When it comes to language, who’s the decider? Grant explains how grammar rules develop. Also, what’s tarantula juice, and what’s the difference between a muffin top and a smiley? We discuss these and other terms from Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Why do we call a waste of taxpayer money a boondoggle? What does it mean to cotton to someone? And what’s happening if we have a touch of the seconds? Plus, funny movie mistakes, a quiz in limerick form, regional terms for lanyards, and a new spin on a musical joke: brown chicken, brown cow.

This episode first aired April 30, 2011.

Download the MP3.

 Green’s Dictionary of Slang
Can you guess what a smiley is? No, the other smiley. Or how about tarantula juice? You could, of course, happen upon someone with a muffin top drinking inferior whisky, or you could look these terms up in the new Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Jonathon Green spent decades assembling this three-volume collection of slang from the United States, Great Britain, and every other corner of the English-speaking world. Grant explains what has linguists so excited about its publication.

 Verbal Disclaimers
If you preface a statement with “I’m not trying to be racist, but…” does that then make it okay? Is there a term for such disclaimer?

 Anachronism and Anatopisms
It’s always fun to catch moviemakers’ blunders. Say you’re watching an epic about ancient Rome and spot a toga-clad extra who forgot to remove his wristwatch. That’s an anachronism. But what do you call something that’s geographically incorrect. Take, for example, an exterior shot of what’s supposed to be Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton office, but includes a fleeting glimpse of a palm tree? That’s called an anatopism (accent on the second syllable), from the Greek topos, meaning “place.” For an excellent timewaster along these lines, Grant recommends moviemistakes.com. (Yo, “The Nativity Story”! Everyone knows maize wasn’t grown in Nazareth during the time of Christ. Anatopic FAIL!)

 Slang Term “Understandings”
Understandings aren’t just for epistemologists and marriage counselors. In the 18th Century, the slang term understandings was a jocular name for “boots” or “shoes.” Later, the word also came to be a joking term for “legs.”

 Media Limericks
Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a set of Topical Limericks from the worlds of media and entertainment.

 I Don’t Cotton To
A listener from Dallas wonders about the origin of “I don’t cotton to,” meaning “I’m not in favor of” or “I don’t get along with.” Though it sounds like a classic Southern phrase, Martha traces it all the way back to England, where the verb to cotton had to do with textile work. Saying “I’m not cotton with” or “I don’t cotton to” means that you don’t get along with something.

What do you call those convenient props in illustrations and movies that cover up the naughty bits? A listener remembers an old illustrated copy of The Emperor’s New Clothes that made clever use of twigs and berries for covering, well, the twigs and berries. Martha opens the kimono on the rare term antipudic, from the Latin pudor meaning “shame.” It’s the source also of the English words impudent and pudenda. Alfred Hitchcock specifically referred to his own use of antipudic devices regarding the shower scene in Psycho. And of course, nobody makes better use of antipudic devices than Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery.

 Bow Chicka Wow Wow
Listeners emailed us in response to a call on the sonorous bow-chicka-wow-wow cliche, and we’re glad they did. We learned that country star Trace Adkins has a song called Brown Chicken, Brown Cow that uses puppets to demonstrate just what it means to take a roll in the hay. We’re sure it’d have Statler and Waldorf whipping out their opera binoculars.

 Boo-Boo the Fool
Who is Boo-Boo the Fool? A listener wonders if this African-American character has any relation the Puerto Rican fool, Juan Bobo. Martha draws a connection to the Spanish term bobo, meaning “fool,” and its Latin root balbus, meaning “stammerer”. Grant notes that the name Bobo has been extremely common for clowns since at least the 1940s, and the bobo/clown/jester character is prevalent in most all cultural folklores, be they African, South American, or Anglo-European.

 Who’s The Decider
When it comes to language, a listener from Dallas wants to know, as a fellow Texan might put it, “who’s the decider”? Grant explains that nobody makes the rules about language, and everybody does. For those seeking professional guidance, a whole community of lexicographers, dictionaries, and style guides offers rules and provenance on vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. However, on a daily basis all the users of a language implicitly write the rules by choosing words and syntax that have semantic clarity for the people they’re trying to communicate with. You could go to a reference book, or you could say something to your neighbor, then judge by their reaction whether or not you made sense.

Your mother gave you life, and you gave her … a boondoggle. Or is it a lanyard? Maybe a gimp? Grant assures a listener there are several terms for that long key fob you made at summer camp out of plastic yarn. Boondoggle seems to have originated among Boy Scouts in the Rochester, N.Y., area in the 1930s, and was later picked up by those in politics to mean “a wasteful debacle.” Grant also shares a French term for these summer-camp crafts, scoubidou, pronounced just like the cartoon dog. Nobody writes more movingly about lanyards than poet Billy Collins.

 Life in the 1500s
If you get an email called “Life in the 1500s,” hit delete! Grant explains that the etymology provided is not entirely accurate. That’s what this show is for. Also, if you’re getting an email that says “Free Money, Click Here,” you shouldn’t trust that either. That’s what jobs are for. Snopes.com has a good debunking of these linguistic urban legends.

A college senior has invented a word to describe that anxiety we feel when there’s unfinished work looming over us. He calls it desgundes. As in, “that twenty-year-old in the library making a three-foot boondoggle must likely be dealing with some inner desgundes.”

 Veil of Tears
An Indianapolis listener says his father used to often spoke of leaving this veil of tears. His son wonders about the origin of that phrase. Grant and Martha explain the expression is actually vale of tears, a synonym for valley. In some translations, Psalm 84 refers to traveling through a vale of tears.

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

Photo by Mike Beauregard. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

Green’s Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green
The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Last Bongo in Belgium Incredible Bongo Band Bongo Rock Mr. Bongo
In A Gadda Da Vida Incredible Bongo Band Bongo Rock Mr. Bongo
Deep In A Dream Milt Jackson The Ballad Artistry Of Milt Jackson Atlantic
Brown Chicken Brown Cow Trace Adkins The Ballad Artistry Of Milt Jackson Show Dog-Universal Music
Funky Fanfare Keith Mansfield The KPM 1000 Series – Volume 1 KPM Music Ltd.
The Midnight Sun Will Never Set Milt Jackson The Ballad Artistry Of Milt Jackson Atlantic
Man Alone Keith Mansfield KPM Music Library 1976 KPM Music Ltd.
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
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9 Responses

  1. Ron Draney says:

    For the caller who thought he remembered a “possibly French-sounding” word for the convenient covering-up of the Emperor’s naked parts, I found myself wondering if he had been given some form of the word “bowdlerize”.

  2. Yep, we received a huge number of calls and emails from folks saying the same thing, Ron. We’ll have to take it up in a later episode. *I’d thought the caller was asking specifically for the name of the device itself that performs the function of a fig leaf. But yes, the process and effect itself could indeed be described as bowdlerizing.

  3. SerialCommas says:

    If you preface a statement with “I’m not trying to be racist, but…” does that then make it okay? Is there a term for such disclaimer?>>>

    I believe that “paralipsis” is the closest term. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophasis#Paralipsis

  4. tromboniator says:

    martha said:

    I’d thought the caller was asking specifically for the name of the device itself that performs the function of a fig leaf.

    It is common for people who are ill-at-ease on stage, being photographed, or otherwise unsure of what to do with their hands to stand with their hands clasped down around belt level. My favorite director calls this “the fig-leaf position,” and discourages his actors from the habit by interrupting a scene in rehearsal by shouting, “FIG LEAF!”

    No, I don’t know what the device is called, either.


  5. tromboniator says:

    I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and in the late 1950s, early ’60s attended a YMCA day camp in which we would spend each day in one of the many state parks in the region. One of the favorite pastimes was boondoggling. One of the counselors was in charge of the Craft Box which, in addition to things like balsa gliders, contained several dozen spools of boondoggle, in a vast choice of colors, sold at a few cents per yard. It was common for us to make lanyards which were worn around the neck to carry whistles, compasses, jackknives, anything that had a loop or ring that could be attached to a spring clip or clasp. I made dozens of zipper pulls, some very complex, comprising many strands of boondoggle. I have never heard of one of these creations called “a boondoggle,” although even at the time I was using the stuff I was aware of a boondoggle as a wasteful or unnecessarily complex project or bureaucracy, and wondered if there were a connection.

    In addition to patience and manual dexterity, boondoggling was valuable in teaching about visualizing and planning a project and estimating materials. Beyond that, Billy Collins is right.

  6. Glenn says:

    When I was a boy we called the unworked material gimp. We called the work products lanyards. I never heard of boondoggle used except in the political sense.

  7. Christopher Murray says:

    “Cotton to” sounds odd to my ears, but I’m very familiar with “Cotton on to” as meaning coming to realise the meaning of something. They must be related.

  8. MarcNaimark says:

    Scoubidou: I think the term is used outside of France.

    The name is associated with a hit song from the 60s by Sacha Distel: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x78ubf_sacha-distel-scoubidou-tv-show-vers_music

  9. Jazyk says:

    What Grant said about the toy was really interesting and I think there is a connection. In Portuguese the toy known as a roly-poly toy, a tilting doll, a tumbler or a wobbly man is called João Bobo, very similar to Spanish Juan Bobo and Boo-Boo the Fool.