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That Old-Book Smell

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You walk into a used bookstore, or pull down an old volume at the library, and there it is: The smell of old books. If you detect notes of vanilla in that intoxicating scent, there’s a reason. Also, why some people think the word awesome is overused, why Comic Sans is a font almost universally reviled, and the origin of the phrase “around Robin Hood’s barn.” Plus, chuck it vs. chunk it, sharing out, the dummy it, intellectual jokes, and the answers some parents give when a kid asks one too many questions. As in, “Daddy, what’s that?” “Why, it’s a wiggly-woggler for grinding smoke!” This episode first aired September 28, 2013.

Why Old Books Smell Good

 Nothing like that old-book smell. And if you open up an old volume and think you detect notes of vanilla, there’s a good reason. That intoxicating scent is the result of lignin, a chemical compound in plants used for making paper. It has a molecular structure similar to that of vanilla.

Silly Phrases to Deflect Questions

 “Grandpa, what’s that?” A caller says that when she asked her grandfather one too many questions, he’d give her the fanciful answer, “That’s a dingbat off of a wiffem dilly that you grind smoke with.” It’s one of several things parents say to deflect questions from inquisitive children. Similar phrases include a wigwam for a water-windmill for grinding smoke, a weegee for grinding smoke, and a wiggly-woggler for grinding smoke.

Words that Don’t Fit their Definitions

 Is there a word for a word that doesn’t fit its own definition? For example, verb is a noun, and monosyllabic is polysyllabic. Come to think of it, why is it so hard to remember how to spell mnemonic?

Chuck It vs. Chunk It

 A truck driver in Tucson, Arizona, has a dispute with her boyfriend: If you toss something out, do you chuck it or chunk it?

Intellectual Jokes

 “Is it solipsistic in here or is it just me?” That’s one answer to the question: “What’s the most intellectual joke you know?

Pun Clues Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a quiz with punning clues from some of the nation’s top crossword-puzzle constructors.

Business and Educational Jargon

 Do the verb phrases share out and explain out have a special, nuanced meaning in the worlds of business and education? Or are they jargon to be avoided?

Semantic Weakening of Awesome

 A Vermont caller feels the word awesome is overused to the point of being almost meaningless. There’s a term for that. It’s called semantic weakening.


 Listener Jennifer Bragg writes: “In our home, we call an extra-strong coffee confesso. One cup and you can’t stop talking.”

Lanai vs. Breezeway

 A caller originally from South Florida grew up calling the screened-in patio area behind her house a lanai, but now that she lives in Indianapolis, she hears this structure called breezeway. The word lanai originated in Hawaii, and may have been popularized in Florida by real estate developers.

In the Offing

 The origin of the phrase in the offing is nautical. The offing is the part of the ocean that one can see from shore, so if something’s in the offing, it’s not that far away.

Comic Sans

 Why does everyone hate the Comic Sans? Well, maybe not everyone, but a lot of people dislike it. In fact, graphic designer David Cadavy gave a whole Ignite Chicago talk on the topic.


 In parts of the American South, a can of creasies is a can of watercress salad, also known as salad greens.

Placeholder “It”

 A Quebec listener asks: In the phrases it’s a girl, or it’s raining, what exactly is the it here? It’s called the weather it or the dummy it, and it serves a placeholder inserted to make the sentence function grammatically.

Polyglot Faulty Language Selection

 Polyglots sometimes experience faulty language selection, accidentally reaching for words from a language different from the one they’re speaking. Listener Phoebe Liu of Seattle grew up speaking Chinese, then learned English, and studied Japanese in college. She says that physically embodying stereotypical speakers of each language when speaking helps her keep the languages straight.

Around Robin’s Barn

 If you say they went “all the way around Robin’s barn,” it means they took a long, circuitous route. A San Antonio, Texas, listener wants to know: Who is Robin and why did he build his barn in such an inconvenient place? It’s probably a reference to Robin Hood, the legendary character who kept the riches he stole in Sherwood Forest — a very big “barn” indeed.

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

Photo by Tom Maisey. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Episode

Mas o MenosBudos BandThe Budos BandDaptone
Fresh KitfoEthio-Cali EnsembleFresh KitfoParis DJ’s Soundsystem
Nickels and DimesJay ZMagna Carta… Holy GrailRoc-A-Fella Records
The CylinderMilt JacksonThe Ballad Artistry of Milt JacksonAtlantic
Hidden HandBudos BandThe Budos BandDaptone
The PropositionBudos BandThe Budos BandDaptone
EphraBudos BandThe Budos BandDaptone
Makin’ WhopeeMilt JacksonThe Ballad Artistry of Milt JacksonAtlantic
Raja HajeBudos BandThe Budos BandDaptone
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

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  • Re. “Share-out”

    As a Dallasite, I have to say that “share-out” is corporate jargon which has been adopted by the Dallas Independent School District. For a bit of background, DISD is one of the lowest performing public school systems in the country, in one of the wealthiest cities. It seems every year there are worse performance reports and less people interested in improving it. Having passed time as a a student in Hillcrest High School in Dallas myself, I can vouch that there are some good teachers who still have an ear for bad english, like your caller, but for decades the leadership of DISD has been atrocious and it is not a wonder that its administration has adopted this lingo.

    In a broader sense, many realms of the education system (in Texas at least, I assume elsewhere as well) have adopted what I can only call corporate speak, in the Simpsons sense of the term. That is, speech which reflects the way that many corporate types are depicted in that program, as well-polished and socially-respected but ultimately uneducated and fairly thoughtless actors. I suspect that the adoption of corporate lingo in education systems may reflect the increased collusion between schools and corporations in recent years. This is also the case with public and private universities across Texas. I bring this up, what may seem like a political tangent, because it seems that the changes in the makeup of who is influencing and running schools across Texas has affected our language, and not for the better. One of my university professors commented to me once that my generation (I am 27 currently) does not know how to read well, and that we do not have a grasp of things which were the basics just a generation ago. Such as basic English. I also notice in politics a trend toward corporate language. Or perhaps another way to put it would be advertising language. You guys could do a whole show based on the changes in language affected by the poor english of advertising, and the subsequent adoption of that “more exciting” (as they would put it) lingo in both politics and education systems.

    In any case, keep up the good work y’all.

    (Y’all is a word. So there.)

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