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On the Case

Happy Valentine’s Day, our sweet baboos! Here are some expressions of love public radio listeners will appreciate.

We’re also giving you another brand-new episode, in which we talked about the results of our great knitted hat survey.

Turns out, beanie is most likely to be used in the western US, toque and tuque are Canadian (we knew that), toboggan and boggan are mainly Southern, and sock hat and its variants are pretty much everywhere else.

Many Canadians report, by the way, that toque and tuque rhyme with duke or spook, regardless of the spelling.

In that latest fresh episode we also talked about:

  • sneakers vs. tennis shoes vs. other names
  • jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!
  • great Scrabble words
  • rubber match
  • how dictionaries deal with copyright infringement
  • larrupin’
  • glottal stops in African-American speech
  • owly
  • and more!

Here’s the beautiful E.E. Cummings poem Martha read at the end of that episode. (And here’s a convincing argument about capitalizing his name like any other.)

On the Case

Listener Bob asked in email about case quarter. He writes,

I am a retired English teacher from Euclid, Ohio, near Cleveland. Many of my African-American students would ask if anyone had a “case quarter” in exchange for two dimes and a nickel. When I posed the question to one of my racially mixed classes, all of the African-American students knew the term, but none of the white students were familiar with that term.

We answered a similar question in a previous episode, but to recap: it may come from slang for a British crown, caser. A crown is a coin worth five shillings and decorated with with said headpiece. Caser, in turn, may have come from Yiddish related to “headpiece” or “silver,” according to a slang work from 1889 and more or less confirmed by the more recent Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Caser was then borrowed to apply to an American dollar and shortened.

However, as you know, the etymology of most words isn’t a fixed, sure thing. The Dictionary of American Regional English says the etymology of this case is uncertain, but speculates that it expresses the idea of unity (like a complete case of beer), with all the parts being in a single container, or is perhaps from the the French caisse ‘cash,’ as in the phrase en caisse ‘cash in hand.’

University of North Carolina professor Connie Eble mentions in her 1996 book Slang and Sociability that “case nickel” for a five-cent piece (as opposed to five pennies) and “case quarter” for a 25-cent piece (as opposed to, say, two dimes and a nickel) were considered black slang when she was preparing the book. However, older and rural black and white North and South Carolinians are recorded as using “case” in this way.

Language Bits

• Dionne in Washington, D.C., asked about gobbledegook, so we pointed her to Safire’s Political Dictionary, in which he explains that it was coined by a Texas Congressman in 1944.

• Sachin in Dallas wanted to know whether the verb that goes with data should be plural or singular. Like so much else, the answer depends.

In academia and among speakers with advanced degrees, the data show that “the data are” is more common. Outside that group, the data is clear that “the data is” is more common.

Straitlaced language commentator Bryan Garner points out that no matter which you choose, you’re likely to raise some eyebrows. “Data are” is more formal and the older form.

The “data are” vs. “data is” argument is more than 100 years old, and the trend toward “data is” maps pretty well to the slow decline of the teaching of Latin. Here’s just one example of it being discussed in a machinist’s journal in 1907.

• Finally, Martha gets a special honor in a very flowery New York Times acrostic!

Peace and love,

Martha and Grant

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