Need a slang term that can replace just about any noun? Try chumpie. If you’re from Philadelphia, you may already know this handy placeholder word. And there’s Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan, and … The Bronx — why do we add the definite article to the name of that New York borough? The answer lies in the area’s geography and local family lore. Plus, an Australian bullfrog that sounds like a banjo called a pobblebonk. Also: get the pips, down your Sunday throat, jubous, dinor vs. diner, stepped out of a bandbox, a Carl Sandburg poem, quemacocos, sirsee, a punny puzzle about doing well, and more.
This episode first aired February 12, 2022. It was rebroadcast the weekend of November 5, 2022.
In English, if you doubt what someone is telling you, you can say so with such idioms as Stop pulling my leg or Pull the other one — it has bells on. Other languages have similarly colorful phrases for expressing skepticism. In French, you might say Arrête tes salades! or “Stop your salads!” In Spanish, you can say Ahora cuéntame una de vaqueros, literally “Now tell me one about cowboys.” A Tagalog phrase to express such dubiousness literally translates as “You are making a rope out of sand.”
Holly from Camden, South Carolina, says her grandmother used to sprinkle lots of pepper on their food, advising the family that heavily seasoning food that way meant that they wouldn’t get the pips. The term the pips or the pip was originally a term applied to a disease suffered by poultry, and over time its meaning became more generalized to mean a wide variety of unspecified ailments.
Alan, who grew up in eastern North Carolina, says his mother used the word jubous to mean “leery” or “skeptical.” Variously spelled jubous, jubus, dubous, dubus, or some similar version, jubous is simply an adaptation of the word dubious. It’s primarily heard in the American South, but also exists in several dialects of English, and in Scotland.
Quiz Guy John Chaneski says his wife, the poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, has pointed out that there are some people who shouldn’t be classified as ne’er-do-wells, because every once in a while, they do manage to do something right. Perhaps, she says, they should be called rare-do-wells. Inspired by that observation, John has crafted a quiz with answers that rhyme with ne’er-do-well. For example, what would you call someone who occasionally does some good and lives in a nudist colony?
Alvin in Huntsville, Alabama, is a fan of the multipurpose noun chumpie, which he learned from a native Philadelphian. He remembers hearing it on the television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when actor Will Smith, who is originally from Philadelphia himself, would say things like Yo! That chumpie is fly! Like the word jawn, which is also closely associated with Philadelphia, chumpie functions largely as a placeholder word that can be applied to lots of different things. The use of this slang term goes back at least to the 1980s and perhaps farther than that. In the early 1990s, a Black-owned Philadelphia company began producing Chumpies potato chips.
A pobblebonk is an Australian bullfrog that doesn’t croak so much as make a kind of plonking sound. For this reason, it’s also called a banjo frog — and it really does sound like a banjo!
Why does the name of the Manhattan borough called The Bronx include the word The while the other boroughs of New York City lack a definite article? The 17th-century Dutch settler Jonas Bronck bequeathed his name to a local body of water, which came to be known as the Bronck’s River. In 1895, New York City designated an area that included the Broncks River as The Bronx, although it’s a mystery why the name came to be spelled with X as the final letter. There’s a great book to go along with learning more about it: The Names of New York by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (Bookshop|Amazon).
McPaul lives in Montclair, New Jersey, but grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, where several casual restaurants spelled the name of their establishment as dinor rather than diner, as in Stan’s Dinor. This spelling variant is largely limited to northwestern Pennsylvania. No one knows for sure how this variation originated, although it might simply be a matter of sensational spelling, in which words are intentionally misspelled in order to attract attention. For more about these dining establishments spelled dinor, check out Brian Butko’s Diners of Pennsylvania. (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Spanish word for “sunroof,” that opening in the top of a car, is quemacocos, which has a picturesque origin. Coco is a slang term for “head,” from the resemblance between that body part and a coconut. And the Spanish word quemar means “to burn.” So opening up the sunroof, or quemacocos, for too long may result in sunburned pates.
A listener emails to say that her nonagenarian mother adopted a special project during the pandemic. She compiled a lexicon of words and phrases used by their family when the kids were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. The resulting 33-page document includes some of the family’s favorite stories, games, and words they adopted as a result of childhood misunderstandings, and offers a unique glimpse of their day-to-day lives during that time. For example, the family playfully referred to New Mexico as New Mixing Bowl and newscaster Walter Cronkite as Waffle Cornflake, and had a running joke about one of the children’s imaginary friends named Billy Onson. The lexicon also includes an entry for the family’s New Room, which they added to the house in 1960, but still call the New Room many decades later — not unlike the Pont Neuf in Paris, with a name that translates as “New Bridge,” even though it’s the oldest bridge across the Seine in that city. Ever thought about compiling your own Family Lexicon? We’d love to hear about it!
Matthew from Columbia, South Carolina, is curious about the word sirsee, a small gift or knickknack. Scattered through much of the American South, this colloquial term is sometimes spelled as surcy, or any of several other variations. The word may have originated in the slang of young college women, and probably derives from a fanciful play on the words secret surprise.
In 1936, Carl Sandburg published The People, Yes (Bookshop|Amazon) a 300-page poem in book form that celebrates the folklore, language, and spirit of his fellow Americans. In one passage, Sandburg vividly describes various kinds of audiences: Some are noisy as a cook-stove falling downstairs, and others quiet as an eel swimming in oil.
Susan from Cocker City, Kansas, says her mother used to describe someone who appeared impeccably dressed with the phrase She looked like she stepped out of a bandbox. In the 17th century, the word band could denote a garment collar, sometimes delicately ruffled, and a bandbox was a sturdy box of cardboard or thinly shaved wood used to store and protect the collar between uses.
Jerry from Northern Virginia catches himself describing his poodle Pepper as rambunctious, the wonders how that word came to be. Its origin is uncertain, but it’s one of several long, playful coinages from the early 19th century, including hornswoggle, snollygoster, and scrumptious. It may have been inspired by rumbustious, a word more often used in the UK to mean “unruly” or “boisterous.”
Linda from Wichita, Kansas, thinks we need a word for that closed-mouth little smile we give to strangers on the street — not a friendly Duchenne smile, just a polite acknowledgment of the other person’s existence. She suggests the word smurm.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|The Names of New York by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|Diners of Pennsylvania by Brian Butko (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg (Bookshop|Amazon)|
Music Used in the Episode
|Country Fried Chicken||Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen||Country Fried Chicken||Lightin’ Records|
|City Heights||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Colemine Records|
|Fancy Pants||Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen||Fancy Pants||Judnell|
|Blue Tip||Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen||Fancy Pants||Judnell|
|Strollin Adams||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Colemine Records|
|My Heart Sings||John Klemmer||Blowin’ Gold||Cadet|
|The Phantom||Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen||Energy Control Center||Lightin’ Records|
|Free Soul||John Klemmer||Blowin’ Gold||Cadet|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|