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Highway Robbery

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Secret signals on the job: Waitresses at some 19th-century restaurants ensured speedy drink service by communicating with a non-verbal code. One server took orders, then placed each customer’s cup to indicate exactly what the customer wanted. A second server could then whisk right in and serve the right beverage without asking. Also, the term highway robbery goes back to the 1600s, when armed robbers stopped carriages traveling out of town and ordered occupants to turn over their valuables. And what in the world is a nurdle? Plus, sun grin, John Doe and Richard Roe, a quiz that’s twice the fun, too much sugar for a dime, don’t strain your milk, stand and deliver, tetrising, your feet don’t fit a limb, and holy cow!

This episode first aired December 2, 2023.

Charles Dickens Did “Hard Time”? Fun Transformation of Plural Book Titles to Singular

 What happens when you de-pluralize a book title? As members of our Facebook group discovered, if you make the plurals in the name of a book singular, you can come up with some interesting plot lines. For example, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (Bookshop|Amazon) becomes the story of a giant dangerous fruit:The Grape of Wrath. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Bookshop|Amazon) is reduced to Lion and Prejudice, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (Bookshop|Amazon) becomes the story of one Little Woman, which is either a fellow’s domestic tales about his wife, or a tell-all about what’s like to be much shorter than average. And, with a nod to a collective noun, a twist on an Agatha Christie novel becomes A Crow on the Orient Express.

Holy Cow!

 Emily from New Orleans, Louisiana, wonders about the expression Holy cow! to indicate surprise or delight. It’s one of many minced oaths, in this case a replacement for the stronger exclamation, Holy Christ! These euphemistic expressions, such as Holy Moses! or Holy smokes! allow the speaker some of the satisfaction of swearing without saying anything truly sacrilegious. As early as the 1860s, the exclamation Cow! was sometimes as a substitute for God! Grant mispronounces Harry Caray’s last name in this segment. It should rhyme with his first name.

Sun Grin

 The term sun grin literally means a kind of squinting expression caused by facing bright sunlight. Metaphorically, though, it indicates a fixed or humorless grin.

Nurdle, Nerdle, Nodule

 The word nurdle, sometimes spelled nerdle, can be used to denote various “small bits of things,” such as styrofoam packing material or detritus in one’s pockets. It may be related to the word nodule. Like thingamabob and whatsit, the word nurdle, can also serve as a general-purpose placeholder for a word you can’t think of. In industry, nurdles are tiny pellets used in the production of plastic, now becoming a major source of pollution. At least as early as the 1960s, the word nurdle was also used for the wavy dab of toothpaste on a toothbrush, a definition of which was cited in a 2010 legal battle between rival toothpaste companies.

Mitosis Psychosis Word Game

 Inspired by the biological process of cell division, Quiz Guy John Chaneski came up with a puzzle in which a vowel inside a word divides into two, as in the words cot and coot. If E and Oare the only vowels that might replicate, guess what pair of words might be clued by the following observation? When I was a kid in the ’50s, we’d either go to a dance or play ring toss.

Would You Jump in My Grave as Quick?

 Lizzie calls from Bromgrove in the West Midlands of England to ask about the phrase Would you jump in my grave as quick? She remembers hearing friends say it when, for example, someone took their nice warm spot on the sofa when they got up to make a cup of tea. The phrase is used with an element of faux or real indignation, as if to say “How dare you take my spot?” A version of this phrase appears in the hilarious action movie Hot Fuzz and novelist Jojo Moyes used it in the novel Me Before You (Bookshop|Amazon).

Don’t Strain Your Milk When Lifting

 Mick in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, shares that a co-worker from Texas used to advise him when lifting heavy objects to heave carefully because You don’t want to strain your milk. The origin of this expression is uncertain, although it may simply be a play on the word strain.

 Zack in Tallahassee, Florida, wonders: Why do we use the name John Doe to refer to someone anonymous or unknown? The names John Doe and Richard Roe go back to at least the 1300s, when they were used in land-related legal matters as pseudonyms for plaintiff and defendant. But those weren’t the only names. Sometimes Doe was spelled Doo, and Roe was spelled Roo. The name Peter Poe was also used, as well as John Den and Richard Fen. Sometimes they were Latinized as Johannes Hunt and Johannes Den, Johannem Doo and Ricardem Doo, as well as John Noakes or John O. Noakes, John Hunt, and Tom Stiles. Jane Doe and Jane Roe are now used as substitute feminine names. In ancient Rome, the names Titius and Seius were similarly used as generic names for Roman citizens.

To Tetris: To Organize Things In Real Life As You Would the Blocks in the Video Game Tetris

 Abishek in Gaffney, South Carolina, found himself using the word Tetrising to refer to trying to pack a lot of small items into a moving van, based on the video game Tetris, in which players try to make various combinations of squares all fit together. Can you use the word tetris as a genericverb? Although it’s not yet showing up in dictionaries, Tetris is already proving a handy verb for denoting the process of “trying to make variously shaped things fit together.” In other words, the word Tetris is going through the common process that linguists call denominalization, in which a noun develops an additional sense as a verb, and people are already using the words tetrisingand tetrised because they express the idea so well. Soon after the game of Tetris became popular, people naturally used the word Tetris to refer to what you’d want to do after playing the game, namely start rearranging things in the offline world, such as a poorly arranged shelf of canned goods at the grocery, and to be tetrisized meant having the conceit of the game overtake the way you look at the real world.

The Waiters’ Cup Code

 In the late 1800s, waitresses at the Harvey House chain of restaurants at railroad stops across the American West employed a cup code. One server would ask customers about their preferred beverages, then briskly arrange their cups on the table according to their preferences. A cup placed upside down, for example, meant the customer wanted hot tea. A second server would arrive and, without even asking, provided each customer the correct beverage. This restaurant code helped ensure quick, efficient service during rail passengers’ brief stops for food. Judy Garland played one of those restaurant workers in the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls.

Farming Harrow vs. Distressful Harrowing

 Ryan from West Bolton, Vermont, who grew up on a farm, wonders if the noun harrow, meaning a “farm implement used for breaking up dirt” and the adjective harrowing, meaning “extremely painful” are etymologically related. Indeed they are. There’s an unrelated harrowing in English that has to do with “robbing” or “plundering,” but it’s from a different family of words that includes harry as in “to harass.” In addition, an old word meaning “harrow” is herce, also spelled herse, which is the source of the English word rehearse, the idea being to repeatedly “rake over.”

International Travel is Time-Boggling

 What do you call that weird feeling of losing an entire day when traveling between time zones? Listeners have previously proposed such terms as déjà noon and groundhogging, which inspired this suggestion from another listener said she came up with it when sleep-talking: time-boggling.

Why Do We Call Getting Ripped Off “Highway Robbery”?

 The term highway robbery has its roots in the late 17th century, when traveling in and out of town by night could be particularly dangerous. Highway robbers would leap out of the darkness, point a weapon at the occupants of an approaching carriage, and demand they turn over their valuables. Over time, these outlaws became romanticized as dashing figures, and highwaymen became the subject of poems and ballads. They were known for demanding money and jewelry with the order Stand and deliver!and also helped popularize the expression Your money or your life!

Your Feet Don’t Fit a Limb

 A listener reports that when his Kentucky-born grandmother heard anyone say Who, me? she’d respond Your feet don’t fit a limb. It’s a pun on the sound an owl makes.

Too Much Sugar for a Dime

 Tammy in Atlanta, Georgia, says her father-in-law often uses the expression That’s too much sugar for a dime, suggesting that something is more trouble than it’s worth. Variations include too much sugar for a cent, too much sugar for a penny, too much sugar for a nickel, and too much sugar for a shilling. Some people use the expression too much sugar for a dime to express skepticism. Versions of this phrase go back to one from at least the 1830s, too much sugar stick for a cent. Her father-in-law also describes something really fine as finer than frog hair, which is pretty fine indeed.

At the Intersection of Lost and Confused

 Listeners continue to chime in on the topic of funny street names. One of them points out that in Philadelphia, there’s a Rhoads Street and a Street Road.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Bookshop|Amazon)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Bookshop|Amazon)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Bookshop|Amazon)
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

The Girl From IpanemaMartini KingsBossa Nova GoSwingomatic Records
Three Tough GuysIsaac HayesTough Guys OSTEnterprise
Across The TracksThe BelieversMiami Funk Vm 1Henry Stone Music
Randolph & DearbornIsaac HayesTough Guys OSTEnterprise
MalunguinhoAbayomy Afrobeat OrquestraAbayomy Afrobeat OrquestraBolacha Discos
BusinessI Marc QuattroI Solisti Di A. Trovajoli – Volume 2SR Records
The Red RoosterIsaac HayesTough Guys OSTEnterprise
Fiera ContadinaAlessandro AlessandroniCaratteristici Vari (Temi Per Situazioni Diverse)Sonor Music Editions
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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