It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s witches’ knickers! What do you call stray plastic bags that litter the landscape? Also, what it means to do something like a boss, how to hyphenate correctly, and why we say we have a crush on someone. Also, similes from the 1800s and the truth about what happens when a bull is loose in a china shop. This episode first aired January 14, 2012.
What do you call plastic shopping bags that litter the landscape? Some know them as witches’ britches or witches’ knickers. Others prefer urban tumbleweeds. In the film American Beauty, Ricky Fitts famously called them one the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. Either way, despite the effort to introduce reusable bags, the plastic variety continues to accumulate. Lori Robinson of Santa Barbara has even gone so far as to collect them from Tanzanian villages and distribute the more sustainable variety.
A clumsy person may be known as a bull in a china shop or a bull in a china closet. The former came into use first, in the early 1800s, but bull in china closet is more evocative. Plus, according to the MythBusters, a bull in a china shop is surprisingly nimble.
When did the expression have a crush on someone come into use? The television series Downton Abbey has dropped this and other fun bits of language, but no need to worry about its historical accuracy — crush has been around since the early 1880s. To mash on someone or crash on someone are idioms in the same vein, and may derive from the idea of an emotional collision between two prospective flames.
Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a new word game titled “The Secrets of Nym.” In Alcoholics Anonymous, denial is said to stand for “Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying,” which is a backronym. An acoustic guitar could be considered a retronym. And an editor named “Daily” is an example of an aptronym.
When someone finds out where you’re from, do they ask if you know so-and-so? The cynics out there may refer to this as the six degrees of stupid, but even urban dwellers can admit that the answer is “yes” more often than the odds would suggest. How do you respond in those cases? Is there a term for those questions?
Where does the meme like a boss come from? The original boss may be the rapper Slim Thug, whose 2005 track “Like A Boss,” from the album Already Platinum (which never went platinum), lists the myriad tasks he performs like a boss (e.g. “When I floss / like a boss”). In 2009, Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live and The Lonely Island made a video entitled “Like A Boss” featuring Seth Rogen, which describes further boss-like activities (e.g. “promote synergy / like a boss”).
An old book of similes contains such gems as it’s easy as peeling a hardboiled egg and it’s as hard to shave as an egg.
Does evidence-based have a hyphen? Why, yes it does, because evidence-based functions as an adjective. While style guides indicate that we’re using fewer hyphens, evidence-based is an important one to keep intact, even when used after the verb (e.g., “the research is evidence-based”).
It’s been a puzzle to track the origin of the saying good night, sleep tight, see you on the big drum. Perhaps it’s an innocent mixup that takes from the Robert Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter, which reads, “good night, sleep tight, I’ll see you on the Brigadoon.”
“You’d better behave, or I’ll knock you from an amazing grace to a floating opportunity!” This African-American saying, used as a motherly warning, first popped up in the 1930 play Mule Bone by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Infra dig, short for the Latin phrase infra dignitatum, means beneath one’s dignity or uncouth. Abbreviated Latin phrases like infra dig have become standard after old English schoolboys used to shorten them while studying classical texts.
The 19th Century French writer Adolphe de Lamartine said that written language is like a mirror, which it is necessary to have in order that man know himself and be sure that he exists.
In their song “The Old Apartment,” The Barenaked Ladies sang, “crooked landing / crooked landlord / narrow laneway filled with crooks.” “Crooked” there is an example of a polyseme, or one word that has multiple meanings. Similar to this is the syllepsis, wherein one word is applied to other words in different senses (e.g. Alanis Morissette: “You held your breath and the door for me”).
Photo by Martin Cathrae. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|A Dictionary of Similes by Frank Jenners Wilstach|
|Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns|
|Mule Bone by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston|
Music Used in the Episode
|Love Bowl||Lonnie Smith||Live At Club Mozambique||Blue Note|
|Giving Up Food For Jah||The Lions||Jungle Struttin||Ubiquity|
|Charly Theme||Ravi Shankar||Charly Original Soundtrack||World Pacific|
|Rocco||The Johnny Rocco Band||Rocco||Festival Records|
|Solar Level||The Johnny Almond Music Machine||Patent Pending||Deram|
|I’m Alive||Johnny Thunders||I’m Alive 45rpm||Calla Records|
|Thin Man Skank .||The Lions||Jungle Struttin||Ubiquity|
|Main Title||Ravi Shankar||Charly Original Soundtrack||World Pacific|
|Top and Low Rent||Plone||For Beginner Piano||Matador|
|Robot Ton||Anthony Hobson||Millennium||Music De Wolfe|
|Sweet Soul Music||The Lions||Jungle Struttin||Ubiquity|
|Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off||Ella Fitzgerald||Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book||Verve|