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Kissed Her on the Stairs

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Do Americans use the same sign language as the British? And what do Japanese people use instead of umm? Plus, why do we vote at polling places? What goes into file 13? All this, a word quiz, commode vs. toilet, saditty and bougie, and cute stuff that kids say! This episode first aired December 1, 2012.

Evolving Sign Language

 All languages evolve, and sign language is no exception. The British Sign Language Corpus Project has collected footage of nearly 250 deaf people across the U.K., revealing lots of changes, especially as the internet has made it easier for hearing-impaired people to sign to more people. For example, the sign for French people is no longer a stereotypical mustache twirl — it’s now made with a sign for rooster, the unofficial symbol of France.

Toilet vs. Commode

 Why do some folks call the toilet a commode? At one point in history, the commode was a piece of furniture you’d put a chamberpot in. Today, commode is still a common term heard in the American South. Elsewhere, the term commode denotes a kind of cabinet, causing confusion when journalists mistook reports of Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham taking a bribe in the form of a pair of antique commodes worth more than $7000. What do you call your porcelain throne?

Discourse Particles

 So, um, where do those, er, filler words come from? Discourse particles, as they’re also known, are used to fill those gaps when we’re thinking of what to say but don’t want to lose our turn in a conversation. English isn’t the only language that has them, either. Spanish speakers often use este, and in Japanese, it’s eto. Michael Erard has written at length about the subject in his book Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.

Sign Language for “Telephone”

 If you had to say the word telephone in sign language, you’d probably do the thumb and pinky to the head. In the past, though, it was one fist to the ear, one fist to the mouth — just like the old fashioned candlestick phone! The current sign is still a bit skeuomorphic.

Idiom Word Game

 Our Puzzle Guy John Chaneski has a game for all the idiom-lovers out there. For each category, three letters match with different phrases. For example, name three things you can hold, starting with the letters C, G, and T. These are open-ended questions, so let us know if you think of more answers!

File 13

 If you’re going to put something in file 13, is it headed to a) a top-secret folder, b) a Christmas stocking, or c) trash can? It’s the trash! This term first became popular in the 1940s during WWII as military slang, and by the late 60s had fully entered civilian speech. Other jocular expressions for the same thing include round file, circular file, or file 17.

Charmed, I’m Sure

 It’s tough to say what generation was best at sarcasm and snark, but the 50s made a good case with I Love Lucy. Charmed, I’m sure, one of those sugarcoated jabs used when meeting someone you’re dubious about, was one of Ethel’s hallmark lines. Of course, the phrase goes back to the 1850s. Long live sarcasm.

What American English Sounds Like

 A while back we talked about what English sounds like to those who don’t speak it. Martha shares an evocative excerpt from Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Hunger of Memory, where he describes the “high nasal notes of middle-class American speech.”

Sitting High, Looking Low

 When politicians, authority figures, or bureaucrats ignore those who need help, they’re said to be sitting high and looking low. This idiom, almost exclusive to the African-American community, goes back to 1970s. It’s also used in a religious sense, where God is sitting high and looking low, meaning He takes care of the small things.

Cute Things Kids Say

 Some of the things kids say are so cute, it’s a crime to correct them. Over time, they’ll fix their pronunciations of callipitter (caterpillar), so enjoy those mistakes while they last. If you have a favorite little-kid mispronunciation, tell us!

Sign Languages Differ Just as Spoken Languages Do

 If someone uses American Sign Language, can they fully communicate with someone in Bolivia? Or France? Or even England? No! In fact, ASL derives from the French system in use in the early 19th century, and they’re still 60% similar. British Sign Language, which arose independently, would be mostly unintelligible to an American signer.


 Oh, those saditty gals think they’re all that, don’t they? Saditty, or seditty, goes back to the 1940s, where it first appears in news articles from African-American publications. It applies primarily to women act like they’re better than others, or who seem stuck up. Bougie, as in bourgeois, has a similar use among African Americans.

Scorpion Lizards

 Plenty of lizards are scary looking, but that doesn’t make them scorpions. Even so, there are places like Western Virginia where the word scorpion is used to refer to a lizard, such as the five-lined skink, known for its distinctive blue tail.

Where Does Voting “Poll” Come From?

 Why do we vote at a polling place? Pol in Middle English simply meant head, and polls are the place where heads are counted. The Middle English word for head also gives us get polliwog, a young frog with a wiggly head, and tadpole, those toads and other little amphibians that for a while look like they’re all head.

Nouns Without Articles

 Sometimes people say they are in studio, in hospital, or going to prom — but there’s no the in there! In plenty of dialects, it’s common to drop such articles, making anarthrous nouns, or nouns without articles.

Children’s Rhyme

 “First I gave her peaches, then I gave her pears, then I gave her 50 cents and kissed her on the stairs.” If you’ve got a children’s rhyme to rival this gem, share it with us!

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

Photo by John Goodridge. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean by Michael Erard
Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

Music Used in the Episode

ChucoLalo SchifrinBoulevard Nights Original SoundtrackWarner Brothers
Roller CoasterLalo SchifrinTowering ToccataCTI
Try A Little TendernessSoul FlutesTrust In MeCTI
Quiet VillageLalo SchifrinBlack WidowCTI
In The Middle Of The RiverThe CrusadersUnsung HeroesBlue Thumb
BaiaLalo SchifrinBlack WidowCTI
Trust In MeSoul FlutesTrust In MeCTI
Deep GullyOutlaw Blues BandBreaking InStateside
JacarandaLuis BonfaJacarandaRanwood Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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