For 341 years, the poets laureate of Britain have all been male. That just changed with the appointment of Britain’s new poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Her work has been described as “dealing with the darkest turmoil and the lightest minutiae of everyday life.” The hosts discuss Duffy’s oddly jarring and sensuous poetry. Also this week, they talk about whether it’s ever correct to use the word troop to mean an individual person, and whether the word literally is too often used figuratively, as in “He literally glowed.”

This episode first aired May 23, 2009.

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 First Female Poet Laureate
For 341 years, the poets laureate of Britain have all been male. That just changed with the appointment of Britain’s new poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Her work has been described as “dealing with the darkest turmoil and the lightest minutiae of everyday life.” The hosts discuss Duffy’s oddly jarring and sensuous poetry. Martha reads Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, “Glad,” along with several others.

 Wreck of the Hesperus
“You look like the wreck of the Hesperus!” It means you look “disheveled, ragged, dirty, hung over, or otherwise less than your best.” It may sound like an odd phrase, but it made perfect sense to generations of schoolchildren familiar with this Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem about a ship in a storm-tossed sea. Here’s an early edition of the poem, along with some splendid old-fashioned illustrations.

 Scunner
If a Scotsman says he takes a scunner to something, he means it gives him a feeling of loathing or revulsion. Grant and Martha discuss this term’s possible origins. For more about the word scunner, check out the Dictionary of the Scots Language online.

 Valentine Poem
Grant reads another poem by Carol Ann Duffy, “Valentine.”

 States of MIND Quiz
Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz called “States of MIND,” in which the answers are words formed by combining the postal abbreviations of states. Try this clue: “A word that refers to your knowledge or intellectual ability. The seat of your faculty of reason.” The answer? Michigan and North Dakota, the abbreviations for which spell out the word MIND.

 Appalachia Pronunciation
A recent PBS special about Appalachia has a caller wondering how to pronounce that region’s name.

 Wet Behind the Ears
Why do we say that someone is inexperienced is “wet behind the ears”? The hosts tackle that question, and discuss whether Barack Obama misspoke during the 2008 presidential campaign when he used a similar expression, green behind the ears.

 On The Lam
To go “on the lam” means “to flee” or “attempt to elude capture.” But why lam?

 Booting a Computer
In an earlier episode, Martha explained the origin of the expression to boot, meaning “in addition” or “besides.” That prompted an email from a listener wanting to know why we speak of booting a computer. Grant has the answer.

 Listener Macaroni and Gravy
Martha shares listeners’ responses to an earlier minicast about the Italian-American expression macaroni and gravy.

 A Single Troop
Many people are irritated by using the word troops to refer to a small number of soldiers, as in “Two troops were wounded.” Is it ever correct to use the word troop to mean an individual person? The hosts explain that in the military, it’s actually quite common to use the word troop to refer to just one person.

 Call a Spade a Spade
Does the expression “call a spade a spade” have racist roots? Martha explains that it derives from an ancient Greek phrase, but cautions against its use nevertheless.

 History of the F-Word
When you hear the F-word in a modern Hollywood movie about life in an earlier century, you may wonder if this expletive is an anachronism. Is the F-word of recent vintage, or did Hollywood actually get right this time? Grant recommends a book on the subject, Encyclopedia of Swearing by Geoffrey Hughes.

 Literally Figuratively
“I literally exploded with rage!” Using the word literally in this way grates on many a stickler’s ear. Moreover, if it’s okay to use the word “literally” figuratively, then what do you say when you actually do mean “literally”? The hosts discuss a related article in Slate called “The Word We Love to Hate.”

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

Photo by Fraser Mummery. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Broadcast

Encyclopedia of Swearing by Geoffrey Hughes
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