A librarian opens a book and finds a mysterious invitation scribbled on the back of a business card. Another discovers a child’s letter to the Tooth Fairy, tucked into a book decades ago. What stories are left untold by these forgotten, makeshift bookmarks? Also: a “cumshaw artist” is the wily member of a military unit who knows the shortcuts of procuring something for all their buddies, whether it’s food or a borrowed vehicle for the evening. Plus, a handy Russian saying translates as “the circus left, the clowns remain.” Also, scroll the window down, case quarter, Johnny pump, getting on the binders, telltale sign, maximums vs. maxima, shm-reduplication, and a funny 19th-century saying about the local know-it-all. Wishing you many happy returns of the day!
This episode first aired September 11, 2021. It was rebroadcast the weekend of August 6, 2022.
After our conversation about long-forgotten items left in books, a volunteer at the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, Vermont, writes to say that he found an old letter to the Tooth Fairy tucked inside a donated book. The letter is from July 1996, and the volunteer hopes to reunite the writer with that note. Carter, are you out there? And did you get the prize you were hoping for?
Rick in San Diego, California, wants to know why his older relatives always inscribed birthday cards with the phrase many happy returns of the day. This phrase, and the shorter version, many happy returns, indicates that the speaker is sending wishes for the other’s happiness year after year as that special day returns or comes round again.
A listener reports that when riding with him in a car, his young daughter asked him to scroll the window down, which struck him as a creative combination of old and new — the old-fashioned expression roll down a window, and the newer scrolling, meaning “to move text or images” down a glowing screen.
Ten-year-old Alex, from Oceanside, California, wonders if a cat’s flicking tail inspired the expression telltale sign, meaning “an indicator.” The word is telltale, not its soundalike telltail. About 400 years ago, a telltale was a “tattler.” Today a telltale on a sailboat is “a piece of ribbon or fabric that indicates a change in the wind,” and Australians use the word telltale to denote “the rear indicator light on a motor vehicle.” One memorable use of the term is in the title of Edgar Allan Poe chilling story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Quiz Guy John Chaneski is starry-eyed about his latest puzzle, which involves the names of constellations. You might guess that the constellation Aquila has something to do with water. Actually, it’s named for a bird. Which one?
Jesse in Newport News, Virginia, is an auto-racing enthusiast who often hears announcers talking about a driver getting on the binders, meaning “to brake” when going into a curve. As early as the 1930s, the term binders has referred to the brakes of a car, and may have been used earlier that way in aviation. A collection of service slang from World War II has a similar phrase meaning the same thing: jump on the binders.
Following our conversation about the dismissive phrase, Not my circus, not my monkeys, Nelly, who is a professor of French and Russian in Marquette, Michigan, shares a handy Russian saying that translates as “the circus left, the clowns remain.” For the Russian version, check out these sweatshirts.
Celia, from Spokane, Washington, is unhappy that fewer and fewer English speakers seem aware of the correct plurals of Latin and Greek words. She is bothered, for example, when someone refers to minimums rather than minima. Minima is more often a British usage, as is maxima, for the plural of maximum, rather than maximums. It’s possible to carry such things too far, though. For example, agenda in Latin literally means “things that must be done,” but we still speak of multiple agendas. Certain words from other languages become nativized in English, and Greek and Latin words that do retain their plurals tend to be in particular scientific fields.
A cumshaw artist is that clever, resourceful person in a military unit who always seems to manage to procure whatever’s needed. This term apparently derives from similar-sounding words in Mandarin, kan hsieh, or kam-si?, in the language spoken around the Chinese port of Xiamen, which British soldiers understood to mean “gratuity” or “bribe,” and adapted as cumshaw.
Another followup to our conversation about items left in library books and forgotten: a former reference librarian in Denton, Texas, shares photographs of a most unusual business card hidden away in a book and found by a colleague. The front side is printed with “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” and the back reads, in elegant handwriting, “Meet me at the Paramount Theatre — Sunday afternoon.” If that doesn’t get your imagination going, we don’t know what will! If you’re so inclined, write a very short story inspired by that card and email it to us. We may share some in a future episode!
When Julia emigrated to New York City from the Dominican Republic, she noticed that her Jewish friends on Long Island often playfully altered words, repeating a word and adding an SHM sound, such as changing deserve to deserve, schmeserve and cool to cool, schmool. This addition of shm- or schm- to a word in this way is what linguists call shm-reduplication or echoic dismissive shm. This construction arose in 19th century Yiddish, where the rhyming dismissive term tata, shmatta employed the words for “father” and “old rag,” and might be rendered in English father, shmather. Similarly, gelt, schmelt was used dismissively about money, suggesting money, shmoney. Another example is fancy-schmancy. A fancy-schmancy restaurant, suggesting it’s a particularly high-toned establishment, often ostentatiously or pretentiously so.
A 1946 article in the California Folklore Quarterly features a collection of folks sayings from a pioneer family in Western Oregon, including this phrase to describe the one person in town who seems to know everybody’s business: He knew everybody and why they left Missouri.
Jennifer in Andrews, South Carolina, is curious about the term case quarter, meaning “a single 25-cent coin — not two dimes and a nickel and not five nickels.” It’s heard mainly in South Carolina, particularly among African-Americans. The origin of case quarter isn’t clear, although it’s been suggested that it derives from French caisse, meaning “cash.” It’s also been suggested that it derives from slang for a British crown, caser, a coin worth five shillings. Caser, in turn, may have come from a Yiddish term, keser, meaning “crown.” Or it could just be that all of the value of that particular amount of money is “encased” in a single coin. Case is applied to other denominations as well, as in case nickel, case dime, and case dollar, each being a single item.
Paul in Centerville, Massachusetts, says his parents, who hail from Brooklyn, New York, always referred to a fire hydrant as a Johnny pump. This term is largely confined to New York City, and may derive from the fact that these sources of water were used to wash away horse droppings and other detritus out of the streets and into the sewer system.
Music Used in the Episode
|Aragon||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Build Bridges||Colemine Records|
|Campus Life||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Build Bridges||Colemine Records|
|Mosey Rambler||ATA Records||The Library Archives, Vol 2||ATA Records|
|Ain’t She Sweet||Roger Rivas and The Brothers of Reggae||Last Goodbye||Jump Up! Records|
|The Glass Eye||ATA Records||The Library Archives, Vol 2||ATA Records|
|Ice Cool||ATA Records||The Library Archives, Vol 2||ATA Records|
|Heading West||Roger Rivas and The Brothers of Reggae||Last Goodbye||Jump Up! Records|
|Cleared For Launch||ATA Records||The Library Archives, Vol 2||ATA Records|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|