”

The modifier lamming or lammin’, is used as an intensifier, as in “That container is lammin’ full,” meaning “That container is extremely full.” There’s a whole class of intensifying words like this in English, which have to do with the idea of hitting, banging, thumping, or striking. Another example: larrupin’. The word lammin’ in particular popped up in a bunch of cowboy novels after Zane Grey popularized the term in his books.

 Alligator Radio
Do you listen to our show on an alligator radio? We’re guessing not, since this bit of trucker slang refers to the CB radios that transmit a strong signal but are terrible for receiving. Like an alligator, they’re all mouth and no ears.

 Writing With Voice Recognition Software
Voice recognition technology is making it easier than ever to dictate text rather than write it. Richard Powers, author of the 2006 National Book Award winner The Echo Maker, wrote most of that book by dictating it into a computer program. Of course, dictating to humans has been happening for centuries. John Milton is said to have dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters, and Mark Twain supposedly dictated much of his Autobiography. But as Powers explained in an essay, dictating to a computer changes the way one puts words on the page.

 But at the Beginning of Sentences
Every elementary school student is taught never to start a sentence with but. But why? Teachers of young students often warn against beginning with but or and simply as a way of avoiding a verbal crutch. All mature writers develop an instinct for what tone they’re going for, who their audience is, and what kind of style their content demands. But there’s no universal rule against starting a sentence with the word “but.”

 Lex in Law and Language
David, a lawyer from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, subscribes to the Lexis Legal News Brief, and wonders about the connection between lex meaning “law,” and the lex which refers to “words.” While lexis refers to the total stock of words in a language, lexicon means the vocabulary of an individual or a specific branch of knowledge. They all come from an ancient root leg-, having to do with the idea of “collecting” or “gathering,” which also gives us the suffix -logy, as in the study of something.

 Highway Alligators
If you’re driving an 18-wheeler and want to warn fellow truckers about a piece of blown tire lying in the middle of the road, you’d tell them to watch out for the alligator. Come to think of it, the crocodilian reptile and the rubber remnant do share a passing resemblance.

 Imitating English
Kids often imitate French or Chinese speakers without knowing the language. But have you ever tried to imitate the English language or speak fake English? There are lots of YouTube videos that give an idea of what English sounds like to native speakers of foreign languages.

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

Photo by Thom Quine. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Frindle by Andrew Clements
The Concise Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Autobiography by Mark Twain

Musical Works

Title Artist Album Label
Lights Out Menahan Street Band Lights Out 45rpm Daptone
African Battle Brownout African Battle 45rpm Freestyle Records
Try A Little Tenderness Soul Flutes Trust In Me A&M Records
The Contender Menahan Street Band Make The Road By Walking Daptone
The Traitor Menahan Street Band Make The Road By Walking Daptone
Birds Menahan Street Band Make The Road By Walking Daptone
Montego Sunset Menahan Street Band Make The Road By Walking Daptone
Trust In Me Soul Flutes Trust In Me A&M Records
Karina Menahan Street Band Make The Road By Walking Daptone
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

  1. Christopher Murray says:

    The French musical artist Camille said on NPR that, to her, English is all about vowels.
    http://m.npr.org/story/5563547 (transcript)

  2. Paul T says:

    NPR had a story this week on the 40th anniversary of an Italian hit song in gibberish fake English. “Prisencolinensinainciusol” went to No. 1 all over Europe.

  3. I just found this clip on Gawker: “What English Sounds Like to People Who Don’t Speak It,” and I was reminded of this episode. http://gawker.com/5850104/what-english-sounds-like-to-people-who-dont-speak-it

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