One secret to writing well is … there is no secret! There’s no substitute for simply sitting down day after day to practice the craft and learn from your mistakes. Plus, childhood mixups around word definitions can lead to some funny stories. After all, if you didn’t know any better, why wouldn’t you assume a thesaurus is a prehistoric creature? And did you know the word groovy wasn’t always positive. In the 1880s, it meant just the opposite: someone stuck in a rut or in a groove. Plus: in the meantime, jetty, thick as inkle-weavers, keg of nails, sauna, sofa vs. couch, chirurgeon, fat chance, a newfangled brain teaser about archaic words, and more.
This episode first aired March 7, 2020.
Rasoul from Mashad, Iran, writes to ask why in English the phrase fat chance actually means “little or no chance” — a slim chance, in other words. Fat chance is an ironic usage, much like the phrase big deal which is often used to mean just the opposite of itself.
Kathy from Huntsville, Alabama, remembers that her father would entice guests to stay awhile longer with the puzzling phrase We’re fixing to open up a keg of nails. Actually, the keg of nails in this case is a jocular euphemism referencing a different kind of keg — that is, one full of beer — the idea being that if the guests linger, he’ll crack open some more alcoholic beverages for them to enjoy.
Nancy in Dallas, Texas, shares a funny story about a preschooler’s misunderstanding of the expression in the meantime, meaning “in the interim.” The mean in meantime derives from a Latin medius, “in the middle,” the source also of such words as English meanwhile and the French word for “middle,” moyen.
Responding to our conversation about the curses medieval scribes wrote in books to prevent their theft, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst emails a modern-day book curse from the instructional manual Beginning Glassblowing by Edward T. Schmid. Glassblowers, by the way, call themselves gaffers.
While fishing from a jetty, Maria in San Antonio, Texas, wondered about this name for a structure extending from the shore out into the water. The word jetty comes to us via the French word jeter, meaning “to throw” (the dance step called a tour jeté being a “thrown turn”), and is related to several other words involving the idea of throwing, including project, eject, interject, jettison, and jetsam. The word jetty may also apply to a part of a building that projects out from the main structure. Similarly, an adjective is a word “thrown against,” or added to, a noun.
An inkle is a colorful strip of linen woven on a miniature, portable loom. No one knows the term’s origin, but an old idiomatic expression, thick as inkle-weavers meant “extremely close or intimate.” The idea was that inkle looms are so small and narrow that the weavers who used them could sit much closer together than weavers using much larger looms.
Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s latest brain teaser is about archaic words. For example, what does the following sentence mean? “Three times in the last decade the Duchess of Cambridge has experienced accouchement.”
David in Livingston, Montana, heard a 1954 radio show in which Frank Sinatra used the phrase sweet and groovy, like a nine-cent movie. Was the word groovy really around in those days? Yes, by 1937, the term had filtered into the mainstream from the language of jazz, where groovy was a compliment applied to musicians with excellent chops. Surprisingly enough, long before that groovy meant “boring,” and applied to someone stuck in a rut. This negative sense of the word goes back to at least the 1880s. A 1920 newspaper article used groovy as a noun, referring to someone who doesn’t like anything that requires them to change their habits.
Claire from San Antonio, Texas, has a story about misunderstanding a word when she was young. When she saw a book with thesaurus on the cover, she grabbed it and started reading, thinking she was about to learn about a new type of dinosaur.
If an operator operates, why doesn’t a surgeon surge? The word surgeon comes from ancient Greek cheir, which means “hand,” and ergon, “work,” surgery being a kind of medical treatment done by hand, rather than the work of drugs. These Greek roots are more obvious in the archaic English word for “surgeon,” chirurgeon. The word operate comes from the Latin word for “work,” the same root of opera, literally “a work,” and modus operandi, literally “mode of working.”
Sauna is by far the most common everyday word adopted in English from Finnish. A distant second is sisu, a term for “grit” or “determination,” which is particularly associated with the hardiness and fortitude of Finns themselves.
Bonnie Hearn Hill’s essay “What I Wish I’d Known” offers aspiring authors lots of great tips gleaned from Hill’s long career of writing books. The essay won a contest sponsored by The Writer magazine.
Robbie in San Antonio, Texas, wonders about an expression he heard from his mother, who spent many years in Germany. If two people have the opportunity to do something, but neither of them does it, she’d say It fell between chairs. In English, we get across the same idea by saying someone sat between two stools or fell between two stools. In fact, versions of the phrases sitting on two chairs or sitting on two stools or falling between two chairs or falling between two stools occur throughout European languages, going all the way back to the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca.
Lisa says her whole canasta group in San Diego, California, wonders if there’s a term breasting to denote one’s playing cards close to the chest so that others can’t see them. New card players often lack proprioception, that is, a perception or awareness of the position of their own bodies and where their limbs are in relation to other players, which means they often fail to breast their cards and accidentally reveal them to competitors. The name of the card game canasta, by the way, comes from Uruguayan Spanish, where canasta means “basket.”
Vince in Norristown, Pennsylvania, is pondering whether the terms couch, sofa, and davenport are all regional terms for the same piece of heavy furniture. The short answer is that throughout the United States, the term couch is the most common, followed by sofa. The term chesterfield is more often heard in Canada, when it is heard at all. For an in-depth look at the wide variety of words we use for the rooms in a house and the objects in them check out Language and Material Culture by Allison Burkette.
Pam from Denton, Texas, says her mother-in-law always used the expression independent as a hog on ice. A hog that stubbornly gets itself stranded on a sheet of ice is in an extremely awkward position. A passage in the book Jack Shelby: A Story of the Indiana Backwoods describes such an animal as “the helplesstest thing you ever did see in all your born days.”
Photo by Simeon W. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|instructional manual Beginning Glassblowing by Edward T. Schmid|
|Language and Material Culture by Allison Burkette|
|Jack Shelby: A Story of the Indiana Backwoods by George Cary Eggleston|
Music Used in the Episode
|Hector||The Village Callers||Hector 45||Rampart|
|La Gran Mesa||Leroi Conroy||Remember When? 45||Colemine Records|
|The Jaunt||Poets Of Rhythm||Discern / Define||Quannum Projects|
|Remember When?||Leroi Conroy||Remember When? 45||Colemine Records|
|The Prisoner||Ikebe Shakedown||Hard Steppin 45||Colemine Records|
|Layin Low||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Colemine Records|
|Hard Steppin||Ikebe Shakedown||Hard Steppin 45||Colemine Records|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|