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Pushing the Envelope

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Sure, there’s winter, spring, summer, and fall. But the seasons in between have even more poetic names. In Alaska, greenup describes a sudden, dramatic burst of green after a long, dark winter. And there are many, many terms for a cold snap that follows the first taste of spring: blackberry winter, redbud winter, onion snow, and whippoorwill storm, to name a few. Plus, the family that plays trivia games at home may end up cheering for their teen in high-school competitions. Also, playful prayers at the dinner table: Amen, Brother Ben! Pass the butter, let’s begin! All that, plus retten up, push the envelope, with bells on, self-deprecating vs. self-depreciating, taffy pockets, pigeon pair, the end of pea time, a puzzle about pairs of words, and more. Here we go, laughing and scratching!

This episode first aired April 23, 2022. It was rebroadcast the weekend of January 7, 2023.

Off We Go, Laughing and Scratching

 After our conversation about Off we go like a herd of turtles, often said by a parent gathering kids to leave the house, Joanna in Santa Cruz, California, shares the one she heard from her father: Here we go, laughing and scratching! In 1939, Hollywood columnist Walter Winchell reported that film director Archie Mayo used that phrase to start shooting a scene instead of saying Action!

Retten Up and Rett Up

 A Delaware listener recounts a funny story about visiting a friend in Maryland who asked him to retten up the house while she went to the store. He had no idea what she meant, so he just lounged around while she was gone — only to find out later that by retten up, she meant “tidy up” the house. Retten up is a variant of redd up, which has a similar meaning in Scots and Irish English. We’ve talked about redd up on the show before.

Wouldn’t Know Them if They Stood in My Soup

 In the 1996 movie Secrets & Lies, starring Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Blethyn’s East London character says of someone unfamiliar: I wouldn’t know him if he stood up in my soup!

Push the Envelope Means Go Beyond the Expected Limits

 Why do we refer to “testing or going beyond limits” as pushing the envelope? In aeronautics, to push the envelope means to try to go past the edge of the aircraft’s perceived capability. In the 1980s, the phrase was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s book about NASA’s test pilot program, The Right Stuff. (Bookshop|Amazon)

Taffy Pocket

 In Spanish, a cheapskate might be described as having a cocodrilo en el bolsillo, or a “crocodile in the pocket,” meaning they consider reaching for their wallet too perilous. In English, a stingy person may also be said to have taffy pockets, meaning they reach into their pocket, but somehow the hand never comes back out with money because the hand must be stuck there by gooey taffy.

Quizzer Guesser

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski wants you to think of two-word phrases in which both words end in the letters ER. For example, engineer Lonnie Johnson invented a popular toy that might be described as “an overachieving water gun.” What is it?

More than Four Seasons

 Hayley, a poet, grew up in Kansas City, then moved to Minnesota’s Twin Cities. After the last two winters there, she’s begun to wonder: Have English speakers ever referred to more than four seasons in English? Do other cultures measure time with more than four seasons? Alaskans have a rich vocabulary for periods between the traditional winter, spring, summer, and fall. In Alaska, breakup season is in May, when snow and ice start melting. Breakup is followed by greenup, a sudden, dramatic burst of green as new shoots break through the soil. That mini-season is followed by early summer, high summer, fall, early winter, solstice season, high winter, and springtime winter. San Diegans sometimes repeat this ditty about their Mediterranean climate: Our spring is in the summer. Our summer’s in the fall. Our fall is in the winter. And our winter’s not at all. In other English-speaking parts of the Northern Hemisphere, there are many terms for a period of cold weather following the first taste of warm spring weather. They include blackberry winter, dogwood winter, bloom winter, foxgrape winter, blackbird storm, buzzard storm, oak winter, whippoorwill storm, redbud winter, redwood winter, snowball winter, onion snow, and frog storm. In the UK, there’s also blackthorn winter, and equivalents in European languages as well. Two helpful books about these weather terms are The Essential Book of Weather Lore by Leslie Alan Horvitz and Weather Lore by Ruth Binney.

With Bells On

 Ryan in Ketchikan, Alaska, reports that a couple of friends told him they’d attend his new gallery exhibition with bells, meaning they would be there “with great enthusiasm.” The far more common phrase is to be there with bells on, indicating that someone plans to arrive “ready to celebrate.” This expression didn’t appear in English until the late 1800s, and its origin is a mystery, although one possible explanation is that it alludes to adorning horses with bells to make a sleigh ride more festive. A number of listeners have suggested morris dancing, which features bells on the performers, as a possible origin.

Self-Deprecating vs. Self Depreciating

 A remark that’s critical of oneself might be described as self-deprecating. Surprisingly, though, before the 1940s, such a remark was properly said to be self-depreciating. In Garner’s Modern English Usage (Bookshop|Amazon), grammarian Bryan Garner notes that the use of these terms has flipped over time. Though long viewed as incorrect, self-deprecating is now 50 times more common than self-depreciating.

Academic League and Trivia for the Whole Family

 Grant’s is a trivia-obsessed family. He and his wife participate in Learned League, an online trivia competition, and their son Guthrie now participates in Academic League, a high-school quiz league in San Diego, featuring questions from the National Association of Quiz Tournaments. The questions start off with the most difficult-to-know information first, then add more common facts, and contestants can buzz in at any point. How long will it take you to answer this sample question of theirs?

Like the End of Pea Time

 Jackie from Cincinnati, Ohio, wonders about the idiom they look like the end of pea time, referring to someone who appeared disheveled or unkempt. The end of pea time, or the last of pea time, refers to the literal end of pea-growing season, when most of the pea pods have been picked and the vines look withered and scraggly.

Any More Would be a Flippity Flop

 My sufficiency has been suffonsified is just one version of a playfully lofty way to say “I’ve had enough to eat.” Janet from San Antonio, Texas, emailed to say her Canadian mother’s version was My sufficiency has been suffonsified, and any more would be flippity flop. Her uncle’s rendition was even longer: I have had sufficiency of all the numerous delicacies offered. Any more would be a superfluity. Gastronomical science admonishes me that I have reached a point consistent with dietetical economy. In other words, any more would be flippity flop.

What’s a Pigeon Pair?

 Nancy in Newport, Kentucky, says friends used to refer to her young son and daughter as a pigeon pair. Doves and pigeons tend to have two chicks at a time, and at one point, it was believed that these offspring consisted of one male and female. Shakespeare alluded to a dove’s golden couplet, meaning such a pair. In Dutch, siblings are referred to with terms that translate as “a rich man’s wish” or a “king’s wish,” or even a koningspaar, which means “royal couple.” In French, they’re souhait de roi, or “king’s wish.” In Scots, a doos cleckin, or “dove’s hatching,” is a set of twins, usually fraternal. A pigeon pair refrigerator is a single-door refrigerator that stands beside a matching single-door upright freezer.

Amen, Brother Ben!

 Angel says her grandfather, who was from Manning, South Carolina, was a pastor who used to repeat the phrase Amen, Brother Ben, shot a rooster, killed a hen. This expression can express affirmation, and can also serve as a quick, joking way to say grace before a meal, including Amen, Brother Ben, shot a rooster, killed a hen, rooster died, chicken cried, and everybody was mortified and Amen, Brother Ben, shot a rooster, killed a hen, rooster died, chicken cried, and all were satisfied. Shorter versions that get the prayer over with even sooner are Amen, Brother Ben, pass the butter, let’s begin!And Amen, Brother Ben, back your ears and dive in!

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Essential Book of Weather Lore by Leslie Alan Horvitz
Weather Lore by Ruth Binney
Garner’s Modern English Usage by Bryan Garner (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

HidingBreakestraHit The FloorUbiquity
Wicked KarmaOrgoneLost Knights3 Palms
Play It BackLonnie SmithLive at Club MozambiqueBlue Note
Before We Say GoodbyeDewey KenmoreBefore We Say Goodbye 45Cosa Records
Spinning WheelLonnie SmithDrivesBlue Note
Do It On The OneRickey Calloway and His Tennessee BandDo It On The One 45Funk Night
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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