In this week's archive episode: Do you know the meaning of "McGimpers"? How about "geetus"? We discuss these and other examples of underworld slang from the 1930s. In this show, crime novelist James Ellroy stops by to talk slang terms and reveals his own favorite.
Also, is the expression "hear, hear!" or "here, here!"? Martha also shares the spooky, creepy story behind the flat hat called a "tam," some similarities between Spanish and Arabic, and what it means to "keep your tail over the dashboard."
From the mailbag: Bob Moore from Tallahassee writes that for decades he's wondered about an odd phrase his mother used:
"If someone got really mad at something, she would say he had a 'pan tod fit.'…It was used to describe someone's really mad or explosive reaction."
Well, Bob, you're close. The term is "fantod," and it means "a case of nervous excitability" or "a state of restlessness, irritability." No one's sure of the derivation, although there's some speculation that it's an alteration of the English dialectal term "fantique," which in turn may be a blend of "fantastic" and "fatigue."
"Fantod" and "fantod fit" have been around since at least the 1830s. It's often used in the plural, as in, "Eeeeeuw! That gives me a case of the fantods!" Mark Twain used it that way in "Huckleberry Finn": "These was all nice pictures…but I didn't somehow seem to take to them, because…they always give me the fan-tods."
Also in the mailbag was this question from Aaron Zenz:
"I'm an author/illustrator working on a children's book about baby animal names. I have a page that needs an illustration of four different 'cubs,' and I chose to make one of the four a baby raccoon. I know baby raccoons have been called ether cubs or kits. In all of my online hunts, I had seen raccoon babies identified either simply as 'cubs' or as 'cubs or kits' so I felt confident in this choice. But now that the art for my project is finished up, I just saw twice in one week (without even looking for it, no less) -- and both cases in print -- baby raccoons referred to simply as 'kits.' So now I'm a bit worried."
There's no need to redo your work, Aaron. Both terms are equally fine. In looking through the academic literature, we find that "cub" is used more often than "kit" but both are widespread in both academic and lay works. Also, as far as we can tell, there's no regional component to their usage.
By the way, Grant's three-year-old son particularly enjoyed Aaron's book "The Hiccupotamus." See more of his work on his site:
In other news:
You'd think that college students would be overjoyed to have all their reading assignments collected on a Kindle electronic reader. No more lugging armloads of heavy books, lots more room in the backpack, right?
But that's not how it worked out under a recent pilot program at seven universities around the country. In an article titled "E-book Readers Bomb on College Campuses," Business Week reports that students complained about the reader's lack of flexibility, slow navigation, and a less-than-useful file management system, and many of them gave up using them entirely for schoolwork.
"In a midterm survey, in which students were asked if they would recommend the Kindle to their fellow students, 86 percent said they wouldn't, while only 12 percent said they would advise friends to use it. Students did like using it for personal reading, however, with 96 percent of the class saying they would recommend it to friends for that purpose." Sounds like those problems would be enough to give anyone the e-fantods.
If you're a fan of NPR commentator and linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, check out his new Twitter feed (@Geoffnunberg). His first tweet, appropriately enough, links to a pithy essay of his about Twitter, and light verse.
Behind the scenes:
This week Martha's back home in the Bluegrass, where she's just learned the handy term for the annoying thing that happens when someone walking in a crowd slows down to read a text message. The resulting pedestrian pileup? It's called a "Blackberry jam."
Meanwhile, "A Way with Words" producer Stefanie "Books--Don't Leave Home Without One" Levine has an enthusiastic summer-reading recommendation: "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. Set against the political upheaval in the India of the 1970s, it's the story of four characters' struggle to survive--with dignity--inside the repressive caste system.
Stefanie says it's a compelling and heart-wrenching read, adding, "I can't remember being this involved with the characters in a novel since reading 'East of Eden,' by John Steinbeck."
The San Francisco Chronicle agrees: "Mistry writes with a patient attention to language, structure and detail reminiscent of the great novelists of the 19th century, such as Tolstoy and Tagore."
What's been your favorite read of the summer so far? Drop us a line and we'll share some in a future newsletter.
Have a good week,
Martha and Grant