The highly specialized vocabulary of people who work outdoors, communicating with sled dogs, a word from the sport of rock-climbing, church key, browse line, smeuse, nitnoy, mommick, zawn, zwer, boom dog, and I think my pig is whistling.

This episode first aired March 10, 2018.

Download the MP3.

There’s a word hole in a hedge or wall made by the repeated passage of a small animal. It’s called a smeuse. This dialect term from the UK is one of hundreds from Landmarks, a book of essays in which Robert Macfarlane seeks to reanimate our connection with nature by showcasing some of the specialized language involving features of the natural world.

 Church Key
A listener doing volunteer work in Tempe, Arizona, is puzzled when a co-worker refers to a bottle opener as a church key.

 Browse Line
The highest point on trees that grazing animals can reach is called the browse line.

 Beta in Rock-Climbing
A rock climber in Omaha, Nebraska, wonders about the term beta, which her fellow climbers use to refer to  information about a particular route. It comes from the old practice of using Betamax video to record information about a climb. A good source for the vocabulary used in this sport is Matt Samet’s The Climbing Dictionary: Mountaineering Slang, Terms, Neologisms, & Lingo.

 A Kind of Scratching
Samuel Butler once likened definitions to a kind of scratching.

 Ish Word Puzzle
Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s punny puzzle involves words that end in -ish. For example, something that’s somewhat like a mark used to identify livestock might be what word that ends in -ish?

 Gee and Haw in Dog-Sledding
In dogsledding, the exclamations gee and haw are used for left and right respectively. A woman in Fairbanks, Alaska, uses those terms when training her dogs for the Iditarod and wonders about their origin. (As promised, here are her pups.)

 German Whistling Pig Idiom
The German idiom Ich glaub mein Schwein pfeift is used to express tremendous surprise. Literally, it means, “I think my pig is whistling!”

The term nitnoy (sometimes spelled nit-noi) means a little bit, and most likely derives from a Thai term that means the same thing.

 Zwen and Zwan
Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, a collection of dialect terms for features of the natural landscape, includes zwen, the sound of partridges taking off, and zawn, a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff.

 Is “Sassy” Gendered and Derogatory?
A young woman in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is conflicted after a professor writes a glowing recommendation for her that also describes her as sassy. Isn’t sassy a gendered term that should be avoided? And if so, how should she handle the situation?

 Snow Bones
According to Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, long, thin patches of snow that have not yet melted are called snow bones.

 Boom Dog
A trucker in Glasgow, Kentucky, wonders about the term boom dog, a device used to secure things on a trailer. The boom may be inspired by a ship’s boom. The word dog has long been used in a variety of ways to refer to something that holds something else tightly in place.

A caller from coastal North Carolina says that in her part of the country, people use the word mommicked to mean flustered or deeply frustrated. It derives from mammock, which means to tear or muddle, and was used that way in Shakespeare’s time. She reports they’ll also say “I’m bent double for I’m laughing really hard,” and use the phrase in the merkels to describe someone’s lost their way — also said as in the myrtles, or in other words, having wandered away from a cleared path.

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

Photo by Biodiversity Heritage Library. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane
The Climbing Dictionary: Mountaineering Slang, Terms, Neologisms, & Lingo by Matt Samet

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Hot Property Keith Mansfield Big Business / Wind Of Change KPM Music
Soul Skimmer Alan Moorhouse The Big Beat Vm 2 KPM Music
Rally Car 1 Alan Hawkshaw Speed And Excitement KPM Music
Nick’s Theme Magic In Three’s Magic In Three’s GED Soul
Stuck In Danny Edwardson & Seamus Sell Rock On KPM Music
The Ride Is Rough Johnny Pearson Speed And Excitement KPM Music
Neal’s Lament Magic In Three’s Magic In Three’s GED Soul
Electromotion Alan Hawkshaw & Alan Parker Beat Industrial KPM Music

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