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Two Shades of Grey

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You’ve noticed work seems to expand to fill the time given to complete it. But did you know there’s a term for that? Also this week, the New England exclamation “So don’t I!,” grey vs. gray, building storeys, being squiffy, having chops, getting involved in pull-hauls, nebby Pennsylvanians, and a modern Greek idiom about hiccups and burning ears.
This episode first aired June 2, 2012.
Squiffy and Golden Gut

 If you’re feeling squiffy, it means you’re drunk, especially in 19th century British slang. If someone has a golden gut, on the other hand, it means they have good business acumen.


 If someone is being nibby or nebby, they’re nosy. This Western Pennsylvania term goes back to the old Scottish term nib or neb, meaning nose.

Chops for the Dots

 What does it mean to have chops? In the 1500s, chops was a slang term for the face or lips, but it carried into African-American jazz culture to mean that a brass or wind player had good embouchure. The idea is reflected in the old jazz musician’s saying, “If you ain’t got the chops for the dots, ain’t nothing’ happening.” Having chops eventually also came to mean having talent in other disciplines.

So Don’t I

 The New England phrase “So don’t I”, meaning you agree, is so embedded in the culture that it’s now part of the regional stereotype. Linguist Larry Horn has discussed the phenomenon, as have we.

-gry Puzzle

 Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has an improvement on the hoary puzzle about words ending in -gry. For example, if someone has posted to Tumblr in a while, they might be feeling a bit bloggry. If you’re in the mood to do some karaoke, you might be described as singry.

Building Storeys

 Why are floors of buildings called stories (or storeys)? One theory suggests that an Latin architectural term historia once referred to the stained-glass windows or the ornate statues around the edifice. But the etymology is unclear.

Must Be Hiccupping

 If someone’s been talking about you in English, then metaphorically speaking, your ears are burning. If they were talking about you in Modern Greek, it’s said that you must have been hiccupping.

Blow the Soot Out

 If you’re blowing the soot out, you might literally be clearing the soot out of a flue. By extension, it’s a term that means “relieving stress.”


 The term pull-haul, meaning “a verbal conflict,” is heard in New England, particularly Maine. A 1914 citation in the Dictionary of American Regional English alludes to all the pull-hauling among churches when a new congregant moves to town.

Parkinson’s Law

 Why do we adjust our working pace to the timelines we’re given? The late Cyril Northcote Parkinson explained the phenomenon in his 1955 Economist piece, calling it Parkinson’s Law.

Squiffy Askew

 Squiffy, that British slang term for drunk, has also come to mean “askew.” At a Roman orgy, for example, you might have found people wearing squiffy laurel crowns.

Names for Tourists

 What do you call tourists in your hometown? In New England, they have leaf-peepers. In Wisconsin, it’s berry-pickers or shackers, as in “people who rent cottages.” Coastal areas have pukers, a reference to people who charter boats but then can’t handle the waves. And in Big Sky, Montana, tourists are known as gapers.


 Is there a term for words that sound like their first letter? Queue, jay, oh, and the like have been deemed by one listener homoepistulaverbumphones. Well, maybe.

Plural Pair vs. Pairs

 What’s the plural of pair? Is it correct to say “two pairs of socks” or “two pair of socks”? The most common usage is “pairs,” but it might depend on whether you think of the things as a unit, like socks.

Grey vs. Gray

 Is there a visual difference between grey and gray? The grey spelling is more common in the UK; gray is more common in the U.S. Many feel that grey has a delicate, silvery tint, while gray is more opaque, perhaps with warmer tones of red or brown. Martha and Grant disagree about this one.


 The word anyways, spelled with an s, has come into vogue among writers looking to transition from stilted language into something more reader-friendly.


 In Michigan, tourists are called trunk-slammers for how often they slam their trunk unpacking and repacking over the course of a weekend trip.

Photo by Sherrie Thai. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Expression of Negation by Laurence R. Horn
Dictionary of American Regional English

Music Used in the Episode

Black OrchidGene RussellNew DirectionBlack Jazz Records
Bold and BlackRamsey Lewis TrioAnother VoyageCadet
BangoBilly and The King BeesBango 45rpmStax/Volt
Walk On ByIsaac HayesWalk On By 45rpmStax
Coming and GoingThe Ray Brown OrchestraThe AdventurersSymbolic
Goodbye PovertyMiriam MakebaCountry GirlDisques Esperance
UhuruRamsey Lewis TrioAnother VoyageCadet
TokutaJungle FireTokuta 45rpmColemine Records
CommencemosJungle FireCommencemos 45rpmColemine Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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1 comment
  • Just heard the rebroadcast today and a quick google of “so don’t I” and New England gave this link to Yale University’s Grammatical Diversity Project: http://microsyntax.sites.yale.edu/so-dont-i

    It lists some other references alongside the L. Horn work.

    – I just love A Way With Words!
    – Yeah, so don’t I, it’s wicked cool.


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