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Stub Your Toe

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Advice about college essays from the winner of a top prize for children’s literature: Kelly Barnhill encourages teens to write about experiences that are uniquely their own, from a point of view that is theirs and no one else’s. Plus, why do we say that someone who’s fortunate has the luck of the Irish? And the latest edition of the Official Scrabble Dictionary will liven up your game! Now you can rack up points with words pranayama, fauxhawk, and even embiggen. Also, knockin’ dog, a word puzzle about knights who never were, will-o’-the-wisp and jack-o’-lantern, a ver and umbers, squidding, oligopoly, and punished water.

This episode first aired December 17, 2022.

Scrabble Words Are a Language Snapshot

 The brand-new, seventh edition of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (Bookshop|Amazon) is now out, and has been embiggened with 500 new words — including embiggen, pranayama, fauxhawk, and eggcorn.

Knockin’ Dog in the Caribbean

 Mary from Flagler Beach, Florida, says when she lived on St. Croix, it was common to describe overindulging in a plentiful meal by saying that everyone ate and drank like knockin’ dog. This Caribbean English expression referring to “abundance” and “excess” goes back to the 1870s. In other parts of the Caribbean, knocking dog sometimes refers to something available in such abundance that it’s become inexpensive.

Delightful Words From the Glass Slipper

 Our conversation about words that are simply fun to say (such as oligopoly, or “domination of a market by just a few producers”) reminded a listener in Jackson, Tennessee, of a scene from a 1955 movie The Glass Slipper. A woman says she delights in the sound and feel of several words, including windowsill, elbow, apple dumpling, pickle relish, plus the name of the young woman she’s just met, Cinderella.

A Will-o’-the-Wisp

 Ruth in Cincinnati, Ohio, is curious about the lyrics to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Maria” from the movie The Sound of Music. Maria, a nun who’s not quite a good fit for the abbey, is described as “a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown.” What’s a will-o’-the-wisp, anyway? This term now means “an elusive goal” or “a misleading person,” but its roots lie in old folklore involving glowing swamp gas arising from decaying vegetation. Hundreds of years ago, this phenomenon lured people into walking into bogs or briar patches on dark nights. These mishaps were thought to be the work of a mischievous sprite called Will of the Torch or Will with the Torch, and later Will of the Wisp or Will with the Wisp, the word wisp being an old term for “a bundle of sticks or a handful of straw.” In parts of England, this sneaky fellow went by the name Jack of the Lantern — now memorialized in our own glowing Jack-o-Lantern. A flibbertigibbet is “a flighty person” or “someone garrulous.” Although this word’s etymology is uncertain, its sound suggests the idea of someone chattering.

Become Your Work’s Reader

 Wise advice from author Zadie Smith: Put your manuscript in a drawer until you become its reader rather than its writer.

Sir Lee U. Jest, Quiz Master

 During a trip to a renaissance faire, Quiz Guy John Chaneski noticed a fellow festooned with cuts of meat. Who might yon noble knight be, if not Sir Loin of Beef? That experience inspired John’s latest puzzle about others dubbed Sir this or that. For example, what punning name might be bestowed upon the knight who manages to be the last remaining contestant on a TV reality show filmed in such locales as Borneo, the Amazon, and the Australian Outback?

Squidding: Hanging Out on the Internet Waaaaay Too Much in the Nineties

 Michelle calls from Peoria, Illinois, about a slang term that she and her friend Liz often heard when they were students at Bradley University in the mid-1990s. In those days before modern social media, to squid or to engage in squidding referred to largely non-productive activity at one’s computer — emailing for entertainment rather than work, participating in chat boards and Usenet groups, and the like. Bradley’s student newspaper, The Scout, defined squid and squidding in similar terms. They may have been unique to that particular university, perhaps referring to a custom software used there before more standardized programs arose.

Notice the Assonance Balance in this Sentence

 Kolin in Los Angeles, California, says his friend Helen is known for writing witty tweets that go viral, such as one about the difference between men’s and women’s midlife crises. He says she credits her success in part to her use of assonance, or “the repetition of similar vowel sounds within successive words.” There are good examples of assonance in the opening lines of the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.

Stub Your Toe or Stump Your Toe?

 Luke in Waco, Texas wonders which is correct: Do you stub your toe or stump your toe? And why would anyone say to a cook who makes a tasty bowl of chili You really stumped your toe on this?

Finding a Voice for College Essays by a Different Route

 Kelly Barnhill is the author of four novels, including The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Bookshop|Amazon), which won the 2017 Newbery Medal for children’s literature. She’s also been helping neighborhood teens with their college essays, encouraging them to write about their own experiences in a voice that’s uniquely theirs.

That Particular Noise the Class Makes When a Classmate Gets in Trouble

 Katie in Greenville, South Carolina, reports that when she was growing up in rural Montana, if one of her classmates was caught doing something wrong or reprimanded by a teacher, the rest of the children would say a ver, drawing out the syllables with an ominous rising in pitch. Years ago, a caller from Albuquerque, New Mexico reported something similar, although the expression sounded more like umbers. Since then, we’ve heard lots of different versions, such as umberand uh ver, primarily from Western States. It’s possible that the term is a version Spanish a ver, which can mean a number of things along the lines of “Let’s see” or “I’ll find out.”


 One of the words newly added to the 7th edition of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (Bookshop|Amazon) is vaquita, the name of a small dolphin that lives in the Sea of Cortez. In Spanish, the name of this endangered animal means “little cow.”

The So-Called Luck of the Irish

 Why do we say that someone who’s especially fortunate is endowed with the luck of the Irish?

Water in a Dunce Cap

 Following up on conversation about words for weak coffee, Carol in Wilmington, North Carolina reports that her mother-in-law’s term for strong, boiling-hot coffee is punished water.

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Noble MetalsAdrian QuesadaJaguar SoundATO Records
MaracasAlex FigueiraMaracas, Tambourines and Other Hellish Things OSTMusic With Soul Records
Rise of The Have NotsAdrian QuesadaJaguar SoundATO Records
Hong SauIn Motion CollectiveHong Sau 45All-Town Sound
Alberto’s LoopAdrian QuesadaJaguar SoundATO Records
Elephant WalkIn Motion CollectiveHong Sau 45All-Town Sound
JuicyAlex FigueiraJuicy SingleMusic With Soul Records
SpiritsAdrian QuesadaJaguar SoundATO Records
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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