Decisions by dictionary editors, wacky wordplay, and Walt Whitman’s soaring verse. How do lexicographers decide which historical figures deserve a mention or perhaps even an illustration in the dictionary? The answer changes with the times. • There’s a tweet about basketball that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. Turns out there’s an entire Twitter feed full of tweets that pull off that same linguistic trick! • A Walt Whitman poem that crosses time, space, and experience. • Friday Wednesday vs. Wednesday Friday, actress vs. actor, balling the jack, à la mode, and grab the brass ring.
This episode first aired October 21, 2017.
A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. The Twitter feed @PangramTweets uses a bot to scour the internet for pangrammatic tweets, providing a weirdly wonderful window on what people write.
Friday Wednesday or Wednesday Friday?
A writer at an ad agency in Rochester, New York, has a dispute with his chief copy writer: If you’re taking off Thursday and Friday, is your last day of work that week a Wednesday Friday? Or is it a Friday Wednesday?
Pronunciation of Apricot
A Fort Worth, Texas, listener wonders about the pronunciation of the word apricot. Is that first syllable long or short? The answer depends on what part of the country you’re in. If you’re in the northern United States, for example, you’re far more likely to pronounce apricot with a long a.
Reordering Definitions Word Game
Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle takes the definition of a word, and then alphabetizes all the words in the definition. For example, the definition of one familiar noun consists of the following words, but not in alphabetical order: “and army engaged especially in in military one service the.” What’s the word?
Pax, a Truce Term
A man who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, says that when he and his friends were playing a game of tag and wanted to take a break they would call “Pax!” This Latin word for peace used in this way is what’s called a truce term. Other non-obvious examples are king’s X, scribs, skinch, cree, barley, and I freeze my seat.
Actor vs. Actress
Why do we differentiate linguistically between an actor and an actress, but don’t make a similar distinction between a male doctor and a female one? The profession of being an actor was initially limited to men, so the word actress came later. For a helpful reference on this topic, check out Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet.
Grab the Brass Ring
A ride on the carousel in San Diego’s Balboa Park has Martha pondering the origin of the phrases to grab the brass ring, meaning to achieve something difficult, and to reach for the brass ring, meaning to try hard to reach a goal, and by extension, to live life with gusto.
Ball the Jack
A Tallahassee, Florida, man says that when his father was passed by a speeding car, he’d say that the driver was balling the jack. In the early 20th century, a fast, high-energy dance among African-Americans was called balling the jack. The term was later adopted by those in the railroad industry.
Why Do Some People Get Bios in Dictionaries?
A listener in Albany, New York, wonders who decides which historical personages deserve mention a dictionary, and how editors decide which of those people merit a photo or illustration? Grant explains the process by which lexicographers handle these encyclopedic entries.
À La Mode Origin
A slice of pie topped with ice cream is said to be served à la mode, a French phrase that means “in the fashion of.” A listener in Greenfield, Massachusetts, wants to know why.
Hunk Waffle? Close Enough
On our Facebook group, a member told the story of teaching English in Japan, where a student couldn’t remember the slang expression stud muffin, but came pretty close by substituting his own term, hunk waffle.
A woman in Eureka, California, is curious about the term bailiwick. It comes from a Middle English word for bailiff, and wik, a Middle English word that means dwelling and is related to several English place names, such as Gatwick and Norwich.
“LaBron has played more career minutes than MJ, Shaq, Hakeem, Ewing, and others. Crazy how we never expect him to get fatigued in a game.” That’s an astute observation about basketball, but it’s also a pangram, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. More on @PangramTweets.
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.
Photo by Navin Rajagopalan. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Book Mentioned in the Broadcast
|Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet|
Music Used in the Broadcast
|Give It Up||Kool and The Gang||Kool And The Gang||De-Lite Records|
|Hunk of Funk||Jack McDuff||Hunk of Funk 7″||Blue Note|
|Cissy Strut||Big John Patton||Blue Funk (Compilation)||Blue Note|
|The Jaunt||Poets of Rhythm||Discern / Define||Quannum Projects|
|Chunky||Ronnie Foster||Two-Headed Freap||Blue Note|
|Don’t Knock My Love||Ronnie Foster||Two-Headed Freap||Blue Note|
|Tic Tac Toe||Candido||Beautiful||Blue Note|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|