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Mimeographs and Dittos

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In this episode: How colors got their names, and a strange way to write. The terms blue and orange arrived in English via French, so why didn’t we also adapt the French for black and white? • Not every example of writing goes in one direction across the page. In antiquity, people sometimes wrote right to left, then left to right, then back again — the same pattern you use when mowing a lawn. There’s a word for it! • A whiff of those fragrant duplicated worksheets that used to be passed out in elementary schools. Do you call them mimeographed pages or ditto sheets? • Also: three-way chili, hangry, frogmarch, the cat may look at the queen, hen turd tea, and the rhetorical backoff I’m just saying.

This episode first aired June 23, 2018.

Words Where You Are

 Is there a word or phrase that’s particular to your hometown? The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary would like to hear about it. In Cincinnati, for example, three-way refers to a kind of style of serving chili. You can contribute your examples on the OED’s site, or talk about it on Twitter using the hashtag #wordswhereyouare.

The Origins of Ditto and Mimeograph

 You may remember ditto machines (especially their smell), or even further back, mimeograph sheets. Both the words ditto and mimeograph were originally brand names. The word ditto goes back to an Italian word that means said, while mimeograph comes from Greek words that mean “to write the same.” Later came Xerox machines, whose name derives from the Greek word xeros, or dry, a reference to the printing process. From the same Greek root comes xeriscaping, which is landscaping that requries little or no water. Other terms for similar types of printing devices are formograph, mimeoscope, spirit duplicator, hectograph, roneograph, and pyrograph.

Kids Say it Wrong but Funnily

 When trying to make themselves understood, kids can be wonderfully creative with language. A couple of examples sent in by listeners: lasterday, referring to any time in the past, and spicy, describing bath water that’s too hot.

Hangry Meaning and Origin

 Colleen from Fairbanks, Alaska, is pondering the word hangry, a portmanteau of hungry and angry, and applied to someone who’s irritable as the result of hunger. Although hangry has been around sincet at least the 1950s, it enjoyed a boost in popularity in the 1990s. In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary added an entry for this useful adjective.

Tom Wolfe Brain Teaser

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s brain teaser involves words and phrases that the late writer Tom Wolfe helped popularize. For example, what phrase is associated with Wolfe’s 1979 book with a title that might be paraphrased as “Just What Is Needed?”

Where Do Color Names Come From?

 Why does English derive words for some colors, such as blue and orange, from French, but not words for other colors, such as black and white? A fantastic resource about the history of colors is Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color.

Tyme Travel

 On Twitter, @mollybackes notes that in Wisconsin, a Tyme machine dispenses cash, not time travel.

The Cat Can Look at the Queen

 Nancy in Panama City Beach, Florida, remembers that as a girl, whenever she asked why her mother was looking at her, her mother would respond, “Well, can’t the cat look at the queen?” This phrase goes all the way back to the mid-16th century. A 1652 book of proverbs includes the version “What, a cat may look on a king, you know.” Another version goes, “a cat is free to contemplate a monarch.”


 To frogmarch someone means to hustle them out of a place, usually by grabbing their collar and pinning their arms behind. Originally, this verb referred to police carrying an unruly person out of a building face down with a different person grasping each limb.

Carrot and Stick Origin

 Steve in Dennis, Massachusetts, remembers a cartoon that showed a boy trying to persuade a donkey to pull a cart by holding out a carrot suspended from a stick. Is that the origin of the expression carrot and stick? The original metaphor involved the idea of motivating an animal with intermittent rewards and punishment — that is, proffering a carrot or threatening with a stick. It didn’t mean always holding the carrot out of reach.

The True Alchemists

 In his collection of essays, A Temple of Texts, writer William Gass observed: “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”


 Boustrophedonic writing goes from right to left, then left to right, then right to left again. This term derives from Greek word bous, meaning “ox,” also found in bucolic and bulimia (literally, ox hunger) and strophe, meaning turn, like the downward turn that is a catastrophe.

Gank, To Steal

 Mark from Los Angeles, California, is curious about the slang term gank, meaning to steal.

Steering-Wheel Holders

 Monte from San Antonio, Texas, responded to our query about what to call people who hold up traffic in turn lanes: steering-wheel holders.

Rhetorical Backoffs

 Eric in Fairbanks, Alaska, notes the use of the phrase “I’m just saying” as a way to soften one’s comment or avoid responsibility for an observation. Some linguists call such a statement a rhetorical backoff. Other examples are “present company excluded,” “no offense,” “not to be critical,” or the even more elaborate “I’m not saying, I’m just saying.”

Hen Turd Tea

 Julie in Nantucket, Massachussetts, was tickled when her father used the expression weak as hen turd tea. More commonly called chicken poop tea, or chicken poo tea, or in Australia chook poo tea, hen turd tea is a mixture of poultry manure steeped in water that some believe is helpful to spread over garden soil.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Secret Lives of Color
A Temple of Texts

Music Used in the Episode

Melting PotBooker T and The MG’sMelting PotStax
Back On The TrackJimmy McGriffElectric FunkBlue Note
Green OnionsBooker T and The MG’sGreen OnionsStax
Golden SlumbersBooker T and The MG’sMcLemore AveStax
Time Is TightBooker T and The MG’sUp Tight OSTStax
Soul LimboBooker T and The MG’sSoul LimboStax
Chris CrossJimmy McGriffElectric FunkBlue Note
Groovin’Booker T and The MG’sThe Best of Booker T and The MGsAtlantic
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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