The word hipster might seem recent, but it actually originated in the 1930s when it referred to jazz aficionados who were in the know about the best nightclubs and cool music. Speaking of music, a professional musician reports that it’s sometimes hard for him to relax and enjoy the performance of others because he’s tempted overanalyze it. Do language experts have the same problem when they listen to everyday conversation or read for pleasure? They sure do! The remedy? Reading something you can really get lost in. And hey — some gift recommendations coming right up: books about family, reading, and 21st-century English. Plus, little shavers, fork to the floor, potato quality, some good, zhuzh, and tons more.
This episode first aired December 14, 2019.
This episode is supported in part by Yabla, language immersion through engaging videos and patented learning technology for Spanish, French, Italian, German, Chinese, and English. Stream real TV shows you enjoy and learn at the same time! For a free trial, visit www.yabla.com.
Martha recommends Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, a deeply personal, exuberant account of falling in love with both ancient and modern Greek by Mary Norris, former copy editor for The New Yorker. Norris shares several intriguing modern Greek terms, such as diaphani memvrani, or “cellophane,” which is cognate with English diaphanous membrane. Another is the modern Greek word for “newspaper,” which is ephemerida, a relative of the English word ephemeral, which literally means “lasting but for a day.”
Jesse from Newport News, Virginia, wonders about the expression potato quality meaning “poor quality.” For at least a decade, commenters on YouTube have used the phrase recorded with a potato to criticize a heavily pixelated or otherwise blurry video.
Jerry in Lutherville, Maryland, was reading a 2018 biography of Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm, that mentions a group in the 1930s that were described as hipsters or hepsters. In the 1930s, the word hipster applied to a jazz aficionado who was in the know about all the cool places to be. Years later, the term hipster came to apply to others who were similarly in the know about such cutting-edge culture as as the best beer, the coolest clothes, the best podcasts. The term hippie, which denotes “a member of the counterculture,” probably derives from this word, as do hip and hep, which describe someone “in the know.”
It’s Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s annual wrap-up of the year in limerick form. For example, a notable news story from 2019 is suggested by this rhyme: In China the scientists croon / A triumphant spacefaring tune / They’re fans of Pink Floyd / Or so I have hoid / They landed a craft on the … what?
Matt from Portage, Wisconsin, says that as a musician, he often finds himself focused on analyzing the structure and quality of a piece of music rather than just sitting back and enjoying it with everyone else. He asks if the hosts face a similar challenge when listening to casual conversation or reading for pleasure. The answer is yes!
If you say you’re going to repair to the drawing room after dinner, meaning that that you will “go” to that room, you’re using a word that’s completely different from the verb repair meaning “to fix.” These words come from different roots. The repair that means “to go” derives from the Latin word repatriare, a relative of English repatriate, meaning “to return to one’s own country.” The other repair meaning “to mend” comes Latin reparare meaning “to restore.”
Janie says that when she moved to Nantucket, Massaschusetts, she’d hear oldtimers there describe something in positive terms by saying it was some good. The some here functions as an intensifier that simply means very. This expression isn’t limited to Nantucket; it’s heard in many parts of the United States.
Grant recommends the book All This Could Be Yours, the latest novel by Jami Attenberg. An imperious father in a coma, and the family who comes to terms with his life and effect on them. If you’re familiar with her earlier book The Middlesteins, you’ll recognize the same sharp, well-observed writing. Other recommendations for the book lovers on your holiday gift list: A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, the lavishly illustrated anthology of letters edited by Maria Popova of Brainpickings and Claudia Bedrick, and Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, a smart, engaging, introduction to language and linguistics by linguist Gretchen McCulloch.
Elijah from Akron, Ohio, was surprised when his girlfriend Jenny observed that he was zhuzhing his hair. Elijah was skeptical that zhuzh, meaning “to make more attractive,” was actually a word, until he heard others use it. The word was popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy reality TV series from the early 2000s. He’d use the word to denote the action of making something prettier. Variant spellings include zhoosh and joosh, and the term seems to have arisen from secret lingo popular in parts of the gay community in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. The term may derive in turn from a Romany term, zhouzho, meaning to “clean” or “neaten.”
Brian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reports that whenever someone dropped a fork in his house, his mother would say Fork to the floor, company’s at the door. She’d also say If your palm itches, you’re going to come into money, and If your nose itches, you’re going to kiss a fool, and often repeated a superstition that if the first person to enter your house on New Year’s Day was a dark-haired person who gave you silver, you’d have good luck the rest of the year.
Jordan from Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada, says that when he used the word gitch, his colleagues from the United States had no idea it meant “underwear.” The Second Edition of A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles has a great entry that includes this term. It’s more commonly seen as gotchies, with several variants, including gotch, gonchies, gaunch, gauch, and gitch. The term derives from similar-sounding Eastern European terms for “underwear.”
Photo by Joseph Anzaldua. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris|
|The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren|
|All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg|
|The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg|
|A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick|
|Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch|
|A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles|
Music Used in the Episode
|Son of Ice Bag||Lonnie Smith||Think!||Blue Note|
|Southwick||Maceo and All The Kings Men||Doing Their Own Thing||House of The Fox|
|The Call Of The Wild||Lonnie Smith||Think!||Blue Note|
|Mag Poo||Maceo and All The Kings Men||Doing Their Own Thing||House of The Fox|
|Think!||Lonnie Smith||Think!||Blue Note|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|