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Takes All Kinds

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Crossword puzzles are a marvelous mental workout. A delightful new book about them shares plenty of crossword lore and puzzle-solving tips. Also, performers who tell each other break a leg aren’t really hoping someone gets hurt. The phrase stems from an old superstition that involves saying the opposite of what you really wish. And: is conversate a real word? You bet it is! Prepare for some serious conversating about this very useful term. Plus, the origin of quesadilla, kill two birds with one stone vs. feed two birds with one seed, touch base vs. touch bases, the different impact of short stories and novels, no te comas el coco, in bocca del lupo, you ate that haircut!, and a brain teaser about itsy-bitsy anagrams that’ll leave your mind feeling pulled through a knothole backwards.

This episode first aired December 16, 2023.

Inside Crossword Puzzles

 Crossword puzzles are great mental exercise, partly because they’re less about how much you know and more about whether you can think creatively about what you already know. For example, what’s the three-letter answer to the clue It has a certain ring to it?

When “To Eat Something” Means to Do Well

 Angela calls from Albany Township, Maine, because she’s puzzled by the slang she hears from younger professionals in her field. She designs wigs and styles hair for actors, and recently she’s heard them use the word eat in a new and different way. When she was growing up in the 1980s, she used the ate it to mean when someone took a fall or did a faceplant. Lately, though, she hears young theater professionals using the same phrase to mean something positive. If an actor or singer is doing well, they’ll say She ate! or She’s eating this choreography or She ate that song! or She’s eating! One also complimented her work with You ate that haircut! This sense of eat and ate has been around at least as far back as 2008.

Into the Mouth of the Wolf!

 Michelle in Pembroke Pines, Florida wonders why performers wish each other luck with the admonition Break a leg! This practice of wishing the opposite of what you really mean appears across a wide range of theatrical traditions. German performers tell each other Hals- und Beinbruch (literally, “May you break your neck and your leg”) and Italians use the phrase in bocca al lupo (literally, “into the mouth of the wolf”), the response to which is crepi il lupo or “May the wolf die.” Other performers often say toi toi toi, as if spitting, in an effort to ward off the devil.

Emu at the Racetrack, Looking for a Winner

 Following our conversation about fossicking for gemstones, a listener in Melbourne, Australia, points out that where he’s from, emu is slang for a person who picks up discarded tickets at a racetrack, hoping to find an accidentally discarded winner, bending over in the manner of Australia’s largest native bird searching for food. In the United States, these ticket scavengers are called stoopers.

Aged Worm Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about teeny tiny, itsy-bitsy anagrams. Each sentence clues two words that are anagrams of each other. For example, what anagrams are suggested by the observation That is an appropriate amount of butter.

Alternatives to “Kill Two Birds with One Stone”

 Amanda in Tucson, Arizona, dislikes the phrase kill two birds with one stone and wants to popularize a non-violent alternative: feed two birds with one seed. An Alaska listener once suggested the phrase save two birds with one stone, perhaps implying the idea of scaring off birds without harming them. In the 18th century, two similar expressions were to stop two mouths with one morsel and to make two friends with one gift. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has suggested using feed two birds with one scone, as well as replacing bring home the bacon with bring home the bagel and beat a dead horse and feed a fed horse.

Don’t Eat the Coconut

 When someone is perseverating or worrying too much, some Spanish speakers will suggest they stop obsessing with the phrase no te comas el coco. Literally, it means “don’t eat the coconut,” the word cocoin Spanish being slang for “head.”

The Word “Quesadilla” Doesn’t Come from Nahuatl

 While in a cooking class in Mexico, Travis from Orlando, Florida, was told by the instructor that the word quesadilla comes a supposed Nahuatl word, quesaditzen. That’s not the case, although many other food words derive from that indigenous language of Mexico, including chili, chipotle, avocado, chocolate, cocoa, tomato, tamales, and mole. For one thing, there’s no D used in Nahuatl, and although there is an old word in Nahuatl that means “folded tortilla,” it sounds nothing like quesadilla. In 15th century Spain, quesadas were “sweet cheese cakes,” deriving from queso, or “cheese,” and quesadilla came to denote a kind of cheese empanada — literally “a little thing made with cheese.” But if you want to order one with cheese in Mexico City, be sure you specify your wishes, because a quesadilla there doesn’t necessarily contain any cheese.

Touch Base vs. Touch Bases

 If you’re talking about plans to make contact with someone, do you say you’re going to touch base or touch bases with them?

Crosswordese and Crossword Lore

 Crosswordese: A Guide to the Weird and Wonderful Language of Crossword Puzzles (Bookshop|Amazon) by puzzle constructor David Bukszpan is a cruciverbalist’s delight, full of crossword lore and puzzle-solving tips, plus a dozen puzzles that Bukszpan created.

Conversate is Different From Converse

 Wilson in Charleston, South Carolina, stopped using the term conversate after being told it’s not a real word. On the contrary, conversate is well-established in Black English as a verb that suggests speaking in a register that’s warmer, more intimate, and less formal than that suggested by the verb converse. The word conversate may be a back-formation from conversation, but in any case, it has some two hundred years of history behind it.

The Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story

 In a conversation with novelist Ann Patchett, writer Elizabeth McCracken makes a pithy observation about the difference between a novel and a short story.

Pulled Through a Knothole Backwards

 Mary Judy in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, says when her mom was particularly frazzled or disheveled, she’d say she felt as if she’d been pulled through a knothole backwards. The expression goes back to the early 19th century. Variants include dragged through forty knotholes and pulled down a knothole and the knothole pulled in after.Similar phrases include drawn through a hedge backward or drawn through a keyhole backwards.

It Takes All Kinds of People To Make the World Go ’Round

  Mahalia from San Diego, California, has a friendly disagreement with her husband over the phrase it takes all kinds. She understands the expression to mean that the world requires many different kinds of people to function. He thinks it means that the world accepts all kinds of people. In other words, does the world need a diversity of people, or is it simply that the world accepts a diversity of people? Each of these senses is valid, and each reflects a subtle philosophical difference, but the suggestion that the world needs all kinds of people is the one with the weight of history behind it.

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

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Crosswordese: A Guide to the Weird and Wonderful Language of Crossword Puzzles by David Bukszpan (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
Mushroom GravyAdam Deitch QuartetRoll The TapeGolden Wolf Records
Roll The TapeAdam Deitch QuartetRoll The TapeGolden Wolf Records
Workin’ On A Groovy ThingBola SeteWorkin’ On A Groovy ThingParamount Records
Play On PlayaAdam Deitch QuartetRoll The TapeGolden Wolf Records
Little Green ApplesBola SeteWorkin’ On A Groovy ThingParamount Records
Deep GullyOutlaw Blues BandBreaking InBluesway
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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