How do actors bring Shakespeare’s lines to life so that modern audiences immediately understand the text? One way is to emphasize the names of people and places at certain points. That technique is called billboarding. And: Anyone for an alphabet game? A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. There’s the one about the quick, brown fox, of course. But there’s a whole world of others, including pangrams about Brexit, emoji, and a pop singer behaving, well, badly. Plus, sworping, agga forti, spelling out letters, the uncertain etymology of kazoo, larruping, the hairy eyeball, where the woodbine twineth, and a brain teaser based on characters that might have been in a Disney movie.
This episode first aired May 11, 2019.
Engineer and language enthusiast Anu Garg runs a popular website, Wordsmith.org, which includes the A.Word.A.Day email, along with an anagram server, and other offerings for fellow word lovers. To celebrate the site’s 25th anniversary, Garg held a pangram contest. Pangrams are sentences that contain every letter of the alphabet at least once. The classic example is The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy sleeping dog. Martha and her fellow judges chose this one as the winner: Emoji having been popularized, texts acquire wacky faces, although she lobbied for Watson excels at Jeopardy!, quickly outbuzzing human favorites.
When David from Warren County, Indiana, visited relatives in Virginia, he heard about an inebriated man who was said to have entered a church and caused a ruckus while sworpin’ down the aisle. In Appalachia, the verb sworp, also spelled swarp, means “to move in a sweeping or staggering fashion.” David’s grandmother also described a perilous trip down an icy mountain road this way: We were just a-slidin’ and a-sworpin’ all the way down.
James from Trabuco Canyon, California, learns that there’s a proper way to spell the letters of the alphabet. The letter J is spelled jay and H is spelled aitch. His own name would be spelled out as jay aye em ee ess. The letter Y is spelled wye. Such spellings sometimes help provide clarity, as when court reporters need to indicate that a speaker was spelling out a word letter by letter.
Margo from Denton, Texas, says when the weather was really cold, her Kentucky-born grandmother would say it was cold as agga forti. The term aggie forti refers to something really strong, particularly a strong drink. That expression and the variants acker fortis, ackie fortis, and agur forty all go back to the Latin words aqua fortis, literally “strong water.”
The artists at Walt Disney Studios considered a long list of possible characters before settling upon the final seven dwarves in the Snow White movie. Also-rans included Nifty, Dirty, Goopy, Wheezy, and Chesty. Quiz Guy John Chaneski has created a punny puzzle that suggests even more names for Snow White’s companions. For example, what name along these lines would you give to one who’s very pious and contemplative, and who perhaps took a vow of poverty or silence?
This entry submitted to Wordsmith.org’s pangram contest was timely, but didn’t win: Ariana Grande visited a bakery, licked a doughnut, and made an unpatriotic, jejune exclamation; she was required to apologize thereafter.
Alicia from Wilmington, North Carolina, says she grew using the word allow to mean “say” or “declare.” Sometimes rendered simply as ’low, this expression has been used since at least the 18th century. Another form meaning “to admit” is allow as how.
Following up on our conversation about whether cursive handwriting should be taught in schools, 23-year-old Rachel from Newport News, Virginia, wrote to say she learned cursive in third grade, but has never used it since.
Patrick from Bolton Landing, New York, visited a kazoo factory and museum in Beauford, South Carolina, which led him to wonder about the name of this buzzing musical instrument. The etymology is uncertain, but we do know that it’s also been called a gazoo, and that it was preceded by a similar instrument called a mirliton or unit flute. In the late 1800s when the word kazoo first appeared, there were several similar-sounding words for “fool” or “stupid person,” including gazook, gazabo, gazebo, and gazoo. These might have influenced the development of the name of an instrument that makes a silly sound.
This lyrical entry in Wordsmith.org’s pangram contest would have been a strong contender had it not been for the fact that it includes all but one letter of the alphabet: A quivering butterfly wing conjures a zephyr that expands to a storm. Can you tell which letter is missing? Here’s a hint.
Robert from Hamlin, West Virginia, was surprised to while touring with a gospel group to hear Southerners describe an especially good meal as larrupin’ or larruping. The verb larrup means “to strike,” and larruping is one of several intensifiers that have to do with beating or thrashing, like whopping or striking.
Actors use the term billboarding to denote the technique of giving extra emphasis to a word or phrase. That’s just one of the many bits of inside information from Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein, artistic director at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Although the book is written as a guide for actors and directors, it’s extremely engaging and helpful for anyone with an interest in the Bard.
Patricia from Fort Worth, Texas, has been mystified by an expression her husband’s grandmother would use when trying to avoid answering a question about where something had gone. She’d say it’s gone where the woodbine twineth and the whangdoodle mourneth. The story behind this expression is complicated, but it’s clear that phrase where the woodbine twineth was a catchphrase in the 1870s, and whangdoodle is a catch-all term for an unknown or mythical animal.
Emily from Madison, Wisconsin, has three nieces and a nephew, and wonders if there’s a gender-neutral term for the group of them, in the same way cousins can designate one or two genders. German has the single word Geschwisterkind, meaning “a child of a brother or sister,” English doesn’t have a single established term for this. Some have proposed that English speakers use the word niblings, formed by analogy with siblings. Other suggestions include niephlings, nieflings, or nieblings.
Photo by bobistraveling. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Book Mentioned in the Episode
|Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein|
Music Used in the Episode
|Freedom||Kelly Finnegan||The Tales People Tell||Colemine Records|
|A Day In The Life||Grant Green||Green Is Beautiful||Blue Note|
|I’ll Never Love Again||Kelly Finnegan||The Tales People Tell||Colemine Records|
|Since I Don’t Have You Anymore||Kelly Finnegan||The Tales People Tell||Colemine Records|
|Impressions of You||Kelly Finnegan||The Tales People Tell||Colemine Records|
|Grazing In The Grass||Hugh Masekela||The Promise Of A Future||UNI Records|
|Upshot||Grant Green||Carryin’ On||Blue Note|
|I Called You Back Baby||Kelly Finnegan||The Tales People Tell||Colemine Records|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|