“What has a head like a cat, feet like a cat, a tail like a cat, but isn’t a cat?” Answer: a kitten! A 1948 children’s joke book has lots of these to share with kids. Plus: an easy explanation for the difference between immigrate with an i, and emigrate with an e. And: The ancient Greeks revered storks for the way they cared for each other. They even had a legal requirement called the Stork Law, which mandated that Greek adults look after their elderly parents. Much later, the same idea inspired a rare English word that means “reciprocal love between children and parents.” All that, plus a brain-busting quiz about scrambled words, Mrs. Astor’s pet horse, dissimilation when pronouncing the word forward, tap ’er light, allopreening, raise the window down, why we call a zipper a fly, and lots more.
This episode first aired July 27, 2019.
Children’s Rhymes and Chants
The Internet Archive offers a wealth of digital books and other publications for free checkout, including the 1948 collection of jokes, riddles, and playground sayings called A Rocket in My Pocket: The Rhymes and Chants of Young Americans.
Origins of Trouser Fly
Gabrielle in Beloit, Michigan, is puzzled about why we refer to the zipper on a pair of pants as a fly. The term originally referred not to the zipper itself, but the flap that goes over it, like the fly that protects the entrance to a tent.
Pentacost Polka Dots
A kid’s misunderstanding of the word Pentecost leads to a family celebrating the religious holiday of Polka Dots.
Raise the Window Down
Eva in Fairbanks, Alaska, wonders why her grandmother used to say raise the window down when she wanted someone to open that window.
What’s the structure that projects out from a building over an entrance, such as at a hospital entrance where patients can be dropped off? Architects call it a port-cochere, or literally, “coach door.”
Quiz Guy John Chaneski is puzzling over theatrical productions from an alternate universe, where the titles of familiar plays include a scrambled word. For example, what’s the Shakespearean comedy in which Titania, Oberon, and all the fairies are packing heat?
Immigrate vs. Emigrate
Nine-year-old Lydia in Madison, Alabama, wonders about the difference between the words immigrate and emigrate.
Nom de École
Michelle from Tallahassee, Florida, says that when she was a kid, she decided on the first day of kindergarten that she would tell her teacher that she went by a different name, so that’s what everyone at school called her. Imagine her mother’s surprise on parents’ night when she couldn’t find her daughter’s desk or any schoolwork with her name on it.
Halfway Between Depression and Euphoria
John in Bismarck, North Dakota, wants a word that describes a neutral state of emotion, specifically the midpoint between depression and euphoria. Is that insouciant? Apathy? Zen? Affectless? What’s wrong with plain old neutral?
When a bird straightens and cleans its feathers with its own beak, it’s preening. If one bird is doing the same thing for another, that action is called allopreening.
Mrs. Astor’s Pet Horse
Julie in Greenwood, Indiana, says her mother was fond of the expression Mrs. Astor’s pet horse, meaning “someone who dresses ostentatiously.” The phrase refers to Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, from the ultra-wealthy Astor family, who was known for throwing parties so lavish that even her horse got dolled up. The expression was repopularized in the 1940s by a traveling musical revue called Mrs. Astor’s Pet Horse. Other variants include Mrs. Astor’s plush horse, pet horse, billy goat, and pet cow.
The 1948 book A Rocket in My Pocket: The Rhymes and Chants of Young Americans includes a funny rhyme about a donkey who mistakes a zebra for a felonious mule.
Storks Roosting in Our Language
In certain ancient traditions, storks were associated with kindness and family devotion. The Hebrew word for this leggy bird is chasidah, meaning “the kindly one,” from chesed, or “loving kindness.” Storks were also highly regarded in Greek and Roman culture. The Greek word for this bird, pelargos, gave rise to Greek antipelargia, meaning “reciprocal love between parents and children,” usually the love of adult children for their parents. The Pelargonia was a law in ancient Greek that required the care of one’s elderly parents; the Roman equivalent was the Lex Cicconia. The rare English word antipelargy refers to mutual love between parents and children. Greek pelargos also appears in the name of the flower pelargonium, so named for the beaklike shape of its seed pod, which is why it is also known as storksbill.
Tap ’Er Light
Cindy in Spokane, Washington, says her father would bid his loved ones good-bye by saying tap ’er light. The phrase comes from miners’ slang of the early 1900s and is a gentle admonition to take care to avoid cave-ins or prematurely detonating explosives. High-grade, meaning to select the best items for oneself out of a larger collection of items, is another example of slang from the mines. It’s a reference to a worker selecting some of the best ore and pocketing it instead of turning it over to the company.
Alex in Amarillo, Texas, says he often hears speakers dropping the sound of the first r in the word forward, sounding like foward or fuhward. It’s what linguists call dissimilation, where, when duplicate consonants are not far apart in a single word, one of them is sometimes dropped for ease of pronunciation. For more about dissimilation, check out this article by Nancy Hall, a professor of linguistics at California State University Long Beach.
Euphemism for the Devil
Tess in San Antonio, Texas, says her father and grandfather used to pretend to be bogeymen, playfully warning kids to be good lest Ol’ Santy Mocus come after them. The word tantibogus is a euphemism for the Devil, and Ol’ Santy Mocus may be yet another one.
Photo by Mariya Prokopyuk. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Books Mentioned in the Broadcast
|A Rocket in My Pocket: The Rhymes and Chants of Young Americans|
|Just My Type|
|Word-Book of Virginia Folk-Speech|
Music Used in the Broadcast
|The Drunk||James Brown||The Drunk 45||Bethlehem Records|
|Chocolate Buttermilk||Kool and the Gang||Kool and the Gang||De-Lite Records|
|Lady, You Look Good To Me||Galt MacDermot||Shapes Of Rhythm||Kilmarnock|
|Let The Music Take Your Mind||Kool and the Gang||Chocolate Buttermilk 45||De-Lite Records|
|Burning Spear||The Soulful String||Groovin With The Soulful Strings||Cadet|
|It’s Your Thing||The Gaturs||Cold Bear 45||ATCO|
|Farmland||Galt MacDermot||Shapes Of Rhythm||Kilmarnock|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|