In this week’s episode: Just how far back could you go and still understand the English people were speaking? We crank up our trusty time machine to find out. Hint: You’d probably have a tough time getting around in the eighth century, when English poetry looked like: “Hwaet we gardena in geardagum.”

This episode first aired February 9, 2008.

Download the MP3.

 Understanding Old English
In this week’s episode: Just how far back could you go and still understand the English people were speaking? We crank up our trusty time machine to find out. Hint: You’d probably have a tough time getting around in the eighth century, when English poetry looked like: “Hwaet we gardena in geardagum.”

 Ally, Ally, in Free
Speaking of the more recent past: When you played hide-and-seek as a child, did you yell “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free”? Or “Ally Ally in Free”? Or maybe “Ally Ally Ump Free”? “Ole Ole Olsen Free”? Or something else? A caller in Montevideo, Uruguay, is curious about the origin of such nonsensical phrases.

 Whole Nine Yards
It’s the Moby Dick of etymology: Where do we get the phrase “the whole nine yards”? A pediatrician in North Carolina wonders if it derives from a World War II phrase involving “nine yards” of ammunition. Grant and Martha discuss the many theories about this expression. Looking for the naughty story we mentioned about Scotsman and his kilt? You’ll find it on etymological researcher Barry Popik’s site.

 Squeejawed
Martha and Grant discuss squeejawed and other strange terms that mean “crooked,” or “askew,” including slanchwise, whompy-jawed, whopper-jawed, antigogglin’, sigogglin, and catawampus.

 Categorical Allies Game
This week Puzzle Guy Greg Pliska presented a quiz called Categorical Allies. He gave a word and Martha and Grant had to come up with the second word that was in the same category as the first and began with the same two letters that the first one ends with. So, French was a clue, to which we responded Chinese, the category being languages (though it would work as food, too). The two letters CH end FrenCH and start CHinese.

 Red-Headed Stepchild
A woman wonders about a phrase from her past: “I’m going to beat you like a red-headed stepchild.” Martha and Grant discuss gingerism, or prejudice against redheads.

 The Kids I Babysit
A New York babysitter says the English language needs a word to replace the clunky phrase, “the kids I babysit.” The hosts try to help her find one. “Charges”? “Child associates”? “Padawans”?

 Quizzam and Snirt
This week’s Slang This! contestant, a professor of medieval history at the University of Santa Cruz, tries to guess the meaning of the slang terms quizzam and snirt.

 On My Mind and In My Heart
A native speaker of Spanish has a hard time with prepositions in English. Why do we say that someone’s “on my mind” but “in my heart”?

 Grockles
A listener in York, England wonders about the word grockles, a derogatory term for tourists.

 Dinner and Supper
On an earlier episode we talked about regional differences involving the words dinner and supper, prompting a whole smorgasbord of responses. Grant reads a few of them on the air.

 Middle English Lessons
If you’re still wondering about how far back in time you could go and still understand the English spoken then, check out written and audio excerpts from the poem Beowulf. Also, this NPR report in which host Robert Siegel gets a lesson in pronouncing Shakespeare, based on David Crystal’s research for London’s Globe Theatre.

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

Photo by Phalinn Ooi. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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