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Herd of Turtles

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Some college students are using the word loyalty as a synonym for monogamy. Are the meanings of these words now shifting? Plus, a biologist discovers a new species of bat, then names it after a poet he admires. Also, warm memories of how a childhood library card becomes a passport to new worlds. And: for a spell vs. cast a spell, thaw vs. unthaw, twice-cooked cabbage, a brain teaser in celebration of the great Stephen Sondheim, Dankie op’n plankie, right as rain, a turd of hurtles, a revolving s.o.b., tips for writing historical fiction, and plenty more.

This episode first aired February 26, 2022.

Micronycteris giovanniae, The Poet’s Bat

 What famous U.S. poet has a bat named in her honor? Hint: it’s Micronycteris giovanniae. This leaf-nosed bat was named by Texas Tech biologist Rober Baker, who happens to be a big fan of the work of Nikki Giovanni. The renowned poet has said she’s honored and thinks the little animal is really cute.

Do For a Spell

 What do we mean by the expression for a spell, meaning “for a period of time”? It’s mere coincidence that this term is written the same way as the word spell meaning to “arrange letters to form words” or spell as in “a magical incantation.” The spell meaning “a period of time” comes from Old English spala, which means “substitute.” In the 16th century, this kind of spellmeant “to take the place of someone doing a task” or “take a turn at doing work.” By the 18th century, the word’s meaning had expanded to include the more general idea of “a period of time.”

Dankie op ‘n Plankie

 In South Africa, a jocular rhyme that means “Thank you” is Dankie op ‘n plankie — literally, “Thank you on a board” or “Thank you on a plank.”

When Did People Start Saying “Unthaw” to Mean “Thaw”?

 Robin in Jacksonville, Florida, grew up using the word unthaw as in unthaw the frozen hamburger until someone told her that she should instead simply say thaw to mean “allow something frozen to come to room temperature.” Is it wrong to say unthaw? It’s less common and less formal than plain old thaw, but the word unthaw has been in use for at least four centuries. In the 1600s, the prefix un- was added as an emphasizer to several words, including the adjectives boundless, helpless, remorseless, and witless to form unboundless, unhelpful, unremorseless, and unwitless as a way of intensifying their meaning. Similarly, verbs such as ravel, peel, loosen can be rendered as unravel, unpeel, and unloosen. The point is that the prefix un- doesn’t always negate — sometimes it serves to emphasize.

Sondheim Word Game

 In honor of the great Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Quiz Guy John Chaneski has composed a quiz in which the answers lie hidden inside the name of works by Sondheim. For example, it’s no surprise that as a fan of murder mysteries, Sondheim might have concealed the name of a body part in the name of his memoir, Finishing the Hat. Which one would that be?

“Take This Exit” — Which One Do You Mean?

 On a long road trip, Todd from St. Petersburg, Florida, and his son disagree about the phrase Take the next exit, leading to a hilarious dispute over the precise meaning of the word next.

Help Writing Historical Fiction Right

 Judy in Fort Worth, Texas, is writing some historical fiction. What are some tips for representing the dialect and vernacular of a particular time and place with accuracy? One great resource is the Dictionary of American Regional English. Another strategy is to consult old newspapers, such as the Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal of the Clark Historical Library of Central Michigan University. Also, check out the historical newspapers in the Chronicling America database, which is part of the Library of Congress.

Never Cook Your Cabbage Twice

 Diane calls from eastern North Carolina to talk about a phrase her father used if she asked him to repeat something: I never chew my celery twice. He probably conflated the idea of chewing celery with some far more common expressions involving doing something twice with cabbage, whether it’s buying, selling, cooking, or chewing it in a way that’s boring or distasteful. The ancient Greek expression Dis krambe thanatos literally means “Cabbage twice is death,” suggesting the idea that repetition is tedious. The ancient Roman writer Juvenal warned against having to teach a boring curriculum with a Latin phrase that means “Cabbage served over and over is the death of teachers.” By 1732, a similar idea was expressed in the proverb No sweetness is a cabbage twice boiled nor in a tale twice told.

Memories of a First Library Card

 Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker, began a lovely thread on Twitter by asking readers to talk about their first library card. That online discussion also prompted fond memories from the hosts about the majestic main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, as well as all the school libraries and bookmobiles that helped instill their lifelong habit of reading.

Loyalty and Monogamy

 Kristin, a college professor in Dubuque, Iowa, teaches a class in the U.S. history of sexuality. She’s intrigued by the way her students increasingly use the word loyalty as a synonym for monogamy. Perhaps the word monogamy sounds more clinical, since it originally referred specifically to marriage; someone who’s monogamous is married to one person, while a bigamist is married to two. Another recent slang term for someone to whom you’re committed fully is ride or die. Even more recently, the term maining is being borrowed from the world of video games, where players choose one particular character to play most often.

They’re so Crooked…

 If you want to describe someone really corrupt, you can always say He’s so crooked, he could hide behind a corkscrew. Or call them a revolving SOB — meaning they’re trouble any way you look at them.

Off Like a Herd of Turtles or a Turd of Hurtles

 Daniel in Youngstown, Ohio, reports that his grandfather used an odd expression when the whole family left the house: We’re off like a herd of turtles — or a turd of hurtles! The first part of the expression is one of several similarly silly phrases, and the second is a Spoonerism, in which the initial letters of words are transposed, either accidentally or on purpose, to humorous effect.

Right as Rain

 Jeffrey in New Bern, North Carolina, wonders why we use the phrase right as rain to mean “all satisfactory” or “quite correct.” No one’s sure about the origin of this expression, although it may reflect positive associations with precipitation on growing crops or to those times when rain falls straight down to the ground.

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

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
FrecklesNew MastersoundsBreaks From The BorderOne Note Records
The SkipperHenry FranklinThe SkipperBlack Jazz
BattlestarBubazaBattlestar 45All-Town Sound
Plastic Creek StompHenry FranklinThe SkipperBlack Jazz
Countdown DubBubazaBattlestar 45All-Town Sound
All is Fair In LoveBubbha Thomas + The LightmenCountry Fried ChickenLightin’ Records
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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