Amid court-ordered busing in the 1970s, a middle-school teacher tried to distract her nervous students on the first day of class with this strange assignment: find a monarch caterpillar. The result? A memorable lesson in the miracle of metamorphosis. Plus, the story behind the slang interjection word!, meaning “believe me!” The original version involved the idea that a person’s word was their bond. And the expression empty wagons make the most noise suggests that the person who boasts the loudest may actually be the least knowledgeable. It’s a phrase that’s had many versions over the centuries — including one that goes all the way back to ancient Rome! All that, and nebby, beat-feeting, red-headed stepchild, corotole, undermine, fankle, a wacky puzzle about Greek names, and more.
This episode first aired October 10, 2020 and was rebroadcast the weekend of November 13, 2021.
After our conversation about what to call that moment when you draw the perfect card or tile for the turn you just played, listeners chime in with possibilities: tardy tile, squander, and dalidosh.
The term nebby, meaning meddlesome or nosy, literally derives from the word neb, or “nose,” a term that’s been around in English for more than a thousand years. Despite what you might guess, nebby is unrelated to the Yiddish word nebbish, meaning “a timid or ineffectual person.”
Marjorie in Huntsville, Alabama, wonders about the saying Empty wagons make the most noise suggesting that the people who talk the most about a subject aren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable. This notion goes all the way back to ancient Latin proverb Vasa vana plurimum sonant, which translates as “Empty pots make the most noise.” There are variations of this saying that involve an empty canister, kettle, vessel, barrel, pitcher, pail, or bowl. Yet another proverb along these lines is Shallow streams make the most noise. For that matter, you can describe someone as making more noise than a jackass in a tin barn. The opposite is also true: The proverb The loaded wagon makes the least noise suggests that it’s often the person who stays quiet on a subject who actually knows the most about it.
While on a road trip, a listener caught herself using the expression beat-feeting, as in We were beat-feeting it to New York and back. Might it have to do with the mode of transportation in the old Flintstones cartoon?
Quiz Guy John Chaneski would like you to meet Greek friends’ friends, all of whose names follow the pronunciation pattern of their pals. For example, Sophocles would like you to meet his friend who’s an expert on cephalopods, such as squid, octopi, and cuttlefish. Can you guess his friend’s name?
Michael from Sherman Oaks, California, says that as a teacher in New Jersey in the 1980s, he heard students saying My word is born, meaning “You better believe me,” and later shortened to simply word. The research of linguist Geneva Smitherman shows that word is born came from word is your bond. Clarence Major has found this phrase goes back to at least the 1950s. The exclamations Word! and Word up! found their way from hip-hop into mainstream culture in the 1980s, in part thanks in part to the popular song and music video by the group Cameo.
Megan from Seal Beach, California, adores her red-headed daughter, but now that Megan’s remarried, she and her family are mulling the phrase I’m going to beat you like a red-headed stepchild. Other versions include a red-haired stepchild or red-headed, cross-eyed stepchild.
Duane, who lives in New York City, says that his parents who are from the U.S. Virgin Islands use the term corotole to mean “clutter.” This term appears in The Virgin Islands Dictionary by Kareem Nelson-Hull (Bookshop|Amazon). It also appears in the online Crucian Dictionary by Robin Stearns, who spells is corotle. The Dictionary of Jamaican English by Fred Cassidy and R. B. Le Page (Bookshop|Amazon), lists corotos as a term for “stuff, miscellaneous things, or junk” used in Spanish-speaking countries around the Caribbean. Several similar terms with roughly the same meaning are used in English dialects and creoles in the same region, including caroachy, caruchie, and caroco. These words may arise as the result of metathesis, a linguistic process in which sounds swap places in a word, in this case the consonant sounds in clutter trading places with those in corotole.
Martha shares a story about finding a monarch caterpillar and watching its metamorphosis in its gold-dotted chrysalis (from the Greek chrysos, “gold” as in the word chrysanthemum, meaning “golden flower”), to the butterfly’s eclosion, or “emergence” from the chrysalis.
A third-grade teacher from Michigan reports that one of her young students pronounced the word crayon as “crown.” There’s more than one regional variant in the United States, though. Others include “CRAY-ahn,” “CRAY-awn,” and “CRAN.”
Nell in Madison, Wisconsin, says her family always had a drawer where they kept birthday candles, odd keys, matches, pencils, random batteries. They called it the mystery drawer. Some people call it a junk drawer or the work drawer. The term mystery drawer might derive from party-game books for children from the 1950s.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|The Virgin Islands Dictionary by Kareem Nelson-Hull (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|The Dictionary of Jamaican English by Fred Cassidy and R. B. Le Page (Bookshop|Amazon)|
Music Used in the Episode
|Sweetback’s Theme||Melvin Van Peebles||Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song||Stax|
|Ain’t She Sweet||Roger Rivas and The Brothers of Reggae||Last Goodbye||Rivas Recordings|
|Never Can Say Goodbye||Issac Hayes||Never Can Say Goodbye 45||Enterprise|
|Heading West||Roger Rivas and The Brothers of Reggae||Last Goodbye||Rivas Recordings|
|Just Ain’t As Strong As I Used To Be||Jimmy Hughes||Just Ain’t As Strong As I Used To Be 45||Volt|
|Born Too Late||Branding Iron||Born Too Late 45||Volt|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|