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Play It by Ear

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How does social context shape our perception of language? When hiking the Appalachian Trail, a young woman from Wyoming found that fellow hikers assumed she was from another country, not only because of how she spoke, but also how she looked. Sometimes our perception of other people’s accents have more to do with social context than with any real dialect features. And: did you ever wonder if there was a punctuation mark to indicate sarcasm? You’re not alone! There are lots of creative solutions. Finally, there’s a term in music to describe someone who is a professional whistler. That word is “puccalo.” Stay tuned for a tune as a puccalo shows off her craft. Plus play it by ear vs. play it by year, trash vs. garbage, carriwitchet, langiappe, puccalo, sartalics, a confounding brain teaser about compound synonyms, and more.

This episode first aired August 29, 2020.

Social Distancing and Pandemic Haiku

  After our conversation about artist Alan Nakagawa’s project featuring haiku about social distancing, listeners share some poetry of their own.

Play it By Ear or Year?

  Jack in Spokane, Washington, wonders which phrase is correct when talking about improvising: play it by ear or play it by year? Although play it by ear is the original version and by far the most common one, play it by year sounds plausible enough to some people that it has become that oddity linguists call an eggcorn.

Are Garbage and Trash the Same Thing?

  Jill in Shelton, Washington, says that when she lived in Southern California, she understood the word garbage to mean food scraps, with trash referring to everything else collected curbside. Historically, garbage has referred to the wet, disgusting stuff you throw away, such as offal or vegetable matter. The word trash has been used to refer to many things over the centuries, from overripe fruit to a worn-out shoe.


  The joke I have a good carriwitchet, but it’s really obscure makes more sense if you know that a carriwitchet is an obscure term that means “a riddling question.”

Starblossoms Word Game

  Quiz Guy John Chaneski is puzzling over one-word compound synonyms. For example, in the sentence While pretty, the bouquet was dominated by a rather large starblossom, the word starblossom might clue what tall plant that many associate with Vincent Van Gogh?

Perceptual Dialectology

  When Liz from Laramie, Wyoming, was hiking the Appalachian Trail, some fellow hikers and locals assumed from her accent that she grew up outside the United States. The assumptions made by people she met probably had more to do with the context rather than her own particular accent. The branch of linguistics called perceptual dialectology is devoted to how we perceive the speech of others.

In These Uncertain Times, We Need New Names for the Days of the Week

  A funny piece in The New Yorker by Jay Martel suggests a new lexicon for the pandemic, including the body mullet worn on Zoom calls (“Business up top, party down below”), and new names for days of the week to reflect the way they all seem to run together: Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, and Doesn’tmatterday.

Showing Sarcasm with Punctuation

  When writing his doctoral dissertation, John in Bardstown, Kentucky, used an upside-down question mark after a comment to indicate he was being sarcastic. Is there a punctuation mark that serves this function? Over the centuries, several have been suggested, including the sartalics font, and particularly online, the sarcasm tilde or mixing uppercase and lowercase letters.

A Haiku for Hard Work

  A haiku by Sofia, a 14-year-old in Towball, Texas, celebrates her family members’ hard work during a challenging time.

What We Might Have Been Named

  A listener’s question about the name she was almost given at birth prompts the hosts to share their own experiences being named — or nearly being named — something else.

La Ñapa, a Spanish Word for “A Little Extra”

  Dennis, a native of Colombia, grew up using the term la ñapa to describe a little something extra, such as an additional piece of bread added to your order gratis when you visit a bakery. His husband, who is from Louisiana, uses the term lagniappe to mean the same thing. Both derive ultimately from Quechua yapa, meaning “something added.”

Is There a Word for When You Just Missed Getting the Perfect Card or Dice Roll in a Game?

  Dana in Reno, Nevada, wants a word for that moment when you’re playing cards or a board game and you draw what would have been the perfect card or tile for the previous turn you played. She suggests post-perfect pickup. Might there be others? Maybe headdesk or even eureka spelled backwards?

Professional Puccalo

  Megan in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a singer, guitarist, and professional whistler. There’s a word for the last of these: puccalo, apparently coined by whistler Ron McCroby. Megan ends the episode with a sibilant sample of “La Vie en Rose.”

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

Photo by Allison Brown. Cropped and used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Episode

Watch That ManLee FieldsLet’s Get A Groove OnDaptone Records
KarinaMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
Too Much To FeelThe Gabbard BrothersToo Much To Feel 45Colemine
Baby GirlYoung Gun Silver FoxCanyonsColemine
Dancers MoodMenahan Street BandDaptone Records Rhythm ShowcaseDaptone Records
The TraitorMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
La Vie en roseMegan DooleyUnreleasedUnreleased

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