Yo! Who you callin’ a jabroni? And what exactly is a jabroni, anyway? Also, what do vintage school buses and hack writers have in common? Grant and Martha trace the origins of famous quotes, and a listener offers a clever new way to say “not my problem.” All that, plus winklehawks, motherwit, oxymorons, word mash-ups, and a quiz about palindromes.

This episode originally aired May 14, 2011.

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 Winklehawks and Motherwit
Is that a winklehawk in your pants? A listener shares this word for those L-shaped rips in your trousers, from an old Dutch term for “a carpenter’s L-shaped tool.” And Grant has a new favorite term, motherwit, meaning “the natural ability to cope with everyday life.” You could say a mark of wisdom is showing some motherwit in the face of life’s winklehawks.

 Etymology of Hack
Ever heard a school bus called a school hack? Grant and Martha explain the etymology of hack, beginning with hackney horses in England, then referring to the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages, then the carriages themselves, and finally the automobiles that replaced them. A museum in Richmond, Indiana, has a vintage yellow school hack, once used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to bring rural children to their schoolhouse. Incidentally, the contemporary term hack, meaning a tired old journalist, comes directly from the original term for the tired old horse. A bit about school bus history.

 Favorite Oxymorons
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms! A listener senses something awfully good about oxymorons, from the Greek for “pointedly foolish.” Grant shares this favorite example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, while Martha picks a modern classic: airline food. What are your favorites?

 One Elephant, Two Elephant
In the U.K., they don’t count seconds as “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi,” because, well, they have no Mississippi. Instead, they say “one-elephant, two-elephant.” Lynne Murphy, author of the blog Separated by a Common Language, points out this difference between English speakers on opposite sides of the pond.

 Welded Palindromes Quiz
Our Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a game called Welded Palindromes, with two-word phrases spelled the same forwards and backwards. What do you call your first appearance on TV? A tube debut. What kind of beer does a king drink? Why, a regal lager, of course.

 Your Father’s Mustache
A listener wonders about the origin of the phrase “your father’s mustache,” akin to the phrase “go jump in a lake,” or “your mamma wears combat boots.” Grant explains that it may sound more familiar as “your fadda’s mustache,” circa 1930s, Brooklyn. The borough’s own jazz musician Woody Herman had a hit song in 1945 called Your Father’s Mustache, but those in the know pronounced it “FAH-duh.”

A listener named Meagan from Wisconsin uses the term flustrated, combining flustered and frustrated– one of many mashed together words she deems Meaganisms. Though Grant applauds her innovation and creativity, Martha points out that flustrate actually does pop up in English texts as far back as the 18th Century. Dictionaries with entries for flustrate note that it’s usually a jocular term, a conversation could always use more Meaganisms.

Grant gives Martha a little Greek test with the word leucomelanous. Leuco, meaning “white,” and melano, meaning “black,” together refer to someone with a fair complexion and dark hair, like Snow White or Veronica from the Archie comics.

 Not My Pig, Not My Farm
How do you say “not my problem”? A listener shares his go-to: Not my pig, not my farm. It means the same thing as “I don’t have a horse in that race,” or “I don’t have a dog in that fight.” Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, created the SEP Field, or the Somebody Else’s Problem field. Though examples are boundless, there doesn’t seem to be a standard or definite origin.

A cowboy loves a ranch that’s pecorous, meaning abundant with cattle. Just something worth knowing.

 First Use of Famous Quotations
There’s an old joke running around that goes as follows, “Lost: Bald, one-eyed ginger Tom, crippled in both back legs, recently castrated, answers to the name of ‘Lucky.'” Nigel Rees of The Quote Unquote Newsletter has been tracking down this oft-quoted joke, and so far he’s found it as far back as 1969. On another front, Fred Shapiro of the Yale Book of Quotations has made progress in tracing the origins of famous quotes, often to people other than those who made them famous. And the folks at Quote Investigator are doing their share in researching the history of those quips and aphorisms that do so much to frame our essays and speeches.

A violin maker wonders about the origin of a practice in his trade known as purfling, where a black and white line is inlaid into a tiny channel along the edge of the instrument. Martha traces the word back to the Latin filum, meaning “line” or “thread.” Purfling is also a practice in guitar-making, furniture-making, and embroidery, and it shares an etymological root with profile. A fun fact: purfling is also just “profiling” said with a mouth full of marshmallows.

 Outspoken Quote
When someone admiringly called a woman “outspoken,” Dorothy Parker is said to have cynically replied, “Outspoken by whom?” Well, according to quoteinvestigator.com, the line pre-dates Parker’s quip.

 Tickets to the Gun Show
Why do we call our biceps guns? The slang lexicographer Jonathon Green suggests that the metaphor first pops up in baseball around the 1920s, when players referred to their throwing arms as guns. Believe it or not, the early baseball pitchers actually threw the ball intending for the batter to hit it. It wasn’t until later that a strong arm, or gun, was needed to throw a pitch too fast to hit.

 Where the Tsar Goes
A listener shares a Russian saying that translates I am going “there where the Tsar goes on foot,” meaning “I am going to the bathroom.” It’s the equivalent of we all put our pants on one leg at a time, or we’re all just human.

 Jabronie, Jaboney, Jambone
Who you calling a jabronie? And what exactly is a jabronie? (Or a jaboney, jadroney, jambone, jiboney, gibroni, gibroney, gabroney, jobroni, jobrone, etc.) Grant traces this playful insult, meaning a “rube” or “loser,” to the 1920s, when Italian immigrants brought over a similar-sounding Milanese term for “ham.” Jabronie is also commonly used in professional wrestling, referring to those guys set up to lose to the superstars.

A decade is ten years. A century is a hundred. But what do you call a period of five years? It’s a lustrum, borrowed whole from Latin. So you might say a decade is two lustra.

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

Photo by Benh Lieu Song. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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14 Responses

  1. Ron Draney says:

    Where to begin, where to begin?

    Is the “hawk” portion of “winklehawk” the same as the one Hamlet knows from a handsaw when the wind is southerly?

    I was taught to count seconds “one chimpanzee, two chimpanzee” back when I was learning to drive. They said it took some number of seconds to pass another vehicle, and until we got a feel for judging the corresponding distance we should just count this way and find out if the oncoming traffic would “make a monkey out of us”.

    Don’t know whether this goes with Meagan’s “flustrated” or the definition of “lustrum”, but I long thought that the word frustum (the portion of a cone or pyramid left when the apex is removed) was frustrum. Just made sense to me that it was the complete figure left “frustrated” by its non-completion.

  2. Agnes says:

    Polish has exactly the same saying as Russian, only we didn’t have a tsar, so in Polish it is the king who goes there on foot.

  3. Ron Draney says:

    Forgot one, for quoteinvestigator.com:

    We got into this over on alt.usage.english a few years ago, and a request was made to come up with a couple of similar-sounding words to distinguish the person who originally said something and the one who became famous for spreading it.

    The pair I finally offered was fathered and furthered. There was resistance from one person at first to the idea that a woman could “father” a quotation, but eventually she decided to allow the metaphorical extension.

  4. Glenn says:

    I grew up saying one, Philadelphia, two, Philadelphia, three, Philadelphia, … etc. (Guess where.) Mississippi and one thousand were also used, but slightly less commonly.

  5. tromboniator says:

    I learned one thousand one, one thousand two… Now I often hear one one thousand, two one thousand…, and I trip over my tongue trying to imitate it.

  6. tromboniator says:

    Grant, I’ve been familiar with mother wit (two words) for decades; I don’t think I’ve seen it or thought of it as one word. I wish I could remember where I’ve encountered it, but it’s been far too long. I’m fairly certain it has been more than thirty years since I’ve heard it.


  7. @Agnes – Thanks for the report from Warsaw!

    @tromboniator – Yes, “mother wit” has been around since the 15th century or so.

  8. jmercermn says:

    Not quite an oxymoron, but my father was fond of saying “A blackberry is red when it’s green.”

  9. jmercermn says:

    Speaking of mashing words together, my 4-year-old daughter recently coined a word for an activity our dog was doing. The dog was pacing back and forth and generally being a pest, pestering us for attention. So she made up the word “pastering”. I now advise the dog “don’t be a paster.”

  10. ninagilbert says:

    When I taught in Kenya, my students counted “One, Kakamega, Two Kakamega…” naming a town in Western Kenya. They also sang a Kenya-based version of “This Land is Your Land.”

  11. Jackie says:

    I first learned of a school hack in a children's book by Eth Clifford called, Help!   I'm a Prisoner in the Library.   Two little girls wander into a library just at closing time and get locked in.   There is a school hack display in the library that lends itself to a scary moment for the girls.   It's a fun book for elementary aged children.

  12. HRHComqueen says:

    In the part where a caller wanted to talk about oxymoron words, Grant used as an example “6, 1/2 dozen of the other”. Mathematically speaking they are the same. What is 1/2 of a dozen if not 6? So it could not be an oxymoron. They are equal not opposite. 🙂

  13. Dick says:

    HRHComqueen said:

    In the part where a caller wanted to talk about oxymoron words, Grant used as an example “6, 1/2 dozen of the other”. Mathematically speaking they are the same. What is 1/2 of a dozen if not 6? So it could not be an oxymoron. They are equal not opposite. 🙂

    I could not find Grant’s quote, but I will mention that around here some people intentionally turn that phrase around and say, “Half of one or six dozen of another.”   This could be called an oxymoron but it is always said as a joke.

  14. xheralt says:

    Minor correction to Grant, from where he was talking about wrestling lingo — the “heel” is a villainous persona, who may or not be a superstar. While early heels were designed to be straw men/jabronis (like “The Iron Sheik”), evolving tastes of modern viewers have subverted that paradigm. A jabroni now could theoretically be required to lose to a “heel”, if the heel were the popular character. Becoming a villain is called a “heel turn”, and even Paul “Hulk” Hogan made one, before resuming his more customary heroic persona.