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Primary Colors

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Centuries ago, monks who took a vow of silence developed their own hand signs, with hundreds of gestures, that are still in use today. Plus, how do speakers of different languages distinguish similar shades and tints of colors such as red, yellow, and blue? It’s complicated! And: you don’t really need those little rivets on your blue jeans, do you? There’s a word for decorative elements that no longer serve a practical purpose: skeuomorphs. All that, along with butter of antimony, vein vs. vain, sugar of lead, euchred figs, two bits, mess and gaum, an apt nickname for a garbage disposal, a quiz about family secrets, and lots more.

This episode first aired April 9, 2022.

Butter of Antimony, Flowers of Zinc

 Butter of antimony, blue vitriol, flowers of zinc are terms used for centuries by alchemists, now replaced by the scientific names antimony trichloride, cupric sulfate, and powdered zinc oxide. In his delightful memoir Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Bookshop|Amazon) Oliver Sacks explains how the standardization of such chemical names by the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier and others provides a better understanding of how these substances interact with others. The trade-off, however, is losing a bit of poetry along the way. Sacks is also the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. (Bookshop|Amazon)

Two Bits and Pieces of Eight

 Nancy from Berthold, North Dakota, used the expression two bits to mean “25 cents.” Her adult daughter had heard neither that expression nor the saying Shave and a haircut, two bits or the cheer Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. The story behind two bits goes back to colonial times in the United States, when a very large, thin coin known as the real, Spanish for “royal,” was literally cut into eight pieces, each literally known as a bit. It’s the same reason that you’ll hear about pirates and their pieces of eight.

What are “Euchred” Figs?

 Justin from Kalamazoo, Michigan, saw a Heinz 57 ketchup ad that mentioned euchred figs, sometimes spelled euchered. He’s familiar with the card game euchre, but why euchred figs? Although a handsome booklet produced by the H. J. Heinz company in 1910 claims that the word euchred is “old English” for “preserved,” this appears to be a fanciful etymology. You can make your own euchred figs with this recipe.

Sugar of Lead

 Writing in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Bookshop|Amazon) about his youthful fascination with chemistry, Oliver Sacks notes that lead acetate once went by the more appetizing name sugar of lead.

Family Secrets Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a bunch of brain teasers that he calls “Family Secrets.” It’s inspired by the hit song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the Disney film Encanto. What about the secrets other families refuse to discuss? For example, in Roman mythology, the chief god’s wife was quite jealous of his affairs, which means… ?

The Winding Histories of “Vein” and “Vain”

 The English words vein and vain may be homophones, but they come from completely different etymological roots. Vein traveled into English via Old French veine, which in turn came from Latin vena, meaning “blood vessel.” Vain, meaning “conceited,” also found its way into English via Old French, but comes from the Latin vanus meaning “empty,” or “void.” The name Vanity Fair originally appeared in John Bunyan’s 1676 book Pilgrim’s Progress (Bookshop|Amazon), and referred to a place of inhabitants preoccupied with earthly pleasures.

Applause with Mucus and Salt

 In a lovely essay on the shared experience of theater audiences, Wesley Morris, critic at large for The New York Times, memorably describes weeping in the dark with fellow audience members as offering “applause with mucus and salt.”

Ready for Freddy

 Sarah from Haddonfield, New Jersey, wonders about the phrase Are you ready for Freddy? It’s a catchphrase that was part of a running gag in Al Capp’s long-running “Li’l Abner” comic strip, which ran in newspapers in the middle of the 20th century. The strip is set in the fictional town of Dogpatch, USA, where the local undertaker was named Freddy.

Mess and Gaum

 Marcus in Kingsport, Tennessee, says that as children, if he and his sister left snacks or crumbs around the kitchen, his mother would say in exasperation that all the kids ever wanted to do was to mess and gaum. The word gaum means “a greasy or sticky mess,” and is possibly influenced by the word gum. In Ireland, the noun gaum means “a foolish-looking person” and the verb gaum means “to be stupid” or “to mope about.”

Every Home Should Have a Spoon Sharpener

 After our earlier conversation with Amanda in Evansville, Indiana, whose family refers to their garbage disposal as George, a listener shares his own family’s term for this device: the spoon sharpener.

Monastic Sign Language, and the Sacredness of Silence

 Centuries ago, monks who took a vow of silence still had to communicate about everyday activities in the monastery, from gardening to equipment repair. So they developed their own hand signs, with hundreds of gestures for various words and ideas that are sometimes still used today. An excellent book on the power of silence in such places is A Time to Keep Silence (Bookshop|Amazon) by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Naming Shades and Tints of Colors

 How do we agree on how to name shades and tints of colors? A famous study in the 1960s, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (Bookshop|Amazon by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay found that if a language had only two color terms, they were almost always for “black” and “white.” Another fantastic resource on this topic is a book we mentioned in another conversation about color, is The Secret Lives of Color (Bookshop|Amazon) by cultural historian Kassia St. Clair.

When Your Car is “the Machine”

 Matthew in Cincinnati, Ohio, says his grandfather used to refer to his car as the machine. Around the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon to apply the term machine to automobiles.

Skeuomorph, a Carried Over Nonfunctional Design Element

 You don’t really need those little rivets on your blue jeans. Those flat metal disks are leftovers from an earlier time, when jeans had to be much more durable. Such decorative elements that no longer serve a practical purpose are called skeuomorphs.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (Bookshop|Amazon)
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (Bookshop|Amazon)
A Time to Keep Silence (Bookshop|Amazon) by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (Bookshop|Amazon by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
Under The BridgeBrian JacksonJID008Jazz Is Dead
Tidal StreamPiero UmilianiIl CorpoRight Tempo
Mars WalkBrian JacksonJID008Jazz Is Dead
Yours MuhammadBrian JacksonJID008Jazz Is Dead
In The EndPiero UmilianiIl CorpoRight Tempo
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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