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Old. Elderly. Senior. Why are we so uncomfortable when we talk about reaching a certain point in life? An 82-year-old seeks a more positive term to describe how she feels about her age. And: a linguist helps solve a famous kidnapping case, using the vocabulary and spelling in a ransom note. Plus, old library books often contain inscriptions and other notes scribbled in the margins. A new book details an effort to reveal and preserve this “shadow archive” of the relationship between readers and the books they love. Plus, bus bunching, devil strip, fiddlesticks, scooter pooping vs. scooter-tooting, too clever by half, knucklehead, passenger, along with bet and bet bet and bet bet bet. We’re not selling wolf tickets!

This episode first aired July 24, 2021. It was rebroadcast the weekend of July 2, 2022.

Bus Bunching

  You’re waiting for a bus. You wait, and then you wait some more. Finally, two or three buses show up at once, all headed for the same destination. Public transportation professionals have a term for this — several, in fact: bus bunching, clumping, convoying, piggybacking, or platooning. Banana bus is another bit of jargon for this situation, because the buses are all in a bunch.

What are Good Terms for Old People?

  Mary in Alexandria, Virginia, wonders when words like senior and senior citizen came to mean “elderly.” Senior comes from Latin senex, “old,” the source also of Senate and senile. In the 1930s, a politician helped popularize the expression senior citizen as a more appealing term than elderly. Less successful euphemisms proposed for describing older people include vintage and perennial. Having reached the age of 82, Mary prefers to call herself middle old.

Bet Bet Bet

  Anna in Bellingham, Washington, is puzzled by her younger roommates’ use of the expression bet to “sure,” “okay,” “yes,” “cool.” This slang has been around for at least 30 years and is sometimes expanded to bet bet or even bet bet bet and is probably derived from expressions like you bet.

A Puzzling Puzzle for Quizzical Quizzers

  Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle has a visual element. For example, what’s the answer if the clues are “part of a football game” and the letters T I, followed by two blank spaces?

Devil Strip

  Terry, a native of Akron, Ohio, is curious why it seems no one outside of his hometown uses the term devil strip to mean “the narrow band of grass between sidewalk and street.” Devil strip was formerly used this way in a few other cities, but is now heard almost exclusively in Akron, Ohio. This dialectal difference figures in one of a fantastic story involving forensic linguistics.

Q and U Call it Quits

  In a previous episode, five-year-old Quinn asked why the letter Q is so often followed by the letter U. A new children’s book seems to have been written just for her. Q and U Call It Quits is a funny story about the chaos that ensues for the rest of the alphabet when those two letters quarrel. It’s written by Stef Wade and illustrated by Jorge Martin. (Bookshop|Amazon)

Too Clever by Half

  Bhavika in San Diego, California, was intrigued to hear an English speaker use the phrase too clever by half meaning “a little too smart for one’s own good” or “more clever than prudent.” There’s a similar phrase in her native Gujarati that translates as “one and a half times clever.”

Scooter Poot and Scooter Toot

  Logan in Wilmington, North Carolina, says he and his friends have long used scooter-pooting to mean “going around having a good time.” Both scooter-pooting and scooter-tooting are colloquial terms for casual socializing, and are widespread, although heard primarily in the southern United States.

A Shadow Library Found Added to Books

  In the 19th century, books were especially popular gifts — cheap enough to be owned by the middle class, but enough of an investment that people kept them for decades, then passed them down to the next generation or donated them to libraries. Increasingly, libraries must decide which of these books to clear out and digitize to make room for more. In the process, they risk losing the record of individual reader’s annotations and inscriptions. In Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library (Bookshop|Amazon), University of Virginia associate professor of English Andrew Stauffer chronicles a project to uncover and catalogue the “shadow archive” of history hidden in such volumes.


  Joan from McKinney, Texas, wonders about the origin of the disparaging term knucklehead. It’s a mild insult, and as with blockhead and bonehead, it suggests that someone’s head is so full of blocks, bones, or knuckles that there’s no room for brains. During World War II, the word knucklehead was popularized by a cartoon featuring Cadet RF Knucklehead, known for setting a comically bad example of things pilots shouldn’t do. PS: Thanks to everyone who pointed out that Knucklehead Smiff was a puppet created by ventroloquist Paul Winchell. Grant had no idea!

Laboratory Mix-Up

  Eric from Scranton, Pennsylvania, shares a funny story about having his hopes dashed as a five-year-old when his teacher told the class they were going down the hall to the laboratory.

Selling Wolf Tickets

  If you’re selling wolf tickets (or woof tickets), you’re not being truthful. The expression may arise from the old story about the boy who cried Wolf! when in fact there was none around.


  Dawn in Evansville, Indiana, wonders why we dismiss something as nonsense by exclaiming Fiddlesticks! The term arose in the 17th century, most likely because the bow for a fiddle is light, thin, and insubstantial, or in other words, “practically worthless.” Its initial F sound helps make it a satisfying substitute for a curse word. The dismissive phrase not to care a fiddlestick’s end means “not to care at all.”

The Origins of the Word “Passenger”

  The history of the word passenger, meaning “someone on some sort of conveyance,” is a bit surprising. In the 1300s, a passager was the pilot of a ferry, not one of the other people on board. Later passager acquired what linguists call an intrusive N or parasitic N, and came to apply instead to the people being transported. A similar phonetic process gave us the words messenger, which was originally messager, and scavenger, originally scavager.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Q and U Call It Quits by Stef Wade and illustrated by Jorge Martin (Bookshop|Amazon)
Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library by Andrew Stauffer (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Juice BoxJackie MittooKeep On DancingStudio One
A Day In The LifeGrant GreenGreen Is BeautifulBlue Note
Mellow FellowJackie MittooKeep On DancingStudio One
Can I Change My MindJackie MittooKeep On DancingStudio One
UpshotGrant GreenCarryin’ OnBlue Note
Taste Of LivingJackie MittooKeep On DancingStudio One
Spring TimeJackie MittooKeep On DancingStudio One
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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