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One-Armed Paper Hanger

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The emotional appeal of handwriting and the emotional reveal of animal phrases. Should children be taught cursive writing in school, or is their time better spent studying other things? A handwritten note and a typed one may use the very same words, but handwritten version may seem much more intimate. Plus, English is full of grisly expressions about animals, such as there’s more than one way to skin a cat and until the last dog is hung. The attitudes these sayings reflect aren’t so prevalent today, but the phrases live on. Finally, the centuries-old story of the mall in shopping mall. Plus, agloo, dropmeal, tantony pig, insidious ruses, have a yen for something, a commode you wear on your head, a tantalizing word game everyone can play.

This episode first aired February 16, 2019.

The “Meal” in Piecemeal

 The word piecemeal means bit by bit. If you pay back a debt piecemeal, you repay it a little at a time. The -meal in piecemeal is an old term that means a measure of time or a specified portion. In Middle English, this element appears in several words, such as littlemeal, meaning little by little; pennymeal, meaning penny by penny; and dropmeal, meaning drop by drop. They’re all the etymological kin of the term meal, meaning a fixed portion of time for eating food.

The Origin of “Mall” in Shopping Mall

 The word mall, as in shopping mall, has traveled a long and winding path, beginning with the Italian game of pallamaglio, which was played with a ball and a mallet. The name of the game found its way into French as pallemaille, which in turn became English pall mall. Pall Mall is now the name of a street in central London where the game was once played, and The Mall, which was also once the site of such games, is now a tree-lined promenade leading to Buckingham Palace. In the 1950s, the word mall was applied to streets that were closed off to make shops convenient for pedestrians. Later mall was used to denote complexes built specifically for shopping and located outside of urban centers.

Tantony Pig

 A tantony pig is the runt of the litter. This term derives from the name of St. Anthony of Egypt, patron saint of swineherds.

Lots of Names for Grandparents

 Elizabeth in Burlington, Texas, says she always referred directly to her grandparents using their last names, as in Grandma and Grandpa Bell, or Grandma and Grandpa Van Hoose, but her husband calls his own grandparents Nanaw and Pawpaw. The Dictionary of American Regional English lists at least 100 different names for grandmothers, including Big Mama, Mamaw, Gram, Nana, Grammy, and at least that many names for grandfathers.

Swapped Initial Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has whipped up a puzzle about swapped initialisms. Try this one: My TV is so good you can see the beds of sweat on some of those American League players when they get up to bat. Thanks to  ______ I can see how stressed the ______ is.

Lick and Run in Place Names

 Orion in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, grew up in rural West Virginia on something called Lick Run Road, not far from Mud Lick Road, Turkey Lick Road, and Sanders Run Road. Why do the words lick and run appear in these types of place names? James Hall wrote about animals visiting salt licks in his book Letters from the West. In Kentucky, Big Bone Lick is now a tourist attraction; thousands of years ago, large animals were attracted by its salt deposits.

Eggcorns: Not Quite Right Versions of Well-Known Expressions

 A listener confesses that for decades she misunderstood the expression take it with a grain of salt, meaning retain a healthy dose of skepticism, as take it with a grand assault. Such mishearings of a word or phrase that nevertheless make some sense are jokingly called eggcorns. The Eggcorn Database has a collection them, including from the gecko for from the get-go, and in the feeble position for in the fetal position.

Busier Than a One-Armed Paper Hanger and Other Busy Sayings

 Jocelyn in Richmond, Virginia, is curious about the expression busier than a one-armed paper hanger, meaning extremely busy. Perhaps the earliest version of this phrase comes from a 1908 short story by O. Henry: as busy as a one-armed man with the nettle rash pasting on wallpaper, which would be very busy indeed. In other versions, the embattled paper hanger is battling hives, the itch, the crabs, or the seven-year-itch. Other picturesque English phrases for such bustling activity include busy as a beaver, busy as a bee, busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, busier than flies in a tarpit, busier than a bee in a tar bucket, busier than a bee on a buzzsaw, busier than a cranberry merchant, and busier than a one-eyed cat watching three mice holes. Similar phrases mean not busy, such as busier than a pickpocket in a nudist camp, busy as a hen with one chick, busy as a puppy, and busy as a hibernating bear.

Our Changing Attitudes about the Treatment of Animals Are Embedded in Our Language

 Paul in South Bend, Indiana, notes that the French equivalent of the phrase have other fish to fry, meaning to have other things to do, is avoir d’autre chats a fouetter, or literally, to have other cats to whip. In Italian, a similarly creepy phrase that means the same thing is to avere altre gatte da pelare, or to have other cats to skin. To have a frog in one’s throat means to have difficulty speaking; in French, the expression is avoir un chat dans la gorge, or to have a cat in the throat. English also has other expressions reflecting a less-than-humane attitude toward felines, including more than one way to skin a cat, not enough room to swing a cat, or to let the cat out of the bag. Dogs don’t fare much better in some English sayings, such as to stick around until the last dog is hung and more ways of killing a dog than choking him with pudding. All of these expressions reflect a time when people had different attitudes toward the kinds of animals we now regard as pets.

Should Cursive Be Taught in Schools?

 Should cursive handwriting be taught in schools? There are compelling arguments on both sides. A handwritten letter or note may carry additional emotional power. Also, to have a yen for something means to yearn for it. It comes from a Chinese word that has to do with the craving of an addict. This type of yen has nothing to do with the Japanese unit of currency.

Why Do We Abbreviate “Number” as “No.”?

 A high-schooler in Indianapolis, Indiana, wonders why the word number is abbreviated as no. when there’s no letter O in the word. The answer lies in the Latin word numero, which is the ablative form of the Latin word for number, numerus.

That Feeling When You Get Back Marked-Up Papers

 Alexander Chee’s essay in The Morning News about studying writing with Annie Dillard includes a memorable description of how it felt to get back papers that she’d marked up.

Noticing Something and Then Seing It Everywhere

 Steve in Neenah, Wisconsin, says he’d not heard the term suss out in a long time, but then suddenly he was hearing again it in several different places. What he’s experiencing is the frequency illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or blue car syndrome.

Wearing a Commode on Your Head

 During the reign of France’s Louis XIV, you could wear a commode on your head. Commode referred to a wire frame worn on the head to support an elaborate headdress.

Insidious Ruse Wordplay

 Melinda in Indianapolis, Indiana, shares a bit of wordplay in which someone is invited to repeat such phrases as “I’m a brass lock” and “I’m a brass key,” all leading up to a punchline in which the repeater is tricked into saying something silly or self-deprecating. Folklorists sometimes refer to this type of verbal prank as an insidious ruse.

Aglu or Agloo

 An aglu, also spelled agloo, is a seal’s breathing hole in a sheet of ice.

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

Photo by Dave_S. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Letters from the West by James Hall

Music Used in the Episode

PlanesPlaceboBall Of EyesCBS
You Got Me Hummin’PlaceboBall Of EyesCBS
Make The Road By WalkingMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
Tired Of FightingMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
Humpty DumptyPlaceboBall Of EyesCBS
AriaPlaceboBall Of EyesCBS
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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