First-century graffiti. People in ancient times could be just as bawdy and colorful as we are today. To prove it, we found some graffiti written on the walls in the city of Pompeii, and found plenty of sex, arrogance and good old fashioned bathroom talk etched in stone. Plus, British rhyming slang makes its way to our televisions through police shows on PBS. And a dictionary for rock climbers gives us a fantastic word that anyone can use to describe a rough day. Also, spitting game, hornswoggling, two kinds of sloppy joes, peppy sad songs, and endearing names for grandma.

This episode first aired June 26, 2015.

Download the MP3.

 Ancient Graffiti
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., parts of the ancient city of Pompeii remained intact, including the graffiti written on its walls. Much of what was written, not unlike today’s bathroom etchings, is naughty and boastful, with people like Celadus the Thracian claiming to be the one who “makes the girls moan.”

 Read Between the Autocorrect
A Tallahassee, Florida, mother who texted her daughter in a hurry accidentally asked about the “baby woes,” meaning “baby wipes,” and came to the conclusion that we need a new phrase: “read between the autocorrect.”

 British Slang to Grass Someone
If you watch British police procedurals, you’ll likely come across the term to grass someone, meaning “to inform on someone” or “to rat someone out.” It’s a bit of British rhyming slang that originated with the 19th-century phrase to shop on someone. That gave us the noun shopper, which became grasshopper, and then got shortened to grass.

 Neighbor’s Flowers are Red
A Japanese version of the idiom “the grass is always greener” translates to “the neighbor’s flowers are red.”

 Etymology of Hornswoggle
The word hornswoggle, meaning “to embarrass” or “to swindle,” is of unclear origin, but definitely seems of a piece with U.S. frontier slang from the 1830s and 1840s.

 Dictum Word Game
Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game called Dictum wherein he gives us a word, like contrary or emasculate, and we have to guess the closest bold-faced word that comes after it in the dictionary. Tougher than you might think!

 Terms for Grandma
A listener whose first language is Farsi wonders if the name of the grandma in the classic film An Affair to Remember, gave us the endearment nanu, for grandmother. In Mediterranean countries, words like nanu, nana, nene and nona are all common terms for “granny.”

 Wall Graffiti
Here’s a truism that often appeared scribbled in ancient wall graffiti: “I wonder, oh wall, that you have not yet collapsed. So many writers’ cliches do you bear.”

 Spitting Game
The term “spitting game,” meaning “to flirt,” comes from African-American slang going back to at least the 1960’s, when game referred to someone’s hustle. It’s well covered in Randy Kearse’s Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop and Urban Slanguage.

 William Zinsser Quote on Writing
Martha recalls that as an English major, she nearly memorized William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He died this month at age 92, and she’ll remember this quote, among others: “Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is… I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me — some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.”

 Deli Meat Sloppy Joe
A listener from northern New Jersey says that in his part of the state, a sloppy joe was not the mashed-up ground beef sandwich many of us also know as a loose meat sandwich, spoonburger, or tavern. For him, a sloppy joe was a deli meat sandwich that consisted of things like pastrami, turkey, coleslaw, Russian dressing and rye bread.

 Ancient Inn Graffiti
Here’s a lovely bit of ancient graffiti found on the wall of an inn: “We have wet the bed. I admit, we were wrong, my host. If you ask why, there was no chamberpot.”

 Pro Wrestling Lingo
Pro wrestling, a fake sport with a very real following, has a trove of lingo all its own that can be found in the newsletter and website PW Torch. One saying, “red means green,” refers to the fact that a wrestler who winds up bloody will get a prettier payout for his or her performance. And kayfabe is a wrestler’s character persona, which he or she often keeps up for any public appearance, even outside the ring.

 Lyrical Dissonance
A fan of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Dancing in the Dark” called to say that she’s noticed the lyrics are awfully sad for such a peppy tune, and wonders if there’s a word for this phenomenon. Lyrical dissonance would do the job, but there’s also the term agathokakological, a Greek-influenced word meaning “both good and evil.”

 Listener Baseball Limerick
One listener followed up our discussion of classic literary passages turned into limerick form by writing one of his own, a baseball-themed poem that begins, “There once was a batter named Casey.”

 Flatlanders and Woodchucks
Vermont is one place—but not the only one—where non-natives are referred to as flatlanders, and people who’ve been around generations proudly call themselves woodchucks. It’s written about on Shawn Kerivan’s blog, Innkeeping Insights in Stowe.

 High Gravity Day
The Climbing Dictionary by Matt Samet includes a fantastic term that can be used by non-climbers as well: high gravity day, a day when all routes, even easy ones, seem impossible due to a seeming increase in gravity.

 To a “T” vs. To the Teeth
The expression “to a T” comes from a shortening of tittle, a word meaning a little of something. The word tittle even shows up in the bible. There’s also an idiom “to the teeth,” as in dressed to the teeth, or fully armored-up.

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

Photo by Red Garland. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop and Urban Slanguage by Randy Kearse
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Climbing Dictionary by Matt Samet

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Funky Mama Lou Donaldson The Natural Soul Blue Note
The Masquerade Is Over Lou Donaldson Blues Walk Blue Note
Superbad Suburban Soul Crew Shafted! – 70’s Instrumental Funk Classic Warner
Funky Kingston Toots and The Maytals Funky Kingston Dragon Records
Snow Belly Blues Lou Donaldson The Natural Soul Blue Note
Nice ‘N Greasy Lou Donaldson The Natural Soul Blue Note
Time Tough Toots and The Maytals The Best of Toots and The Maytals Trojan Records
Yo Slick Suburban Soul Crew Shafted! – 70’s Instrumental Funk Classic Warner
Macka Fat Jackie Mittoo Macka Fat Studio One
Hang ‘Em High Jackie Mittoo Keep On Dancing Coxsone Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

  1. Lakshmi says:

    There was a mention in the programme about grandmothers being addressed as ‘Nani’. Interesting that in Hindi (spoken in northern India), the same word is used to refer to maternal grandmothers.

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