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The Uncanny Valley

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The disturbing sensation you feel when almost-human characters seem downright creepy is called the uncanny valley. Speaking of creepy, do you know someone with a morbid fear of clowns? There’s a term for that, too. Why do politicians suspend a campaign instead of just ending it? How is it that the sentence Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo actually makes sense? Plus, onomatopoeia for the digital age, a magic word quiz, and the kippie bags and vaporwakes you’ll find in the airport security line. This episode first aired March 10, 2012.

Uncanny Valley

 What is it about lifelike robots and the humanoid characters in movies like The Polar Express that feels so disturbing? Robotics scientist Masahiro Mori dubbed this phenomenon the uncanny valley. There are lots of interesting articles explaining this creepy sensation in Slate, Wired, and on the NPR blog.

Financial Slang

 When investing or trading stocks, the last thing you want is to take a bath — or, for that matter, a haircut. The first of these refers to getting cleaned out of money. The second is an allusion to being left with as little as two bits, or 25 cents.

Lazy Man’s Load

 Be careful with that lazy man’s load! That’s the oversize armful you carry when you’re transporting things and take too much to avoid making another trip.

Suspend vs. End a Campaign

 Why do politicians say they’re going to suspend a campaign? Aren’t they really just ending it? Under Federal Election Commission funding regulations, politicians can continue to collect money for paying off campaign fees well after an election, so long as their campaign is just suspended. William Safire’s Political Dictionary remains the best reference for such political terminology.

Commas With Modifiers

 Would you prefer a low, six-figure salary or a low six-figure salary? With the comma, there are two independent modifiers for the salary; it’s six figures and by the speaker’s standards, it’s low. Without the comma, it’s simply less than $500,000.

Magical Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a magical puzzle, the answers to which contain the word magic. For example, a motel sign in the ’70s might have included the enticement Magic Fingers, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a practitioner of literature featuring magic realism.

Whoa vs. Woah

 How do you spell the exclamation that rhymes with the word “woe”? Is it woah or whoa? The correct spelling in the United States is whoa, but when words are primarily transmitted orally, spelling often varies.

Happy Figures of Speech

 If you’re as happy as if someone were throwing pork at you, you’re pretty darn happy. And if something is higher than a cat’s back, it’s pretty darn high.

Travel Jargon

 Post-9/11, we’ve heard a lot of new jargon pertaining to travel and security. An example is vaporwake, that term for the airborne trail we leave of our natural scent, perfumes, and the odor of any drugs or weapons we may be carrying. Another example of Transportation Safety Administration terminology: puffer machine, the device that’s used to read your vaporwake by blowing a puff of air on you.

English Noun Genders

 Why don’t nouns have gender in English they way they do in Spanish, French, or German? Before the Middle English period, nouns in English were either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Over time, however, we’ve moved away from the semantically arbitrary practice of assigning genders to objects that have none. In other words, the linguistic notion of grammatical gender is completely different from biological and social notion of natural gender. Read a chapter about it from Gender Shifts in the History of English by Anne Curzan.

Kippie Bags

 Kippie bags, named after the former TSA head Kip Hawley, are those quart-sized bags we put toiletries in when going through airport security.

Modern Onomatopoeia

 Grant has collected some modern onomatopoeia for the technological age. Try untz, for the beat in dance music, or wub, for the common dubstep sound. Pew pew! works for lasers and beep for a computer’s beep is a modern classic.

Cheap and Expensive

 Can you describe a price as cheap or expensive, or are those words only properly applied to the item for sale, rather than the price?


 Absenteeism is a problem in the workplace, but so is presenteeism. That’s when people who should stay home to nurse a cold or flu insist on coming in to work, risking a turn for the worse or infecting everyone around them.


 When it comes to words like reckon, is it true that Southerners preserve the Queen’s English?


 What do you call a fear of clowns? Coulrophobia, from the ancient Greek term for “one who walks on stilts.” Perhaps coulrophobia is a creepy cousin of the uncanny valley. This article from Scientific American explains further. Here’s video of a woman who is afraid of clowns.

Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

 How many buffaloes can you fit in a sentence? Eight? How about 40? The sentence Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is a staple of introductory linguistics classes because it’s a great illustration of polysemy, in which one word can have several different meanings and parts of speech. In this case, example, buffalo can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, and a proper noun. It makes more sense to think of it this way: “Buffalo-originating bison that other Buffalo bison intimidate, themselves bully Buffalo bison.”

Photo by TenSafeFrogs. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose
Safire’s Political Dictionary by William Safire
Gender Shifts in the History of English by Anne Curzan

Music Used in the Episode

Humpty DumptyPlaceboBall Of EyesCBS
Destiny’s ChildrenFreddie HubbardKeep Your Soul TogetherCTI
Son of Mr. Green GenesFrank ZappaHot RatsReprise Records
Oh! Oh! Here He ComesHerbie HancockFat Albert RotundaWarner Brothers
Four PlayFred Wesley & The Horny HornsFour PlayAtlantic
Brawling BroadsRoy AyersCoffyPolydor
Mr. MagicianMystic MerlinMr. Magician 45rpmCapitol Records
Fat Albert RotundaHerbie HancockFat Albert RotundaWarner Brothers
Papa Was A Rolling StoneSidney, George, and JackiePapa Was A Rolling Stone 45rpmAttack
The Mail Must Go ThroughThe CultThe Mail Must Go ThroughStarburst Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffElla FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song BookVerve

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  • About “haircuts” – I’ve been working in financial translation, and the term gained popularity (and maybe a slightly different meaning?) after the financial crisis. In finance it means “a percentage that is subtracted [by a lender] from the market value of an asset that is being used as collateral.” The amount of haircut applied to the collateral depends on the risk – eg a US Treasury bill may be discounted only 10%, since it is very safe, but a corporate bond more like 20-25%.
    However, in the crisis, it has been used to refer not to an automatic standard reduction, but to something negotiated among lenders where a debtor is in difficulty but not fully bankrupt – e.g. recently international banks and investors agreed to a 50% ‘haircut’ on Greek sovereign debt, which means the amount Greece should pay them back has been cut by half (see article in the British Guardian newspaper of Thursday 27 October 2011).

  • I agree entirely about the need to learn nouns with their gendered articles for languages that have them (French, Spanish, Italian, German, etc.). The main difficulty with German, though, is that the articles are ‘declined’ depending on the case of the noun (nominative, or subject case; accusative, or direct object; dative, or indirect object; andr genitive, i.e. possessive). This means that while you may memorise that it is die Frau (woman, quite logically, is feminine, although girl, Mädchen, is neuter gender!), you will also hear “der Frau” if the woman is the indirect object or if the possessive case is being used (of the woman).

    Since it seems to me the trick to learning correct usage is never to hear or see it wrongly used (or that wrong usage will imprint on your memory – this is why good language teachers never write ON THE BOARD the wrong spelling, even in order to explain why it is wrong), this feature of German impedes learnign the genders of nouns correctly.

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