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A Louse in a Wrestling Jacket

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A California college student is campaigning for international scientific authorities to adopt the slang term hella as an official prefix indicating a huge number. Will he succeed? Also, how to pronounce niche, the regional terms doppick and nixie, the origins of towheaded and frenetic, and a phrase familiar to African-Americans but little-known outside that community: I couldn’t buy a louse in a wrestling jacket. This episode first aired October 2, 2010.

Prefix “Hella”

 Whether it’s bytes of data or intergalactic distances, humans are accumulating ever more massive amounts of data. But how do we use language to describe such mind-bogglingly huge numbers? There’s mega, as in mega-millions, and giga, as in gigabytes, but a California college student is urging international scientific authorities to adopt hella as a prefix to indicate a huge number: 10 to the 27th power. What are his chances for getting this slang term officially adopted as a unit of measurement?


 Someone who’s flaxen-haired is said to be towheaded. Martha explains what kind of “tow” is involved.

Wrestling Jackets

 Here’s a variant of a phrase that’s familiar to many African-Americans, but virtually unknown to most others: “I’m so broke I couldn’t buy a louse a wrestling jacket.” What’s its meaning and origin? It’s also heard “buy a flea a wrestling jacket” or “buy a mosquito a wrestling jacket.”

National Book Awards Word Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a special inspiration for this week’s puzzle: His wife, author Jennifer Michael Hecht, is one of five judges for the nonfiction category of the National Book Awards. He’s crafted a quiz based on some of the 500 titles in contention.

Doppick and Nixie

 A veterinarian in Pennsylvania Dutch Country runs into some strange terms. What’s wrong with a dog that’s doppick, or a cat that’s nixie? What does it mean to have your animal dressed?

Niche Pronunciation

 The pronunciation of the word niche has changed over the years.

Defining Numbers and Colors

 Grant and Martha talk more about the challenges dictionary editors face when trying to define numbers and colors.

Wish In One Hand

 A descendant of the legendary Hatfield family of Appalachia remembers her grandmother saying, “Wish in one hand and tacky in the other, and see which fills up first.” She wonders about the origin of this advice, and what the word tacky means in this case. Yep, we know all about the coarser, earthier version of the phrase! Here’s another: “If wishes were buttercake, beggars would bite.”

Frenetic vs. Frantic

 The adjectives frenetic and frantic arise from the same linguistic root, but have slightly different meanings.

Allan Metcalf Book Recommendation

 Grant recommends the new book, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word by Allan Metcalf.

Play it By Ear

 When we agree to make a decision later, we might say we’re going to “play it by ear.” What’s the origin of that phrase?

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

Photo by Dennis Jarvis. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word by Allan Metcalf

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