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Little Pitchers

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Did you know reading poetry improves your prose? That includes hip-hop lyrics, too.  Also, how linguist can guess where you come from based on how you speak.  What do you call someone who picks the chocolate out of the trail mix?  Plus, champing at the bit, rutching around, kerfuffles and kerfluffles, pear-shaped, and little pitchers with big ears. This episode first aired December 8, 2012.

Poetry Improves Writing

  Can reading poetry make you a better writer? The way poetry pushes up against the rules of grammar makes it a great teacher even for the writing of standard prose. And while plenty of poems are best comprehended by the wise and mature, hip-hop is a form that’s more emotional and less subtle, and over at rapgenius.com, avid followers of hip-hop have annotated lyrics to tell the stories and meanings behind them. Is there a type of poetry that really moves you?

Kerfuffle, Kerfluffle

  Veronica, who grew up in Liverpool, England, has noticed that kerfuffle is a favorite term among American journalists talking about political situations, though it’s much more common across the pond. This word for a disturbance or a bother comes from Scotland, but it’s been picked up in the United States, where it’s often pronounced as kerfluffle.

Six Bald Men

  How do you get rid of the hiccups? Have someone scare you? Hold your breath? We hear thinking of six bald men may just do the trick!


  When it comes to trail mix, the peanuts may just as well be packing peanuts — all we really want is the chocolate! But if you’re one of those people who dig for the M&Ms and leave the rest, you might be accused of high-grading. This term comes from the mining industry in the early 1900s, when gold miners might sneak good pieces of precious metals or gems into their lunch pails.

Kurt and Rod

  A while back, our Quiz Guy John Chaneski gave us a game of aptronyms, and your answers are still pouring in. Like, what do you call two guys over a window? How about Kurt n’ Rod?

License Plate Word Game

  For this week’s game, Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a word puzzle for license plate readers. Might those first three letters stand for a longer word? For example, MMT might be short for mathematics, while MMX could be flummox. The object of this game is to think of the shortest answers possible. Can you think of any with fewer letters?

Faunching at the Bit

  What’s the difference between champing at the bit and faunching at the bit? Champing, or chomping, means you’re pumped up and ready to go, while faunching — more common in the Southwest — implies more anger and frustration.

Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

  When adults are talking sex, money, or other adult topics in the presence of children, one might say little pitchers have big ears, meaning that they don’t want the little ones to hear. The expression has to do with beverage pitchers with handles curved like human ears, not with baseball pitchers or painted pictures. What do you say when you wish you could cover the kids’ ears or make them leave the room?


  High-grading, or stealing choice bits of something, is mentioned in a book by David G. Rasmussen called The Man Who Moiled For Gold. Moil itself is an interesting term, meaning “to become wet and muddy from work.” It comes from the Latin word mollis, meaning “soft,” which is also the source of our word mollify.


  It’s hard to hold a baby when he’s rutching around. Rutching, or rutsching, which means slipping, sliding, and squirming around, comes from German, and is used in the United States in with a Pennsylvania Dutch history.


  You might use the phrase pear-shaped to describe someone who’s wide in the hips, but to say everything went pear-shaped can also mean that things went wrong. This slang term was among the members of Britain’s Royal Air Force during the Falkland Islands War, referring to the fact that when planes crash, they crunch into the shape of a pear: big on one end, smaller on the other.

Robley Wilson Poem

  Martha’s enthusiastic about the book Poetry 180: A Turning Back To Poetry, edited by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. One gem in there by Robley Wilson, called “I Wish in the City of Your Heart”, provides a lovely image of that moment when the rain stops and the rutching kids can run outside.

Determining A Person’s Origin by Their Language

  Despite the reach of television and pop culture, American English dialects are growing more diverse. Grant shows how it’s possible to pinpoint your region of origin — or at least come close — based on the way you pronounce the word bag. Of course, whether you call a carbonated beverage soda, pop or Coke also depends on what part of the country you’re from. Same with sofa, couch or davenport. Although we still tend to pick up faddish words from the media, local dialects continue to thrive, and there are plenty of quizzes out there to prove it. Linguist Bert Vaux’s American Dialect Survey includes helpful maps based on the answers that speakers in the United States give to 122 questions about regional words and phrases.


  Nowadays we think of the gridiron as the football field, but in the 14th century, a gridiron was a cooking instrument with horizontal bars placed over an open flame. Since then, gridiron has lent its name to a Medieval torture device, the American flag, and it’s even the source of the terms grid and gridlock.

Up and Quit

  Why do people up and quit? Can’t they just … quit? In the 1300s, up and followed by an action literally meant you got up and did something. Today, it’s taken the figurative meaning of doing something with vigor and enthusiasm, and it’s often used with speaking verbs.

Little Drink Pitchers

  When you hear that little pitchers have big ears, do you think of a lemonade pitcher or a baseball pitcher? In The Wisdom of Many: Essays On The Proverb, Wolfgang Mieder points out that a lot of people think it refers to a Little League pitcher with big ears sticking out of their baseball cap, though it’s really about a drink pitcher. Still, that’s no excuse for yelling nasty things at Little League games!

Is “Ain’t” Old-Fashioned?

  Has ain’t gone out of fashion? Teachers have succeeded in stigmatizing the word, and it’s also not such a common pet peeve any more. But perhaps the biggest reason you don’t hear it as much is because it’s no longer used in fiction and movies. Nowadays, it’s more common to hear ain’t used in certain idioms, like say it ain’t so.

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

Photo by Milena Mihaylova. Used under a Creative Commons license.


Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Man Who Moiled For Gold by David G. Rasmussen
Poetry 180: A Turning Back To Poetry edited by Billy Collins
The Wisdom of Many: Essays On The Proverb by Wolfgang Mieder

Music Used in the Episode

Dancing TimeThe FunkeesDancing TimeSoundway
StarliteGrand PianoramaxStarlite 12″ObliqSound
PicturesMcCoy TynerThe GreetingFantasy Records
Crystal GlassCrystal WorldCrystal Glass 45rpmPolydor
KiliminjaroThe Shaolin AfronautsFlight of The AncientsFreestyle Records
NaimaMcCoy TynerThe GreetingFantasy Records
Journey Through TimeThe Shaolin AfronautsFlight of The AncientsFreestyle Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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1 comment
  • hey guys,
    I am an avid Iranian listener of your show.
    I’ve called you before and have asked 2 questions. I haven’t received any answers.
    my first question is whether there is a nationality of people from Vatican, cuz you know, nowadays it’s a country.
    and the second one is whether there is a book or kinda dictionary in which one can find the derivatives of a word: you search for one word and it gives you the noun, adjective, etc of that word.
    thanks a zillion for your lovely show.

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