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The Black Dog

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Books were rare treasures in the Middle Ages, painstakingly copied out by hand. So how to protect them from theft? Scribes sometimes added a curse to the first page of those books that was supposed to keep thieves away — and some were as vicious as they were creative! Also: if you spot a typo in a published book, should you contact the publisher? Maybe, but your first step is to make sure you’re right! Finally, learning another language may make you question whether you’re speaking your own correctly — but there are strategies to fix that. Plus y’all, a Venn diagram brain teaser, 11 o’clock number, pronouncing the word measure, and you’ll die bull-headed.

This episode first aired November 23, 2019.

Medieval Book Thief Curses

  To warn away thieves, medieval scribes sometimes added a written curse to the colophon of a precious book. Curses were once considered such powerful deterrents that they were sometimes added to Anglo-Saxon legal documents.

Dasn’t, Dares Not

  Carol from Clays Ferry, Kentucky, wonders about the term her grandmother used, dasn’t, as in the warning “We dasn’t do that.” The word dasn’t derives from the expression dares not. It’s now antiquated and mostly heard east of the Mississippi.

Sneezing Fox Pangram

  In several previous episodes, we’ve talked about pangrams, those sentences that use every letter of the alphabet at least once. Lauren, who lives in Perth, Western Australia, sent us a couple penned by her 11-year-old daughter Sinead, including this gem: “The fox sneezed quickly several times while eating strawberry jam pancakes.”

Y’all Spreading Beyond the South

  Jesse from Louisville, Kentucky, wonders if the second-person plural pronoun y’all is becoming more popular throughout the United States. A 2000 article in the Journal of English Linguistics finds that y’all and you-all are indeed spreading beyond the American South.

Venn Diagram Brain Teaser

  This week’s puzzle by Quiz Guy John Chaneski is inspired by the drawings used by logicians — that is, each answer rhymes with the term Venn Diagram. For example, a map of nearby marshlands isn’t a Venn Diagram, it’s a…

The Black Dog of Dark Mood and Depression

  Jo Ann lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but grew up in England. She remembers that when her brother was mopey during family trips to visit their grandparents in Devon, their grandfather would tell him “Get that black dog off your back!” For hundreds of years, the term black dog has been used to mean “a dark mood” or “depression” or “a funk.” The black dog has long been associated with Winston Churchill, although he rarely used the expression himself.

An 11 O’clock Showbiz Numbers

  In theatrical parlance, an 11 o’clock number is a showstopping tune late in a musical, which usually coincides with the protagonist or other major character having a life-changing realization. An example would be the song “So Long, Dearie” from Hello, Dolly!

Who Do You Tell About Typos in Books?

  Trevor from Waxahachie, Texas, wonders: If you find a typo or other error in a book, should you let the publisher know?

Sprinkles Pronounced “Sprankles”

  Eight-year-old Violet moved from Lexington, Kentucky to Zionsville, Indiana, and found other kids don’t share her pronunciation of sprinkles as ‘spræ?k(?)ls, rhyming with “rankles.” Who’s right?

A Painful Observation About Typos

  Tweeting under the name @guerillamemoir, Allison K Williams has a painful observation about typos that will resonate with many writers.

Velocity of Being

  A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader is a lavishly illustrated anthology edited by Maria Popova of Brainpickings and Claudia Bedrick. It contains a particularly inspiring letter from writer Anne Lamott.

Pronunciation of Measure

  Anna, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, wonders if it’s okay to pronounce the word measure as ‘meɪʒər (rhyming with “hey sure”) instead of ‘mɛʒər (rhyming with “treasure”). This pronunciation is scattered across the United States, and in fact one of Jack Benny’s old radio announcers pronounced the word that way.

Amethyst Etymology

  The ancient Greeks believed that the precious purple stone called an amethyst had the power to prevent a person from becoming intoxicated. That belief is reflected in the name of this gem, which comes from the Greek prefix a- meaning “not,” and methys, “drunk,” a linguistic relative of English mead.

Language Attrition: What Happens To Your First Language When You Learn Another One

  A native English speaker who’s been studying Spanish for 11 years with her husband finds that learning a second language has an effect on her original tongue. She can’t spell as well as she used to, and sometimes finds herself reaching for Spanish constructions when speaking English, such as saying I have cold rather than I am cold. It’s a phenomenon called language attrition, and linguistics professor Monika Schmid of the University of Essex has devoted a whole website to the topic, with lots of helpful advice for addressing this challenge.

Die Bull-Headed

  Darcy calls from North Pole, Alaska, to share a saying her grandparents used when she asked for something she couldn’t have. It sounded like either You may want horns, but you’ll die mole-headed or You may want horns, but you’ll die mull-headed. More often the final element is bull-headed or butt-headed, and it’s common enough that it shows up in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston.

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

Photo by Abigail Batchelder. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader

Music Used in the Episode

Kool Is Back AgainKool and the GangKool Is Back Again 45De-Lite
Me and Baby BrotherWarMe and Baby Brother 45United Artists
Boot-LegBooker T and the MGsBoot-Leg 45Stax
Get OffRippleWillie Pass The Water 45GRC
The Gang Is Back AgainKool and the GangKool Is Back Again 45De-Lite
Hip Hug-HerBooker T and the MGsHip Hug-Her 45Stax
Willie Pass The WaterRippleWillie Pass The Water 45GRC
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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