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Tweet, Tweet! Polly Wanna Cracker!

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Twittering, tweeting, twirting—it’s rare to see a whole new body of language appear right before your eyes. But that’s what’s happening with Twitter. We discuss the snappy new shorthand of the twitterati. Also, why do people feel compelled to say “Polly wanna cracker?” whenever they see a parrot? And is it ever okay to end a sentence with a preposition?

This episode first aired February 28, 2009.

The Language of Twitter

 For a closer look at the language of the twitterati, check out Erin McKean’s recent piece in the Boston Globe. Glossaries of Twitter-related terms can be found at Twittonary, and Twictionary. We didn’t say all the coinages were clever! By the way, you can now follow A Way with Words on Twitter!

Polly Wanna Cracker?

 A man who owns a parrot says that when people see his bird, they invariably ask the question “Polly wanna cracker?” He wonders about the origin of that psittacine phrase, meaning parrot-like. One of the earliest uses of the phrase so far found is this fake advertisement from the mock newspaper the Bunkum Flag-Staff and Independent Echo published in 1849 in The Knickerbocker magazine. It starts, “For sale, a Poll Parrot, cheap. He says a remarkable variety of words and phrases, cries, ‘Fire! fire!; and ‘You rascal!’ and ‘Polly want a cracker,’ and would not be parted with, but having been brought up with a sea-captain he is profane and swears too much.” Here is a cartoon from The John-Donkey, July 29, 1848, p. 47, via Proquest American Periodical Series. The John-Donkey was a short-lived humorous and satirical magazine edited by Thomas Dunn English.

Ending with a Preposition

 Is it ever okay to end a sentence with a preposition? Oh, is it ever! Martha and Grant do their best to bury this tired old proscription. It’s a baseless rule concocted by 17-century grammarians, and it’s errant nonsense up with which your hosts will not put.

Crown Play Time Quiz

 Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a puzzle in which participants try to guess a word that could logically go before or after each of a trio of words. For example, if the three words are “nest,” “calories,” and “suit,” the answer is “empty,” as in “empty nest,” “empty calories,” and “empty suit.” So, can you guess why Greg calls this puzzle “Crown Play Time”?

Toward vs. Towards

 Toward vs. towards: is it more correct to say “toward an object” or “towards an object”? Well, which side of the Atlantic are you on?

Old-Fashioned Riddles

 Martha tries out a couple of old-fashioned riddles on Grant. Here’s one: “What goes around the world, but stays in a corner?”


 An F-18 fighter pilot worries that a term he and his colleagues often use isn’t a legitimate word. It’s deconflict, which means to ensure that aircraft aren’t in the same airspace. Grant reassures him that deconflict is a perfectly respectable term.


 Is there a word for @#$%!^*)!&!, those typographical symbols standing in for profanity? There is indeed. It’s grawlix—not to be confused with jarns, quimps, nittles, lucaflects, or plewds. For more on such terms, check out Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook. There’s also an amazing list of grawlixes used in cartoons and comics from 1911 to 2008.

Fish vs. Fishes

 Grant answers a letter from a listener who wonders if it’s ever correct to use the word fishes instead of fish.

National Puzzlers League Slang Quiz

 In this week’s round of Slang This!, a member of the National Puzzlers League tries to separate the real slang terms from the fake ones. For example, which of following expressions is British rhyming slang for “wife”: boiler house or the stitches? And which of these is prison slang for “cake” or “candy”: cho-cho or grimpen mire?

Snow Under Your Tires

 What do you call the nasty black mixture of snow and ice that builds up in your car’s wheel wells in wintry weather? Is there a word for this frigid gunk? Various names have been floating around, including hunkers, snard, snowlactites, knobacles, slud, snowtice, grice, carsicles, and snirt. A caller shares another her own family uses, braxis.

Get on Like a House on Fire

 If people are on warmly congenial terms, they’re said to “get on like a house on fire.” Yet an Irishwoman says when she uses this expression in the U.S., she often gets puzzled looks. Is the expression that unusual?


 When something’s crooked, some people describe it as catawampus, cattywampus, or kittywampus. A caller wonders about the historical roots of all these words. Anything to do with felines?

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

Photo by Jaime Olmo. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook by Mort Walker

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