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Many of us struggled with the Old English poem “Beowulf” in high school. But what if you could actually hear “Beowulf” in the English of today? There’s a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley that uses contemporary language and even internet slang to create a fresh take on this centuries-old poem — right down to addressing the reader as Bro! Also, what’s a word for feeling desperately lonely, but also comfortable in your solitude? And: the story of the word nickname. Plus laundry list, snaggletooth, breakfast, desayuno, circus lingo, gaffle, a search-engine brain teaser, hogo, logomachy, Waldeinsamkeit, and a book about book burning that’s bound in asbestos!

This episode first aired January 09, 2021.

Why Do We Say We Have a Laundry List of Things That Aren’t Laundry?

  Although the term laundry list originally specified a piece of paper detailing all the items in a load of clothing sent out to be washed and folded, the term now refers more generally to collections of various sorts of things.

Breakfast, Desayuno, and Jejune

  Daniel in Wilmington, North Carolina, notes that in English, we literally break the fast in the morning, the source of the English word breakfast. In the same way, the Spanish word for “breakfast,” desayuno, comes from desayunar, meaning “not fasting.” The same sense informs the French term dejeuner. All these words are related to Latin jejunus, meaning “empty,” the source also of jejune, or “insipid.”

Hebrew for “To Give Someone Drink”

  In another episode, we discussed the apparent lack of a single English word that means “give someone something to drink” in the same way that feed means to “give someone food to eat.” A listener points out that in Hebrew, that function is fulfilled by the word rendered in English as le-hash-kot.

Low-Key Slang

  Katie, a biology professor in San Diego, California, reports that her students use low-key in ways she’s not used to hearing, as in I was low-key lost in class today, meaning “I was sort of lost in class today.” Linguists Pamela Monroe at the University of California Los Angeles and Connie Eble of the University of North Carolina and their students report the use of low-key as a modifier to mean “kind of” or “with slight inclination.”

Asbestos 451

  Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (Bookshop|Amazon) takes its title from the temperature at which book pages burn. Some 200 copies of the first edition of the book were bound with an unusual material: asbestos. A few are still available online for a hefty price.

Predictive Search Word Game

  Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle involves trying to predict how Google’s predictive search feature offers to complete various questions. For example, what are the search engine’s most likely suggestions if you type in the words Where are my?

A Word for Feeling Terribly Lonely But Loving the Solitude

  Bethany in Ithaca, New York, wants a word that sums up a way she’s feeling lately: being desperately lonely, but also reveling in her solitude. She’s toying with her own coinage based on Greek and Latin roots having to do with “solitude” and “split in two,” dichosolisthenia. Martha suggests turning to the simpler, earthy language of Anglo-Saxon, which powerfully evokes loneliness in such 10th-century poems as “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” Gladlorn, maybe? Or perhaps a compound like anhagawynn from words that mean “solitary happiness.” Grant offers a German term from Will Jelbert’s book Word Wise: Say What You Mean, Deepen Your Connections, and Get to the Point (Bookshop|Amazon). It’s Waldeinsamkeit, literally “forest loneliness,” the idea of feeling alone in a forest while also feeling happily connected to nature.


  If you need a synonym for stench, there’s always hogo, from French haut-gout, literally “high flavor.”

First of May, Donnicker, and Other Circus Lingo

  Michelle from Valdosta, Georgia, says that in 1976, when she started out as a circus performer, she was referred to as a first of May, circus lingo that means “a newbie.” Throughout her two decades traveling with the circus, she and her co-workers used the word donicker or donnicker to mean “restroom.” Other variations include donegan, dunagin, and dunnaken, all deriving from two old words that literally mean “dung house.” The term dunny, sometimes used in Australia and New Zealand to mean “privy,” “outhouse,” or “toilet” likely comes from the same source. From the same root comes danna drag, the cart used by workers who used to go door to door collecting night soil.

An Eke Name, Nickname

  The verb to eke, as in to eke out a living or eke out a win, derives from Old English eaca, meaning “addition” or “supplement.” The expression an eke name, or literally “an additional name” was later altered by misdivision into neke name, and finally nickname.

An Electrifying Beowulf

  Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley is a thrilling rendition of the centuries-old poem. (Bookshop|Amazon) Headley translates the poem using modern vocabulary and even internet slang, with results that are, as one reviewer put it, nothing short of electrifying. One way to enjoy this fresh take on one of the oldest works in English literature is to listen to the audio version read by actor JD Jackson. (Bookshop|Amazon) Or check out this free chapter-by-chapter reading by Neil Gaiman, Laurie Anderson, Bill T. Jones, and others. (You surely don’t want to miss Alan Cumming on the moment when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm out of its socket.)

Laurels as an Honor

  To garner the laurels, meaning “to collect praise” refers to the ancient practice of awarding crowns of bay laurel leaves to victors in competitions. This tradition of honoring distinction with such a wreath is reflected in the terms Nobel laureate and poet laureate. The ancient Greeks referred to this leafy crown as a stephanos, the source of such names as Stephen, Stephanie, and Esteban.

Gaffle, Meaning “to Snag” or “to Grab”

  Camden from Juneau, Alaska, uses the term gaffle to mean “snag,” as in to gaffle a Coke from the fridge. In his 1872 work A Dictionary of Etymology (Bookshop|Amazon), philologist Hensleigh Wedgwood notes that in a variety of languages, words like gaff and gaffle describe hook-like instruments used for grabbing. Gaffle shows up in American English around 1900 as a verb meaning “to grasp” or “to seize.” In modern hip-hop, gaffle can mean to “rob,” “steal,” “swindle,” or “be harassed or arrested by the police.”


  Symmachy is a rare word that means “an alliance to fight together against something,” the sym- coming from a Greek word that means “together” and the -machy from a Greek word that means “fight.” Similarly, a logomachy is “a verbal argument,” and sciamachy is literally “shadow boxing.”

What Does “Snaggletooth” Mean?

  Max from La Jolla, California, named his beloved rescue dog Snaggletooth. A snaggletooth is “a broken tooth” or “a tooth projects beyond the mouth.” It’s from the same linguistic root as snag, originally “a tree stump” or “a broken branch,” and later “a tree branch projecting from the water that impedes a boat’s progress.”

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

Photo by Joy. Used and modified under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Bookshop|Amazon)
Word Wise: Say What You Mean, Deepen Your Connections, and Get to the Point by Will Jelbert (Bookshop|Amazon)
Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley — Print: (Bookshop|Amazon) — Audiobook: (Bookshop|Amazon)
A Dictionary of Etymology by Hensleigh Wedgwood (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Inner City BluesGrover Washington Jr.Inner City BluesKUDU Records
Woman of The GhettoMarlena ShawThe Spice Of LifeCadet
ExpansionsLonnie Liston Smith and The Cosmic EchoesExpansionsFlying Dutchman
The Old SpotClutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
He’s A SuperstarRoy Ayers UbiquityHe’s ComingPolydor
For What It’s WorthSergio Mendes and Brasil ’66For What It’s Worth 45A&M Records
Brother JohnClutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
Nubian LadyYusef LateefThe Gentle GiantAtlantic
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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