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.

Download the MP3.

 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 Broadcast

King James Bible
Wicked Bible
Webster’s New International Dictionary

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Manhattan Skyline Rolf Kuehn and his Orchestra City Calling Selected Sound
As Long as I’ve Got You The Charmels As Long as I’ve Got You 45rpm Volt
Music Man Pt II Pleasure Web Music Man (Pt I & II) 45rpm Eastbound Records
Deep In A Dream Milt Jackson The Ballad Artistry of Milt Jackson Atlantic
Capriccio in Beat Marek I Vacek Przasniczka Pomaton EMI
I’ve Been Watching You Southside Movement Moving South Spectrum Audio UK
The Midnight Sun Will Never Set Milt Jackson The Ballad Artistry of Milt Jackson Atlantic
Out On The Street Again Etta James The Chess Box Geffen Records
Soft Shell Motherlode When I Die – The Best of Motherlode Unidisc
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
Tagged with →  

11 Responses

  1. EmmettRedd says:

    Cornergami. Now I have a word to use for what I told some students to do with their last homework. It appears to be a natural for verbing, “Just cornergami it.”


  2. Rancid says:

    “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.”

    A possible explanation. I don’t think we are describing a “word” as much as a “trademark”. Thirty some odd years ago, I was dating an accountant who was working on the books of a start-up company that was marketing a type of foam sleeve. I called it a “koozie” but she was quick to correct me of the company’s official name in a way that you “xerox” instead of photocopying or describe gelatin desserts as “Jell-o”. It is even a common joke to tell you are from Texas, where I grew up. You know you are from Texas and they ask you what kind of Coke you want and you say “Dr Pepper”. So my best guess is that each of the spellings you have for a foam sleeve is actually correct in that they were originally a trademarked name of each of the specific brands that made them.

    Could be wrong.

  3. meels says:

    I would associate the “cozy” for a can as related to a tea “cosy” or “cozy” (UK vs US English). Where a tea cosy is to keep the teapot warm, it would follow accordingly that a can cosy (or cozy) is to keep the can cold. As the previous commenter stated, it would make sense that varied spellings would be trademarks. Unique spellings are all the rage, these days.


    On a  tangent: Especially with the takeoff of the internet in the past 20-odd years, people started using entirely too much shorthand, in my opinion. Text messaging only made it worse. As a 21-year-old living in Texas, most of my peers do not know how to spell many common words, simply because they didn’t have to. I took an English class at our local community college as part of basics, and was appalled that not only did our primary class discussion take place in message boards online, but that students were not significantly marked down for spelling or  syntactical  errors. I helped to tutor other students in my class for papers, and found that many of the students (although some several years older than I was at the time) simply did not know basic rules of English. What happened?  

  4. lesmoore says:

    As an Australian who regularly listens to the podcast, I am sometimes surprised by the references to “Australian words” on your program.


    In this episode you mention “socky” and “toey”.


    In my 71 years I have never heard “socky” but, given the meaning you associate with it, I can only assume it’s meant to be “sooky”. A “sook” is a soft or timid person (more normally applied to a small child – for example, a child who cries over something very minor – than to an older child or an adult). The closest thing to a synonym would be “crybaby”.


    “Toey” is a good Australian word but the usage during my lifetime varies a little from your “nervous,” “aroused,” or “frisky”. It’s more like “ready to go and just can’t wait”, or “straining at the leash” if you can see the difference.


    And one last point – the foam tube for keeping a beer cool is a “stubby cooler”. In the past ,Australian beer bottles were large (750ml) bottles. Years ago, in response to the introduction of cans, the “stubby” bottle (350ml, with dimensions similar to a can) was introduced. Hence the “stubby cooler” which of course, accommodates cans as well as   bottles.

  5. Glenn says:

    I really like gaft. Till now, I’ve been pleased with the phrase the gift that keeps on taking. I am unlikely to abandon the phrase, but I will probably give preference to gaft and, when asked, say “you know, the gift that keeps on taking.”

  6. Ron Draney says:

    Reminds me of an ad a local veterinarian took out in the back of one of my high-school yearbooks: “Give the gift that keeps on giving: a pregnant cat!”

  7. Christopher Murray says:

    I would pronounce your vowel merger examples distinctly, but I believe some more subtle vowel mergers are occurring. For example, I distinguish “book” from “buck” (the “u” being pronounced with lips pursed more in the first case), but my daughters cannot hear the difference and pronounce both as “book”.

  8. hippogriff says:

    Three sheets to the wind. A sheet is indeed a rope, but does not attach the sail to the yard or boom, but is what controls the angle of the yard or boom to the wind. The sheets on the windward side take most of the strain and if one should break, the yard would move from its angle. This would still be held more or less in position by yards above and below (except in the case of the boom of a fore-and-aft rigged sail, in which the loss of one is a disaster). Correspondingly, the loss of adjacent sheets would have the angle destroyed on all the sails of that mast. Forward motion would be reduced and the gusts of wind would make the ship rock more, creating a drunken stagger of a movement.

  9. enn.in.me says:

    Your comments on vowel merges (mergers?) reminded me of an afternoon with a friend from New Jersey. He said room and rum identically, at least to my ears, and sort of like an engine revving noise (rrrm). Not a trait likely to cause confusion, but one day we were making frozen  daiquiris in the back yard and he said, “There’s not enough r?m for the strawberries.”   The blender didn’t have enough alcohol, but at the time I thought it didn’t have enough strawberries.

  10. JinksB says:

    Regarding a word for an inconvenient/cursed gift: That reminded me of a joke I heard about the Klopman Diamond. I was hoping to find a YouTube video of its originator, Myron Cohen, telling it. No luck, but I found that Wikipedia had an article on it.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klopman_diamond. Maybe such a gift could be called a “Klopman?”

  11. Bob Bridges says:

    The opening remark reminds me of something someone said earlier this year on another forum I hang out at, that now appears in my tagline file:

    /* I never noticed them actually using English words in the finals of the spelling bee.   They seem to have reached a point where the spellers can spell all the English words and have moved on to words from around the world that may once have been used in an English sentence.   -Dogsbody at Norton’s Patrick O’Brian forum */