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Old College Try

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In just seconds, online text generators and chatbots can produce whole paragraphs of sophisticated prose. But what do advances in artificial intelligence mean for writers? What is lost and what’s gained when machine-writing replaces the work humans have always struggled to produce? Plus, the story behind the phrase the old college try. It goes back to the early days of baseball! And: a clever poem to get you through the long winter months. Also, have beef, cut your water off, a brain teaser about common bonds, inside baseball, South Cack and South Cackalacky, the Ukrainian word for “umbrella,” kiss-me-quick and dippity-do, and the pits.

This episode first aired January 14, 2023.

January Mnemonic Updated

 “Mnemonic,” a poem by Brian Bilston, cleverly sums up what many of us feel about the month of January. It’s included in his latest book, Days Like These: An Alternative Guide to the Year in 366 Poems (Bookshop|Amazon), and shared here with permission from the author.

To Have Beef or to Have “A” Beef With Someone?

 Nikki in Northampton, Massachusetts, disagrees with her teenage daughter about the word beef, as in to have a beef, meaning “to have a problem with someone or something.” Nikki uses the word a before the word beef, but her daughter omits that article and simply says to have beef. Traditionally, beef meaning “a complaint” or “a dispute” functioned as a count noun; you can have a beef or have multiple beefs with someone. In the 1970s, however, people started using beef as a mass noun, meaning it requires no article and can’t be counted, as in Has he got any beef with you? So Nikki and her daughter are both right, and the growing popularity of have beef is a great example of language evolving.

The Old College Try Comes from Baseball

 To give it the old college try means “to put forth one’s best effort.” The phrase stems from the early days of baseball, and arose from tension between the few professional college-educated players and those who’d picked up the game on sandlots. The expression originally had a sarcastic tone, suggestive of grandstanding and flamboyant attempts at impossible plays from people who didn’t have a lot of practical experience, but has since ameliorated. Now it’s used to encourage or console. Variants include the old college spirit and the old college effort.

Bilston’s Index of Discarded First Lines

 Poet Brian Bilston’s “Index of Discarded First Lines” leaves so much intriguingly unsaid, and if nothing else, offers great possibilities for writing prompts.

Common Bonds Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski puts us in a bind with a puzzle about “Common Bonds,” and a challenge to guess the word that often appears with each of three others. For example, what word often accompanies these three: slide, golden, and five-second?

I’m Gonna Cut Your Water Off!

 A Kentucky listener wonders about the admonition I’m going to cut your water off, which she’s heard from parents disciplining a child, but might also used between adults. The phrase “to cut someone’s water off” has been around since at least the 1930s. In the early 1950s, received a boost in popularity from country-music singer Toby Dowdy’s rendition of the song “I’d Cut Your Water Off.” Elaborations of this expression include I’ll cut your water off and take the meter out and I’ll cut your water off and read your meter.

Inside “Inside Baseball”

 In the early days of baseball, the term inside baseball referred to a particular style of play that emphasized sneaky strategies and clever teamwork as opposed to the power hitting that dominates today’s game. Later inside baseball came to refer more generally to esoteric knowledge or discussion in other areas, such as politics. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Bookshop|Amazon) by Paul Dickson is a fantastic resource on this and other baseball terms.

Carolina as Cackalacky, Cackalacka, Calinky, Calink, or Cack

 Charlie from Columbia, South Carolina, wonders about a nickname for his state, South Cack. University of North Carolina linguist Bonnie Taylor-Blake has researched this term and its variants extensively. They include Cackalacky, Cackalacka, Calinky, Calink, and many others. The odd thing is some South Carolinians are quite familiar with these expressions and others have never heard of them at all. The origin of these slang terms is uncertain, although they have been popularized by hiphop. North Carolina sometimes goes by the names No Cack or North Click.

“Parasol,” a Word That Found a Home in Many European Languages

 Marta, who studies English in Kyiv, Ukraine, says she was reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (Bookshop|Amazon) when she encountered the word parasol, noting its similarity to a Ukrainian word for “umbrella,” парасоля. Both stem from the same ancient root, although the English term now refers to a fashionable item that protects from the sun, while the Ukranian one refers to something used to protect against the rain. Given the widespread influence of French culture on fashion, the French word parasol likely influenced the use of similar-sounding words in Polish, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, and other languages.

A Tongue That Wags at Both Ends

 You might describe someone particularly talkative or gossipy by saying that their tongue wags at both ends. A more elaborate version is Your tongue wags at both ends and is tied in the middle. Another variant: Your tongue is hinged in the middle.

The Future of the Written Arts When Human-Like Computer-Generated Prose Is Possible

 Visit the text generator at You.com and ask it to explain why A Way with Words is “a rip-roaring good time,” and within seconds, it’ll produce a whole paragraph on that topic. Seeing text generated this way — and so quickly — can be an unnerving experience for a writer. At the same time, however, a large language model like this has the potential to free up a writer’s’ creative energy for other tasks. What is lost and what is gained as such technology improves?

Turn Left at the Whoopsy-Daisy

 Linda from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, gives directions to her remote home by telling people to turn left after the whoopsy-daisy, her term for a sudden dip in the road. There are quite a few colloquial expressions for such abrupt depression or bump in the pavement, including thank-you-ma’am, yes-ma’am, and how-do-you-do, all suggesting the nodding motion of a passenger’s head when going over it. Other terms are dippity-do, dipsy-do, belly-tickler, duck-and-dip, and whoop-de-doo. In the Ozarks, these spots are sometimes called kiss-me-quicks and love holes because of the opportunity they afford for a quick smooch.

Airplane Bath

 Over the years, we’ve had several conversations about terms for washing up quickly without getting in the tub, such as taking a bird bath or a possible bath. A listener chimes in with her family’s version. They take an airplane bath — wings, nose, and tail.

How Much = What’s Their Name

 Jack from Sentinel Butte, North Dakota, reports that in his part of the world, people sometimes inquire about a person’s last name with a question that combines the person’s first name with the phrase How Much, as in Jack How Much?

It’s the Pits, but What are the Pits?

 Miranda, a nurse in Altoona, Pennsylvania, had a patient who described her hospital food as the pits, meaning it wasn’t good. The expressions the pits and in the pits arose out of 1950s college slang, and derive from the notion of smelly armpits.

Words Like Violence Break the Silence

 A taciturn gumshoe in Robert B. Parker’s detective novel Bye Bye Baby (Bookshop|Amazon) offers this good advice: “Never say anything that doesn’t improve the silence.”

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Days Like These: An Alternative Guide to the Year in 366 Poems by Brian Bilston (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson (Bookshop|Amazon)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
No WayBoogaloo Joe JonesNo Way!Prestige
If You Were MineBoogaloo Joe JonesNo Way!Prestige
These Boots Were Made For Walkin’Ray BryantLonesome TravelerCadet
Sunshine AlleyBoogaloo Joe JonesNo Way!Prestige
I’ll Be ThereBoogaloo Joe JonesNo Way!Prestige
Gettin’ LooseRay BryantLonesome TravelerCadet
Holdin’ BackBoogaloo Joe JonesNo Way!Prestige
Dirty Old Bossa NovaH. R. Is A Dirty Guitar PlayerThe Howard Roberts QuartetCapitol
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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