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There Once Was a Gal

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Ever try to write a well-known passage in limerick form? It’s harder than you think. How about this one: “There once was a lady who’s sure / All that glitters is golden and pure/ There’s a stairway that heads up to heaven, it’s said / And the cost of the thing she’ll incur.” Plus, the diacritical mark that readers of The New Yorker magazine find most annoying. And how do you really pronounce the name of that big city in Southern California–the one also known as the “City of Angels”? Also, clopening, Z vs. Zed, seeding a tournament, the wee man and Old Scratch, and a word game based on the novels of Charles Dickens. This episode first aired May 8, 2015.

The Dreaded Diaeresis

 What do readers of The New Yorker complain about most when they write letters to the editor? Those two dots above vowels in words like cooperate and reelect. The diaeresis, as those marks are known, has remained in use at the magazine ever since the copy editor who planned on nixing it died in 1978, and the whole saga is chronicled in fellow New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris’s new memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

Seeded Teams

 March Madness is over, but the confusion lingers as to why teams are seeded in tournament brackets. The best theory is that brackets resemble sideways trees, and the teams are spread out evenly so the best can prosper—just like a in a garden.

Let the Moon Shine Down Your Throat

 A Southernism we love: You might as well go out and let the moon shine down your throat. It means you’re taking medicine that won’t be effective or eating something flavorless. Not to be confused with pouring moonshine down your throat, which would be both flavorful and effective.

British Zed and American Zee

 Americans pronounce the letter Z like “zee,” while those in other English-speaking countries say “zed.” That’s because Noah Webster proposed lots of Americanized pronunciations and this is one of the few that stuck. David Sacks’ book Letter Perfect is a great resource for more on our alphabet.

Clopen Shift

 Baristas and retail workers are all too familiar with the dreaded clopen shift. You’re assigned to close the shop one night, then turn around and work the opening shift early the next morning.

Word Quiz: Dirkens Novels

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game about Dirkens novels — that is, Dickens novels with one letter in the title changed. For example, what’s the Dirkens novel about a domicile where tired orphans can take some time off work, or a shorter Dirkens novel that’s just a listing of garnishes in cocktails?

Old Scratch

 A longstanding injunction against mentioning the devil by name is the reason why terms like Old Ned, Old Billy, and Old Scratch have come to be euphemisms for his unholiness.

Etymology of Bonspiel

 Bonspiel is a word for a curling match, and derives from the Dutch term spiel, meaning “game.”

I Feel vs. I Think

 Saying “I feel,” instead of saying “I think” or “I suppose,” is both prevalent and controversial, particularly among women. A Stanford study found that prefacing a sentence with “I feel,” instead of “I think,” is more likely to get others to really listen.

Bicycle for the Mind

 A favorite quotation from highly quotable Terry Pratchett: “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.”

Literary Limericks

 If you’re looking for an alternative version of Hamlet’s soliloquies, a member of our Facebook group has been turning famous passages from literature into limerick form with entertaining results.

Original Los Angeles

 Los Angeles, though founded by Spanish speakers, was very, very Anglo by the early 20th century. The “original” pronunciation of Los Angeles has been muddied for a long time.

Song Lyrics Limericks

 Our lord of the literary limerick on our Facebook group doesn’t stop with plays and novels. He also remixed song lyrics, like in this rendition of Stairway to Heaven.

Wee Man

 When Scots use the term wee man, they’re referring to the devil. The Dictionary of the Scots Language is a fantastic and free resource for all terms Scottish, including blethering skite or bladderskate, which is a great thing to call a chatty rascal.

Jumping in Triangles

 The German idiom, “Ich bin fast im Dreieck gesprungen!” is a way of indicating that you’re outraged. Literally, though, it means “I almost jumped in triangles.”


 One listener’s term, tee-ella-berta, is among hundreds of euphemisms for the derriere, including tee-hiney, tee-hineyboo, and tee-hinder.

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

Photo by Fred Locklear. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Letter Perfect by David Sacks

Music Used in the Episode

Just Kissed My BabyThe MetersRejuvenationReprise Records
People SayThe MetersRejuvenationReprise Records
Cantaloupe IslandHerbie HancockCantaloupe IslandBlue Note
It Ain’t No UseThe MetersRejuvenationReprise Records
It Six PackTortoiseStandardsThrill Jockey
Maiden VoyageHerbie HancockCantaloupe IslandBlue Note
SexopolisJean Pierre MirouzeSexopolisFantomas Records
It Soul MachineThe MetersThe MetersJosie
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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1 comment
  • We lived in Vancouver in the mid-1970s. Everyone, including children, used zed. The standard comment to those from “south of the line” was, “Zed is the last letter of the alphabet; zee is toilet paper.”

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