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.

Download the MP3.

 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 Broadcast

Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook by Mort Walker
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22 Responses

  1. Matt Holck says:

    The messages are “tweets”; the people signed up to get them are your followers – or tweeple, or tweeps (although there are people pushing twerps and twits as the proper nomenclature).

    I think “twerps” and “twits” would be subsets of “tweets”.
    “twerps” a poignant opinion of a digested subject.
    “twits” rhyming with

    Slang for any non-white chick who loves to date white guys.
    “Hey, looks like Tai Chi is giving you the eye Bro.”

    “Yea, Polly wants a cracker!”

  2. Shari says:

    While listening to the program this morning, 1 March 2009, two topics caught my attention and prompted me to send this e-mail: The first was the Polly-wanna-cracker discussion; the second was the snowy-build-up-in-wheel-wells discussion.

    I grew up with and still occasionally use the old “Polly wanna cracker?” joke with the answer “Crack her yourself, you brought her here.”

    And I grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where snow was a fixture from early November until after Mother’s Day in May some years. Kicking that build-up off the car was a daily ritual, and we referred to it as a snard, a combination of snow and hard.

    We in the western U.P. also used a term that folks down here in Wisconsin, where my husband and I now reside, find curious. As a youngster, I always panked the powdery snow if I wanted a nice surface for sledding or skiing, or if I didn’t have a shovel handy and wanted to make a walkway from the house to the road.

    I’ve been in Wisconsin for nearly 34 years but am still being teased for many of the Yooperisms is used when we moved here. I believe I have finally eliminated the “hey?” from the end of my sentences, declarative or interrogatory.

    One other item that might be of interest to you is a quotation I read on my nephew’s Facebook page. He didn’t know its author; perhaps you do. “Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like bananas.” How clever!

    Love your show. As a former editor of a reading practice software for children, I often brought to work the answers to grammar questions that popped up every day.

  3. Matt, the “cracker” in “Polly wanna cracker” has nothing whatsoever to do with cracker=poor or rustic white person.

  4. Matt Holck says:

    I doubt “cracker(rustic white person)”
    held any meaning to phrase when
    “polly want a cracker”
    first became popular.

    I think this may be a case of a kidnapped slogan.

  5. Matt, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the meaning of “cracker” as “a backwoods Southern white person regarded as ignorant, brutal, loutish, bigoted, etc.” dates to at least as early as 1766. The earliest use we have of “Polly wants a cracker” or any variant of that is 1848, which I found in my own research.

    If you’re going to make claims about word and phrase origins, back them up with data. It’s the only way you’ll be taken seriously.

  6. Matt Holck says:

    pirates and merchants offered the polynesian people(island natives) crackers for trade or favor

  7. ablestmage says:

    I had always used fishes when referring to a quantity of living, breathing organisms (regardless of species, such as the biblical “five loaves and two fishes” — whereas I’d use “fish” to generally refer to any amount of fish-matter, such as the kind you’d purchased as processed product. It’s interesting to know I ought instead use “fishes” in regard to more than one fish from more than one species ^_^

    The longest series of successive prepositions that finished off a sentence I’ve heard has been, “What did you bring that book I wanted to be read to out of up for?”.

    My question: where does the idea come from that a word must be legitimate (such as the pilot’s inquiry as to whether deconflict was elligible for use) in order to be used? Is the common understanding for “word” itself something that must pass through some degree of scrutiny and be red-lighted for legal use, rather than being literally *any* (at all) combination of letters or sounds that represent an idea? My suspicion is that dictionaries are too often interpreted as sources for the rules, rather than the “word newspapers” as they are. In the same way that a newspaper itself doesn’t dictate how events shall transpire but instead reports on how events have or may be expected to — a dictionary ought be better understood as a listing of commonly used words of the distant to recent past in the ways listed. Agree/disagree?

  8. etherdog says:

    Would not the plural of grawlix be grawlices (index/indices)?

  9. Cap says:

    Shari said:

    “Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like bananas.”

    From an early humor book “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana”…

    Author? Groucho Marx

  10. claudia807 says:

    I’m struggling with the preposition issue. When my husband asks, “Where is the car parked at?” . . . that’s still incorrect, yes?

  11. Glenn says:

    I don’t have an official answer to the acceptability of “Where is the car parked at?” but I hope it has crossed the line from nonstandard to acceptable.

    I have a theory about use of “Where at?” In my lifetime, the use of “whence,” and “whither,” lessened to the point of extinction. When the three coexisted, there was no need for any preposition to clarify. Once “whither” and “whence” were extinct, we were left with only “where” and an added preposition. “Whence” was functionally replaced by “Where … from;” “whither” by “where … to.” Analogy suggests “Where … at.”

    Granted, some contexts or marked verbs would allow the preposition to be omitted. Consider “Where are you going?” (No “to” necessary.) But “Where are you walking?” is potentially ambiguous. At least it could easily be the “where” or the “whither” sense. My guess is that the most natural reading of “Where are you walking?” is “Where are you walking (to)?” If you want to know the location, or confines (at the park, on the high-school track, etc.), you would be wise to ask “Where are you walking at?” The “whence” sense seems to demand the “from”: “I’ve been walking for hours! … Really? Where did you walk from?”

    I think those who reject “where … at” should consider reverting to the use of “whence” and “whither” or come up with some other way to fill the need to distinguish these directional meanings.

  12. dilettante says:

    errant nonsense up with which your hosts will not put

    I think that’s “arrant”, at least in the context of the Churchill attribution. Speaking of which, Benjamin Zimmer has done some research on the shaky provenance of that quote, which you can read about here and here.

  13. Ron Draney says:

    I should be ashamed of myself, but I can’t resist….

    Parrots are said to enjoy the taste of squid or cuttlefish, such as the “sake ika” sold in a Japanese market near my home. (John Cleese even makes passing reference to this in the famous “dead parrot” sketch.) I’ve often wanted to train a parrot to ask for this treat by saying “Polly wants a kraken”.

    I’m sorry. I’m deeply, deeply sorry.

  14. Claudia807, I understand your question here. I think a lot of people would reject “Where is the car parked at?” simply because the “at” is redundant, don’t you think?

  15. Or maybe rather than “redundant,” I should have said “superfluous.”

  16. >>I think that’s “arrant”, at least in the context of the Churchill attribution. <<>Speaking of which, Benjamin Zimmer has done some research on the shaky provenance of that quote, which you can read about here and here.<<

    Yes, and for that very reason, I was careful to say “Churchill, among others” or something like that. More good stuff on this from Fred Shapiro’s mighty fine Yale Book of Quotations.

  17. Ron, that’s forty lashes with a wet dictionary page for you! 🙂

  18. Glenn says:

    Martha, would you also reject “Where are you going to?” for the same reason? How about “where does the ship depart from?”

  19. srleonard says:

    Joke: A Texan is sitting at a bar. A professor from Harvard comes in and sits next to him. The Texan says, “Where are you from?” The professor says, “At Hahvad we do not end a sentence in a preposition.” The Texan replies, “O.K., where are you from–jackass?”

  20. Srleonard, thanks for telling the clean version of that joke!

    >>>Martha, would you also reject “Where are you going to?” for the same reason? How about “where does the ship depart from?”

    Glenn, my instinct would be to reject “going to” as excessive. Why add the “to”? But interesting about “depart from.” Is this a trick question? 🙂

  21. Glenn says:

    No trick. Just an honest question. It’s no secret that my personal ideolect allows all three “where … (to, from, at)” options freely. Clearly the “where … at” version is the least strongly required — I tend to avoid it unless required, but have no issue with it — and the “where … from” being the most strongly required. I was just trying to see where your boundaries stand.

    I note that the online version (via of the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) allows for both transitive and intrasitive uses of “depart.” As such, the preposition “from” becomes optional in the simplest uses. It specifically references “Our flight departs New York … .” So, “Where does your flight depart?” would be both acceptable, and more terse than “Where does your flight depart from?”


    In my hearing, the more optional and more questionable “at” of “where … at” tends to express either a stronger emotion (as in “Where is this blasted store AT!”) or suggests the need for great precision, emphasizing location, as in, I suspect, the original questioner’s husband’s case “Where is the car parked at?” Suggesting perhaps he needs to know more than “on the street” as his answer.

    Perhaps of some interest, I even hear the use of “where … at” in a figurative sense of location as in: “Where is the S&P 500 at?” “Where is the stock market at?” Still, I hear this as conveying a need for an answer with fairly high precision.

  22. Darrell says:

    I’m a long-time bird owner, and my birds (African greys, Cockatiels, Amazons) have neither liked to be beaten, or crackers… although pizza, chicken bones, and veggies and other table foods are favorites.

    I too cringe when people say “Polly want a cracker?” His name is not Polly, and no, he doesn’t want a cracker. And I hope he bites you! 🙂