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Bah, Humblebrag!

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What’s your choice for the 2011 word of the year? Grant shares some of his picks. Speaking of picks, why do football commentators seem to love the term pick-six? Also, great quotations from writers, the meaning of such Briticisms as cheeky and naff, the intentionally misspelled and mispronounced word defulgaty and a discussion of whether the term “ladies” is offensive. And does the insect called an earwig really crawl into people’s ears at night? This episode first aired December 17, 2011.

Writers’ Quotes About Writing

 Writers always seem to come up with brilliant quotes about writing, and why shouldn’t they? Douglas Adams has noted, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” And Gloria Steinem once quipped: “I do not like to write. I like to have written.”

Grenades and Pomegranates

 What’s the difference between hand grenades and pomegranates? Not much when you think about their shape and the fact that they’re both packed tightly with small things, which is why both share a linguistic root with the word granular.

Crankshaft and Basketbrawl

 Grant offers examples from his latest words of the year list, including Crankshaft (the code name for Osama Bin Laden), and basketbrawl, referring to the fight that broke out between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Chinese National Team.

Football Jargon

 Football, like most sports, brings its own set of idioms and jargon that ride the line between cleverness and cliche. The adjective multiple describes a player, an offense or defense, or even a whole team that has multiple threats or talents. And a pick six, one of the more exciting plays in football, is when a player makes an interception and scores a touchdown. For a more erudite take on the language of sports, David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” never fails.

Staring out a Window

 Writers will appreciate this quotation from Burton Roscoe: “What no wife of a writer can understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of a window.”

Take-Offs Word Quiz

 Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a quiz called Take-Offs. For each clue, remove the first letter of a word to get the second (or third) word in the puzzle. For example, in the first chapter of Moby Dick, Ishmael had to screw up his courage and join the crew. Or, I’ve been in the barber chair for an hour, my hair looks great, but it’s time to come up for air. Be sure to check out John’s new NPR show, Ask Me Another.


 What is an earwig? Those skinny brown insects with pinchers coming out their backsides have a reputation in folklore for crawling through people’s ears and laying eggs in their skull. But really, earwigs are just simple insects that take their name from the Old English term “wicga,” meaning “insect.” The males do have one interesting anatomical feature, though.

Auctioneer Lingo

 A professional auctioneer shares some techniques for creating his mesmerizing, melodious patter. He explains that auctioneers are known as colonels, because colonels in the civil war were assigned with auctioning off captured property. And he warns to beware of so-called chandelier bidding. His final tip: Remember, at an auction, it’s cheaper to kiss somebody than to wave at them!

Occupy and Zuccotti Lung

 The 2011 words of the year list wouldn’t be complete without occupy, as in the Occupy protests that sprang up in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. And Zuccotti lung? It’s an illness that made its rounds among the camped-out protesters.


 Have you ever been faced with a defugalty? This ironic misspelling and mispronunciation of difficulty popped up in a Dashiell Hammett novel, They Glass Key, in 1931. It’s often said with a tongue in the cheek, but, as in the case of the Hammett novel, it refers to the mispronunciations of the uncouth or uneducated.

Feelings Towards “Ladies”

 Is the term “ladies” an offensive way to refer to a group of women? As a recent discussion on Ask Metafilter revealed, many interpret it as outdated, condescending, or patronizing. The hosts conclude it all depends on context.

British Terms

 What does cheeky mean? How about the words twee and naff? A British ex-pat says she finds it hard to convey the nuances of these adjectives to her American friends.

To The Sticking Point

 What’s Lady Macbeth talking about when she urges Macbeth to “screw your courage to the sticking point”? This image of mustering up bravery most likely has to do with tightening the strings of a crossbow.

Optimistic Technology

 If your iPhone’s Siri thinks that two meetings in one day is not bad, does that make her an optimist? Since when did cellphones start making value judgments?


 Nobody likes a humblebrag. That’s when someone complains about, say, having to choose among their dozen college acceptance letters. Harris Wittles, a writer on television’s Parks and Recreation, runs the Twitter handle @Humblebrag, where he retweets those ironic complaints akin to Arianna Huffington’s tweet: “About to take off from Milan to Istanbul and none of my three blackberries are working.”

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

Photo by Bert Kaufmann. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

They Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

Music Used in the Episode

Repeat After MeThe Three SoundsSoul SymphonyBlue Note
Momma JiveCharles KynardYour Momma Don’t DanceMainstream Records
I’ll Take Care Of YouBobby BlandI’ll Take Care Of YouDuke
Viva Tirado (Pt1)The Duke of BurlingtonThe Duke of BurlingtonVogue Schallplatten
My World Is Empty Without YouThe Smith ConnectionUnder My WingsMusic Merchant
Le BraceletAlain GoraguerLa Planete Sauvage SoundtrackD.C. Recordings
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

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