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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Worm||Beastie Boys||The Mix Up||Capital|
|Suco De Tangerina||Beastie Boys||The Mix Up||Capital|
|I’ve Been Watching You||Southside Movement||Moving South||20th Century|
|Journey To The Shore||Minority Band||Journey To The Shore||JSR Records|
|Psycho Pt 1||The Fabulous Mark III||Psycho 45||Funk 45|
|Have A Little Mercy||Southside Movement||Moving South||20th Century|
|Spanish Fly||Minority Band||Journey To The Shore||JSR Records|
|Hard Times||Baby Huey||The Baby Huey Story||Curtom|
|It Ain’t Fair, But It’s Fun Pt 1||The Fabulous Originals||It Ain’t Fair, But It’s Fun 45||Funk 45|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|