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In 1971, when a new public library opened in Troy, Michigan, famous authors and artists were invited to write letters to the city’s youngest readers, extolling the many benefits of libraries. One of the loveliest was from E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web. Plus, you may think navel-gazing is a relatively new idea — but it goes back at least to the 14th century, when meditating monks really did look like they were studying their bellies! Also, why don’t actors in movies say goodbye at the end of a phone conversation? For that matter, why don’t some people answer their smartphones with “Hello”? Plus, a poetic puzzle, duke’s mixture, small as the little end of nothing, Chesapeake Bay crabbing lingo, omphaloskepsis, nightingale, light a shuck, bumpity-scrapples, the big mahoff, and if a bullfrog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt.

This episode first aired June 27, 2020.

Hope in the Dark

 The Old English word galan means “to call” or “to sing enchantments.” It’s the source of the obsolete word galder meaning “charm” or “incantation,” as well as nightingale, the name of a bird known for its melodious song. Robert Macfarlane memorably described this animal as “a tiny bird of exquisite voice; the sound of hope in the dark.”

Duke’s Mixture

 Sheree from Boerne, Texas, says her mother used to refer to leftovers as a duke’s mixture. The original Duke’s mixture was a loose, low-quality tobacco sold in a pouch by the same tobacco company that would later donate millions to the school named in its honor, Duke University.


 A Wisconsin listener’s family adopts their youngster’s made-up term for the treads on a boot. Years later, they all still refer to those things as bumpity-scrapples.

If a Bullfrog Had Wings

 Mitchell from Arlington, Texas, wonders about his father’s expression: If a bullfrog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt. It’s been around since at least the early 1900s, and is a variation on an older expression, If pigs had wings, they could fly. They’re about the fact that mere wishful thinking doesn’t make something so. Other versions include If wishes were horses, beggars would ride and If my aunt had wheels, she’d have been a bus. Still another: If my aunt had been a man, she’d have been my uncle.


 Virginia teacher and playwright Sheri Bailey has some writing advice as smart as it is succinct: “There are no writers — only re-writers.”

Poet Verse Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s poetic puzzle requires filling in the blank after verses by famous poets. For example, how did Robert Frost complete these lines in “The Road Not Taken”? And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black./ Oh, I kept the first for…

Never Saying Goodbye

 Kristin in San Clemente, California, wonders why actors in old movies often hang up the phone without saying goodbye. It’s not just old movies! In fact, you can watch supercuts of lots of modern movies where the same thing happens. Although this convention may seem unrealistic, it’s just an expedient way to move the action along. Kristin says she’s also observed young smartphone users behaving similarly, but in a time of 24/7 digital communication, there’s less need for such verbal niceties because the conversation never really ends. Incidentally, after The Guardian ran an article about characters who skip saying goodbye at the end of phone calls, readers responded with many more examples of things that seem to happen only in the movies.

Crabbing Lingo

 Rob calls from the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia to discuss the lingo of crabbing. A male blue crab is a jimmy, and a female is called a sook, a silk, or sow. A crab that’s unsuitable for market because its flesh isn’t firm, it’s called a snot. A mating male is a buck and the female is called the rider. A male holding a sexually mature female is a doubler. A crab shortly after molting is a paper, and later a buckram, the word buckram, named after a kind of canvas.

Staring at One’s Own Navel

 Eleanor from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, is pondering navel-gazing after being surprised to learn that her adult son was unfamiliar with the term. Staring downward at one’s belly to induce a mystical trance has a long history: The Medieval Greek word omphalopsychoi denoted 14th-century mystic monks of Mt. Athos, Greece, a combination of omphalos, or “navel,” which is cognate with Latin umbilicus, and psyche, or “spirit.” In the mid-19th century, this word was adapted into English as omphalopsychite, and still later the term omphaloskepsis was used as a joking way to refer to the practice of staring fixedly at one’s navel to induce a mystical trance. A similar idea appeared in Robert Vaughn’s 1856 book Hours with the Mystics where he describes the monks of Mt. Athos gazing toward their navels and refers to them as Navel-contemplators.

The Lure and Love of Libraries

 Letters of Note, an online collection of notable letters throughout history, includes one from E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and co-author of The Elements of Style, about the lure and love of libraries.

Origin of the “Big Mahoff”

 Doug in Madison, Wisconsin, remembers that when he was growing up in Philadelphia, his dad used the phrase the big mahoff to refer to someone important. This term that means “the big boss” or “the big cheese,” is largely localized to Philadelphia, although despite lots of inquiry and hypotheses involving everything from mobsters to champion bridge players, its origin remains unknown.

Too Tired to Wiggle

 If you’re too tired to wiggle, you’re tired indeed. This expression goes back at least as far as the early 1900s.

Light a Shuck

 Light a shuck means “to skedaddle” or “leave quickly,” and is often found in cowboy literature. It’s a reference to moving quickly while using a burning corn shuck to light one’s way, and may also be influenced by the swiftness fire burns dry corn leaves. The colloquial expression come to fetch fire refers to someone who drops by a neighbor’s house just briefly, as if to pick up something to light one’s own stove.

Little End of Nothing

 Carl Sandburg once observed, “The woman who’ll kiss and tell is small as the little end of nothing.” He meant she lacked character, although the phrase the little end of nothing and variations of have long been used to mean something that’s literally tiny. In an 1826 newspaper, for example, something exceedingly small is described as small as the little end of nothing whittled off to a point.

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

Photo by Mike Mozart. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Hours with the Mystics by Robert Vaughn
Stuart Little by E.B. White
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White

Music Used in the Episode

Electric WormBeastie BoysThe Mix UpCapital
Suco De TangerinaBeastie BoysThe Mix UpCapital
I’ve Been Watching YouSouthside MovementMoving South20th Century
Journey To The ShoreMinority BandJourney To The ShoreJSR Records
Psycho Pt 1The Fabulous Mark IIIPsycho 45Funk 45
Have A Little MercySouthside MovementMoving South20th Century
Spanish FlyMinority BandJourney To The ShoreJSR Records
Hard TimesBaby HueyThe Baby Huey StoryCurtom
It Ain’t Fair, But It’s Fun Pt 1The Fabulous OriginalsIt Ain’t Fair, But It’s Fun 45Funk 45
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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