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Tennessee Top Hat

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It’s hard enough to get a new word into the dictionary. But what happens when lawmakers get involved? New Jersey legislators passed a resolution as part of an anti-bullying campaign urging dictionary companies to adopt the word upstander. It means “the opposite of bystander.” But will it stick? And: 18th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth was born in New York State, but for most of her childhood, she spoke only Dutch. There’s a good reason for that. Plus, practical tips for learning to converse in any foreign language: Think of it like an exercise program, and work out with a buddy. Also, rhyming slang, “kick the bucket,” “behind God’s back,” world-beaters, Twitter canoes, a slew of slang terms for that yep-nope hairstyle, the mullet. This episode first aired October 16, 2015.


 Plenty of people write to dictionary editors asking for words to be added. It almost never works. But what if politicians make a special request? To urge adoption of the term upstander, as in “the opposite of bystander,” to honor those who stand up to bullies, the New Jersey State Senate passed a resolution urging two dictionary publishers to add it. Unfortunately, dictionaries don’t work that way. Even so, whether a word is or isn’t in the dictionary doesn’t determine whether a word is real.

Defugalty vs. Difficulty

 If you’re having difficulty parsing the meaning of the word defugalty, or difugalty, the joke’s on you. It’s just a goofy play on difficulty, one that’s popular with grandparents.

To Summer and Winter

 To “summer and winter” about a matter is an old expression that means “to carry on at great length” about it.

Generic House of Worship

 A television journalist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wants a generic term for “house of worship” to use in place of the word church in news reports. Synagogue, temple, sanctuary, and mosque are all too specific. What’s a fitting alternative?

Life Cycle Riddle

 Here’s a riddle: What flies when it’s born, lies when it’s alive, and runs when it’s dead?

“And” Rhyming Words Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game based on rhyming words with the word and in the middle. For example, what rhyming phrase is another name for Confederate flag?

Foreign Language Fitness Program

 A teacher in Dallas, Texas, is trying to learn Spanish in order to chat casually with some of his students. He’s having some success with the smartphone app DuoLingo. But an app won’t necessarily give him the slang vocabulary he needs. A good way to learn a new language is to approach it as you would a fitness program. Set reasonable goals, commit to the long term, don’t expect results overnight, and if possible, practice with a buddy or a trainer.

Bud, Get In!

 A Tallahassee listener remembers as a child misunderstanding the sign at the Budget Inn as an exhortation–as in “Bud, get in!”

English Rhyming Slang in the US

 English rhyming slang had a short run of popularity in the western U.S., thanks in part to Australians who brought it over (and then, again, thanks to a scene in Ocean’s Eleven). But even in the U.K., it’s now mostly defunct.


 Is there a word for that mind-blowing moment when you think you’ve heard it all, but then something happens that’s completely out of your realm of experience? You might call this phenomenon a marmalade dropper. Others might call it a world-beater. Have a better term for it?

Twitter Canoe

 When a conversation on Twitter gets so crowded that replies contain more handles than actual comments, the result is a tipping Twitter canoe.

Dutch Language in America

 For the first nine or ten years of her life, the 18th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth spoke only Dutch. She later used her accent to great effect in her stirring speeches. As Jeroen Dewulf, director of Dutch Studies at University of California, Berkeley, points out in an article in American Speech, as late as the mid-18th century, there were so many Dutch slaveholders in New York and New Jersey meant that up to 20 percent of enslaved Africans in those states spoke Dutch.

Cutting vs. Tearing Off a Check

 “Cutting a check” is a far more common phrase than “tearing off a check,” because for years checks weren’t perforated, so bankers had to actually use a metal device to cut them.

Origin of Kick the Bucket

 The idiom “kick the bucket,” meaning to die, does not originate from the concept of kicking a bucket out from under one’s feet. It has to do with an older meaning of bucket that refers to the wooden beam often found in a barn roof, where an animal carcass might be hung.

Space Between Rain Drops

 A listener from California says her family’s way of remarking on rain is to mention the space between falling drops. So a 12-inch rain means there’s about a foot between one drop and the next. Tricky, huh?


 The term skinnymalink, or a skinny marink, is one way the Scots refer to someone who’s thin. In the United States, the term goes back to the 1870’s.

Mullet Slang

 “Kentucky waterfall,” “North Carolina neck warmer,” and “Tennessee top hat” are all terms for the mullet hairstyle.

Behind God’s Back

 To say that something’s “behind God’s back” is to say that it’s really far away. This may refer to Isaiah 38:17, which includes the phrase “for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.” In the Caribbean in particular, the saying behind God’s back is idiomatic. Lisa Winer writes of it in detail in her Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago.

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

Photo by Trevor Pritchard. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago by Lisa Winer

Music Used in the Episode

Forever Loving YouJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
Good TimesJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
Score of MemoriesJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
Bold and BlackRamsey LewisAnother VoyageCadet
Kind GirlJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
Guiding LightJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
Jump The FenceJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
UhuruRamsey LewisAnother VoyageCadet
Waiting For LoveJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
Hard To GiveJackie MittooJackie Mittoo and Winston Wright play hits from Studio OneAttack
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleUnreleasedUnreleased

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