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Hot Gossip

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Gossip goes by many names: the poop, the scoop, the lowdown, the dope, the scuttlebutt, the 411, the grapes, the gore, and hot tea. Plus, John Donne’s love poems are among the greatest in the English language, even as they’re famously difficult to unravel. A new biography hails the genius of the man who penned the phrases no man is an island and for whom the bell tolls. And Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. But what about Muphry’s Law? Also: how to organize your bookshelves, rizz, potch in tuchis, conkerbell, pronouncing help like hope, spermologer, sweet tea vs. unsweet tea, work brickle, collywobbles, and a puzzle that will test your wits — and patience.

This episode first aired February 11, 2023.

Some Large Book Piles Have Their Own Climates

 How do you organize the books on your shelf? Author Jane Smiley has developed a method that fellow book lovers will appreciate.

One Who Spreads Words for Gossip?

 We dish about the many terms for “gossip,” including hot tea, scuttlebutt, the scoop, the 411, the lowdown, the dirt, the scoop, hot goss, the poop, the dope, the T. In prison slang, grapes means “gossip,” and particularly juicy or tragic gossip is gore. In the West Indies, shu-shu, su su, and sey-sey all mean “gossip,” and imitate the sound of whispering. The skinny may also mean “gossip,” although it’s more often used to mean simply “information.” The Ancient Greek word for “gossiper,” spermologos, literally means “a gatherer of seeds,” suggesting someone who picks up scraps of knowledge, much as a bird goes around picking up seeds and other small items. The Greek word’s English derivative, spermologer, now rarely used, means “a gossip” or “collector of trivia.”

Origins of the Name of “Murphy’s Law”

 Mark from Richland Center, Wisconsin, wonders about the origin of the expression Murphy’s Law, which is often rendered as Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The concept has been around for years, but researchers Fred Shapiro, Stephen Goranson, and Bill Mullins of the American Dialect Society have disproved all the common stories about the origin of the term itself. An interview with mathematician and physicist Howard Percy “Bob” Robertson suggests that the name may have originated with a joking reference to Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics. One variant on Murphy’s Law proposed in 1992 by an Australian editor reads in part, “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.” It’s called Muphry’s Law.

Cite the Deep Magic to Me: I Was Not There When It Was Written

 In his essay “The Art of Dying,” art critic Peter Schjeldahl reflects on the process of writing: When I finish something and it seems good, I’m dazed. It must have been fun to write. I wish I’d been there.

Annoyingly Amusing Misunderstanding Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski shares a puzzle he calls “annoyingly amusing.” For example, suppose he says Yes, you’re right. I don’t see any more aliens around. What did you say the coast was? How would you answer? How’s that again? Wait, what?


 Since the early 19th century, the term collywobbles referred to “gastrointestinal distress.” This word may derive from colic, or “abdominal pain,” plus the word wobbles, referring to something unsteady, suggesting “a queasiness in the tummy.”

Unusual Items from the Kids’ Menu

 An Ohio listener reports that when her toddler daughter used to ask for what she called LMNOPs. It took a while for their family to realize she wanted M&M’s candy. She also had her own word go-dogs for “hot dogs,” and her family still fondly uses that term. Maybe she was a fan of that children’s favorite by P.D. Eastman, Go, Dog. Go! (Bookshop|Amazon).

Does the Prefix “-un” Usually Mean a Reversal?

 Sarah in San Antonio, Texas, says that when she goes to a restaurant and orders iced tea, the server usually asks, “Sweet or unsweet?” That doesn’t sound right to her. How do you unsweeten tea? Doesn’t the un- imply a “reversal of a state”? Not necessarily. You can have something unfolded that was not previously folded, something unbuilt that was never built, and something unbelievable that never was believable. Particularly with adjectives, the prefix un- doesn’t always imply a reversal. Sometimes it simply connotes the idea of “not” or suggests “the absence of a condition.”

Hope Me, Bobby-John, You’re My Only Help

 Ronald in Columbia, South Carolina, hears some people pronounce the word help as if they’re saying hope. There’s a British dialectal version of the past tense of the verb help that is spelled holp or holpen or hope, which have hung on in pockets of American dialect. Also in the American South, some people drop the L sound next to what linguists call back vowels, such as O, which are formed in the back of the mouth, so that that cold sounds like the word code, and hold sounds as if it were spelled hoad.


 In the Cornish dialect of South West England, a conkerbell is an icicle.

Donne: More Than Kisses, Letters Mingle Souls

 In her new book Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Bookshop|Amazon), Oxford University scholar Katherine Rundell notes that the 17th-century cleric’s love poems are famously difficult to unravel, but well worth the effort. “Meditation XVII” from Donne’s 1624 work Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and seuerall steps in my Sicknes is the source of the now-familiar English phrases No man is an island and for whom the bell tolls, the latter of which became the title of an Ernest Hemingway novel.

Your Hosts, Martha Wordhunter and Grant Bookhoarder

 A tweet from Jeremy London suggests that if we named people the way they did a thousand years ago, we’d hear names like Darren the Depressed or Isaac the Uninsured. What would your name be?

You’re Going to Get a Potch!

 Stacy from Marquette, Michigan, says her German-born grandfather would warn that she was going to get a putsch or potch, meaning a “a gentle slap” on her bottom, if she misbehaved. The German verb Patsch means “slap.” The related dialectal German term Putsch, which means a “slap” or “smack,” evolved to mean “armed insurrection” or “violent attempt to overthrow a government,” such as Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. A similar image of striking is reflected in French coup d’etát — literally a “stroke of state” — and the analogous Spanish term golpe de estado. Yiddish speakers refer to a potch in tuchus or potch in tuchis, meaning “a light slap on the bum.” The related words potchkie and potchkee can also mean to “fuss or mess around.” For example, one might speak of a person who is potchkeeing around.

It Don’t Mean a Thizz If You Ain’t Got That Rizz

 Here’s a neologism used to describe someone possessed of effortless attractiveness or style: rizz. It’s a shortening of charisma, a word that goes back to ancient Greek.

Work Brickle, Work Brittle

 Rebecca in Jackson, Tennessee, says her mother-in-law would describe people unwilling to work as not work brickle. The word brickle has long meant “brittle,” is probably a word of Germanic origin and an etymological relative of the word break. The expression work brickle has meant both “eager to work” and “lazy,” although the “reluctant to work” meaning is now the predominant one.

A Refuge of the Elect, a Tower of Dreams

 Before her biography Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Bookshop|Amazon), Katherine Rundell was better known as a writer of children’s books, including The Girl Savage (Bookshop|Amazon) and Rooftoppers (Bookshop|Amazon). The latter is informed by her own fascination with walking atop roofs at Oxford University, among other places.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Go, Dog. Go! by .D. Eastman (Bookshop|Amazon)
Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Girl Savage (Bookshop|Amazon) and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Gettin’ It OnDennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar BandEvolutionSussex
Hermosa DriveHermanos GutierrezEl Bueno Y El MaloEasy Eye Sound
Whole Lotta LoveDennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar BandEvolutionSussex
ScorpioDennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar BandEvolutionSussex
Summer Time GirlDennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar BandEvolutionSussex
Los Chicos TristesHermanos GutierrezEl Bueno Y El MaloEasy Eye Sound
Garden Of The MoonDennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar BandEvolutionSussex
Cease The BombingsPucho and His Latin Soul BrothersYainaRight On Records
Chitterlings Con CarnePucho and His Latin Soul BrothersYainaRight On Records
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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