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Space Cadet

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We have books for language-lovers and recommendations for history buffs. • How did the word boondoggle come to denote a wasteful project? The answer involves the Boy Scouts, a baby, a craft project, and a city council meeting. • Instead of reversing just individual letters, some palindromes are sentences with reversed word order. • Also squeaky clean, dad, icebox, search it up, pretend vs. pretentious, toe-counting rhymes, comb the giraffe, a Korean song about carrots, a word game, and more.

This episode first aired December 22, 2018. It was rebroadcast the weekend of October 7, 2023.

Interesting Foreign Expressions

 The French expression peigner la girafe means to do a useless, tedious, or annoying job, but literally translates as “to comb the giraffe.” That’s one of the many gems in Mark Abley’s new book Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean. Abley also observes that Korean youngsters use an expression meaning “Of course!” or “Absolutely!” Literally, though, the expression translates as “It’s a carrot!” You can hear the expression dang geun in an adorable Korean cartoon that shows carrots singing to each other that of course they’ll always be friends.

Boondoggle Origin

 Andrew from Annandale, Virginia, asks about the origin of the word boondoggle. Why does it mean a wasteful project or plain old busywork, but also denotes a kind of leathercraft lanyard made at camp?

Word Sentence Palindromes

 A palindrome is a word or phrase with letters that read the same backwards and forwards, such as taco cat, nurses run, and a nut for a jar of tuna. Word-unit palindromes are similar, although you read them word by word. One example: “You can cage a swallow, but you can’t swallow a cage, can you?” Another is goes “Fall leaves after leaves fall.” And then there’s “Did I say you never say ‘Never say never?’ You say I did.”

Squeaky Clean Origin

 Judy in Miami, Florida, wonders how the expression squeaky clean came to mean spotless, whether literally or metaphorically. At least as early as the 1930s, the squeaky clean referred to hair that was so free of oil and dirt it makes a squeaking sound between your fingers. Later, TV commercials for Ajax dishwashing liquid played upon that idea, touting the so-called Ajax squeak that results from using that soap to wash dishes.

Latin Palindrome Riddle

 “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” is a Latin palindrome doubling as a riddle. It’s variously translated as “We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire” or “We turn in circles in the night and are devoured by fire.” The answer to the riddle: moths. This Latin palindrome is also the title of a film by French director Guy Debord, and is referenced in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

Take-Off Word Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a take-off word quiz. All the answers to this quiz involve removing the letter E from a word to form another word. For example, if the clue is “The man at the piano played the black keys with skinny, knobby fingers,” what two words does that suggest?

Origin of “Dad”

 Kirk from New Braunfels, Texas, wonders about the origin of the word dad. It’s one of many names for a parent that arose simply from the sounds an infant makes when trying to communicate.


 Keith in Valparaiso, Indiana, wonders why his mother uses the term icebox for what other people call a refrigerator. Before electric refrigeration, people kept food cold by putting it in a an insulated box that was literally cooled with a block of ice delivered by the local iceman.

Cool Your Jets

 If you want someone to calm down, you might say “Cool your jets!” This expression is among several catchphrases from a 1950s TV show about the extraterrestrial adventures of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Others include plug your jets, meaning to shut up; cut your jets, meaning to quit doing something; blow your jets, which meant to get angry. The TV series was apparently inspired by by the Robert Heinlein novel Space Cadet, which also led to space cadet as an ironic term for someone whose head is metaphorically in the clouds.

Bus Number 11

 Our conversation about slang terms for traveling by foot prompted an email from Tom in Canton, Texas, who reports that while living in Israel, he used to hear fellow high school students say in Arabic that they were taking bus number 11, the long, straight numerals representing their two legs.

Book Recommendations

 More book recommendations: For a smart, in-depth look at language change and usage controversies, Martha suggests Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed by Lane Greene. Grant says his 11-year-old son thoroughly enjoyed all of the graphic series Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. That series includes such books as Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, which, as it happens, was a great complement to the book for adults that Grant just finished, Barbara Tuchman’s excellent history of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August.

Search it Up

 Sophia is a 13-year-old from Napierville, Illinois, says she and her peers use the phrase search it up on the internet to mean look it up on the internet. Her mother says it’s look it up or just search it, not search it up. Sophia and her friends aren’t wrong, though. Search it up is used by lots of people, particularly younger ones, and it’s becoming more common.

Pretend/Pretentious Relationship

 What’s the linguistic connection between pretend and pretension or pretentious? They all go back the Latin praetendere, meaning to put something forward.

Counting-Out Rymes for Toes

 Susan from Virginia Beach, Virginia, remembers a toe-counting game from her childhood that goes “This toe tight / this penny white / this toe tizzle / this penny wizzle.” She doesn’t recall the rest and has no idea where it came from. There are many versions of this kind of rhyme, particularly in the traditions of Scandinavia and Germany. Among them are the one that goes “Peedee / peedee loo / loodee whistle / whistle nobble / and great big hobble tobble!” And another that goes “Little Pea / Penny Rou / Judy Whistle / Mary Tossle / and Big Tom Bumble.” Susan remembers another one that involves gently slapping the bottom of the child’s foot: “Shoe the old horse / and shoe the old mare / and let the little colt go bare, bare, bare.” The blog Mama Lisa’s World has a multitude of other versions. Henry Bolton’s 1888 book The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children, which is available in its entirety online, is another good source of these, although some of the rhymes may be offensive to modern readers.

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

Photo by Kai Schreiber. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean
The Name of the Rose
Space Cadet
Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood
The Guns of August
The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children

Music Used in the Episode

Don’t You KnowDurand Jones and the IndicationsDon’t You Know SingleColemine Records
AragonSure Fire Soul EnsembleAragon 45Colemine Records
What Time It IsGeneral CrookWhat Time It Is 45Down To Earth
Cuchy Frito ManCal TjaderSoul BurstVerve
On BroadwayReuben WilsonOn BroadwayBlue Note
So Much Trouble In My MindJoe Quarterman & Free SoulSo Much Trouble In My Mind 45GSF Records
Snake BoneLou DonaldsonSay It Loud!Blue Note
Descarga CubanaCal TjaderSoul BurstVerve
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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