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A clever pun can make the difference between a so-so phrase and a memorable one. The phrase “the last straw” refers to an old fable about too many items in a load, but it takes on a whole new meaning in a public-awareness campaign about the environment. • Why do we use the term mob scene to refer to an unruly crowd? • The Basque language spoken in the westernmost Pyrenees has long posed a linguistic mystery. Its origins are unclear and it’s unlike any other language in the region. • Plus: sundog, ob-gyn, double george, geezum pete, and somersault vs. winter pepper.

This episode first aired October 13, 2018.

Winter Pepper

 Carrie from Waupaca, Wisconsin, confesses she was stumped when that her son Aidan asked,”Mom, can you do a winter pepper?”

Double Meanings in Ads

 An ad campaign featuring the phrase the last straw to urge people not to use plastic straws has Allie in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wondering about double meanings in advertising. Research shows that such punning can be effective.

Pronouncing “Ob-Gyn”

 On Twitter, @laureneoneal wonders why the term ob-gyn is pronounced by sounding out all the letters, as if it’s an initialism.

Sundog Origins

 Eleven-year-old Ben calls from Rapids City to ask about the term sundog, the meteorological phenomenon in which a bright spot appears to the left or right of the sun. No one knows the origin of this term. Synonyms include mock sun, weather gall, and parhelion, the latter from Greek words meaning “beside the sun.”

Prefixes and Suffixes Word Game

 Some 50 years ago, says Susan from Burbank, California, she and a friend made up a game involving prefixes and suffixes, which led to such nonsense words as epidormithry and postpreparize.

Villian-o Brain Teaser

 Ever notice how many comic-book villains have names ending in the letter O? For starters, there’s Magneto, Sinestro, and Bizarro. Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle features new villains with names that are common words ending in -o. For example, who’s the villain who takes large islands and breaks them up into chains of smaller islands?

Mob Scene

 Barbara in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, wonders about the term mob scene, means an unruly, dense crowd. The term arose in the world of theater, where it denotes a point in a performance with lots of people onstage. The word mob is a shortening of Latin mobile vulgus, which means “fickle crowd.”

Throw in the Towel

 The phrase throw in the towel, meaning to give up, originated in the world of boxing. An earlier phrase from the same sport that carried the same metaphorical meaning is chuck in the sponge.

Double George

 Andrew in Omaha, Nebraska, recalls his grandfather’s use of the word george to mean exceptionally good, and double george to mean really great. Other masculine names, including Jake, Tom, and Jerry have sometimes meant something similar. In the 1950s, the name george was used among casino workers to refer to high rollers. Also, did you know the German word for long johns, Liebestöter, literally translates as “love-killer”?

Hang for a Sheep

 Rick calls from Rouses Point, New York, to ask about the etymology of the phrase to hang for a sheep as for a lamb, meaning to go for broke or to go all out. The answer involves the old tradition of capital punishment for poaching animals. Given the same risk, one might as well steal the animal that’s more valuable. There’s a similar Scots proverb that goes as well be hanged for a wedder as for a lamb, a wedder being a male castrated sheep. The word wedder is linguistically related to bellwether, a large, castrated sheep wearing a bell that lets a shepherd know where the flock is going.

Criticized for Saying Yes, Ma’am, and No, Sir

 Our conversation about being criticized for using yes, ma’am and no, sir, prompted a letter from an Austin, Texas, listener who had a similar experience when she moved from Mississippi to Ohio.

Basque, A Language Isolate

 The state of Idaho has a large community of Basque speakers. Their native tongue is what’s known as a language isolate, meaning one that is not historically connected to those around it.

Jeezum Pete and Related Expressions

 Ellen in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, wonders about the origin of the exclamation jeezum pete! It’s a minced oath — that is, a way of avoiding saying “Jesus Christ!” most likely derived by combining it with St. Pete. There are dozens of similar euphemized exclamations, including gee whillikers, gee willikins, jumping jehosaphat, Judas Priest, jeepers, jiminy, jiminy crickets, jiminy christmas, and more.

Why Do We Call Some Vents Registers?

 Michael in Papillion, Nebraska, asks: Why do we refer to that adjustable vent that regulates air flow in a home as a register?

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

Photo by Bernard Spragg. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Episode

Get To SteppinThe White BlindsGet To SteppinF Spot Records
BlindedThe White BlindsGet To SteppinF Spot Records
TortugaBombillasTortuga 45rpmF Spot Records
Snake PitJungle FireTropicosoNacional
DooyoDur Dur BandVolume 5Awesome Tapes From Africa
Try LoveBen PiraniHow Do I Talk To My Brother?Colemine Records
Los FeligresesJungle FireTropicosoNacional
FagfagleyDur Dur BandVolume 5Awesome Tapes From Africa
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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