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Flop Sweat

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Gerrymandering draws political boundaries to tip elections towards certain political parties. Originally, the word was pronounced “GARY-mandering” with a hard “g.” But why? And why did it change? • Mark Twain and Helen Keller had a devoted friendship. When he heard accusations that she’d plagiarized a story, Twain wrote Keller a fond letter assuring her that there’s nothing new under the sun. • A well-crafted subject line makes email more efficient. One that contains just the word “Question” is almost as useless as no subject line at all. • Plus, flop sweat, vintage clothing, the solfège system, on line vs. in line, groaking, the Hawaiian fish dish called poke, and around the gool.

This episode first aired July 22, 2017. It was rebroadcast the weekends of February 26, 2018, and August 12, 2019.

Worries of Failure Cause Flop Sweat

 Someone who’s anxious about performing may break out in a flop sweat. The term comes from the theatre slang, where worries that one’s production is a flop may cause nervous perspiration. In the 1987 film Broadcast News, Albert Brooks’s character breaks into a flop sweat when he finally gets a shot at hosting the newscast, only to be so rattled that he starts sweating heavily, to the point where it soaks right through his shirt.

Re in Email Subject Lines

 Re: in an email subject line means “regarding” or “with reference to,” but it’s not an abbreviation for either one of those things. It comes from a form of the Latin word res meaning “matter” or “thing.” The hosts discuss strategies for making an email subject line more efficient.

Pronunciation of Gerrymander

 A listener in New York City wonders about how to pronounce gerrymander, which means “to redraw the lines of an electoral district so as to favor a particular political party.” The term comes a joking reference to Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 presided over such a redistricting. Gerry pronounced his name with a hard g (like the G in Grant) and for a while, the gerrymandering retained that pronunciation. In the absence of audible mass media, the name spread, but the pronunciation slowly shifted. By 1850, for example, an Indiana politician alluded to this variation, declaring, “You are constantly gerrymandering the State, or jerrymandering, as I maintain the word should be pronounced, the g being soft.”

Unfortunate Initials of “WTF”

 The World Tae Kwan Do Federation has dropped the word Federation from its name, and will no longer be known as the WTF. As the organization’s president explained: “In the digital age, the acronym of our federation has developed negative connotations unrelated to our organization and so it was important that we rebranded to better engage with our fans.”

Solfège Word Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s musical puzzle is based on the solfège system of the syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti. Each answer is composed of combinations or repetitions of those notes. For example, if the musical question is about a bird that’s now extinct, what’s the musical answer?

“Vintage” Moved from Wine to Cars and Clothes

 The word vintage, from the Latin word vinum “wine,” originally applied to the yield of vineyard during a specific season or a particular place. Over time, vintage came to be applied to automobiles and eventually to clothing. The term vintage clothing suggests more than simply “old clothes” or “hand-me-downs”; it carries an additional connotation of taste and style and flair.

Poke Fish Dish

 Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner has written about the popular fish dish called poke, which takes its name from a Hawaiian word that means “to cut crosswise.” Many other foods take their names for the way they’re sliced, including mozzarella, feta, scrod, schnitzel, and even the pea dish called dahl, which goes back ultimately to a Sanskrit word meaning “to split.” The way poke traveled between Hawaii and the mainland mirrors the migration of many other words.

New Yorkers Stand On Line

 A New York City man wonders if there’s any truth to the story that New Yorkers say they stand on line, as opposed to in line, because of lines painted on the floor at Ellis Island. Although such lines are useful for managing large queues, the origin of this usage is uncertain and cannot be traced to Ellis Island. What we do know is that New Yorkers have been using on line in this way for at least 100 years.

Mark Twain and Helen Keller

 Mark Twain and Helen Keller enjoyed a close, enduring friendship. When he learned that she was mortified was accused of plagiarism, he sent her a fond letter as touching as it was reassuring.

Buy You A Beer vs. Pay You a Beer

 A San Diego, California, man recalls working on a cruise ship with a Canadian who insisted the proper phrase is not Let me buy you a beer, but Let me pay you a beer. Is that construction ever correct?


 We’ve talked before about surprising local pronunciations of things like towns or streets. A term or pronunciation that distinguishes locals from outsiders is called a shibboleth. The word derives from the biblical story of the warring Gileadites and Ephraimites. Gileadites would demand that fleeing Ephraimites pronounce the word shibboleth in a certain way, and if they could not, because their own language pronounced it a different way, they were exposed as the enemy and executed on the spot.


 To groak is an obscure verb that means “to look longingly at something, as a dog begging for food. In the Scots language, it’s more commonly spelled growk.

Around the Gool

 A woman in Monkton, Vermont, says that when she and her 91-year-old mother return from a leisurely drive, her mother will proclaim, “That was a nice ride around the gool.” The phrase going around the gool appears in the Dictionary of American Regional English in a 1990 citation from Vermont. It appears to come from an older Scots word that could mean “a hollow between hills” or some sort of “anatomical cleft.”

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

Photo by Michael Saechang. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Dictionary of American Regional English

Music Used in the Episode

Studio 69Alan HawkshawThe Big BeatKPM Music
Theme For A HunterSteve GrayThe HunterKPM Music
Groove HolmesBeastie BoysCheck Your HeadCapitol
Tough AssignmentChristopher GunningImpactKPM Music
PowBeastie BoysCheck Your HeadCapitol
Exclusive BlendKeith MansfieldThe Big BeatKPM Music
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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