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What in Tarnation

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Language is always evolving, and that’s also true for American Sign Language. A century ago, the sign for “telephone” was one fist below your mouth and the other at your ear, as if you’re holding an old-fashioned candlestick phone. Now you can sign “phone” with a one-handed gesture. Plus, colorful restaurant slang from the hit TV show The Bear inspires a quiz about the language of the kitchen. And looking for a new way to say “It’s hot outside”? How about “It’s glorgy [GLOR-ghee] out there!” Plus, pothery, laugh to see a pudding crawl, capitalizing the first-person pronoun, silver thaw, the devil’s beating his wife, diaeresis, trema, brogans, barge it, Las conejas están pariendo, claggy, janky, mafting, a brain teaser about restaurant slang, and more.

This episode first aired August 27, 2022.

Well, Glorgy Be!

 If you’re tired of saying It’s hot outside, you always say It’s glorgy, pronounced with hard g sounds. This Scottish word may derive from an old word meaning “soft mud.” You could also say the weather is pothery, an English dialectal term that means “humid,” “close,” “sweltering,” or “sultry.” The 18-century poet Richard Sheridan summed up the typical weather he observed each month with some cleverly succinct verses:

January snowy,
February flowy,
March blowy,
April show’ry,
May flow’ry,
June bow’ry,
July moppy,
August croppy,
September poppy,
October breezy,
November wheezy,
December freezy.

A Vowel Perforation Called the Diaeresis

 Sidney in Boston, Massachusetts, is curious about the diaeresis, that pair of dots that occasionally appear over a vowel in words such as naïve and coöperate. In ancient Greek diairesis, meaning “division,” applied to those dots in ancient Greek manuscripts, which helped separate syllables in writing that originally didn’t include spaces between words. This mark is also called a trema, from the Greek word for “perforation.” Early in the 20th century, editors at The New Yorker, decided this bit of punctuation would be helpful in words such as reëlect, where two vowels next to each other might suggest a confusing mispronunciation. However, the diaeresis is largely regarded as superfluous by the style guides used by other publications. In her delightful memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Bookshop|Amazon) a former copy editor at The New Yorker, notes that for many years an editor there stubbornly maintained the need for diaereses, but ultimately told a colleague he planned to discontinue their use. However, he died before sending out that memo, and The New Yorker still uses them today — despite the many complaints from its readers. A diaeresis differs from an umlaut, a diacritical mark that looks exactly the same, that in German indicates a vowel’s pronunciation to differentiate two words from each other.

Barge, a Bit of Older Santa Cruz Slang

 When Sarah, of Yorktown, Virginia, moved to Santa Cruz, California, in her teens, she was intrigued by skateboard slang, particularly the use of the word barge to indicate “a challenging feat” or “a long distance.”

Restaurant Slang Word Game

 Inspired by the popular TV series The Bear, Quiz Guy John Chaneski serves up a puzzle about restaurant slang. For example, what one-word bit of kitchen lingo is suggested by the clue: I have two people coming in. Better clean up that ‘low card.’

The Devil’s Daughter is Getting Married

 Carlos in Augusta, Kentucky, says that in Cuba, when it was raining while the sun was still shining, he used to hear people say la hija del diablo se está casando, or literally, “the devil’s daughter is getting married.” A friend from Alabama told him that the expression she always heard was The devil’s daughter is getting beaten. These and many other sayings around the world denoting sunshowers all refer to some kind of supernatural activity, whether it’s The devil is beating his wife, heard primarily in the Southern United States, or in parts of Mexico, Las conejas están pariendo or “The rabbits are giving birth.” In Puerto Rico, it’s Están casando una bruja, literally “They are marrying a witch.” In Korea, it’s tigers getting married; in Bulgaria, it’s the nuptials of bears; and in some Arabic-speaking countries, the animals getting hitched are rats. In South Africa, a sunshower is referred to as a monkey’s wedding.

Claggy Weather

 In the UK, sticky, muggy, humid weather is sometimes referred to as claggy.

Janky, a Fifty-Year Slang Summary

 Melanie from San Antonio, Texas, uses the term janky to mean “not good ” or “not working well,” and in her family, they’ll jokingly use the term dejankify and dejankification to refer to washing their dog. The slang term janky in one spelling or another has been around since the late 1960s (although we didn’t take it that far back during this segment). Also spelled jinky, jinkie, and jankey, it’s probably based on the word junky and influenced by skanky and stanky, a jocular way of saying stinky.

Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt

 Nick in Palm Springs, California, wonders about the phrase Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. Springing up the 1970s, the saying been there, done that is sometimes followed by any of several variants, including got the T-shirt; worn the T-shirt; got the T-shirt, going home; and have the T-shirt, won the trophy. These phrases are associated with getting a T-shirt to memorialize an event, such as an athletic competition or rock concert. Also, going back to the 1970s, tourist attractions sold T-shirts emblazoned with such sayings as My parents went to New York City and all I got was this stupid T-shirt.

Silver Thaw

 In the Eastern and Southern United States, freezing rain that leaves everything covered with ice is simply known as an ice storm. In the Pacific Northwest, this sort of rain followed by a hard freeze goes by a more poetic name: silver thaw.

Variations in American Sign Language

 If you need further proof that language is always changing, look no further than American Sign Language or ASL. A hundred years ago, the sign for telephone reflected the shape of an old-fashioned candlestick phone — one fist below your mouth and the other at your ear. Now all it takes is curving the fingers of one hand next to your ear, as if holding a mobile. The signing space of individuals also varies in different dialects of sign language. In Black American Sign Language, for example, used primarily by African-Americans, one’s signing space is bigger than in ASL. For more on this topic, look for the work of American linguist Ceil Lucas, who has lectured extensively on sign language.

Why is the Pronoun “I” Capitalized in English?

 Why do we write the word I as a capital letter when using it to refer to ourselves? Is English the only language that capitalizes the first person singular pronoun?


 In northern England, mafting, a word of uncertain origin, means “oppressively hot” or “sweltering.”

Tarnation, Gumption, and Brogans

 Lanessa in San Antonio, Texas, remembers once when her Tennessee-born grandmother saw her grandfather coming home from work and tromping into her pristine kitchen: “What in the tarnation? You don’t have any gumption! Don’t come walking into my kitchen like that. Leave your brogans at the door!” Back in the day, the word brogan meant “a sturdy work shoe,” and may be a linguistic relative of the word brogue, referring to a “Scottish or Irish accent.” Gumption is likely related to the Scots word goam or gome, which has to do with “paying heed” or “understanding,” also the source of gormless, meaning “stupid.” Tarnation is a minced oath, form as an alteration of damnation, combined with tarnal, which is in turn adapted from eternal, with less of a connotation “everlasting” and more in the sense of “infiniteness.”

Laugh to See Pudding Crawl

 When Julie and her sister were growing up in England and their grandmother saw them giggling over something, her grandmother would say You girls would laugh to see a pudding crawl! The phrase suggested that they’d laugh at anything. It evolved from an earlier expression It would vex a dog to see a pudding creep, suggesting the frustration of a hungry dog that has to stay back and watch a sausage while it cooks.

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

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Higher GroundJohnny “Hammond” SmithHigher GroundKUDU
BambuChris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7The Basement BeatSunflower Soul
Catch My SoulJohnny “Hammond” SmithHigher GroundKUDU
Big Sur SuiteJohnny “Hammond” SmithHigher GroundKUDU
116th StLettuceMt CrushmoreLettuce Records
Big ChiefDr JohnDr John’s GumboATCO
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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