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Piping Hot

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The game of baseball has alway inspired colorful commentary. Sometimes that means using familiar words in unfamiliar ways. The word stuff, for example, can refer to a pitcher’s repertoire, to the spin on a ball, or what happens to the ball after a batter hits it. Also: nostalgia for summer evenings and fond terms for fireflies, a word to describe that feeling when your favorite restaurant closes for good, and homonyms, forswunk, sweetbreads, get on the stick, back friend, farblonjet, and taco de ojo.

This episode first aired July 23, 2018. It was rebroadcast the weekends of May 4, 2020, and May 27, 2023.

Names for Lightning Bugs and Fireflies

 Fireflies have lots of different names in English, including lightning bug, lighter fly, glowworm, and third-shift mosquito. These insects have similarly poetic names in other languages. In Brazil, it’s a vagalume or wandering light, and the Hebrew term for it translates as “little ember or little spark.”

Homographs, Homonyns, Heteronyms

 Jeff, a junior-high band director from Lafayette, Indiana, led a spring concert as part of the Bernstein at 100 celebration featuring work by Leonard Bernstein (pronounced BERN-stine or ˈbərnstʌɪn) as well as composer Elmer Bernstein (pronounced BERN-steen or ˈbərnstiːn). Since these surnames are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, Jeff wonders: Are they homographs, homonyms, or heteronyms?


 To be forswunk means to be totally worn out from overwork. It’s from forswink, meaning to exhaust by labor.

The Bridge is Open but Closed

 Chelsea says that after moving from the Midwest to Norfolk, Virginia, she was confused by traffic reports indicating that a local bridge was open. Turns out the bridge is a drawbridge, and by open, the announcers were saying that the bridge was lifted for boats and barges, and therefore not open to cars. This is an example of polysemy, or the fact that words have more than one meaning. It’s also an example of a Janus word, also known as an antagonym or an enantiodrome, such as cleave, which can mean either to stick together or to split.

Taco de Ojo

 In Spanish, taco de ojo literally means “taco of the eye,” but in Mexican slang, it’s the equivalent of English eye candy, or someone who’s very nice to look at.

Fictional Character Brain Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle involves dropping a letter from a fictional character to form the name of a new one. For example, if the clue is: He once used the Force to turn people to the Dark Side, but now all he does is hang out in bars and toss pointy objects at a board, who would that fictional character be?

This Sweetbread Isn’t a Baked Bakery Item

 Kevin, a longtime vegetarian in St. Louis, Missouri, queasily recounts how he accidentally ordered sweetbreads in a fancy restaurant, thinking they were some kind of deep-fried bread, only to discover that it’s a kind of meat — a thymus gland, or the pancreas of a lamb. The origin of the misleading term sweetbreads is uncertain. In his book Cupboard Love, Mark Morton suggests that this name is a marketing ploy to make organ meat more appealing, like the similarly euphemistic terms Cape Cod turkey for codfish, Welsh rabbit for a cheese-and-toast dish, and Rocky Mountain oysters for deep-fried bull testicles.

NECCO Wafer Name

 Like the brand name ASICS, which derives from an acronym, the name of NECCO wafers is also an acronym — at least partially. The candy takes its name from that of the New England Confectionary Company.

Get on the Stick

 Iris from Cave Junction, Oregon, wonders about the expressions get on the stick, meaning get going, and piping hot, meaning extremely hot. While some have associated the phrase get on the stick with an automotive origin, a more likely etymology involves an old dialectal use of stick meaning a rate of speed, and to cut stick meaning to go away quickly. Piping hot, on the other hand, refers to liquid so hot that it forces a kettle to make a whistling sound. Similarly, the Japanese dish shabu-shabu has a name imitative of its piping-hot, hissing broth.


 What do you call a firefly in Jamaica? A peenie-wallie or a blinkie. For a lovely use of the first term, check out Valerie Bloom’s poem “Two Seasons.” Better yet, listen to the audio.

Ruthless and Ruth

 Katie from Mansfield, Texas, is curious about the term ruthless meaning merciless or having no remorse. In the 13th century, the word ruth meant the quality of being compassionate. Ruthless appeared in the language shortly thereafter, but the word ruth itself faded away. Linguists refer to such terms as unpaired words or missing opposites. Another example is disconsolate; although the word consolate was used centuries ago, it’s no longer used today.

Stepmother’s Blessing

 Stepmother’s blessing is a slang term for hangnail.


 Ben in Sydney, Australia, writes with a suggestion for a word describing that feeling you get upon discovering that your favorite restaurant has closed. He calls it noshtalgia, and shares a touching story about his own experience with it. Noshtalgia, he says, is a combination of nosh, meaning to eat, and nostalgia, from Greek words that literally mean return home pain.

Stuff in Baseball

 Sarah from Leyden, Massachusetts, wonders about the many ways baseball commentators and sportswriters use the word stuff, as in “The stuff is there, but the command is off,” or “The kid’s got great stuff, but he’s only got one pitch.” The term most often refers to a pitcher’s repertoire, and has been used that way since at least 1905. Stuff may also refer to the spin a pitcher adds to the ball, as well as the batter’s effect on the ball’s trajectory. A fantastic resource for all such lingo is Paul Dickson’s book, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary.

Why are Pants Plural?

 Why do we use the plural for pieces of clothing worn below the waist, like trousers, pants, shorts, and jeans?

A Back Friend is a False Enemy

 The expression back friend is an old term that means an enemy who pretends to be a friend. It’s more insidious than the modern coinage, frenemy.


 Elliott, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, asks about the Yiddish word variously spelled farblonjet, farblunget, and other ways. It means lost, befuddled, or confused and may derive from a Polish term meaning to go astray.

Farblonjet Limerick

 The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form, also known as OEDILF, includes a limerick by Sheila B. Blume that illustrates the use of the Yiddish word farblunget.

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

Photo by Glenn Simmons. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary

Music Used in the Episode

SunnyBooker T and The MG’sHig Hug-HerStax
You Keep Me Hanging OnBooker T and The MG’sDoin’ Our ThingStax
RevelationsCharles BradleyChangesDaptone
All Aboard The Soul Funky TrainThe JB’sAll Aboard The Soul Funky Train 45People Records
Born Under A Bad SignBooker T and The MG’sSoul LimboStax
Wang Dang DoodleBooker T and The MG’sSoul MenStax
Sticky StuffBooker T and The MG’sUniversal LanguageAsylum Records
Crazy For Your LoveCharles BradleyChangesDaptone
Four PlayFred Wesley and The Horny HornsA Blow For Me, A Toot For YouAtlantic
It Is What It IsMelvin SparksIt Is What It IsSavant
Whip! Whop!Melvin SparksTexas TwisterEastbound Records
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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