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The Last Straw

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In this episode, books for word lovers, from a collection of curious words to some fun with Farsi. • Some people yell “Geronimo!” when they jump out of an airplane, but why? • We call something that heats air a heater, so why do we call something that cools the air an air conditioner? The answer lies in the history of manufacturing. • Also, quaaltagh, snuba, the last straw vs. the last draw, and to see a man about a horse. This episode first aired December 9, 2017.


 There’s a word for the first person to walk through your door on New Year’s Day. The word is quaaltagh, and it’s used on the Isle of Man. This Manx term is one of many linguistic delights in a book Martha recommends for word lovers: The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, by Paul Anthony Jones.

Why Do We Call it Air Conditioning?

 Why do we use the term air conditioner to refer a machine for cooling air, when we use the word heater to describe a mechanism for heating air? The term air conditioning was borrowed from the textile industry, where it referred to filtering and dehumidifying. The first use of this term is in a 1909 paper by Stuart Cramer, called “Recent Developments in Air Conditioning.”


 Snuba is a portmanteau — a combination of snorkel and scuba — and refers to snorkeling several feet underwater while breathing through a long hose that’s attached to an air supply float on a raft.

Last Straw vs. Last Draw

 What do you call that last small irritation, burden, or annoyance that finally makes a situation untenable? Is it the last straw or the last draw? Hint: it has nothing to do with a shootout at the OK corral.

Kids Misunderstand Things and Make Us Laugh

 We’ve talked before about kids’ funny misunderstandings of words. Martha shares another story from a Dallas, Texas, listener.

Inside Out Word Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has an inside-out puzzle that’s clued by a short sequence of letters inside a longer one. For example, what holiday contains the letters KSGI?

Yelling Geronimo

 A man in Surprise, Arizona, wonders why people jumping into a pool sometimes yell “Geronimo!” The history of this exclamation goes back to an eponymous 1939 movie about the famed Apache warrior Geronimo. The film was popular on U.S. military bases, where the warrior’s name became a rallying cry. A widely circulated story goes that in 1940, a U.S. Army private named Aubrey Eberhardt responded to teasing about his first parachute jump by yelling “Geronimo!” as he leapt into the wild blue yonder.

BANANA Acronym

 The acronym NIMBY stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” A more emphatic version used among urban planners is BANANA, which stands for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.

Falling to Staves

 Someone who’s really hungry might say I’m falling to staves, meaning they’re famished. It’s a reference to the way a barrel falls apart if the metal hoops that hold them together are removed.

Now What Gesture Should We use to Suggest Rolling Down a Car Window?

 A listener in Plaza, North Dakota, says he tried to signal some teenagers to lower their car window by moving his fist in a circle, but since they grew up with push-button window controls, they didn’t understand the gesture. What’s the best gesture now for communicating that you want someone to roll down their car window?

Book Recommendations for 2017

 For the book lover on your gift list, Grant recommends the mix of magic and science in All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. He also likes the work of Firoozeh Dumas: It Ain’t So Awful Falafel, about an Iranian teenage girl living in California, as well as Dumas’s books for adults, Funny in Farsi, and Laughing Without An Accent. Martha recommends Kory Stamper’s love letter to lexicography, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, and Jessica Goodfellow’s poetry collection about mountaineering, Whiteout.

Leather Britches Beans

 A woman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says her Appalachia-born grandmother would occasionally say that it was time to string the leather britches or to hang up the leather britches. She was referring to preserving green beans. So why the leather and britches?

Describing What It’s Like to Be Sick but Not Look Sick

 If you’re living with a chronic illness or disability, you often have to ration your physical and mental energy. And if that illness isn’t readily apparent to others, it can be hard to explain how debilitating that process can be. On her website But You don’t Look Sick, writer Christine Miserandino, who has lupus, illustrates that process with handful of spoons, each representing a finite amount of physical and mental energy that must be spent in order to get through a typical day. Someone without a disability or illness starts each day with an unlimited number of spoons, while others must weigh which task is worth spending a spoon for, and then making more decisions as the supply is depleted. Inspired by that metaphor, a growing community of people facing such invisible challenges call themselves spoonies.

See A Man About a Horse

 A listener in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, recalls that his grandfather used to announce he was headed to the restroom by saying, “I have to go see a man about a horse.” An earlier version of the phrase is, “I have to go see a man about a dog.” These phrase are among many euphemisms for leaving to take care of bathroom business, such as going to see Miss White or going to go pluck a rose.

Gregarious Laughter

 A Burlington, Vermont, listener wants to settle a dispute: Can laughter be described as gregarious?

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Whiteout by Jessica Goodfellow

The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
It Ain’t So Awful Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
Funny in Farsiby Firoozeh Dumas
Laughing Without An Accent by Firoozeh Dumas
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Music Used in the Episode

Nobody KnowsPastor TL BarrettLike A ShipNumero Group
Mystique VoyageAlan HawkshawThe Road ForwardKPM
Without A SailPastor TL BarrettLike A ShipNumero Group
RetroboticPolyrhythmicsLibra StripesKEPT Records
WonderfulPastor TL BarrettLike A ShipNumero Group
It’ll All Be OverSupreme JubileesIt’ll All Be OverLight In The Attic
Mr. Wasabi Rides AgainPolyrhythmicsLibra StripesKEPT Records
Do You BelieveSupreme JubileesIt’ll All Be OverLight In The Attic
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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