Novelist Charles Dickens and the musician Prince were very different types of artists, but they also had a lot in common. A new book chronicling their extraordinary careers becomes a larger meditation on perfectionism and creativity itself. Plus, the military origins of the term ballpark estimate. And when two people say the same thing simultaneously, why do we yell jinx!? There’s a magical story behind this word. Plus, banging-out, flip-flops and zoris, agua de calcetín, the groundhogs are making coffee, marplot, a puzzle inspired by a nerdy game show, duck duck gray duck vs. duck duck goose, piff-paff, Adam’s off ox, and lots more.
This episode first aired January 28, 2023.
Banging Someone Out on Their Last Day of of Work
Our conversation about bang out sick and bang in sick, both meaning to “call one’s employer to say they’re not coming in to work,” prompted a response from historian Judith Flanders, who notes that in the UK, there’s a tradition of banging out retiring journalists on their last day of work. As the newly retired take their last walk through the building, workers in all departments repeatedly strike hard objects against machinery or furniture in a cacophonous send-off. The tradition apparently started in the press rooms where newspapers were printed. As noted in A Dictionary of English Folklore (Bookshop|Amazon), historically this tradition might involve dousing the departing worker with printer’s ink or other sticky substance, and even pouring flour or feathers over them and even tying them up in a public place.
Zoris and Tabis
Dexter from San Diego, California, says his family used the word zoris for the footwear other people call flip-flops. In Japan, the word zori refers to a type of footwear made of grass or straw, and English speakers adopted this term in the early 19th century. They’re also called thongs or go-aheads. The Japanese word tabi denotes a kind of sock that can be worn comfortably with zoris because they have a pocket for the big toe. As it happens, a Japanese word for Western-style “sandals” is sandaru, an adaptation of the English word for this shoe.
Ballpark Estimate or Figure
The terms ballpark estimate and ballpark figure originated in the 1940s among members of the United States Air Force, who first used “ballpark” to denote an area or theater of military engagement.
Mar-, the Prefix of Ruination
In the 17th century, it was fashionable to add mar- to various words to suggest the idea of someone who ruins something. A marfeast ruins dinner, a marjoy takes away joy, and a marplot ruins an undertaking by meddling in it.
Um, Actually Word Game
On the game show Um, Actually, the host reads out a series of supposed facts about various geeky subjects, and contestants must interject with the correct information, prefacing their answers with the phrase Um, Actually. That’s the inspiration for Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s challenge, in which each answer rhymes with the syllable um. For example, if someone observes, “In rugby, play is frequently restarted with several players locking arms and gathering together in a formation called a huddle,” you could interject with Um, actually…and what correct answer?
In Minnesota, It’s Duck, Duck, Gray Duck
Pam in Buford, South Carolina, grew up playing Duck Duck Goose, but her Minnesota-born husband knew this children’s game as Duck Duck Gray Duck. The game her husband played is described in an early edition of Education in the Kindergarten (Amazon) by Josphine Foster and Neith Headley. It’s possible that this book by educators at the University of Minnesota influenced a generation of teachers to use this version of the game in that state.
Our conversation about slang terms in various countries to denote someone who’s a tightwad prompts a Minnesota listener to leave a message with his favorite term along these lines. He likes to say that stingy people have alligator arms that won’t let them reach for their wallet.
Groundhogs Making Coffee
Jacob in Frankfort, Kentucky, remembers that on foggy mornings in Appalachia, he’d hear grownups say that the groundhogs are making coffee. Writer Jesse Stuart, who served as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate in the mid-1950s, wrote evocatively about how on such days little white clouds seem to cling to the mountains, inspiring a long tradition of linking them to the idea of animals making coffee or cooling their breakfast.
Full as a Goog
Ashley in Danville, Kentucky, lived for a few years in Australia, where she picked up the phrase full as a goog. In Australia, a goog is an egg, so if you’re full as a goog, you’re completely full. The phrase can also refer to someone who’s very drunk.
Responding to our chat about tchotchkes, or “knick knacks,” a listener says they have heard such trinkets called piff-paff in England.
Prince and Dickens
Author Nick Hornby is an ardent fan of both the novelist Charles Dickens and the musician Prince. In Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius (Bookshop|Amazon), Hornby shows that those two very different men actually had a lot in common, including astonishing drive to keep producing new work. The book is also a meditation on creativity and how perfectionism stands in its way.
Jinx! You Owe Me a Book!
You know how when two people accidentally say the same thing simultaneously, they then race to yell Jinx!? There may be hundreds of versions of this game. Anne and her young daughter Amina in Jacksonville, Florida, say versions they’ve heard include having to “break” the jinx by knocking on wood, or saying one person’s name three times before the other can speak. They’ve also heard Jinx! followed by Pinch or a poke, you owe me a coke or You owe me a soda or You owe me a coconut. Other versions include racing to count to 10, or shaking hands and turning around, or reciting Needles, pins, buffalo skins / What goes up the chimney? Smoke! or Red, blue, needles, pins / Shakespeare Longfellow. Other versions of that last one substitute different poets, such as Keats. The word jinx comes to us from Ancient Greek via Latin, and originally referred to a kind of magical bird called a wryneck. In their classic 1959 work The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Bookshop|Amazon), Iona and Peter Opie report that in parts of the UK, children fall completely silent, then say White rabbits! or You’ll get a letter tomorrow or Touch wood and whistle! Another great resource for such play among children is Duncan Emrich’s The Whim-Wham Book (Bookshop|Amazon).
Agua De Calcetín
Following up on our conversation about terms for “weak coffee,” a listener in Mexico reports that there, such a beverage is sometimes called agua de calcetín or “sock water.”
Know Someone From Adam’s Off Ox
If someone’s unfamiliar to us, why do we say I don’t know him from Adam’s off ox? This phrase is occasionally mistaken as Adam’s all fox.
What Factors Come Together To Create Creativity?
In one memorable passage from Nick Hornby’s book, Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius (Bookshop|Amazon), the author wrestles with the question of what factors come together to make someone a creative genius.
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|A Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|Education in the Kindergarten by Josphine Foster and Neith Headley (Amazon)|
|Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie(Bookshop|Amazon)|
|The Whim-Wham Book by Duncan Emrich (Amazon)|
Music Used in the Episode
|Cubano Chant||Ray Bryant||Lonesome Traveler||Cadet|
|Gimme Some Sugar||Charles Stepney||Step On Step||IARC|
|Brother This “N” Sister That||Ray Bryant||Lonesome Traveler||Cadet|
|The Distant Dreamer||Ramsey Lewis||The Piano Player||Cadet|
|Everybody’s Talkin’||Ramsey Lewis||The Piano Player||Cadet|
|Daddy’s Diddies||Charles Stepney||Step On Step||IARC|
|Lonesome Traveler||Ray Bryant||Lonesome Traveler||Cadet|
|Whenever, Wherever||Ramsey Lewis||The Piano Player||Cadet|
|The Other Side||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down||Colemine Records|
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