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Pie in the Sky

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Looking for a book to read with the kids, or maybe a guide to becoming a better writer? Why are leg cramps called charley horses? And where’d we get a phrase like pie in the sky? If you happen to be tall, you’ve no doubt heard plenty of clueless comments from strangers. A listener who’s 6-foot-8 shares his favorite snappy comebacks. Plus, a word quiz for math lovers, bathroom euphemisms, johnny-on-the-spot, and the biggest palmetto bugs in the land! This episode first aired December 15, 2012.

Books That Should’ve Been Essays

 Some call it quitting a book, while others call it post-publication editing. You know, in place of neglected pre-publication editing. John in San Diego, California, who suggested that term, said he believes many a book should have been an essay, many an essay should have been a paragraph, and many a paragraph should have been a sentence.

Johnny on the Spot

 Does johnny-on-the-spot refer to a person or a porta-potty? Or both? The term johnny-on-the-spot, meaning a fellow who helpfully shows up at just the right instant, dates to the 1870s. But in the early 1900s, the john became a common euphemism for the outhouse. Today, there are several companies called Johnny On The Spot that rent and install temporary outhouses and display that name on their doors. The Dictionary of American Regional English has entries for Mrs. Jones, Miss Janet, Mrs. Murphy, and Neighbor Jones, all of which are euphemisms for outhouse or toilet. We’ve discussed others before, like going to see a man about a horse. It’s part of a tradition of not explicitly referring to the place where we urinate and defecate. But please, go ahead and share with us your favorite bathroom euphemisms!

Soda Suicide

 What do you call the flavor explosion that comes from splashing some soft drinks from every one of a restaurant’s fountains into one cup? A suicide, a graveyard, swampwater? Any special recipes, or do you just wing it?

Pie in the Sky Origin

 We all know the moon’s made of green cheese, but what’s the deal with the pie in the sky? The idiom pie in the sky, referring to something that’s pleasant to imagine but unattainable, comes from an early 20th century song called “The Preacher and the Slave,” penned and popularized by labor organizer Joe Hill. The song parodied the hymn “The Sweet By and By“, which promised a heavenly reward after death. Hill’s song sarcastically made the point there’s need for help here on Earth, too.

Join the Word Wall

 Want to get your mug on our website? We’re making a Word Wall, featuring all you listeners and your favorite words, so take a picture holding a piece of paper with your favorite word on it close to your face and send it to us. The collecting starts now!

Number Word Game

 Our Puzzle Man John Chaneski’s been working at the Museum of Math in New York City and it’s got him thinking about number words. For this game, each clue leads to a certain number spelled out. For example, can you guess which number between one and ten can be anagrammed to something that means to pull something with a rope?

Stand Flat-Footed and Kiss a Turkey

 Ever seen a bug so big it could stand flat-footed and kiss a turkey? Kathy from Greensboro, North Carolina, called to share some classic idioms her Georgia grandmother would use to describe bugs, like those gallon-nipper mosquitos and Chatham County eagles, also known as palmetto bugs. There’s a long tradition in American tall tales of trying to one-up everyone else about the size of your hometown’s insects.

Third Person Singular, Unknown Gender

 What’s the rule on using they and their in place of his and hers? Grammarians a couple of centuries ago may have misapplied some Latin rules of grammar to the unruly English language, but the issue is clear today: the word they functions perfectly well as an epicene pronoun as does their for its possessive version. No professional linguist will tell you otherwise.

See You in Church

 Why say goodbye when you could drop the phrase see you in church if the window’s open? This joke about lousy churchgoers is a colorful variant of see you when I see you.

Dog Cartoon

 Martha spotted a choice cartoon: A dog is sitting behind a gate under a sign that says Beware of Dog. The caption: “Can I read you my poems?”

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch

 If you’re looking for a great book about writing, Martha recommends Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. In it, Constance Hale offers an accessible, bang-up course in writing with excerpted passages that really show how the greats do it.

Children’s Book About William Carlos Williams

 For the young and old alike, Grant recommends A River of Words, a children’s biography of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. The artwork is beautiful and it’s a wonderful tale of someone who could take an idea in their mind and translate it to the page.

Charley Horse

 Why do we call that painful leg cramp a charley horse? While no good answers are out there, we did find some pretty far-fetched ones, including a story about old night watchmen known as Charlies and their broken-down horses. But the term first pops up in baseball reports in the 1880s, and fits well into the history of colorful baseball language.


 When wine drinkers swirl their glass and watch those streaks coming down, they say they’re looking at the legs. But the German term kirchenfenster, meaning “church windows,” makes a great substitute because of the arches of church windows. Do you have another term for that wine streaming down the side of a glass?

What Tall People Hear All the Time

 Ken from New Mexico measures up at 6 feet 8 inches, and he’s heard the gamut of comments tall people get, like How’s the weather up there? Sometimes he responds to How tall are you? with 5 feet 20 inches, and if anyone asks if he plays basketball, he just asks them if they play miniature golf!

Magazines for Kids

 Grant and his son have been loving the magazines Click, Cricket, and Ladybug. The poems, stories, and pictures are fantastic, and you don’t get the sense that it’s didactic or trying to force any lessons or morals. If you’re fond of Highlights Magazine, check these out.


 How do you pronounce chicanery? Do you soften the a, as in Chicano? No! This term, meaning “trickery” or “disturbance of the peace,” is etymologically unrelated to Chicano. It is, however, a linguistic relative of the name of those concrete parking lot barriers called chicanes.

Schoolyard Rhyme

 Because Grant still can’t get enough schoolyard rhymes, he shares one this week that goes: Three six nine / the goose drank wine / the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line. Are you a lifer when it comes to children’s rhymes?

Photo by Liz West. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Dictionary of American Regional English
Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale
A River of Words by Jen Bryant

Music Used in the Episode

GoliathThe MonophonicsInto the InfrasoundsAgeless Records
The ScarubThe Shaolin AfronautsFlight of The AncientsFreestyle Records
MawenziThe Shaolin AfronautsFlight of The AncientsFreestyle Records
Tired of FightingMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDaptone
Cissy PopcornPreston Love and His BandCissy Popcorn 45rpmHudson
Shaolin ThemeThe Shaolin AfronautsFlight of The AncientsFreestyle Records
BrooklynThe Shaolin AfronautsQuest under CapricornFreestyle Records
Make The Road By WalkingMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDaptone
Daffy’s DanceManitouBlack Feeling 2Freestyle Records
Chili MacPreston LovePreston Love’s Omaha Bar-B-QKent
Upstairs On Boston RoadMilton Jones Rhythm SyndicateBlack Feeling 2Freestyle Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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  • Re Soda Suicide

    In Bermuda a mixture of all of the sodas is called a “round the world”. It is so much a part of the culture that you will find the mix labelled on most fountain soda dispensers labelled as “roun d world” 🙂

    Hilarious and uniquely Bermudian I am sure.

  • The schoolyard rhyme “Three six nine…” was used in “The Clapping Song” by Shirley Ellis in 1965, reaching the top ten in the US and the UK.

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