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Strange Spelling Bee Words

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Why do spelling bees include such bizarre, obsolete words as cymotrichous? Why is New York called the Big Apple? Also, the stinky folk medicine tradition called an asifidity bag, the surprising number of common English phrases that come directly from the King James Bible, three sheets to the wind, the term white elephant, in like Flynn, Australian slang, and what to call foam sleeve for an ice-cold beverage can. This episode first aired Friday, February 3, 2012.

Expressions from the Bible

 What’s the common thread that connects the phrases pour out your heart, from time to time, fell flat on his face, the skin of my teeth, and the root of the matter? They all come from or were popularized by the King James Bible, first published in 1611. The Manifold Greatness exhibit is now traveling to libraries and schools nationwide, demonstrating, among other things, this translation’s profound impact on the English language.

Three Sheets to the Wind

 A wedding photographer says she happens to run into lots of people who are three sheets to the wind, and wonders why that term came to mean “falling-down drunk.” Turns out, it’s from nautical terminology. On a seagoing vessel, the term sheets refers to the lines or ropes that hold the sails in place. If one, two, or even three sheets get loose and start flapping in the wind, the boat will swerve and wobble as much as someone who’s overimbibed.

Socky and Toey

 In Australia, if someone’s socky, they’re lacking in spirit or self confidence. If someone’s toey, they’re nervous, aroused, or frisky.

Latin Spirare

 The words respiration and inspiration have the same Latin root, spirare, which means “to breathe.” The word conspire has the same Latin etymological root. But what does conspiring have to do with breathing? The source of this term is notion that people who conspire are thinking in harmony, so close that they even breathe together.

Wicked Bible

 The so-called Wicked Bible is a 1631 version of the King James, printed by Robert Barker and Matin Lucas. This particular Bible is so-called because the printers somehow managed to leave out the word not in the commandment against adultery. They were, indeed, punished. Behold the offending page.

Curtailments Word Game

 Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game of Curtailments, in which the last letter of one word is removed to make another. For example: When the family gathers around the ________, it’s clear that home is where the _______ is.

Unwelcome Gifts

 What do you call a gift that turns into a hassle, like a gift card for a store not in your area, or one with a pressing expiration date? A New York caller suggests the term gaft. Another possibility is white elephant, a term derived from the story of a king in ancient Siam, who punished unruly subjects with the gift of a rare white elephant. The recipient couldn’t possibly refuse the present but the elephant’s upkeep became extremely costly.

Asafitidy Bag

 What’s an asafidity bag? Variously spelled asfidity, asfedity, asafetida, asphidity, and assafedity, it’s a folk medicine tradition involves putting the stinky resin of the asafetida or asafoetida plant in a small bag worn around the neck to ward off disease. Then again, if this practice really does help you avoid colds and flu, it’s probably because nobody, contagious or otherwise, wants come near you.

You can hear Granny Clampett mentions asafidity bags twice in the first two minutes of this episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. There’s also a lengthy online discussion about this old folk tradition.


 In an earlier episode, Martha and Grant discussed what to call a person who doesn’t eat fish. A listener calls with another suggestion: pescatrarian, from the Latin word that means “fish.”

Obscure Spelling Words

 Why do spelling bees in the United States use so many bizarre, obsolete, ginormous, and Brobdingnagian words? Webster’s New International Dictionary, 3rd Edition, published in 1961, is still the standard for spelling bees, and thus contains some dated language. However, most unabridged dictionaries won’t get rid of words even as they slip out of use.

Recent winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee included cymotrichous, stromuhr, Laodicean, guerdon, serrefine, and Ursprache. How many do you know? The whole list.

Vowel Mergers

 Do you pronounce the words cot and caught differently? How about the words don and dawn, or pin and pen? The fact that some people pronounce at least some of these pairs identically is attributable to what’s called a vowel merger.

The Big Apple

 Why is New York City called the Big Apple? In the 1920s, a writer named John Fitz Gerald used it in a column about the horseracing scene, because racetrack workers in New Orleans would say that if a horse was successful down South, they’d send it to race in the Big Apple, namely at New York’s Belmont Park. For just about everything you’d ever want to know about this term, visit the site of etymological researcher Barry Popik.

Rhymes with “Sigh”

 A caller says her relative always used an interjection that sounds like sigh for the equivalent of “Are you paying attention?” The hosts suspect it’s related to s’I, a contraction of says I. This expression open appears in Mark Twain’s work, among other places.


 Many teachers aren’t crazy about cornergami. That’s what you’ve committed if you’ve ever been without a stapler and folded over the corners of a multipage paper to keep them attached.

In Like Flynn

 The phrase in like Flynn describes someone who’s thoroughly successful, often with the ladies. Many suspect it’s a reference to the dashing actor Errol Flynn and his sensational trial on sex-related charges. That highly publicized trial may have popularized the expression, but it was already in use by then. It could perhaps be a case of simple rhyming, along the lines of such phrases as “What do you know, Joe?” and “out like Stout.”

Beer Cozy or Koozie

 The foam sleeve you put around a can of ice-cold beer or soda sometimes goes by a name that sounds like the word “cozy.” But how do you spell it? As with words that are primarily spoken, not written, it’s hard to find a single definitive spelling. In fact, the word for this sleeve is spelled at least a dozen different ways.

Photo by jinterwas. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

King James Bible
Wicked Bible
Webster’s New International Dictionary

Music Used in the Episode

Manhattan SkylineRolf Kuehn and his OrchestraCity CallingSelected Sound
As Long as I’ve Got YouThe CharmelsAs Long as I’ve Got You 45rpmVolt
Music Man Pt IIPleasure WebMusic Man (Pt I & II) 45rpmEastbound Records
Deep In A DreamMilt JacksonThe Ballad Artistry of Milt JacksonAtlantic
Capriccio in BeatMarek I VacekPrzasniczkaPomaton EMI
I’ve Been Watching YouSouthside MovementMoving SouthSpectrum Audio UK
The Midnight Sun Will Never SetMilt JacksonThe Ballad Artistry of Milt JacksonAtlantic
Out On The Street AgainEtta JamesThe Chess BoxGeffen Records
Soft ShellMotherlodeWhen I Die – The Best of MotherlodeUnidisc
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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