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If Grandma Had Wheels

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While compiling the Oxford English Dictionary, lexicographer James Murray exchanged hundreds of letters a week with authors, advisors, and volunteer researchers. A new collection online lets you eavesdrop on discussions about which words should be in the dictionary and why — including words that might offend Victorian sensibilities. Also why are some words more pleasurable to say than others? And: the German saying that means “If Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus.” Did something get lost in translation? Plus, an alliterative brain teaser, ovoviviparous, wasper, crack shot, the dessert called buckle, the best term for an adult child, disdainful words for weak coffee, the kind of hairpin I am, proctor vs. proctologist, the smoky jungle frog otherwise known as Leptodactylus pentadactylus, and lots more.

This episode first aired November 12, 2022.

I Dub Thee “Weak Coffee”

 Listeners are sharing their favorite terms for coffee that’s weak, including warm wet, branch water, pond water, scared water, and in the immortal words of Ani DiFranco, just water dressed in brown. One listener has a friend in North Dakota who reuses the same coffee grounds all day and refers to the watered-down beverage as Wabash coffee. This may be connected with the use of wabash as a verb to refer to adding water to a sluggish liquid such as ketchup or shampoo to stretch it out a bit longer. There are plenty of other terms for “weak” or otherwise disappointing coffee around the world. In German, it’s sometimes called Blümchen-kaffee, literally “flower coffee.” In the Hopi language surukaphe means “tail coffee,” or coffee watered down to make it go further. In Brazilian Portuguese slang, chafé means “bad coffee,” a blend of the words for “tea” and “coffee.” Then there’s cholo in Louisiana French, from chaud-l’eau, or “hot water.” A Japanese word takes a dig at American coffee, combining the Japanese word for “American” and the Dutch word koffie.

A “Crack” Team Is Something to Boast About, Not Arrest

 Tom in Washington, D.C., says his Airbnb host misunderstood his comment about the host’s crack team of helpers. He was using crack as a compliment, in the same way that a crack shot has good aim with a rifle, and a crack regiment of an army is an especially effective one. This sense of crack may go back to an old word for “boast,” just as something that’s not all it’s cracked up to be is something not worth bragging about. This sense is also connected to Irish good craic, associated with “a convivial evening” or “good time.”

A Better Word for Adult “Children”?

 Mia in Sumter, South Carolina, wonders: Is there a better term than adult child to describe one of your children who’s now a grownup? It’s hard to come up with a better, one-word expression for one’s adult offspring, and words such as spawn, progeny, offspring, issue, crotch fruit, fruit of my loins, and kidult sound awkward and clunky, so for now, adult child is your best option.

Align Your Quiz Qi

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s head-scratcher involves pairs of words that both start with the same letter, but not the same sound. For example, what do you call a seat with vertical spindles in the back, often used by the person in charge of a ship?

Mellifluous Logolatry and Logology: Words That Are Fun to Say

 Yvette, a biology professor in Bismarck, North Dakota, wonders why some words are more pleasurable to say than others. Among her favorites: ovoviviparous, which describes animals whose eggs hatch inside the mother’s body or shortly after being deposited, and the name of the smoky jungle frog, Leptodactylus pentadactylus. The natural rhythm within certain words often helps make them pleasing to say, as do alliteration, rhyming, and reduplication of letters or syllables. This is partly what makes tongue twisters fun to repeat. Try this one: Ted had said that Ed had edited it.

When Spider Webs Unite

 A hopeful Ethiopian proverb: When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.

Just the Kind of Hairpin I Am

 Kathy from Wichita, Kansas, says her mother was a practical joker who’d laugh off her pranks by saying That’s just the kind of hairpin I am, which means “That’s just the way I am.” The phrase goes back at least to 1874. In his 1889 volume Americanisms, Old and New: A Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Colloquialisms (Bookshop|Amazon), John S. Farmer calls the phrase “an inane exclamation.” The phrase likely stems from the idea of something bent like a hairpin, as in the description of someone’s tendencies, as in That’s my bent, and later the idea of having a crooked or criminal bent.

Are “Proctor” and “Proctologist” Related?

 Are the words proctor and proctologist connected? No. The word proctor, as in a university proctor who supervises or monitors students, derives from Latin procurator, from words meaning to “care for” or “advocate for,” from the same family of words as proxy and procure.

The source of the word proctologist is the Greek word proktos, meaning “anus.” (In Latin, the word anus, means “ring,” the source of Spanish anillo, “ring,” and via French, the English word annular, meaning “ring-shaped,” as in an annular eclipse.) Medical professionals sometimes jokingly refer to a proctologist as a rear admiral or a comprehensive physician. (Listen to this clip to find out why.) If someone causes proctalgia, it’s because they pain us in the anus.

Dedicated to the Adorable, Useless Floof

 Jonathan Saha is an associate professor of history at Durham University in England. His latest book is Colonizing Animals: Interspecies Empire in Myanmar (Bookshop|Amazon), which chronicles how the lives of animals were irrevocably changed by British imperialism. The dedication page is one that any ailurophile will appreciate. It reads For Toast, the cat, who was no help at all.

Fascinating Letters to an OED Lexicographer

 Thanks to a project led by Professor Charlotte Brewer of Oxford University and research fellow Stephen Turton of Cambridge, you can now enjoy a trove of letters between James Augustus Henry Murray and his many correspondents during his work on what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. Many of those letters are online in the Murray Scriptorium, and they’re a treat.

Cheek “Buccal” vs. Belt “Buckle” vs. Dessert “Buckle”

 The adjective buccal refers to “pertaining to the cheek,” as in a buccal muscle of the face. The Latin word for “cheek” bucca also led to Latin buccula, “the cheek strap of a metal helmet,” then to a “pointed knob on a shield.” In Old French, the word for that projection became bouclé, and eventually applied to “spiked metal ring for holding a belt,” the source of the English word for such a fastener, buckle. The related Middle English verb, bokelen, meant “to bend,” or “warp,” and later “to arch the body.” This gave us the verb buckle, “to bend under the weight of something,” or “to collapse.” It’s this sense of buckle that apparently inspired the name of that crumbly fruit dessert buckle, which is particularly popular in New England. That would make it one of several foods named for what they do either during or after cooking, such as the fried meat, potatoes, and greens called bubble and squeak and the Japanese broth that sounds like shabu shabu as it cooks. Names for desserts similar to buckle include grunts, named for the sound of the stewing fruit, and slump, named for what the dessert does as it settles in the pan.

A Wasper is a Flyer with a Stinger

 Logan in Frankfort, Kentucky, says when he was growing up in the southeastern part of the state, he’d hear people using the word wasper for the insect most people call a wasp. This dialectal variant is common in Appalachia, along with wast and warsper. In that same area, people sometimes add that ending to words such as musician and billfold, saying musicianer or billfolder. This variant may reflect settlement patterns. In the UK, the word jasper is sometimes used for “wasp.”

“If She Had Wheels, She’d Be a Vehicle” Means “You Can Wish All You Want For Things That Won’t Be Happening”

 Katya in Jacksonville, Florida, says her German-speaking parents think that when someone expresses a wish, it’s hilarious to respond with the German saying Wenn Oma Räder hätte, wäre sie ein Omnibus, which means “If Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus.” Katya likens that saying to one she says she’s also heard: If I had ham, I’d make a ham and cheese sandwich if I had cheese. Versions of the German saying appear in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, and Yiddish, among others. One Spanish version translates as “If my aunt, instead of skirts had wheels, she wouldn’t be my aunt, she’d be a bicycle.” Another German version from 1876 features a wheeled aunt instead of a grandmother: Wenn die Tante Räder hätte, wär’s ein Omnibus. Although the vehicle changes in various versions around the world, it’s usually a female with the wheels, whether grandmother, aunt, or mother-in-law.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Americanisms, Old and New: A Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Colloquialisms by John S. Farmer (Bookshop|Amazon)
Colonizing Animals: Interspecies Empire in Myanmar by Jonathan Saha (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
The DirtyTrue LovesFamous Last WordsWarHen
Hot WindLes BaxterHell’s BellesSidewalk
Bongo GroveKitchen II AllstarsBongo Grove 45All-Town Sound
Famous Last WordsTrue LovesFamous Last WordsWarHen
A Love That’s TrueTrue LovesFamous Last WordsWarHen
Where is The LoveO’Donel LevyDawn Of A New DayGroove Merchant
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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