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Familiar Strangers

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If you take up texting and social media late in life, there’s a lot to learn! A twenty-something wants advice getting her dad up to speed on memes, Instagram, and animated images. Plus, when you’re on a long road trip, what do you call that one driver you keep passing on the freeway, or who sets the pace for your car mile after mile? Road buddy? Some call them Follow Johns. Plus, the linguistic reason why some people say “SANG-wich” instead of “SAND-wich.” It’s a mouthful — literally! And: thalweg, stick season, quare, jimmycane, the many Spanish words that derive from the Nahuatl language, camera and camaraderie, cada chango en su mecate, a puzzle all about the letter E, the connection between dollar and Neanderthal, umarell, and menos burros, más elotes.

This episode first aired June 4, 2022.

Stick Season, Mud Season, and Other Reasons We Should Hibernate

 After our conversation about mini-seasons between the usual winter, spring, summer, and fall, listeners share other examples: stick season in Vermont and mud season in Michigan. The Old English word for “February,” solmonath, may derive from words that mean “mud month.”

Road Buddies and Follow Johns

 Imagine you’re on a long road trip. Is there a word for that other driver who sets the pace for your car mile after mile? Road buddy, perhaps? A Rhode Island caller says her family calls that driver a Follow John. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram applied the term familiar stranger to denote the people we recognize because we regularly share a common physical space, such as a bus stop or a park, even though we don’t interact with them.

Italian and Spanish and “Sangwitch”

 Why do some people pronounce the word sandwich as “SANG-witch”? It’s common among first-generation Italian and Spanish speakers trying to approximate that N-D-W combination of sounds, which don’t exist in their native language. The closest sound in their phonetic inventory is a Gsound.

In a Ferment Over Another Punny Riddle

 What did the grapes say when the elephant stepped on them? Apologies in advance for the answer.

Long Eeeeeeeease Brain Tease

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has crafted this puzzle with eeeeeeeease. In fact, all the answers are combinations of words that include only one vowel sound — a long E. For example, suppose the clue is It’s what some people say the moon is made of, and who’s to say it’s not? What’s the answer?

When Your Boomer is Ready to Text and Meme

 A 23-year-old says that since her 75-year-old dad has now retired, he’s finally ready to learn to text and share memes. What’s the best way to introduce him to the world of social media and communicating with graphics? There are several helpful strategies: Show him how to find and send animated GIFs to express a particular emotion. Help him set up an Instagram account and follow some other users who post about topics he likes, and encourage him to share images he finds interesting, so their communication isn’t just one-way. Send him memes based on the pop culture he knows — television shows from the 1970s, for example — and show him how to search the database at Know Your Meme so he can learn about the ones he doesn’t understand.

A Punny Riddle Bordering on Malpractice

 Did you hear about the new doctor doll? Guess what it operates on.

The Curious Word “Thalweg” and Its Connection to “Dollar” and “Neanderthal”

 A civil engineer in Boston, Massachusetts, is puzzled by part of an assignment to design a driveway that traverses a stream to access a proposed development. The wetlands scientist he’s working with informed him that he’d need to design the thalweg for the section of stream they’re adjusting to accommodate their driveway. What’s a thalweg? A thalweg is “the lowest part of a valley” or “lowest navigable channel in a stream,” a key designation in boundary disputes. Thalweg, also spelled talweg, is usually pronounced TALL-vegg, and derives from two German words, Thal, or “valley,” and Weg, or “path,” cognate with English way. German Thal appears in the family names Blumenthal, or “flower valley,” and Rosenthal, or “rose valley.” The Neander Valley in Germany, or Neanderthal, is where the fossil remains of early hominids were discovered, inspiring their name, Neanderthals. In the Czech Republic, a small silver-mining town once went by the name Sankt Joachimsthal, or “St. Joachim’s Valley.” Silver coins minted there were called Joachimstalers. In German, the name of this coin was later shortened to Taler, a word that eventually found its way into English and applied to another silver coin, the dollar. German Thal is also the etymological kin of English dale, “valley” and dell, “small valley.”

Umarell, the Italian Alter Kocker

 You’ve seen this guy before: the older gent who strolls around at construction sites, asking questions, offering suggestions, and kibitizing about the activities there. The Italian dictionary Lo Zingarelli (Amazon) recently added the handy neologism umarell, or “little man,” which refers to such a person, noting that he roams around mostly con le mani dietro la schiena, “with his hands behind his back.”

Let’s Untangle a Flaky Television Etymology

 The creepy, dystopian, and weirdly wonderful TV series Severance offers a teachable moment in the form of a false etymology in a flaky self-help book by one of the characters. The book suggests that the word camaraderie derives from the type of a camera used to take photos, ideally photos of happy friends together. In reality, camaraderie goes back to the Latin word camera, or “room,” which gave rise to French camarade, “someone who shares a room,” and ultimately “a friend” or comrade. The English word for the photographic device, camera, is a shortening of an earlier Latin term, camera obscura, “literally, dark room,” the name for a kind of box with a lens that was used to project images on a wall for hundreds of years before photographs came along.

Nahuatl, a Rich Source of Mexican Spanish Words, Many Which Live on in English, Too

 Cathy from San Antonio, Texas, notes that many Spanish words come from the Nahuatl language, including the words for “tomato,” “sweet potato,” and “avocado,” which are tomate, camote, and aguacate, respectively. The Nahuatl élotl, meaning “a cob of tender corn,” is the source of the Spanish word elote, which means “corn,” and appears in menos burros, más elotes. This playful Spanish dicho means “fewer donkeys, more corn,” and is said when someone at the dinner table refuses a helping of food, leaving more for everyone else. Words in English that ultimately come from Nahuatl include chocolate, cocoa, jicama, zapote, tamales, chili, and chilaquiles. Another Spanish word from Nahuatl is mecate, which means “rope,” and is part of the idiom cada chango en su mecate — literally, “every monkey on his rope,” meaning “to each his own.”

On a Nodding Basis with the Big Guy

 After our discussion of joking ways to say grace before a meal, Al from Denton, Texas, shares the story of a curmudgeon’s highly efficient one: Much obliged.

Quare, as in Peculiar

 Theresa in Lyman, South Carolina, says her mother has long used the word quare to describe someone who is “odd” or “set in their ways” or otherwise “peculiar,” as in They’re the quarest people I’ve ever met. The term quare, also spelled quar, reflects the Irish pronunciation of the word queer, and its distribution in the United States reflects Scot-Irish settlement patterns. Quare in this sense simply means “peculiar,” and can also be used as an intensifier, as in It’s quare hot today. Likewise, the phrase to go quare has nothing to do with sexual orientation; it simply means “to seem unusual.”

Jimmycane, Another Word For Hurricane

 The dialectal word jimmycane denotes a “strong, destructive wind.” The origin of jimmycane is uncertain, although it may be an adaptation of hurricane.

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

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Lo Zingarelli (Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
ConcentrationOrgoneMoonshadows3 Palms
JacarandaLuiz BonfáJacarandaSom Livre
Hip CityRoy Porter Sound MachineThe Story of Roy Porter Sound MachineTramp Records
Sun FlowerLuiz BonfáJacarandaSom Livre
Oooh-La-LaRoy Porter Sound MachineThe Story Of Roy Porter Sound MachineTramp Records
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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