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Twice a day the River Thames recedes, revealing a muddy shoreline. Hobbyists known as mudlarks stroll the surface searching for objects that have found their way into the river over the centuries, everything from ancient Roman jewelry to modern wedding rings. A new book about mudlarking describes the irresistible appeal of searching for treasures and the stories behind them. Also, why do performers whisper the phrase toi, toi, toi to wish each other well backstage before a show? And, what’s the plural of octopus? Octopuses? Octopi? Something else? Plus, schniddles vs. schnibbles, visiting vs. talking, fotched a heave, creature comforts, trade-last, a timely pangram, Doves Type, a brain teaser about malapropisms, and more.

This episode first aired January 23, 2021. It was rebroadcast the weekend of January 22, 2022.

A Great Read about Scavenging from the Mud of the Thames

  Laura Maiklem’s book Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames (Bookshop| Amazon) is a charming memoir about the rewards of scavenging for bits of history along the River Thames.

Schnibbles, Schnippel, Schniddles

  Barney from Carmel, Indiana, says his family always used the term schniddles to refer to e teeny bits of detritus left on the table after snipping paper snowflakes. It’s most likely a variant of schnibbles, a far more common term for “scraps,” or “small pieces,” which is heard in parts of the United States that were settled largely by German immigrants. The term comes from German Schnippel, meaning “scraps.”

Fotched a Heave and Catched a Fall

  Michael in Morgantown, Kentucky, is pondering his grandfather’s phrase He fotched a heave and catched a fall meaning someone “made a quick bodily movement and fell.” Fotched is a dialectal past tense of fetch.

Pandemic Pangram

  In response to our conversation about pangrams, those sentences that use every letter of the alphabet at least once, Sarah McCall sent us this advice: Just mask up and be extra careful that you don’t quit always sanitizing everything.

A Malaprop Brain Pleaser

  A malaprop is a word or phrase used mistakenly for a similar-sounding word or phrase, often to amusing effect. Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a puzzle in honor of the late comedian Norm Crosby, a.k.a. “Mr. Malaprop,” who once noted that “The human body is prone to many melodies.” For each quiz clue, John has replaced each malaprop with its definition. For example, John says, Norm once took his trousers to the tailor because they were in need of “a noisy public argument.” What did those trousers need?

Abbreviating Titles and Initialisms Throughout the Anglosphere

  Cassandra, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wonders about the rules for how to punctuate titles such as Professor and Doctor. Growing up in South Africa, she was taught that, in contrast to practice in the United States, the titles Dr, Mr, and Mrs are not followed by a period because they stand for the whole words Doctor, Mister, and Mistress and include the first and last letters of each term. In contrast, she says, she was told that Prof should be followed by a period because it’s an abbreviation of the word Professor, cutting the word off in the middle. When it comes to abbreviations, there are lots of exceptions to punctuation rules. In the United States, for example, people sometimes leave out the period in US, UN, and CEO when using shortened forms of United States, United Nations, and Chief Executive Officer.

Those Old Familiar Creature Comforts

  Creature comforts, meaning “material comforts,” may sound like a newfangled term, but it goes back at least as far as the 1640s.

“Jack Roses,” the Conversation Has Shifted

  Scottie in Dallas, Texas, says her grandmother, who was from Mississippi, used to use the term Jack Roses whenever a discussion veered off course. Her family picked up the term, and called it out whenever the course of a conversation changed abruptly. Any history to the term Jack Roses? There’s a sweet cocktail called the Jack Rose, but other than that, this may well be a family word.

Once and For All, What’s the Plural of “Octopus”?

  Zoe from Kingston, New York, wonders: what is the plural of octopus? More than one of these animals can be referred to as octopi or octopuses. Octopus comes from Greek words that mean “eight feet,” so strictly speaking, if you wanted to use the equivalent of a Greek ending on this word, you’d use the rare English word octopodes (which, correctly pronounced, rhymes with “mock plop of cheese,” not “wok foe toads”), but try it, and you’ll only sound pretentious.

The Lost Typeface Recovered from the Thames

  Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames (Bookshop| Amazon) relates the amazing tale, told many places, of Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, a bookbinder who developed the famous Doves Type. To prevent the moveable type from falling into the hands of his younger business partner, Cobden-Sanderson methodically tossed bits of this metal type — thousands of them — into the Thames River. Decades later, some of that type has been recovered by graphic designer Robert Green.

Toi Toi Toi

  Laura in San Diego, California, wonders about the tradition of performers saying Toi toi toi to each other backstage to wish each other a good performance. It’s possible that it derives from the ancient idea that spitting three times can ward off the evil eye. Today performers sometimes simply text each other #toix3. It’s possible it comes from the German word Teufel or “devil,” but no one is sure.

To Visit Meaning To Converse

  Dean from Chadron, Nebraska, notes that people in his area use the term visit to mean “talk with” or “converse,” as in We sat on the porch swing visiting. This usage originated in the American South as far back as the 1860s, then spread throughout the country.

A Trade-Last Expects a Compliment in Return

  Debbie from Memphis, Tennessee, grew up in Arkansas, where she learned the term trade-last, which refers to “a quoted compliment offered in return for the recipient first offering one to the speaker.” Although those from the American South may remember this practice as a sweet, harmless interaction, writer Nora Ephron, in her book I Remember Nothing (Bookshop|Amazon) describes a trade-last or T.L. as “a strange, ungenerous, and seriously narcissistic way of telling someone a nice thing that has been said about them.”

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

Photo by Alexander Savin. Used and modified under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames by Laura Maiklem (Bookshop| Amazon)
I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

The FlyDavid AxelrodSongs Of ExperienceCapital
The BodyPiero UmilianiIll CorpoSound Work Shop
Get Up Off Your KneesDavid AxelrodHeavy AxeFantasy
Desert IslandPiero UmilianiIll CorpoSound Work Shop
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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