We often hear that English is going to hell in a handbasket. Actually, though, linguistic handwringing about sinking standards and sloppy speech has been going on for centuries – at least as far back as the 1300’s! And: language also changes to fit the needs the workplace. Take, for example, the slang of flight attendants. Listen on your next trip, and you might overhear them talking about landing lips, flying dirty, or crew juice. Plus, a discreet phrase from Arabic for advising someone that he has food in his beard. All this, plus a word game based on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “dead as a doornail,” the green-eyed monster, and learning that fat meat is greasy. This episode first aired March 6, 2015.
It turns out the creativity of flight attendants doesn’t stop with the pre-takeoff safety demonstration; they have slang for all kinds of fun stuff, from the lipstick they apply before passengers deplane (landing lips) to the “2-for-1 special,” which is when the plane hits the runway upon landing, then bounces up and lands again.
Dead as a doornail is a common idiom, but what exactly is a doornail, and why is it dead? The saying goes at least as far back as the 1350’s, and may simply refer to the fact that the nails used to make big, heavy doors were securely fixed in place – the modifier dead having the same sort of unequivocal sense suggested in the expression “dead certain.”
What do flight attendants call that point in takeoff preparations when they walk up and down the aisle to make sure seatbelts are securely fastened? It’s the crotch watch, also known as a groin scan. The expression flying dirty refers to when the plane is traveling with all its slats, flaps and wheels hanging down.
The term green-eyed monster, meaning jealousy, first appears in Shakespeare’s Othello, when Iago says, “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on.”
A stepmother slice, according to a 1915 citation in the Dictionary of American Regional English, is a slice of bread that’s too thick to bite.
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game built on the lyrical pattern of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” with clues like, “Mr. Tyson, even a boxer like you shouldn’t have a problem finding a 3-wheeled ride out of here.”
“There’s a gazelle on the lawn,” meaning you have schmutz on your face, is a fun way to tip someone off to wipe their chin. The expression actually comes to us from Arabic, where the expression “there’s a gazelle in the garden” means that you have something in your beard.
“Flying on the backside of the clock,” in airline lingo, refers to travelling when most of the people where you live are asleep.
Frequent the adjective and frequent the verb can be pronounced differently, with the verb getting an emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia has a great list of these heteronyms, where two words are spelled the same but pronounced differently.
If you live in a city in India, you probably have at least some facility in at least two languages. As Salman Rushdie once observed: “If you listen to the urban speech patterns there you’ll find it’s quite characteristic that a sentence will begin in one language, go through a second language and end in a third. It’s the very playful, very natural result of juggling languages. You are always reaching for the most appropriate phrase.”
What’s the best term for an ex-wife’s new husband? A caller in Chico, California, is friendly with both his ex-wife and her new love, and wonders if there’s a more civil term than floozy. Other options: the second shift, and Tupperware, since that person’s getting your leftovers. Have a better term for the new spouse of your ex?
The writer Richard Trench has a lovely quote that echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous lines about language as fossil poetry: “Language is the amber in which a thousand precious thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved.”
It’s commonly heard these days that English is going to hell in a handbasket, but it’s worth remembering that we’ve always said things like this. A hundred years ago, as telephones became more and more common, sticklers railed against the popular shortening of telephone to simply phone. The moral here is that language is always changing, and in hindsight, not necessarily for the worst.
Learning that fat meat is greasy, which means learning something the hard way, is a common idiom used almost exclusively in the African-American community, and refers to a juicy cut of the pig called fatmeat. Linguist Geneva Smitherman has a great entry for the saying in her book Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans.
If you’ve ever had the experience of casting a dream film or TV episode in your head—say, putting Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, both of whom play Sherlock Holmes on TV, in the same show together—that imaginary scenario comes from your headcanon.
A push present is a gift a father gives to a mother for giving birth.
“I’ll be John Brown’s slew foot,” a euphemism for “I’ll be damned,” makes reference to the abolitionist riot leader John Brown, who was said to be damned after he was hanged. Slew in this sense means “twisted.”
Crew juice is what an airline crew drinks after a flight at the bar or on the way to the hotel.
Photo by Herman Pijpers. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|Othello by William Shakespeare|
|Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans by Geneva Smitherman|
Music Used in the Episode
|Gratitude||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capital Records|
|Groove Holmes||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capital Records|
|Lighten Up||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capital Records|
|Try a Little Tenderness||Soul Flutes||A&M Records||A&M Records|
|Ain’t She Sweet||Roger Rivas & The Brothers of Reggae||Last Goodbye||Rivas Records|
|Namaste||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capital Records|
|In 3’s||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capital Records|
|Trust in Me||Soul Flutes||A&M Records||A&M Records|
|Heading West||Roger Rivas & The Brothers of Reggae||Last Goodbye||Rivas Records|
|Dub the Mic||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capital Records|
|Funky Boss||Beastie Boys||Check Your Head||Capital Records|
|Last Goodbye||Roger Rivas & The Brothers of Reggae||Last Goodbye||Rivas Records|
|Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off||Ella Fitzgerald||Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book||Verve|