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Hidden Treasures

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A new online archive of Civil War letters offers a vivid portrait of the everyday lives of enlisted men. These soldiers lacked formal education so they wrote and spelled by ear. The letters show us how ordinary people spoke then. • Is there a single word that means the opposite of prejudice? Unhate? Or maybe allophilia? • There’s an old joke that if you buy clothes at a flea market, they throw in the fleas for free. But the story behind the term flea market is a lot more complicated. • Also: go to grass, go up the spout, take the devil out of it, bobbery, and diabetes of the blow-hole.

This episode first aired November 18, 2017. It was rebroadcast the weekend of October 28, 2019.

Civil War Letters

 Private Voices, also known as the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, is an online archive of thousands of letters written by soldiers during the U.S. Civil War. Because the soldiers lacked formal education and wrote “by ear,” the collection is a treasure trove of pronunciation and dialect from that time and place. One phrase frequently appearing in these letters is go up the spout, meaning to die, be lost, or ruined. In fact, the transcript from the trial of John Wilkes Booth quotes a witness who testified that Booth told him Old Abe Lincoln must go up the spout. A similar idea is expressed by the phrase go up the flue.

Origin of “Flea Market”

 A flea market is a type of bazaar, usually outdoors, where vendors of secondhand and discount goods sell their wares. But why flea market? The term probably reflects the influence of two linguistic strains: In 18th-century New York City, the Fly Market took its name from a similar-sounding Dutch word. Later, English speakers adopted the French phrase for a similar type of market, marche aux puces, literally meaning market of the fleas.

Pill Meant Bullet

 In the Private Voices corpus of American Civil War letters, the term pill is often used to mean bullet, although this slang term is at least a century older.


 A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, woman says her family has long used the term nun puckeroo to designate a kind of vague, non-serious malaise. Neither Martha nor Grant knows that exact one, but the Dictionary of American Regional English gives similar jocular terms for such illness, including none-puck in Delaware and rum puckeroo in Rhode Island. Any of these sound preferable to diabetes of the blow-hole.


 The term bobbery means a noisy disturbance or hubub. The word’s origin is disputed, although one explanation is that it comes from the Hindi exclamation “Bap re!” or literally, “Oh father!”

Hidden Treasure Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has us looking for Hidden Treasures, specifically terms for valuable items you might find in adjacent sounds in a sentence. For example, the name of a precious metal is hidden in the following sentence: “If you don’t reach your goal, don’t get discouraged.”

The Opposite of Prejudice

 A researcher in Port Jefferson, New York, wonders if there’s a single word that means the opposite of prejudice. Unhate? He suggests the word allophilia, a combination of Greek words that mean love or like of the other.

How to Write Out Words that Sound Alike

 There are three words in the English language that sound like too. So how do you indicate in writing how word should be pronounced? IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to the rescue!

Take the Devil Out of It

 A San Antonio, Texas, woman wonders about a tradition she grew up with. Before drinking an alcoholic beverage, you hand the drink to someone else to have a sip in order to take the devil out of it.

Bungalow Belt

 An Indianapolis, Indiana, woman offers a followup to our discussions about various geographic belts around the country. The Bungalow Belt in Chicago refers to a strip of small brick bungalows just inside the city limits originally occupied by Catholic European immigrants.

A Particular Civil War Letter

 Martha reads a special letter from the U.S. Civil War soldier who wrote this letter.

The Southern Stress on the First Syllable in Words like Cement and Police

 A man from Fort Smith, Arkansas, says his Canadian wife is baffled by his pronouncing the word cement as CEE-ment. Stressing the first syllable of such words as police, insurance, umbrella, and vehicle is an occasional feature of Southerners’ speech.


 A woman in Suffolk, Virginia, is curious about the origin of the word onus, as in responsibility. The word onus is borrowed directly from Latin where it means burden. This Latin word is also the root of the words onerous, which describes something burdensome, and exonerate, meaning to free from a burden.

Salisbury Steak

 Salisbury steak is named for Dr. James H. Salisbury, who prescribed what he referred to as “muscle pulp of beef” for Civil War soldiers suffering from so-called camp diarrhea.

Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other

 A woman in Council Bluffs, Iowa, says that when her mother was indicating that two things were roughly equal, she’s say they were six and one half dozen of the other. The more common version is six of one and half a dozen of the other or six of one, half a dozen of the other. Another phrase for saying two things are equivalent is a horse apiece.

Raise Your Words

 A saying attributed to the 13th-century poet Rumi goes, “Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”

Go to Grass

 Go to grass is In the 1600s, go to grass meant to be knocked down. In the 1800s, the phrase was the equivalent of telling someone to die and go to hell. Go to grass has also been used to refer to a racehorse or working horse that’s been retired from service. A variant is go to grass and eat hay.

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

Photo by Matthew Brady courtesy of the National Archives. Shown are Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and his generals in front of Sheridan’s tent, 1864. Left to right: Wesley Merritt, David McM.Gregg, Sheridan, Henry E. Davies (standing), James H. Wilson, and Alfred Torbert.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Dictionary of American Regional English

Music Used in the Episode

West Coastin’Alan MoorhouseThe Big Beat Vm 2KPM
Expo In TokyoAlan MoorhouseThe Big Beat Vm 2KPM
Funky DrummerJames BrownFunky Drummer 7″King Records
Step ForwardKeith Mansfield Progressive PopKPM
Nose JobJames BrownAin’t It FunkyKing Records
Fast BackKeith MansfieldSpeed and ExcitementKPM
Soul ThingKeith MansfieldThe Keith Mansfield OrchestraPronit
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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