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Singing Sand

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Cat hair may be something you brush off, but cat hair is also a slang term that means “money.” In the same way, cat beer isn’t alcoholic — some people use cat beer as a joking term for “milk.” And imagine walking on a beach with a long stretch of shoreline. With each step, the ground makes a squeaking sound under your feet. There’s a term for the kind of sand that makes this yip-yip-yip sound. It’s called barking sand. Plus, a listener describes some of the English she heard in a small Alaskan coastal town. It’s a rich mixture of fishermen’s slang, along with the speech of Native people, and the Norwegians who settled there. All that, and a triple-threat puzzle, paternoster lakes, barely vs. nearly, comprised of vs. composed of, cark, kittenball, the pokey, happy as a boardinghouse pup, close, but no tomato, and plenty more.

This episode first aired April 4, 2020. It was rebroadcast August 30, 2021.

Paternoster Lakes

 Paternoster lakes are circular lakes formed in a series along a valley, also known as a glacial stairway. From above, paternoster lakes resemble rosary beads on a string. Paternoster is another word for “rosary,” deriving from the Latin pater noster, or “Our Father,” the two words that usually begin the rosary prayer. The term paternoster lakes is one of hundreds of terms about the natural world described in Homeground: A Guide to the American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.

Barely vs. Nearly

 Matt from Waukesha, Wisconsin, has been discussing the words barely and nearly with his 10-year-old son Simon. They know the two words are nearly alike, but how exactly?

To Have a Come Apart

 Jacob in Dallas, Texas, remembers his grandfather used to talk about someone having a come apart, meaning “having a breakdown” or “freaking out.” It’s not a common phrase, but it’s widespread enough that it appears in newspaper archives at least as far back as the 1980s to refer to “losing one’s cool” or “falling to pieces.”

Close But No Tomato

 Lucy, a middle-school student in San Diego, California, is puzzled by a phrase her mother uses when something is not quite up to snuff or falls short of the mark: close, but no tomato. It appears to be a variant of close, but no cigar, a phrase adopted from the patter of old-time carnival barkers.

Common Bond Word Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is about common bonds that connect three things. For example, what’s the one word that links the following trio of terms? A report card, USDA inspected beef, and an incline.


 Cark is a noun meaning “worry” or “trouble.” As a verb, cark means “to cause worry or distress,” as in to have carking doubts. This word derives from a Latin word for “burden,” which also produced charge, as in a “load” to carry, and car, a vehicle that carries.

Comprised of vs. Composed of

 An editor with a large database company is tussling with colleagues over the proper use of the words comprise and composed of. She believes the correct usage would be: The alphabet comprises 26 letters or The alphabet is composed of 26 letters. She’s right. The use of the phrase is comprised of is widespread, even though it’s traditionally considered incorrect. When possible, it’s best to find an alternative entirely, such as consists of.

Singing and Barking Sands

 Singing sand refers to the roaring noise or boom produced by vibrations in sand dunes. Barking sand, which makes yipping noises when you drag your feet along it, is found along coastlines in Hawaii and elsewhere. These terms are discussed in more detail in Homeground: A Guide to the American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.

Language in Petersburg, Alaska

 When Therese moved from New England to Petersburg, Alaska, she heard a rich mixture of language that arose from the Tlingit people who live there part of the year, the Norwegians who immigrated there, and a thriving fishing industry. So you might hear residents borrowing the fishing term to be corked, that is “to be interfered with,” or referring to the Norwegian Christmastime practice of going julebukking, or wandering business to business, enjoying Norwegian food and perhaps an adult beverage along the way. Speech arising from such a mixture of languages is called contact language. Trade language arises when parts of languages combine specifically for use in trade. A pidgin develops as the result of two or more languages combining grammatical and lexical features that develops into something still more sophisticated, with syntactical rules and vocabulary that are passed on from parents to children, sometimes over many generations.

Happy as a Boarding House Pup

 If you’re happy as a boarding house pup, you’re elated indeed. Food in a boardinghouse can’t compare with home-cooked meals, which works to the advantage of a canine waiting around to be tossed some scraps.

Cat Beer, Cat Hair, and Cat’s Face

 Felines have inspired some picturesque terms. In parts of the Midwestern United States, the term cat beer can mean “milk.” The term cat hair is sometimes used as a synonym for “money,” and cat ice is “thin ice.” Cat face refers to the mark on a tomato freshly plucked from the vine. Cat’s face is also used for “a wrinkle or pucker in clothing that’s not ironed correctly.” In her book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes of having to iron seven stiff starched shirts “and not leave a cat’s face anywhere.”

You Must Be Smelling Yourself

 Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent history, The Warmth of Other Suns, chronicles the Great Migration of American blacks from the Southern United States starting in the era of Jim Crow. In it, Wilkerson quotes someone who says of another person: “You must be smelling yourself.” This saying describes someone “conceited” or otherwise full of himself.

Pokey Means Jail

 Andres from San Diego, California, wonders: Why do we refer to jail as the pokey? The term, along with its variant pogie or pogey, likely goes back to a word for workhouse, a prison where people worked as part of their sentence, much like debtors’ prison.


 The slang term kittenball is used in parts of the American Midwest for the sport of softball. According to The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, a fire company Minneapolis, Minnesota, first applied the term kittenball to softball, and called its first team the Kittens.

Skipper for Team Captain

 Omar in Wilmington, North Carolina, says that when he was growing up in Pakistan, he and fellow cricket players referred to their team captain as the skipper. The term skipper, or skip, originated in seafaring terminology and now applies to the leader of various types of teams, such as curling or cycling, and sometimes baseball.


 According to Homeground: A Guide to the American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, the Navajo term tsegi means “rock canyon.” This term was adapted into French as the name for the spectacular spot in Arizona known as Canyon de Chelly.

“This’ll” on a Spelling Test?

 Jason from De Pere, Wisconsin, was surprised to see that among the spelling words his twin second-graders were studying was the contraction this’ll. Is a term like this’ll really appropriate for a second-grade spelling test?


 The Latin word latibulum means a “refuge or hiding place of animals.” It derives from the same root that gives us the English word latent, meaning “hidden.” A 17th-century dictionary defines the now-rare English word latibulate as “privily to hide oneself in a corner.”

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

Photo of Canyon de Chelly by Rennett Stowe. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Homeground: A Guide to the American Landscape edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary

Music Used in the Episode

A Place In The SunMonk MontgomeryA Place In The Sun 45Chisa Records
A Day In The LifeGrant GreenGreen Is BeautifulBlue Note
Burning SpearKenny BurrellBurning Spear 45rpmVerve
Keep On TruckingAhmad JamalMASH Theme 4520th Century Records
The PreacherKenny BurrellBurning Spear 45rpmVerve
Jan JanGrant GreenLive at The LighthouseBlue Note
Layin LowSure Fire Soul EnsembleSure Fire Soul EnsembleColemine Records
MASH ThemeAhmad JamalMASH Theme 4520th Century Records
Kung FuCurtis MayfieldKung Fu 45Curtom
Right On For The DarknessCurtis MayfieldKung Fu 45Curtom
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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