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Picklebacks and Mountweazels

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Martha and Grant talk about phrases you love to hate, like “Do you mind if I put you on hold?” They also talk about mountweazels, jakey bums, picklebacks, and step-ins. And which is the proper term: mothers-in-law or mother-in-laws? This episode first aired January 16, 2010.

Phrases We Love to Hate

 Some words and phrases you just love to hate: “Your call is important to us.” “Do you mind if I put you on hold?” And how about those annoying mid-dinner announcements like “This is a courtesy call”? Martha and Grant talk about some of those phrases and why they make us cringe.

Raring to Go

 Is it rearing to go or raring to go? Champing at the bit or chomping at the bit?

Mothers-in-Law vs. Mother-in-Laws

 Which is correct: mothers-in-law or mother-in-laws?

Jakey Bums

 A listener from Clifton Park, New York, says her grandfather was a police officer who used the term jakey bum to refer to undesirable characters.

Novel Novels Word Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a word puzzle called “Novel Novels,” in which he gives clues to the names of novels similar to familiar ones, except for one letter. Try this one: “This offbeat novel is based on an incident concerning a nudist club and an official at a nearby university.” Stumped? Think Norman Mailer’s novel with all the fugs in it.

Dictionary Mountweazels

 A Woodbridge, Connecticut, caller tells the story of coming across the following definition for jungftak in Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (1943): “n. A Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enable[d] to fly,—each, when alone, had to remain on the ground.” For years, he wondered whether such a bird actually exists. Grant explains that this type of dictionary entry is what lexicographers call a mountweazel—a fake definition used to catch copyright infringers who would take a dictionary’s content and publish it as their own.

Might Could

 A Charlottesville, Virginia, woman says her husband, a New Yorker, makes fun of her for using the expression might could, as in, “We might could go to dinner later.” The hosts talk about this and other double modals. Incidentally, here’s the funny clip Martha mentions featuring Rosemary Clooney and Marlene Dietrich singing “Too Old to Cut the Mustard.”

Premature Evacuation

 You’ve kept that old gadget in your garage for years now, but you never use it, so you finally throw it out. The very next day, you discover you need it. Shouldn’t there be a word for needing something you just threw away? Martha reports that over in the A Way with Words discussion forum, listeners came up with, among other things, “premature evacuation.”

Slang This with Jack Lynch

 This week’s “Slang This!” contestant is literary historian Jack Lynch, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park. He tries to guess the meaning of three slang terms: one throat to choke, pickleback, and step-ins. By the way, Lynch is an associate professor of English at Rutgers University, has published his own helpful guide to grammar and usage.

Mum or Mom

 A New Zealander who relocated to Texas wonders why she grew up saying Mum, but people in the United States say Mom.

Onomatopoeia Spelling Tip

 Martha offers a tip on how to spell onomatopoeia. Sort of.


 The old word wittol refers to a man who knows that his wife is having an affair and is okay with it. The behavior still exists today, but almost no one knows the word. A caller in Albany, New York, wonders why.


 Need a word for the place on your back that you can’t reach to scratch? Martha has it for you.

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

Photo by Ginny. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (1943)
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch

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