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Gift Horse

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The edge of the Grand Canyon. A remote mountaintop. A medieval cathedral. Some places are so mystical you feel like you’re close to another dimension of space and time. There’s a term for such locales: thin places. And: did you ever go tick-tacking a few nights before Halloween? It’s pranks like tapping ominously on windows without being caught or tossing corn kernels all over a front porch. Also, horses run throughout our language, a relic of when these animals were much more commonplace in everyday life. For example, the best place to get information about a horse you might buy isn’t from the owner — it’s straight from the horse’s mouth. Plus, shoofly pie, bring you down a buttonhole lower, didaskaleinophobia, pangrams by middle schoolers, Albany beef, using say as an interjection or attention-getter, a brainteaser inspired by a New Jersey grandma, and a whole lot more.

This episode first aired June 28, 2019. This episode was rebroadcast the weekend of February 3, 2024.

Student Pangrams

 After hearing our discussion about pangrams, those sentences that contain every letter of the alphabet at least once, a middle-school teacher in Bishop, California, assigned her students to write some. They’re great!

Shoofly Pie

 Jim from Abilene, Texas, says his Pennsylvania-born mother, used to bake a molasses-based tart called shoofly pie. The name most likely derives from the action of shooing away flies attracted to the sweet, sticky dessert. Found primarily in her home state, this dish sometimes goes by the name granger pie or pebble dash. A similar version, Montgomery pie, with a dash of lemon or buttermilk, is found in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Long ago, mincemeat pie usually contained meat or suet, but now usually consists of sweet ingredients cut up, or minced, into tiny pieces.

Netflix Pangram

 A middle-schooler from Bishop, California, pens a clever pangram about watching Netflix while under the weather.

A Word for the Fear of School

 Sloane, a 12-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, is a bit anxious about starting middle school in the fall and wonders if there’s a single word that means “fear of middle school.” There are some long, rare words for the extreme fear of school in general, such as didaskaleinophobia and scholionophobia, or also spelled scolionophobia. More generally, there’s neophobia, meaning “fear of the new” or agnostophobia, “fear of the unknown.”

Harry Potter Pangram

 A young Harry Potter fan in Bishop, California, crafts a dramatic pangram about horcruxes in jeopardy.

Noo Joisey Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is an homage to his grandmother from New Jersey, or as she would pronounce it, Noo Joisey. When his grandmother cooked pasta, she’d bring the water to a rounded, knotty tree growth, also known as a what?

Who Comes First, the Doctor or the Lieutenant?

 Kate from Indianapolis, Indiana, just earned her doctorate in physical therapy. She’s marrying an Army lieutenant. How should the couple be introduced at the reception? Dr. and Lt.? Lt. and Dr.? Or some other way? Although there’s plenty of leeway on this nowadays, traditionally the military title comes first, regardless of the new spouse’s gender.

Sandpapering Soup

 Adding to our long list of silly responses from harried parents to children who ask what they’re doing, Julie from Hammondsport, New York, says her father’s standard reply was: I’m sandpapering a bowl of soup.

Horses Run Rampant Through English

 Several phrases have stuck around long after a time when horses were much more common in daily life. They include don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, which is a warning not to expect a gift too closely, and straight from the horse’s mouth, which refers to information directly from the source involved. Also, to vet, as in to vet a presidential candidate, means to examine with the necessary thoroughness of a veterinarian. 

Word for Anniversary Ending in Five or Zero?

 Danielle in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is looking for a word for a year or anniversary that ends in a 5 or a 0. The word lustrum is an old term for a period of five years that derives from an ancient Roman practice. A quindecennial is a 15-year anniversary.

Thin Places, Where We Glimpse Other Realities

 There are places in the world where the walls of reality seem weak and another dimension seems nearer and clearer than usual, leaving you without words. Perhaps you’ve had that experience on top of a mountain, or at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or looking up in a medieval cathedral. There’s a poetic term for such locales: thin places. Writer Eric Weiner describes them as places where “the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent, or as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.” 

Say, Kid. Hey, Man

 Ken in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, wonders about the use of a couple of interjections. Why don’t people begin sentences with the word Say any more? And is it impolite to start a sentence with Hey?

A Buttonhole Lower

 Evelyn in Wilmington, North Carolina, says that when she and her older sister were sassy to their parents, her mother would say either You’re getting too big for your britches or I’m going to bring you down a buttonhole lower. The former makes sense, but what about the latter? The expression bring you down a buttonhole lower goes back some 500 years, and even Shakespeare used the version take you a button-hole lower

Albany Beef

 Albany beef is a slang term for sturgeon. There was a time when this fish was so plentiful in the Hudson River along the New York town of Albany that bartenders served sturgeon caviar free with drinks.

Tick-Tacking and Other Pranks

 Monica says that generations of children in her Augusta, Kentucky, neighborhood would go tick-tacking, or playing pranks during the nights leading up to Halloween — soaping car windows, tossing corn kernels onto front porches, leaving flaming paper bags of manure on people’s doorsteps, and finding ingenious ways to tap ominously on a window without detection. The last of these, tick tack, or window tacking, is described at length in Iona and Peter Opie’s classic 1959 work The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren.

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

Photo by Greg Westfall. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie

Music Used in the Episode

Up Above The RockRay BryantUp Above The RockCadet
Dag Nab ItRay BryantUp Above The RockCadet
UpshotGrant GreenCarryin’ OnBlue Note
If I Were A CarpenterRay BryantUp Above The RockCadet
Jan JanGrant GreenLive at the LighthouseBlue Note
Quizas, Quizas, QuizasRay BryantUp Above The RockCadet
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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