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Off the Turnip Truck

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It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when people disagreed over the best word to use when answering the phone. Alexander Graham Bell suggested answering with ahoy! but Thomas Edison was partial to hello! A fascinating new book about internet language says this disagreement is worth remembering when we talk about how greetings are evolving today — both online and off. Plus, a Los Angeles teacher asks: What are the rules for teen profanity in the classroom? Finally, why some people mimic the accents of others. It might be simple thoughtlessness, but it might also be an earnest, if awkward, attempt to communicate. Plus, a puzzle about specialty cocktails, mafted, fair game, dial eight, commander in chief, Roosevelt’s eggs, Charlie’s dead, and lots more.

This episode first aired September 21, 2019. It was rebroadcast the weekend of March 30, 2024.

Because Internet

 The new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is a smart, engaging, introduction to language and linguistics in general. It’s also rich with insights about how we communicate online. With verve, wit, and nerdy delight, linguist Gretchen McCulloch demonstrates that the internet isn’t at all destroying language. Instead, language in the digital age now more publicly displays both formal and informal versions, and the addition of emojis adds a whole new layer of nuance.

Are Surprises Inherently Positive?

 Nadine in San Antonio, Texas, disagrees with her boyfriend, who insists that the word surprise suggests something inherently good, so it’s impossible to call something a bad surprise. A quick look at data from the Brigham Young University corpora of English-language, however, shows that he’s wrong. The word surprise keeps company with plenty of negative words in English, such as nasty, unpleasant, and yes, bad


 If you’re mafted, then you’re exhausted — especially if it’s due to heat, crowds, or exertion. Mafted is a Britishism, and its origin is unknown. 

Just Fell Off the Turnip Truck

 Sam from St. Paul, Minnesota, says his dad often used the expressions Do you think I just fell off the turnip truck? and I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, meaning “I’m not naive” or “Do you think I was born yesterday?” Turnips have long been associated with supposedly unsophisticated rustic folk, and the phrase fall off the turnip truck conjures an image of country bumpkins piling into the back of a truck to bring their crop to market in the big city. During his years on The Tonight Show, TV talk-show host Johnny Carson often used this alliterative phrase. There are a lot of variants, including cabbage truck and turnip wagon.

Rhyming Name Cocktail Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has crafted a puzzle about cocktails with rhyming names. For example, in Jackson or Biloxi you might be served a libation inspired by the long-haired subculture of the 1960s. What drink would that be?

If Ifs and Ands Were Pots and Pans

 Sherry from Green Bay, Wisconsin, remembers that whenever she balked at doing a chore as a kid, her grandmother would say If ifs and ands were pots and pans, a tinker would have no trade. Her grandmother was suggesting that merely paying lip service to something doesn’t get the task done. Another version goes If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinkers’ hands. A still longer version: If wishes were horses, then beggars could ride / If turnips were watches, I’d wear one by my side / If ifs and ands were pots and pans / There would be no work for tinkers. Dandy Don Meredith often recited a similar a somewhat similar phrase about wishful thinking that involved candied nuts. 

Fair Game Origins

 The term fair game, meaning someone or something that’s a legitimate target for criticism derives from old laws governing the hunting of wildlife.

Why Do We Imitate People’s Accents To Their Faces?

 Amber in Mansfield, Texas, has a friend from London, England. After she moved to the States, the friend was surprised to find that when she’s conversing with strangers from the United States, they’ll drop in what Americans think of as stereotypical British terms like right-o or cheerio! and even attempt to shift their accent to sound more like her. Why do people mimic other people’s accents? Some of this behavior may simply be thoughtlessness, but it could also be an earnest, if awkward, attempt to communicate. By the way, in this segment we messed up! It was bumbershoot that we intended to say as a false Briticism rather than brolly. The British do indeed say brolly! Find out more about that here.. Here’s another place we’ve talked about imitating accents and also here.

Why is it Commander in Chief and Not Commander and Chief?

 Paul in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has long been mystified by the title commander in chief. Why, he wonders, isn’t it commander and chief? The title commander in chief is a vestige of French military titles, specifically the construction en chef, which denotes the top officer of a group of similar officers. The same construction appears in the title editor in chief, which is the top editor of a group of similar editors. The French term, in turn, goes back to Latin caput, or “head,” and is a relative of capital.

Dial Eight in Baseball

 In baseball lingo, to dial eight is to hit a home run. According to The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, the expression arose back when traveling baseball players had to dial the numeral 8 on a motel phone in order to begin a long-distance call.

Ahoy vs. Hello

 It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when people disagreed over the best word to use when answering the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, for example, advocated answering with  Ahoy!, while Thomas Edison argued for Hello. As linguist Gretchen McCulloch says in her excellent new book Because Internet, this disagreement is worth remembering when we think about how other forms of greeting are evolving. Today older speakers of English might hesitate to greet someone with hey, but younger people tend to be perfectly comfortable with it. 

How Should a High School Teacher Handle Profanity in the Classroom?

 A high-school teacher in Los Angeles, California, says many of his teaching colleagues have different opinions about how to handle profanity among teenagers. The simplest solution is to prohibit all taboo language in the classroom, but acknowledge that the rules will likely differ in other contexts.

Bush Legs, or Chicken in the Soviet Bloc Countries

 A listener who grew up in Ukraine recalls that her family always referred to chicken drumsticks by a name that translates as Bush’s legs. This jocular term refers to an agreement between U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev struck in 1990, during a time of scarcity in the Soviet Union. The agreement called for frozen chicken to be sent from the United States to help stock empty store shelves. Years earlier, under the Lend-Lease program, powdered eggs sent to Russia came to be known by a Russian name that translates as Roosevelt’s eggs. 

Charlie’s Dead

 Elizabeth from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, wonders why some people say Charlie’s dead to indicate to someone that her slip is showing. No one knows which Charlie this expression refers to. Similar euphemisms include it’s snowing down south, your Monday is longer than your Tuesday, and you have a Ph.D.

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

Photo by Jeff Egnaczyk. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary

Music Used in the Episode

BongoliaIncredible Bongo BandBongo RockMGM Records
It’s Good To Be The KingMagic In ThreesMagic In ThreesGED Soul
Lunar FunkFabulous CountsLunar Funk 45Moira
Bongo RockIncredible Bongo BandBongo RockMGM Records
Beatin’ Tha BreaksMagic In ThreesMagic In ThreesGED Soul
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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