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Gnarly Foot

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It’s the Up Goer Five Challenge! Try to describe something complex using only the thousand most common words in English. It’s a useful mental exercise that’s harder than you might think. Also, if you want to make a room dark, you might turn off the lights. But you might also cut them off or shut them. You probably know the experience of hearing or seeing a word so long that it ceases to make sense. But did you know linguists have a term for that? Plus, cumshaw artists, the history of Hoosier and beep, and the debate over whether numbers are nouns or adjectives. This episode first aired March 8, 2013.

Phone Book Nicknames

  Who uses the phone book these days, right? The people of Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia do! And not only are their names printed, but so are their nicknames. If you’re looking to call Carrots, Lettuce Leaf, Moose, Diesel, or Hose, they’re all in there.


  What makes a word a word? If something’s not in the dictionary, you might not be able to use it in Scrabble. But dictionaries aren’t the last word on whether a word is legitimate. If you use a word that someone else understands, then it’s a word. So when Johnny from East Hampton, New York, called to ask if his made-up term micronutia, meaning “something even smaller than minutia,” was a real word, he was happy with our answer.

Semantic Satiation

  We’ve all had the experience of saying a word over and over again until it starts to sound like nonsense. Linguists call this semantic satiation, although you might also think of it as Gnarly Foot phenomenon. Stare at your foot long enough, and you’ll start to wonder how such a bizarre-looking thing could ever be attached to your body. Something similar happens with language.


  A bleeble is that little sound or word they throw into a radio broadcast, like the call letters, that serves as a brief signature.

This and That Word Quiz

  Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game using three-word phrases linked by the word and. For example, what idiom could be described literally as a country carnival found in the center of town? Hint: this phrase could also be used to describe a good bet.


  Is Hoosier a derogatory term? People from Indiana proudly embrace it, but in the dialect island that is the St. Louis area, the word means someone who is uncouth or uncultured. In Southern Appalachia, the related words hoodger, and hoojer still refer to a rustic, ill-mannered person from the hills.

Turn Off the Lights

  How do you make a room dark? Do you shut the lights, cut the lights, or turn off the lights? “Shut the light,” as Bob Dylan sang, may derive from old lanterns on which you’d shut a little door. They’re all correct, though even the most common phrase, turn off the light, sounds weird when you think about it. After all, you’re not turning anything if you’re flipping a switch up and down.


  In architecture and design, an affordance is a part of something that serves a function, like the handle on a cup or the notch in a dictionary where you put your thumb. In language we have affordances, too, such as words that indicate a place for someone else to speak or respond.

Number Part of Speech

  Is a number a noun or an adjective? Even dictionary editors struggle with how to classify parts of speech. Like color, such words often lie along a spectrum, and asking at what point the number seven goes from a noun to an adjective is like asking at what point blue becomes purple.

Listener Bookmash

  A while back, we talked about bookmashes-the found poetry formed by book spines stacked on top of each other. On our Facebook page, Irvin Kanines shared her bookmash: Shortcuts to Bliss/ Running with Scissors/ Naked/ Why Didn’t I Think of That?

Thousand Most Common Words

  Try to explain something while only using the thousand most common words in English. It’s harder than you might think. This comic from xkcd points out the difficulty in describing a space ship called the Up Goer Five, and an Up-Goer Five Text Editor points out what words don’t fit. The challenge becomes even more fun if you’re trying to describe complex subjects like science or engineering.

Cabbage as a Verb

  Tracy from Sherman, Texas, wonders why her dad always used cabbage as a verb to mean “to pilfer or swipe.” This term goes back to at least the 18th century, when the verb to cabbage had to do with employee theft. Specifically, it referred to the way dressmakers would cut fabric for a garment and keep the excess for themselves, perhaps rolling it into a little ball that looked like, well, cabbage. Today, a student might sneak in a cabbage sheet to cheat on a test.

Hoodwink Etymology

  To hoodwink, or put something over on someone, derives from the act of thieves literally throwing a hood on victims before robbing them, thereby making them wink, which has an archaic meaning of “to close one’s eyes.”

Tap on the Shoulder

  Sue in Eureka, California, was working at the grocery store during Senior Day when she reminded an elderly customer that the woman might be eligible for a discount. The shopper responded, “Thanks for the tap on the shoulder.” Did that mean Sue had said something offensive? No. A tap on the shoulder is simply a way of alerting a stranger to something, since the shoulder is an appropriate body part to touch on someone you don’t know.

Describing Downton Abbey with Limited Vocabulary

  Think you know Downton Abbey? Try using the Up-Goer Five Text Editor to describe the plot using the thousand most common words in English! Your description probably won’t sound much like the Dowager Countess.

History of Beep

  When did we start using the word beep? After all, today we have car horns, microwaves and other electronic gizmos that beep, but before the early 1900s, nothing ever beeped. It makes you wonder: How did people back then know their Hot Pocket was ready?

Cumshaw Artistry

  We spoke earlier about cumshaw artists, or people who get things done by crafty stealing or bartering. Alan Johnson from Plano, Texas, told us a story from his Air Force days in Vietnam, when he and some comrades stole a bunch of plywood by sneaking onto a Navy base and loading it into the truck. When a Naval officer saw them, they started unloading it and explaining how they’d come to drop off some excess wood. So the officer told them to get their wood out of there! Classic cumshaw artistry.

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

Photo by Christoffer Undisclosed. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Episode

Sugar, SugarJimmy McGriffSoul SugarCapitol Records
Groove GreaseJimmy McGriffSoul SugarCapitol Records
You Mess Me UpThe New MastermindsOut On The FaultlineOne Note
ZambeziCharles KynardYour Mama Don’t DanceMainstream Records
Captain’s LogOrgoneOrgoneOrgone Music
The World Is A GhettoCharles KynardYour Mama Don’t DanceMainstream Records
Way Out WestThe New MastermindsOut On The FaultlineOne Note
Ronnie’s BonnieReuben WilsonBlue BreakbeatsBlue Note
El Toro Poo PooCharles KynardYour Mama Don’t DanceMainstream Records
GreezeCharles KynardYour Mama Don’t DanceMainstream Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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