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Sleepy Winks

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It was a dark and stormy night. So begins the long and increasingly convoluted prose of Edwards Bulwer-Lytton’s best-known novel. Today the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest asks contestants for fanciful first sentences that are similarly convoluted and over-the-top — often with hilarious results. Plus: George Orwell’s prescient novel 1984 gave us the terrifying image of Big Brother and helped popularize words like doublespeak and Orwellian. And is there a word for fallen snow while leaves still remain on the trees? Also: motor vs. engine, capitol vs. capital, wannabe vs. wannabee, scrape acquaintance, a quiz about words that link other words, Tutivillis, skell gel, complementary alternation discourse constructions, and words for “eye boogers” in Hungarian, French, German, Portuguese, Turkish, Scots, and English.

This episode first aired January 8, 2022.

The Best Worst Opening Lines

 English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton is best remembered for the first line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford (Bookshop|Amazon). The novel opens with “It was a dark and stormy night …” followed by many twists and turns in a long, single sentence. This notoriously florid example of writing inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which since 1982 has invited contestants to come up with their own opening sentences that are similarly so bad they’re funny.

Dozy Dusty and Other Names for Hardened Periocular Discharge

 Damien from New York City, NY, is curious about the term his Hungarian grandmother used for the crust that forms at the corners of your eyes after a night’s sleep. The Hungarian word for eye boogers is csipa, pronounced “CHEE-pah.” Csipa means “gum” or “gooeyness,” and csipás szemek means “gummy eyes.” Other Hungarian words for “rheum” or “mucus” include takony, nyálka, and slejm. The word csipa may have been borrowed into Hungarian from a Turkic language. Turkish word çapak, pronounced “chah-PAHK,” which means the same thing. In German, Augenbutter or “eye butter,” is applied to that yellow crust, as is a word that translates as “sleep sand.” In French, it’s chassie, from a Latin word that means “poop.” The Portuguese synonym remela may derive from the word mel, meaning “honey,” cognate with Spanish miel. Older Scots terms include rack and garr. English equivalents include sleepy buds, dozy dust, sleepy men, sleepy winks, crusties, as well as gound and the medical term hardened periocular discharge.

To Scrape Acquaintance

 George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (Bookshop|Amazon) conjured the indelible image of Big Brother, the terrifying personification of an authoritarian state where all of one’s actions and thoughts are monitored. The book also helped popularize the term doublespeak, meaning “language that appears to communicate but is actually designed to deceive.” In the text, Orwell also uses the verbal phrase scrape acquaintance, meaning “to strike up a relationship by careful effort and insinuation” — not so much starting a friendship as making a connection as a means to some other end.

Motor v. Engine

 Twelve-year-old Gagnon from Newport, Oregon, wonders: What’s the difference between a motor and an engine?

Common Bond Word Quiz

 ​​Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle involves words that share a common lexical bond. For example, what one word unites the terms apple, chill, bird, bang, and gulp?


 Chuck in Dallas, Texas, is a member of an online group of Winnebago Solis owners and would-be Winnebago Solis owners. They’re having a big debate over whether the would-be RV owners are properly called wannabees with two Es or wannabes with one E. The far more common spelling is wannabe, deriving from the hyphenated term that arose in the 1970s, wanna-be.

Worst Line in the West

 The winner of the Western category of the 2021 Bulwer-Lytton Contest, which rewards cleverly awful first lines of fiction, explains what happens when Tumbleweed Mulligan and Johnny “Trigger” McAllister take over the Black Dog Saloon for the afternoon to study zoning maps.

Snow Falling Before the Autumn is Through

 Miles from Madison, Wisconsin, is musing about whether there’s a single word or phrase for the time of year when it snows while leaves are still on the trees. One jocular term for snow falling on leaves during that liminal period is snowliage, formed by analogy with the word foliage. Cultures around the world have odd expressions for the unusual phenomenon of the sun shining through rain, such as the donkey’s getting married or the devil is chasing his wife. Perhaps a similar metaphor would work in this instance, like the image of Mother Nature making her bed. In Japan, the falling of leaves on snow has been compared to the writing of words on white paper with a brush and ink. A light dusting of snow on the ground, which sometimes occurs while leaves remain on the branches, is sometimes called cat snow, a reference to just enough accumulation for a feline to leave footprints. Onion snow occurs in early spring after onions have already been planted.

Other Meanings of “Brainstorm”

 Marlena from Dallas, Texas, was surprised to see the word brainstormdefined in an old dictionary as “a violent, transient mental derangement manifested in a maniacal outburst.” That indeed was the sense of this word in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the word brainstorm acquired its more positive sense associated with crowdsourcing a solution.

Blame Tutivillis, the Writers’ Demon

 If you’ve ever sent a really important email and only later caught an embarrassing misspelling right there in the message header, there’s no longer any need to blame yourself. Blame Tutivillis, the medieval demon who introduced errors into writing! His name may also be spelled Titivillus.

Skell Slang

 Will, an emergency medical technician in Queens, New York, offers this bit of lingo from his line of work: skell, meaning a “lowlife.” In South African slang, the word skelm means the same thing. Will and his colleagues also use the term skell gel to mean “hand sanitizer.” The 17th-century English term skelder meant “someone who would feign an injury in order to be a more effective panhandler or con artist.” This word likely isn’t related to modern skell because there’s a centuries-long gap between its use then and when skell pops up in Brooklyn in the mid-20th century.

Vile Puns

 The winner in the “Vile Puns” category of the 2021 Bulwer-Lytton Contest involves a hoagie shop and a tiny pimento-stuffed object in a long, cheesy sandwich.

If You “Can’t Do Z, Let Alone Y,” Are You More or Less Able to Do Y?

 Stacy from Denver, Colorado, is accustomed to using the idiomatic expression let alone in a particular way, mentioning two possibilities within a range and placing the more extreme possibility at the end of the statement, as in I can’t even cook for myself, let alone cook Thanksgiving for ten people. Increasingly, though, she’s hearing people reverse such constructions, as in I can’t even cook Thanksgiving, let alone cook for myself. Stacy’s usage is correct, although let alone is a difficult phrase to parse, so the mistake is understandable. In this case, let alone is one of what linguists refer to as complementary alternation discourse constructions, a group that includes such phrases as to say nothing of, never mind, and much less.

A Capital Mistake

 Jonah, a music teacher, in Baltimore, Maryland, shares a funny story about a student who misunderstood his question about the capital of his home state. That left Jonah wondering about the difference between the words capital and capitol. The former goes back to Latin caput, meaning “head” and by extension, the “most important,” “main,” or “great,” giving us terms like capital letter and capital as in “money,” originally, “the first part of a loan,” or in Latin, pars capitalis. Capitol spelled with an O, is used specifically for “the building in which a legislative body meets,” and derives from the Capitoline Hill in Rome, where a magnificent temple of Jupiter once stood.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Bookshop|Amazon)
1984 by George Orwell (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

My Sweet PotatoBooker T and The MGsAnd Now!Stax
JerichoBooker T and The MGsAnd Now!Stax
Fat MamaHerbie HancockFat Albert RotundaWarner Brothers
Silent Heart125th St Candy StoreSilent Heart 45Fania
Watermelon ManHerbie HancockHead HuntersCBS
Make OutHarvey Averne +9Make Out 45Fania
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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