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Got Your Six

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Starting this year, Scripps National Spelling Bee contestants not only have to spell words correctly. A controversial new rule means they’ll have to answer vocabulary questions, too. Also, when it comes to reading text, do you prefer “paper” or “plastic”? Some research suggests that comprehension is slightly better when you read offline instead of on a screen. And the term winkle out, plus bike slang, the military origin of “I’ve got your six,” why the word awfully isn’t awful, and where you’ll find onion snow. This episode first aired May 10, 2013.

New Spelling Bee Rules

 The Scripps National Spelling Bee, long beloved for its youngsters stammering out words like appoggiatura, is about to change this year, when they’re also forced to define words like appoggiatura. Officials added two rounds of computerized vocabulary tests to the early rounds of the tournament. In some circles, though, this new rule spells C-O-N-T-R-O-V-E-R-SY.

Got Your Six Origin

 If someone’s got your six, it means they’ve got your back. This expression comes from the placement of numbers on an analog clock, and appears to have originated with military pilots.

Half a Hole

 Is there such thing as a half a hole? Most holes are whole holes, but even half holes are whole holes, if you think about it. In any case, it’s a fun conundrum, sort of like asking someone if they’re asleep. Children’s book author Robert McCloskey had some fun with a similar idea in a little ditty in one of his Homer Price stories.


 Michel de Montaigne once wrote, “A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.” This is a classic example of chiasmus, or a reversal of clauses that together make a larger point.

Initia-rithmetic Game

 Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska takes a break from his music career to bring us a game called Initia-rithmetic. For example, if he says there are 4 P’s depicted on M.R., what do those initials stand for? The answer to that one is, you might say, monumental.

Bike Shop Slang

 Lesley Tweedie from Chicago, Illinois, owns a bike shop, and shares some slang from her workplace. A boomerang bike is one of those bikes that goes out the door and comes back 20 minutes later for another repair. JRA refers to those instances when someone was just riding along when something broke down. And a bikeochondriac is someone who comes in claiming there’s something wrong with it, but the wrench (a bike mechanic) just can’t find the problem.

Sore Finger

 When someone’s fly is down, do you say XYZ for “Examine your zipper”? For a change of pace, you might try another euphemistic expression used the Southern United States and South Midlands: Is your finger sore? As in, Is your finger too sore to zip up your pants?

Draft and Draught

 What Americans call a cold draft, the British call a cold draught. Noah Webster deserves most of the responsibility for changing the British spelling. Regardless of how they’re spelled, both words rhyme with “daft,” not “drought.”

Onion Snow

 In parts of Pennsylvania, a late-spring dusting of light snow is called onion snow. It’s a reference to the way little green onion shoots are poking through the white.

E-Reader Comprehension

 Is an iPad just a magazine that doesn’t work? The now-classic video of a child thumbing over a magazine to no effect comes to mind given a recent article in Scientific American about our comprehension of things read on e-readers as opposed to printed books. As it turns out, we retain slightly more when reading a real book.

Awfully Isn’t Awful

 Awfully might seem like an awful choice for a positive adverb, as in awfully talented, but it makes sense given the history of awful. Once intended to mean “filled with awe,” it’s now a general intensifier. The process of semantic weakening has meant that awfully, along with terribly and horribly, has become synonymous with the word very. Actually, the word very went through a similar process. Very derives from Latin verus, “true,” and is cognate with verify.


 Amber from Berlin, New Hampshire, works in a prison, and wants to know why those ominous double sets of prison doors are called by the feminine-sounding name sallyport. Going back to the 1600s, a sallyport was a fortified entrance to a military structure. The name comes from Latin salire, meaning “to go out” or “to leave.”

Winkle it Out

 If something needs to be carefully extracted, you’ll want to winkle it out. This Britishism comes from winkles, those edible snails that must be gingerly pulled out of their shells.

Ish and Ishpee

 Keep the ishpee out of your mouth. One caller’s parents used to shout “Ishpee!” when he or his siblings would try and eat dirt, marbles, or whatever they found on the floor. He wonders if this expression is unique to his family. It may be related to the exclamation “Ish!”, which is used particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, when encountering something really disgusting. Ish may derive from similar-sounding words expressions of disgust from Scandinavian languages.

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

Photo by striderp64. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey

Music Used in the Episode

Inland EmperorGreyboy AllstarsInland EmperorKnowledge Room Recordings
TrashtruckGreyboy AllstarsInland EmperorKnowledge Room Recordings
ChalupaJungle FireFire Walker / ChalupaColemine Records
Bomb PopGreyboy AllstarsInland EmperorKnowledge Room Recordings
MultiplierGreyboy AllstarsInland EmperorKnowledge Room Recordings
Planet of the SuperkidsGreyboy AllstarsA Town Called EarthGreyboy Records
Flight To St. VincentPoets of RhythmImpeach The PrecedentKajmere Sound Recordings
Fire WalkerJungle FireFire Walker / ChalupaColemine Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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