During the late 19th and early 20th century, thousands of volunteers helped crowdsource the Oxford English Dictionary. This venerable reference work includes citations sent in by inventors, eccentrics, scientists and educators, an Arctic explorer — even the owner of the world’s largest collection of pornography. A lively new book tells their stories. Plus, a healthcare worker finds herself adopting the accent of her patients. And: golf terms that make their way into everyday language, from mulligan to stymie. Also, fossicking, noodling, handicap, I beg your pardon, paper tiger, voy a puro pincel, TTWWADI, hail-fellow-well-met, dear me suz, and a pickle of a puzzle.
This episode first aired November 11, 2023.
Robert Charles Hope, inventor of the crank used to adjust the tension on a tennis net, is among thousands of readers who in the late 19th century responded to a call from the Oxford English Dictionary to send in citations for notable words they encountered. He provided the dictionary’s first citation for filching, which means “pilfering,” and the first for the verb jaunt, meaning “to make a horse prance up and down.” Linguist and lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie tells the stories of many of them in her delightful book, The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary (Amazon | Bookshop). Incidentally, Robert Charles Hope likely used the word spharistike, an old word for the game of tennis, later replaced with the name lawn tennis.
An Alabama listener says her grandmother would express astonishment with the phrase They! My goodness! This exclamation, which is common in her grandmother’s native Appalachia, is probably an R-less pronunciation of There! as in Look there!
John in Dallas, Texas, wonders about the phrase Hail fellow well met. This expression combines two old phrases. The first is hail, fellow!, once a warm casual greeting. To be hail fellow with someone meant “to be on friendly terms with” them. Phrases such as well met, happily met, and fortunately met served as greetings between acquaintances. By the late 16th century, hail fellow and well met merged into one emphatic noun and adjective. Today the adjective hail-fellow-well-met describes someone who’s warm and jovial, although it often carries a connotation of being a little too warm and jovial, as well as overly familiar and too aggressively self-promoting.
A pickle inspired this week’s puzzle from Quiz Guy John Chaneski. He was thinking about the fact that if you need something to help you strum a guitar, a “pickle do just fine,” the word pickle sounding, of course, like an contraction of the words pick will. John provides clues that seek one-word answers that follow this same pattern. Say, for example, that you and your friends are getting ready for a baseball game. You have gloves and balls and uniforms, but you need one more thing. What’ll do?
A nurse in Jacksonville, Florida, finds that, without even being aware of it, she takes on the accent of her patients, and she wonders whether that’s because she’s in a profession where she needs to make strong connections quickly with people who need her help. When trying to connect with a stranger or a group, it’s not uncommon to take on their accent or gestures. Pietro Bortone offers a helpful explanation of what’s called linguistic accommodation in Language and Nationality: Social Inferences, Cultural Differences, and Linguistic Misconceptions.
Our conversation about slang terms for traveling on foot, such as going with Pat and Charlie, inspired Kevin in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to share some more he learned from his wife Arely, who is from Honduras. There voy al puro once, literally means “I’m just going 11,” and suggests that the speaker will go on foot because of the numeral’s resemblance to a pair of legs. Voy a puro pincel is also used, a pincel being a very fine paintbrush, indicating that, just as painting with a tiny brush takes a long time, traveling a puro pincel will take a long time as well.
Mateo in Richmond, Virginia, is curious about a story he heard about the term paper tiger, meaning “something that looks fearsome or ferocious, but is actually flimsy or weak.” It’s not from Tiger, a type of German tank used during World War II, though it’s been said that German counterintelligence agents would intentionally leave behind false documents listing more Tiger tanks than they actually had, hoping to trick Allied forces. In reality, however, paper tiger is a calque from Chinese, where zhǐlǎohǔ (纸老虎) literally means the same thing. Chairman Mao Zedong popularized the phrase in Chinese by using it to disparage opponents, and the English translation paper tiger proved a handy addition to the lexicon.
To fossick meaning “to rummage about,” derives from the use of fossicking for the practice of literally digging about for gemstones in abandoned mining excavations, a hobby that’s particularly popular in Australia and New Zealand. There, such digging about is also known as bandicooting, a reference to a foraging marsupial, the bandicoot. The etymology of fossick is murky, although it appears to have originated in the United Kingdom, and may be related to a dialectal term fussock, meaning “to bustle about” or “to fidget.”
In the 19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary was a bit like the Wikipedia of its day, in that much of its information was crowdsourced, gathered by thousands of volunteers. Linguist and lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie tells the stories of many of them in her fascinating book, The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary.
It may not be as rich a source of slang as baseball, but golf has contributed several terms to English, including stymie, “to get in the way of,” mulligan, a “do-over,” and par for the course, meaning “normal.” Although the word handicap is often used in golf to denote “an advantage given to a lesser player to even out a competition,” the term predates golf. Originally it referred to a wagering game that literally involved putting a hand into a cap. The term handicap was later used in horse racing, before moving on to golf.
Barbara in Jacksonville, Florida, recalls her grandmother saying she liked her coffee strong enough to tote double and kick up behind. The expression tote double refers to the action of a horse carrying two people. If a horse is able to kick up behind while it’s carrying two people, it’s very strong indeed.
Nate in Tucson, Arizona, says his grandmother from Nova Scotia used to express surprise with the exclamation dear me suz! It goes back to the 1820s and is likely a form of dear me, sirs! Variants include suz alive, law me suz, oh suz alive, and law suz. The phrase dear me suzappears in the slavery narrative of Peter Wheeler, and Mark Twain’s story, The $30,000 Bequest.
A Delaware listener wonders about her grandparents’ use of the phrase I beg your pardon, which sounds a bit old-fashioned to her and her peers. Her grandparents were prim and proper, and used this expression whenever they felt slighted or misunderstood.
Books Mentioned in the Episode
|The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie (Bookshop | Amazon)|
|Language and Nationality: Social Inferences, Cultural Differences, and Linguistic Misconceptions by Pietro Bortone (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|Chains and Freedom by Peter Wheeler (Bookshop|Amazon)|
|The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories by Mark Twain (Bookshop|Amazon)|
Music Used in the Episode
|Isle of Love||Martin Denny||The Exotic Sounds Of Martin Denny||Capitol Records|
|Fearing Much||Stefano Torossi||Feelings||Easy Tempo|
|Afternoon Of A Swan||Slowey and the Boats||Set Sail||Self Release|
|Honeysuckle Rose||Nelson Riddle||Love Tide||Capitol Records|
|Running Fast||Stefano Torossi||Feelings||Easy Tempo|
|When First I Love||Martin Denny||The Exotic Sounds Of Martin Denny||Capitol Records|
|La Coquis||Mariachi Los Apaches||Mariachi Los Apaches||Family Records|
|The Other Side||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Step Down||Colemine Records|