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Gee and Haw

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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.


 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 Episode

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

Music Used in the Episode

Hot PropertyKeith MansfieldBig Business / Wind Of ChangeKPM Music
Soul SkimmerAlan MoorhouseThe Big Beat Vm 2KPM Music
Rally Car 1Alan HawkshawSpeed And ExcitementKPM Music
Nick’s ThemeMagic In Three’sMagic In Three’sGED Soul
Stuck InDanny Edwardson & Seamus SellRock OnKPM Music
The Ride Is RoughJohnny PearsonSpeed And ExcitementKPM Music
Neal’s LamentMagic In Three’sMagic In Three’sGED Soul
ElectromotionAlan Hawkshaw & Alan ParkerBeat IndustrialKPM Music

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