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Keep Your Powder Dry

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Jacuzzi and silhouette are eponyms — that is, they derive from the names of people. An Italian immigrant to California invented the bubbly hot tub called a jacuzzi. And the word silhouette commemorates a penny-pinching treasury secretary who lasted only a few months in office and was associated with these shadow portraits. Also, if the words strubbly, briggling, and wabashing aren’t already in your vocabulary, they should be — if only because they’re so much fun to say. Only one of them refers to messy, tousled hair. Plus: wing it, versing, cocking one’s strumples, keep your powder dry, embeverage, a word game, and so much more.

This episode first aired February 23, 2019. It was rebroadcast the weekend of November 4, 2023.

Silhouette is an Eponym

 The shadow portrait called a silhouette takes its name from Etienne de Silhouette, a French official whose short-lived term under Louis XV was characterized by extremely unpopular austerity measures.

“To Wing It” Origins

 The expression to wing it, meaning to perform by improvising or with little preparation, comes from the world of 19th-century theater, where it denoted the work of understudies who stepped onstage and received prompting from the wings of the stage itself.

What is a Sandwich?

 Sarah from Dallas called us years ago to talk about the word preheat. Now newly married, she and her Russian husband have a friendly dispute over this question: “What is a sandwich?” We gingerly wade into the longstanding cultural debate.

Strubbly Hair

 In eastern Pennsylvania, the adjective strubbly describes hair that’s unkempt or messed up. It’s also spelled “strubley,” “stribley,” “stroobley,” “strubly,” “stribly,” “stroobly,” “stribbly,” and “stroobbly.” This dialectal term apparently derives from a German word that means tousled.

Misheard Movie Quote Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski playfully ponders misheard movie quotes. For example, if Rhett Butler refuses to provide shellfish for Tara’s annual seafood night, his next line will be what?

Versing, Meaning X Versus Y

 Kathy from Evansville, Indiana, is bothered when she hears younger people use to verse as a verb, as in “Who are they versing?” and “We versed that team last week.” This term arose out of misunderstanding versus, a preposition in Latin that means to come toward or turn toward, but which sounds like a conjugated verb in English. The idea of players versing each other arose out of gaming culture and has become common enough that its use should be considered legitimate.


 Strumple is an old word that means the fleshy part of a horse’s tail, and cock one’s strumples is an antiquated expression meaning to perk someone up.

Is There a Single Word Meaning to Provide Someone with a Drink?

 Cody, who lives in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, wonders: If someone is hungry, you feed them, but is there a single word for what you do for someone who’s thirsty? In other words, eat is to feed as drink is to what? A single word isn’t necessarily any better than a phrase or compound, but we look into it anyway. English apparently lacks a single word for the act of slaking someone else’s thirst. The fanciful verb embeverage has been suggested but hasn’t caught on.

Knives All Over Yet None is Sharp

 There’s a Chinese term for a generalist that literally translates as “equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp.” In Estonia, a similar idea is expressed with a phrase that translates as “nine trades, the tenth one hunger.”

To Briggle

 Tommy from Carlsbad, California, wonders about an expression his mother used when he would be busily fastidious about cleaning to the point of overdoing it. She would say he was briggling. The verb to briggle is defined in the Dictionary of American Regional English as to fuss about ineffectively. It may derive from a Scots term, breeghle or brechle, that expresses a similar idea.

Jacuzzi Word Origin

 The jacuzzi hot tub takes its name from an Italian family that emigrated to California in the early 20th century, and was credited with several inventions, including the bubbling spa.

Horsing Up in the Navy

 Bob from Rockford, Illinois, recalls that forty years ago when he was in the Navy, his instructors would stamp their foot to emphasize a particular point that might be on the test later. They referred to this action as horsing up the students, and the students called their group study sessions horse sessions and referred to their large notebooks as horse notes. What do horses have to do with the curriculum studied by the Navy’s nuclear-power specialists? The answer may have to do with horse blankets.

Freezing Your Ears off to Spite Your Mother

 In English, we say “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” but the Russian equivalent translates as “Don’t freeze off your ears to spite your mama.”

Word for Getting the Last Remnants out of a Bottle

 Bill calls from Bulverde, Texas, to discuss the word for a technique his Indiana-born family used to get the sluggish last bit of ketchup out of a bottle. They’d add a bit of water, and say they were wabashing it. What possible connection would the word wabash have with a technique for getting ketchup out of a bottle? It may refer to an old slang sense of wabash meaning to cheat.

Keep Your Powder Dry

 Shelby calls from Rockville, Indiana, to ask about the origin of the phrase keep your powder dry. Many people surmise it derives from words uttered by Oliver Cromwell, but there’s no recorded evidence of this. The phrase first pops up in the early 19th century, and was popularized by a song from the early 1830s by Valentine Blacker called “Oliver’s Advice.”

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

Photo by Raheel Shahid. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Episode

I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More BabeJimmy SmithBlacksmithPride
I Got WarrantsMagic in ThreesMagic in ThreesGED Soul
Hang ‘Em HighJimmy SmithBlacksmithPride
Rancho RelaxoMagic in ThreesMagic in ThreesGED Soul
JoyJimmy SmithBlacksmithPride
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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1 comment
  • Regarding listener Cody and his question about watering. Martha thought embeverage may be appropriate when referring to people. May I suggest another possibility? Aquify.

    Thanks for the wonderfully informative show.
    John Andrew Thomas

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