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.

Download the MP3 here.

 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 Broadcast

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

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Black Orchid Gene Russell New Direction Black Jazz Records
Bold and Black Ramsey Lewis Trio Another Voyage Cadet
Bango Billy and The King Bees Bango 45rpm Stax/Volt
Walk On By Isaac Hayes Walk On By 45rpm Stax
Coming and Going The Ray Brown Orchestra The Adventurers Symbolic
Goodbye Poverty Miriam Makeba Country Girl Disques Esperance
Uhuru Ramsey Lewis Trio Another Voyage Cadet
Tokuta Jungle Fire Tokuta 45rpm Colemine Records
Commencemos Jungle Fire Commencemos 45rpm Colemine Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
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16 Responses

  1. larrfirr says:

    That gray/grey thing has been bothering me lately.   I assumed the color was gray and Grey was someone’s name, sort of like Tailor/Taylor.

    I’m suprised tourists in New York City aren’t called gapers.   The locals never look up, while the tourists do it constantly.

    As for the plural of pair being pair, I am reminded of poker “three of a kind beats two pair.”

  2. Jackie says:

    I never realized “nebby” was another bit of western PA lingo until I moved to the midwest.   Nobody out here says it!

  3. Etymon says:

    A quick thought on squiffy, I generally only hear it used as “a bit squiffy” or “slightly squiffy” I can’t think of any occasion where I’ve heard someone say squiffy without one of those qualifiers.

  4. Mr Paul says:

    I was surprised that, when discussing “blowing the soot out” in a car, you failed to mention the notion of cleaning out the carburetor by flooring it (or going full throttle).   It is the same concept of cleaning out soot that you mentioned Grant, but there is no need for the person to have been an engineer or in the navy.     It was a common excuse for accelerating as much as the car would.   Whether or not it was effective is up to debate.   You can ask Click and Clack all about it.

  5. petdocdave says:

    Mr Paul said:

    I was surprised that, when discussing “blowing the soot out” in a car, you failed to mention the notion of cleaning out the carburetor by flooring it (or going full throttle).   It is the same concept of cleaning out soot that you mentioned Grant, but there is no need for the person to have been an engineer or in the navy.     It was a common excuse for accelerating as much as the car would.   Whether or not it was effective is up to debate.   You can ask Click and Clack all about it.

    I agree.   When I heard the caller’s description of blowing the soot out I immediately knew what her father was doing.   The thinking is that slower city driving in older cars caused carbon build up and running full throttle would clear it.   As a fan of classic cars I still find myself doing the same thing!

  6. Ron Draney says:

    This wouldn’t work on the radio, but:

    Gray is a color; grey is a colour.

  7. hippogriff says:

    Parkinson had quite a few public observations. Committee formation: the optimum is an odd number (to avoid ties) between three and seven. However, no matter who is appointed, there is someone with just as valid a claim left out and so is added. This goes on until there are too many to function, so a steering committee is chosen to do the initial work, and the process starts all over again.

    Government started at the tribal level with the chief being the wisest, strongest, etc. As the group expanded, there was more governing than one person could handle, so trusted assistants were selected. Both they and the chief needed an orderly process of succession, so primogeniture was adopted. However, that collapsed, not from the oldest being an idiot, but the problem of fourth sons. The first got the title and land, the second went into the military, the third the church, but what about the fourth? They went into business, banking, or some other [once] respectable occupation. Obviously by heredity and training, they were nobility, but what about their colleagues and even superiors in the firm who came from yeoman (or lower) stock? So, we get democracy, which lasts until the electorate gets apathetic and a dictator emerges and the cycle starts again.

    Parkinson was a professor in Malaysia during the communist insurgency. In a radio interview, he described the campaign in terms of the medieval armored knight with a whole retinue of men-at-arms, armorers, smiths, cooks, etc. to keep one knight in the field. The same applied to fighter pilots and their ground support. These define the elite. However, in Malaysia, operations “were led by one pointer dog, followed by two Dyak trackers of the sort that pick up a stick, look at it, and say ‘six men passed by between five and seven last night’, and they are followed by a brigade of Gurkhas.” The interviewer asked, “Do you see a danger of the pointer dog becoming the new elite?” Parkinson laughed and explained it was a new order of things. A most remarkable man, much like Lawrence Peter; both could explain complex sociological phenomena in an almost satiric, but still accurate way.


    Letter words: Also gee, pea/pee, tea/tee.

  8. EmmettRedd says:

    Last evening, my son-in-law asked me about “blowing the soot out” of an engine. He had just heard about it and wanted verification like the comments above.

    Afterward, he related his Memorial Day weekend experience of towing a camper trailer on Highway 7 between Harrison and Russelville, Arkansas (this is not recommended). On one 7% downhill grade, he heard a bang and saw a big puff of black smoke from his exhaust. I guess he “blew the soot out”.

    I have also heard it as “blowing the cobs out.” I had always assumed the “cobs” were short for “cobwebs”.


  9. ablestmage says:

    The difference in the two forms of grey varies on what is being described.. GREY generally describes an animate object, GRAY generally describes an inanimate object. Gandalf the Grey, the “grey” versions of enemies in video games (grey wolf, grey imp, grey shark, etc) vs gray skies, gray stones, gray smoke.. the only exception I can think of is “greywater” although that’s a single word. I’ve always considered “grey” to refer to a “shady” (“shade-e” as a way to remember the e-spelling) character, while considering “gray” to refer to a “shade” =) I didn’t learn it from anyone, I just came up with it through experience of seeing it in the wild.

    I always refer to more than one pair, pluralized as “pair” to avoid the misunderstanding that “pears” are the topic, even if by context “pears” wouldn’t make sense. Having “5 pair of socks” to me immediately references a hand in cards, without need to even wonder whether the issue has to do with pears, even if a “5 pears of socks” wouldn’t make sense..

  10. Robert says:

    Interesting about grey/gray, Ablestmage, but usage on cyber space does not bear that out- there is no clear affinity of either adjective to any nouns.

    I wonder if there is any strong preference for either word where it means Confederate soldier- there seems none.

  11. Mark Lewis says:

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


    In Texas, we call them Snowbirds, as they come from the cold climate, to the warmer.

  12. queenmer says:

    I need to put in my two-cents worth on the word anyways. I completely agree with the caller on this one. As a child, I remember my parents correcting me everytime I said anyway with an s. I now twitch when I hear it. It just sounds wrong to me.

  13. Danny says:

    Having just heard the discussion on the problematic etymology of “story/storey”, I’m puzzled that the origin is not definitively linked to the meaning of “store” as “storage”. In the middle ages, when most buildings were one-level structures, a loft would be constructed within a structure precisely for the purpose of storage, to keep stuff out of the way, but readily available. It’s not far from considering the stores kept in one’s loft to its reference as a… story. No?



  14. Danny says:

    Regarding the use of “anyways,” don’t you think that its use draws affinity with other words that end in “–ways”, like “always” (which the caller used herself at the opening of her call-in!), “crossways” and “sideways”, “leastways”, etc.?

  15. Allayna says:

    In my area at least, you will hear that xyz building is a ‘5-story building’. But, a certain office is on the ‘3rd floor’.

    But I never hear about a 5 floor building or an office on the 3th story.

  16. noah little says:

    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:

    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.