For many people, religion provides language and rituals for key milestones in life, from births to weddings to funerals. But what if you don’t ascribe to any particular religion? What words do you use to mark those moments? An uplifting new book suggests turning to the language of poetry to honor lifecycle events. And speaking of rituals, if you say rabbit, rabbit before you say anything else on the first day of every month, supposedly you’ll have good luck. But if you forget, don’t worry — there’s a remedy for that! Plus, kit bag question, petrichor, a puzzle about funny synonyms, waltzing Matilda, tut and tsk, gee whittaker, be-bopping, and If you don’t chance your arm, you won’t break your neck.
This episode first aired July 7, 2023.
The term kit bag question refers to a question that’s better not asked, lest you suffer a consequence you might otherwise have avoided. It’s a translation of Modern Hebrew she’elat kit bag, a slang expression that arose among members of the Israeli military, and derives from the notion of a new recruit piping up to ask an officer if they should carry their kit bags while performing a task or running a drill, when they might have gotten away with not having to do so.
Rodrigo in Tucson, Arizona, shares a funny story about immigrating to the United States from Mexico in the 1990s and picking up the English exclamation gee whiz! from a book published in the 1940s. What’s the origin of this slang phrase? Minced oaths such as gee whiz, gee whittaker, and gee willigans are all minced oaths, most likely distantly adapted from Jerusalem! or By Jerusalem!, and all of them being a means of avoiding the blasphemous use of Jesus! or Jesus Christ!
In the 17th century, high jinks were boisterous drinking games. High jinks may be related to the Scottish word jink, meaning “to turn quickly or move nimbly to one side” or “to make a jerky movement, and by extension “to trick or cheat.” The high may derive from Scottish hoy or hy, words shouted to urge someone on.
Quiz Guy John Chaneski is puzzling over one-word compound synonyms. For example, in the sentence While pretty, the bouquet was dominated by a rather large starblossom, the word starblossom might clue what tall plant that many associate with Vincent Van Gogh?
The expression If you don’t chance your arm, you won’t break your neck makes use of the sense of break your neck meaning “to go all out.” The break your neck part may refer to having success from giving all your effort. Chance your arm, meaning “risk your arm,” may have originated in Ireland. In fact, one story about its possible origin involves St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
A listener in Helena, Montana, shares a followup to our conversation about the question Do you live around here or ride a bicycle? A similarly goofy expression goes Is it further to Butte or by bus?
What’s the word for the smell of rain? It’s petrichor. For years, scientists referred to this evidence of rain as argillaceous odor because it was particularly noticeable near soil with a lot of whitish clay called argil. Then, in the early 1960s, Australian researchers Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Thomas set out to investigate just how this intoxicating smell is produced. They concluded that increased moisture in the air, plus the pounding of raindrops, causes certain compounds, including a bacteria-generated substance called geosmin, to be released and combine in the air. The result is the olfactory treat that Bear and Thomas dubbed petrichor, from Ancient Greek petra, or “stone,” an etymological relative of petrify, and ichor, the magical fluid that courses through the veins of the gods.
Elias in Laramie, Wyoming, says his grandmother used to say Tut, tut to mean No, no. Like tsk, tsk, it’s a sound made between the teeth to show disapproval. Surprisingly, both expressions originally spelled out the same sound but they’ve come to be pronounced as they’re written, too.
For many of us, religious liturgy provides the words we need for life’s major milestones. But what if you don’t ascribe to any particular religion? In her uplifting new book, The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives (Bookshop|Amazon), historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht suggests turning to poetry. The book features many poems and poetic styles, such as Chinese classical poetry and the Arabic ghazal, and a short poem by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe that will take your breath away.
If you have two dogs that share a toy, do you write that as my dogs’ toy or my dogs’s toy? It’s one of those things to which we can come up with a logical answer, but then later we’ll catch ourselves doing a different illogical thing. Possessive inflections on words ending in “S,” such as plurals, in English may look fine in text but sound odd to say.
In 1960 the USS Triton submarine made history by completing the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe. A crew member recalls that when a sailor was assigned to periscope duty, he was said to be waltzing Matilda, a phrase that evokes both going round and round with arms held high, and a reference to the unofficial Australian national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda.” The song is also part of the haunting score of the 1959 post-apocalyptic film On the Beach, which is set on a submarine.
John from San Diego, California, likes to use the word be-bopping to mean “meandering,” “going about aimlessly.” As Robert S. Gold explains in his dictionary of jazz terms, Jazz Talk (Amazon), be-bopping and its shortened form, bopping, likely come from the language of that musical art form.
According to a centuries-old superstition, saying rabbit, rabbit as soon as you wake up on the first day of every month will supposedly ensure good luck. Variants of this phrase include white rabbit, or white rabbit, white rabbit, or simply rabbits! If you forget, you can try to make up for it by saying tibbar, tibbar (rabbit, rabbit spelled backwards) at the end of the day. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a fan of this leporine tradition, as is Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman (Bookshop|Amazon).
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (Bookshop|Amazon)|
Music Used in the Episode
|Sweet Power Of Your Embrace||James Mason||Rhythm Of Life||Chiaroscuro Records|
|Hummin’||Cannonball Adderley Quintet||Country Preacher 45||Capitol Records|
|Free||James Mason||Rhythm Of Life||Chiaroscuro Records|
|Mbewe||James Mason||Rhythm Of Life||Chiaroscuro Records|
|Up And At It||Cannonball Adderley||Accent On Africa||Capitol Records|
|Slick City||James Mason||Rhythm Of Life||Chiaroscuro Records|
|The Other Side||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down||Colemine Records|