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Up Your Alley

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Book recommendations, including a collection of short stories inspired by dictionaries, and a techno-thriller for teens. Or, how about novels with an upbeat message? Publishers call this genre up lit. Plus, a clergyman ponders an arresting phrase in the book Peter Pan: What does the author mean when he says that children can be “gay and innocent and heartless”? And, if you spend money freely, you are a dingthrift. Also, waterfalling, pegan, up a gump stump, spendthrift, vice, cabochon, cultural cringe, welsh, and neat but not gaudy.

This episode first aired July 28, 2018.

Birdie That Drink

 The slang term birdie refers to drinking from a bottle without touching it with your lips. You might ask for a sip, for example, by promising, “Don’t worry, I’ll birdie it.” This sanitary sipping method is also called waterfalling.

A Different Meaning of Heartless in Peter Pan

 A listener in Southampton, New York, puzzles over the language at the end of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, in which the narrator assures that the story will continue so long as children are “gay and innocent and heartless.” What does heartless mean in this context?

A Pegan Diet

 If you’re a pegan, then your diet is limited to a combination of paleo and vegan.

Spendthrift Origins

 Judy from Tallahassee, Florida, is curious about the word spendthrift, which means someone who spends money freely. The word thrift in this case means wealth, and is the past participle of thrive. A more obvious word that means the same thing: spendall. Another is dingthrift, someone who dings, or makes a dent in, their savings.

Cultural Cringe

 The term cultural cringe refers to a tendency to regard one’s own culture as inferior to that of another.

Writer’s Math Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s shares Writer’s Math, a puzzle in which the names of numbers hidden within consecutive letters in a sentence. For example, what number lurks in the sentence, “Launch yourself on every wave”?

What to Call an Adult Who Has Lost Both Parents?

 Alice in Atlanta, Georgia, seeks a term for an adult who has lost both their parents. The best that English can offer is probably adult orphan or elder orphan.

Bad Vice and Vice President

 Vice is a noun meaning bad behavior, but it’s also an adjective referring to an official who is second in command. Karen, a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher in Waco, Texas, says her students wonder why. These two senses of vice come from two separate Latin words: vice, meaning in place of, and vitium, meaning fault or blemish. The two English descendants of these words ended up being spelled exactly the same way, even though they mean completely different things.


 The little-used word famulus means assistant, and originally referred to the assistant of a sorcerer or scholar.

Is “To Welsh” Offensive?

 Rod in LaPorte, Indiana, has Welsh ancestry, and always wondered if the expressions to welsh on a bet suggests that the Welsh are dishonest. The verb to welsh and the noun welsher are indeed mild ethnic slurs. To welsh dates back to at least the 1850s, and because it may offend, should be replaced by other words such as renege, waffle, or flip-flop. Similarly, taffy, another old word for the Welsh, long carried similar connotations of being a habitual liar and cheater.

Gump Stump

 Chandler from Chesapeake, Virginia, wonder about a term her in-laws use to mean in abundance, as in “We have strawberries up the gump stump.” The expression seems to have evolved from an earlier phrase possum up a gum tree or possum up a gum stump, referring to a hunted animal that’s trapped. Over time, it became the rhyming phrase up a gump stump, and like the phrase up the wazoo, came to mean in abundance.

Books We’re Reading

 Book recommendation time! Martha’s reading Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows, short stories based on example sentences from dictionaries, and Grant recommends Julia Durango’s The Leveler, a techno-thriller for teens about virtual worlds.

Apgar Score Origins

 Named for anesthesiologist Dr. Virginia Apgar, the Apgar score — a measure of a newborn’s appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration — is both an eponym and an acronym.

The Word for Upbeat Literature

 Publishers use the term up lit to describe contemporary novels with an upbeat message focusing on kindness and empathy.

Down Your Alley, Up Your Street

 Shawn, who lives in Washington State, is used to hearing the phrase right up your alley to describe something that’s particularly fitting for someone. Then she heard a British vlogger use the phrase right up your street in the same way. Since the early 1900s, the phrases right up one’s alley, or right down one’s alley, or the more old-fashioned in one’s street, all mean pretty much the same thing. They suggest the idea of a place that’s quite familiar, like an alley near your home. In its original sense, alley meant a wide space lined with trees, deriving from the French allée.

To Have Your Work Cut Out For You

 To have one’s work cut out for you comes from an earlier phrase to have all one’s work cut out. Picture a tailor who’s working as fast as possible with the help of an assistant who’s cutting out the pieces to be sewn. If you have your work cut out for you, you have a big job ahead, with a series of smaller tasks coming at you faster than you can do them.


 A cabochon is a convex gem or bead that’s highly polished but not faceted.

Neat but not Gaudy

 Scott from Copper Canyon, Texas, wonders about a expression he heard from his childhood in the American South: neat but not gaudy. He understood it to mean appropriate, but not over the top. The expression goes back to 1600s and has many variations. Early versions and elaborations include as neat but not gaudy, said the devil when he painted his tail pea-green, or neat but not gaudy, said the devil when he tied up his tail with a red ribbon. Sometimes the artistic creature was a monkey.

Wood Penguin

 Twitter user @crookedroads770 observed that his two-year-old son referred to an owl as a wood penguin.

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

Photo by Kevin Dooley. Used under a Creative Commons license. Original wall artist unknown.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Peter Pan by JM Barrie
Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows
The Leveler by Julia Durango

Music Used in the Episode

Beat Me Till I’m BlueThe MohawksThe ChampPama Records
The ChampThe MohawksThe ChampPama Records
EsmaMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
LandscapeThe MohawksThe ChampPama Records
Going The DistanceMenahan Street BandMake The Road By WalkingDunham
Hip JiggerThe MohawksThe ChampPama Records
SlinkyThe AwakeningMirageBlack Jazz
CollageRamsey LewisUpendo Ni PamojaColumbia
PepsiThe MohawksPepsiThe Mohawks
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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