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Shiver Me Timbers

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Careful what you criticize! Not long ago, some words that sound perfectly normal today were considered gauche and grating on the ear. If the complainers had had their way, we couldn’t say a word like pessimism or use contact as a verb! Also, we’ll settle another debate once and for all: is it “a historic” or “an historic”? Plus, what are you doing for Inside-Out Day? Also, bed lunch, sweven, hinky, johnny gowns, the real meaning of “shiver me timbers,” and more. This episode first aired April 17, 2015.

Etymology of Pessimism

 We get lots of calls and emails that take a pessimistic look at the way language changes– which reminded us that the word pessimism itself, just 100 or so years ago, was derided by the curmudgeons of old. People thought the word pessimism was a lazy, inaccurate replacement for despondency.

Inside Out Day

 If you’re looking for yet another reason to buy an infant a present, there’s always Inside Out Day, which some people celebrate as the day when a baby has been out of the womb as long as they were in it.


 Singultus, which comes from a Latin word for “sobbing” or “dying breath,” is a fancy way of describing a not-so-fancy affliction: the hiccups.

Origin of Shiver Me Timbers

 Did pirates ever actually say “shiver me timbers”? And why would they be shivering in the Caribbean, anyway? Actually, this saying has nothing to do with being cold, and pirates probably didn’t say it. The phrase goes back to the 1700’s and was popularized in books such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Shiver, in this sense, means “to split in two.” Shiver me timbers, in the imagined pirate lingo, refers to a storm or siege splitting the wooden beams of a ship.

Bed Lunch

 A bed lunch is one way to refer to a late night meal, right before bedtime.

The Ties That Bind Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about the ties that bind various sets of three words. For example, what do essay, excess, and decay have in common?

A Historian vs. An Historian

 The a historian vs. an historian debate has a pretty straightforward answer: a historian is the correct way to write and say it.


 Lyricists take note: sweven is another term for a dream, which should come in handy when looking for words that rhyme with heaven, eleven, Devin, or leaven.


 Hinky, or hincty, is a term going back to the 1920’s that has meant both “snobbish” and “haughty,” or, more commonly, suspicious. A police officer from Grove City, Pennsylvania, calls to say his older colleagues often use the word to describe someone who arouses suspicion.

Have Fever vs. Have a Fever

 Fever is often diagnosed with an indefinite article attached—as in, you have a fever—but it was some time between the 1940s and 1960s that we added the article. And in the Southern United States, it’s still not uncommon to hear someone say they have fever.

Contact as a Verb

 Contact, when used as a verb, is another word that once prompted peeving. In fact, in the 1930s, an official at Western Union lobbied for a company-wide ban on the word, which he deemed a hideous vulgarism compared to the phrases “get in touch with” or “make the acquaintance of.”

Phonetically Balanced Sentences

 “These days, a chicken leg is a rare dish” might sound like an odd thing to observe, but during World War II, it was among dozens of phonetically balanced sentences devised by researchers for testing cockpit transmissions and headphones in planes. The sentences use a wide variety of sounds, which is why they’re still useful for testing audio today.


 We have the word avuncular to mean like an uncle, but is there one word for describing someone or something aunt-like? Materteral is one option, though it’s rarely used.

Terry Pratchett Quote

 As author Terry Pratchett once said, “It’s still magic if you know how it’s done.”

Slang Abbreviation “Nation”

 The slang term nation pops up several times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reduced form of a mild swear word. The word damnation was euphemized as tarnation, which was later shortened to nation. Nation in this sense goes back to the mid-1700’s at least, and can also mean “large,” “great,” or “excellent.”

Poem on Insensible Losses

 We spoke on an earlier show about insensible losses, a medical term for things like water vapor that your body loses but you don’t sense it. That inspired a Sacramento, California, listener to write a poem with that title about great artists who go underappreciated.

Johnny Gown

 Johnny or johnny gown, meaning hospital gown, is a term most associated with New England.

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

Photo by David Wright. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Music Used in the Episode

Honey (Instrumental)Erykah BaduNew Amerykah Part OneMotown
El FuegoPolyrhythmicsEl Fuego 45rpmKEPT
Mendo MulcherPolyrhythmicsMendo Mulcher 45rpmKEPT
Bold and BlackRamsey LewisAnother VoyageCadet
Groove CityChocolate MilkThe Best of Chocolate MilkRCA Victor
Black HillsBudos BandBurnt OfferingDaptone
UhuruRamsey LewisAnother VoyageCadet
I Just Want To Make Love To YouMuddy WatersElectric MudCadet
How About LoveChocolate MilkThe Best of Chocolate MilkRCA Victor
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

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  • About the phrase “shiver me timbers”: the caller had a sense that the young girls had reacted to it as if it were slightly dirty, and he didn’t know why. I sat in the car at the bank, looking all suspicious to the passersby, waiting to see if Grant knew (I figured Martha wouldn’t). Nope.

    I’ll bet those girls were fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In season 6, episode 6 “All the Way” (the Halloween episode), Xander is dressed up as a pirate and talks to Anya in sexually suggestive pirate slang. Later on Dawn repeats the phrase when a bad boy kisses her.

    Maybe there have been other uses of it with sexual overtones, but that seems the most likely place that a pair of young girls would have heard it.

  • The point of the a/an historian question is because of the difference between a rule based on the letter and a rule based on the pronunciation. Some people, including myself, don’t pronounce the ‘h’ in historian in some instances. I naturally pronounce the phrase “an istorian” when speaking, though I also say “a historical novel”. Similarly, I tend to drop the “h” when following the… so, “the istorian” and “the istory” — I don’t know why, but I know I’m not alone. And it has nothing to do with pedantry…

  • You guys mentioned Golden birthdays. When I was young my family called them champaign birthdays and that was the year you got to try a sip of Champaign for the first time.

  • I’ve noticed that in daily speech, we use more slangs and less big words. However, in writing, we use bigger words and a different style of tone & diction to sound more eloquent. Why is there a difference in what we say/how we say it if both are forms of us expressing our thoughts?

    Another thing I would like to bring up is that words are constantly being made up. Little kids may shout out random, silly phrases while social media are always spewing out acronyms or figures of speech. This episode mentioned that often times people wonder whether certain words are actually ‘words.’ I personally believe that any combination of 3 or more letters are words. They may not be words already existing and being used, but they are in some ways considered as words.

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