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Hell’s Bells

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The language of restaurant menus. Need a dictionary to get through a dinner menu? Research shows the longer the description of a particular dish, the more expensive it will be. Plus: What’s the best way to use a thesaurus? DON’T — unless, that is, you already know the definition of the word in question. From careless plagiarists to a former president, a look at the embarrassing results when people try using a big word they don’t quite understand. Plus, the story behind “Hell’s Bells,” and what your clothes look like if they’re “swarpy.” Also, wake vs. awaken, this weekend vs. next weekend, rat-finking, balderdash, Hell’s bells!, and widdershins.

This episode first aired October 17, 2014. It was rebroadcast the weekend of November 30, 2015.

Thesaurus Plagiarizing

 Whatever Roget’s Thesaurus may have you believe, sinister buttocks is not a synonym for “left behind.” But a growing number of students are blindly using the thesaurus, or Rogeting, trying mask plagiarism. And it’s not working.

Oxt Weekend

 “Next Thursday” could mean this coming Thursday or the Thursday after. And despite the push to make oxt weekend a term for the weekend after next, even grammarians haven’t settled on what next refers to, so it’s always important to clarify with the person you’re talking to.

I Can’t Even

 Among Grant’s candidates for his 2014 Words of the Year list are the phrases “I can’t even” and “Can you not.”


 The origin of the exclamation “Balderdash!”, meaning “nonsense,” isn’t entirely known. It is clear, however, that back in the 17th century balderdash could refer to a frothy mix of liquids, such as beer and buttermilk, or brandy and ale, and later to a jumbled mix of words.

Where to Keep your Thesaurus

 The Irish writer Roddy Doyle has some good advice about using a thesaurus: “Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort.”

Wedding Puns Game

 Our quiz guy John Chaneski is back with a game of wedding puns. For example, if Ella Fitzgerald married Darth Vader, she’d be, well, a kind of shoe, or something that might convey you to the top floor of a building.

Origin of “Hell’s Bells”

 “Hell’s Bells!”, an exclamation along the lines of “darn!”, is likely just variation of hellfire, and reinforced by its rhyme.

Lacerates Falling from My Eyes

 Back when George W. Bush was a student at a New England prep school, he took to the thesaurus to impress a teacher, and wound up using a synonym for the wrong meaning for tear. Hence, the telltale phrase lacerates falling from my eyes wound up in one of his papers.

Rat Fink

 In addition to being the name of  a plastic toy from the 60’s, the term rat fink was once used specifically to mean a narc or stool pigeon. Today, it’s used generally to mean a despicable person.

Nothing to Say

 Like the boy when the calf ran over him, “I had nothing to say,” is an old saying describing someone who’s speechless, and goes back to the mid-19th century.


 A caller whose wife is from eastern Kentucky says she uses the term swarpy to describe clothing that’s too big, ill-fitting, and may even drag on the ground. This term probably derives from an old Scots verb “swap,” meaning to “sweep” or “swing,” or otherwise “move downward forcibly.”

Culture of Proverbs

 Are we a proverb culture anymore? In a largely urban society, we’re not likely to immediately recognize the meaning of the saying between hay and grass, meaning “weak” or “feeble.”

Pricey Menu Items

 The longer the description of an item on a menu, the more expensive it’ll likely be. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Stanford University linguist Dan Jurafsky shows that with each extra letter in a menu description, the price goes up about 69 cents. For a really comprehensive collection of menus, from the earliest Chinese American restaurants to old cruise ship menus, we recommend the New York Public Library’s menu database.


 Spleeny, meaning “hypersensitive” or “hypochondriacal,” is chiefly heard in New England and goes back to an old sense of the spleen affecting one’s mood.

Subscriber Countdowns

 The writer Clay Shirky tipped us off to a morbid bit of slang used in the dying business of print newspapers, where obituaries are referred to as subscriber countdowns.


 Widdershins, also spelled withershins, means “counterclockwise,” and can also refer to someone or something that’s off or backwards. Another word for “the opposite of widdershins,” by the way, is deasil.

A Mile in Someone’s Shoes

 Before you insult a man, try walking a mile in his shoes. That way, when you insult him, you’re a mile away –and, you have his shoes.

Wake vs. Awaken

 For a good time, google wake vs. awaken. Perhaps the most vexing verb in English, the term for waking up still puzzles the experts.

Ingrid Bergman Quote

 Ingrid Bergman once said, “a kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”

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

Photo by Priyambada Nath. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky

Music Used in the Episode

Bass BluesJoe PassBetter DaysEfa Records
The Chartreuse WomanChris Hazelton’s Boogaloo SevenThe Chartreuse WomanSunflower Soul Records
We’ll Be Together AgainJoe PassBetter DaysEfa Records
MesotheliomaMagic in ThreesMagic in ThreesGED Soul
Woe Is MeGalt MacDermotUp From The BasementKilmarnock
Ripped Open By Metal ExplosionsGalt MacDermotUp From The BasementKilmarnock
Better DaysJoe PassBetter DaysEfa Records
Pushin’ OffMagic in ThreesMagic in ThreesGED Soul
It’s Too LateJoe PassBetter DaysEfa Records
Brown BagBoogaloo Joe JonesRight On BrotherPrestige
GotchaJoe PassBetter DaysEfa Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

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