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It’s in My Wheelhouse

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What was your first word? Grant and Martha talk about how children acquire language. Also, if you say that something’s in your wheelhouse, you mean that it’s within your area of expertise. But why “wheelhouse”? And what does it mean to be “high as Cooter Brown”? This episode first aired March 5, 2011.


 Grant and Martha talk about new and unusual language. If something has you puzzled or mystified, you’re metagrobolized. If you’re speaking voice sounds like grunting, you’re said to be gruntulous. And what does spox mean? It’s journalistic slang for “spokesperson.”

Musical Repeats

 Some musicians are having a dispute over the word repeat: If the conductor says, “Repeat this section two times,” how many times should they play the passage? Twice? Three times?


 You know those dull sports clichés like “We came to play” and “He left it all on the field”? They’re called bromides. The hosts explain the connection between the tired platitude and the sedative called potassium bromide. The answer involves a book by the humorist Gelett Burgess called Are You a Bromide?


 In theology, epikeia involves observing the spirit of a law rather than the literal rule. Grant explains how in many cases, epikeia actually serves a greater good. Thomas Aquinas defends cases of epikeia in his Summa Theologica.

The Oxcars Quiz

 In honor of the 2011 Academy Awards, Quiz Guy Greg Pliska offers his own puzzle version, The Oxcars. The trick is that the nominees for Best Picture at the Oxcars have the same titles as this year’s real nominees for the Oscar, but with one letter changed. Example: What was this year’s installment of the hit animated series about headline news? Why, that would be “Top Story 3.”

Good Leather

 A Wyoming native asks about the origin of her father’s term of approbation, good leather. Grant thinks it might be from baseball, where good leather means “good fielding with a leather ball in a leather glove.”

Origin of Nosy

 Are we a nosy species? A listener married to a woman from Bangladesh explains how a Bengali term that translates as “nose-going” reflects the naturally inquisitive style of Bangladeshi culture. In many languages, the nose figures prominently in words and idioms involving inquiry or investigation. Martha notes a Spanish term, olfatear, related to the English olfactory, meaning “to sniff or pry into.”

Proverbs with Staying Power

 “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote those words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The hosts discuss this and other modern proverbs with staying power.


 A dental student wonders about acetabulum, the anatomical term for the hip socket. Martha traces it back to the Latin word for “vinegar cup.” In ancient Rome, households had a vinegar cup on the dinner table for dipping bits of food. The cup bore an astonishing similarity to the human hip socket. Many of our body parts came to be named after familiar, mundane items. The word pelvis, for example, comes from Latin for “basin.”


 Who doesn’t love a couthy lad? Grant plugs this Scottish adjective for someone who’s sociable.

International Full-Deckisms

 Simon Ager’s site Omniglot.com is stacked with full-deckisms from around the world. In English-speaking countries, someone who’s not quite with it is said to be “two sandwiches short of a picnic.” In Germany, however, this is described with the question “Are you still ticking on time?” An earlier episode of “A Way with Words” addressed full-deckisms, those clever phrases describing someone who falls short in some way.

Early Language Acquisition

 How do children acquire language? Do they start with nouns, like “Mama” and “cat,” then graduate to verbs and other parts of speech? Grant explains that language acquisition starts even earlier, with children simply emulating sounds they hear. Around the world, kids learn to speak in remarkably similar patterns.

Linguistic Society of America page on language acquisition.

How Children Acquire and Produce Language (BBC, 2001)

How Babies Learn Language from University of Southern California.

Baseball Wheelhouse

 If something is in your wheelhouse, it’s well within your area of expertise. According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, the term wheelhouse refers to swinging a bat when the ball is right in your crush zone.

Raining Chair Legs

 When it’s raining cats and dogs, the Greeks say, “It’s raining chair legs!” Omniglot has many more terms for downpours around the world.

Cooter Brown

 Who is Cooter Brown? And just how high is he? His name appears in lots of phrases, including “high as Cooter Brown,” “drunk as Cooter Brown,” “dead as Cooter Brown,” “fast as Cooter Brown,” and “fertile as Cooter Brown.” The earliest known references to him appear in African-American publications in Atlanta in the 1930s. Cooter Brown, also known as Cootie Brown, even made his way into the work of Langston Hughes. Yet the identity of Mr. Brown remains a mystery.

In Silico

 If you listen to the show via podcast, then you might say it’s coming to you in silico. This computer science term means “performed on computer or by computer simulation.” It’s the equivalent of in vitro, or “in glass,” or in vivo, “in a living body,” used in biological experiments.

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

Photo by MITO Settembre Musica. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Are You a Bromide by Gelett Burgess
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson

Music Used in the Episode

Selfish GeneJimi Tenor & Tony AllenInspiration Information, Vol 4Strut
Darker Side Of NightJimi Tenor & Tony AllenInspiration Information, Vol 4Strut
B For My NameBeastie BoysThe Mix-UpCapitol Records
So Far To Go (Inst)J DillaThe Shining InstrumentalsBBE
It’s Your World (Inst)Slum VillagePrequel To A ClassicBarak Records
Water No Get EnemyFela KutiExpensive Shit / He Miss RoadMCA
14th St. BreakBeastie BoysThe Mix-UpCapitol Records
Bahama Soul StewFunky NassauBahama Soul StewKaydee
SinuheJimi Tenor & Tony AllenInspiration Information, Vol 4Strut
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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