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Get Your Tail Out of the Gravy

Greetings, word watchers!

In this week's episode, we talk about "making money hand over fist," "don't take any wooden nickels," "peter out," "thrice-happy pair," colorful idioms from around the world, and the substitute for "Gesundheit" that goes "Scat, Tom! Get get your tail out of the gravy!" It's here:


This episode also includes a caller wondering if anyone else calls the end slice of a bread loaf the "krunka."

We received a boatload of helpful emails and phone calls about that. More in a future episode, but for now, suffice it to say that most listeners who offered an answer were of Polish descent.

Awful news for language lovers: The New York Times has discontinued the "On Language" column in its Sunday magazine. Ben Zimmer had taken over the column after the death of William Safire in 2009, and we were pleased to see him taking it in new and welcome directions. Ben's gracious, graceful farewell column is here.


We agree with the Baltimore Sun's John McIntyre, who deplored the decision, noting that at American newspapers, "nothing is more stubbornly adhered to than a misguided decision—the dumber the decision, the more determinedly." Still, if you want to give the Times a piece of your language-loving mind, please do:

NYT Magazine letters to the editor: magazine@nytimes.com

NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren: hugo.lindgren@nytimes.com

NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane: public@nytimes.com

You can still read Ben's work at http://visualthesaurus.com, where he is executive producer, and at benzimmer.com.

In happier news, more evidence that learning another language is great for your brain: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports new evidence shows that being bilingual leads to "stronger 'executive control,' or the ability to shut out irrelevant information and focus on what is important."


Many of you have asked how the two of us fared as "celebrity spellers" the San Diego Council on Literacy's adult spelling bee last week. All we can say is we're glad we weren't called on to spell all of the words, because we would have missed several. Hats off to the 27 brave souls who participated!

We're pleased to report that a background in Latin proves quite helpful in such situations. Despite never having seen the words, Martha correctly spelled "imputrescible" (not subject to decay) and "nudicaudate" (having a hairless tail, as in the case of opossums).

As for "abscission" (the act of cutting something off), well, let's just say we'll never forget how to spell that word as long as we live.

Thanks to all of you who came out to see us and introduce yourselves, and for supporting the cause of literacy.

BEHIND THE SCENES: If you're in San Diego, you'll soon have another chance to see Grant. Next Monday March 7 at 12:30 p.m., he'll speak at the Fleet Science Center in beautiful Balboa Park about the language of science.

From the Gold Rush to psychotherapy to gene sequencing, standard English is colored by strange science slang. He'll look at some strange and ordinary words and their histories, and discuss why these additions to our lexis show we're innovative at a lot more than neologisms.

You'll find ticket information on the science center's Facebook page:


Imputrescibly yours,

Martha and Grant

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