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When Pigs Fly

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Don’t move my cheese! It’s a phrase middle managers use to talk about adapting to change in the workplace. Plus, the origin story of the name William, and why it’s Guillermo in Spanish. And a five-year-old poses a question that puzzles a lot of people: Why is the letter Q so often followed by a U? All that, and adynaton, an assonant quiz, do it up brown, salt of the earth, haven’t grown gills yet, wooling, a silly joke about the number one, a poem about regret, and hide-and-seek calls, such as Ole Ole Olson all in free!

This episode first aired June 12, 2021. It was rebroadcast the weekend of May 21, 2022.

When Pigs Fly and Las Vacas Vuelen

  In English, if we want to say that something will never occur, we say it’ll happen when pigs fly or when hell freezes over. In Spanish, you can express this idea by saying it will happen “when cows fly,” or el día que las vacas vuelen. In Italian, the same idea is reflected in a phrase that translates as “when donkeys fly.” In Malay, that event will occur “when cats grow horns,” in French “when chickens have teeth,” and in Bulgarian “when the pig in yellow slippers climbs the pear tree.” This rhetorical device is called an adynaton, from a Greek word that means “impossible.”

Haven’t Grown Gills Yet

  Kamela works as a nurse in Anchorage, Alaska. When she asked a patient how how he was doing post-surgery, the man responded with Well, I haven’t grown gills yet. It’s a jocular way of acknowledging that although he hadn’t recovered completely, things could definitely be worse.

More Impossible Events

  Two examples of adynaton, the rhetorical term for playful exaggeration suggesting that something will never happen, involve animals’ tails. One German expression translates as “It’ll happen when the hounds start barking with their tail,” and a Latvian one translates as “It’ll happen when an owl’s tail blooms.”

The Business Expression “Moving Someone’s Cheese”

  Alyssa from Dallas, Texas, is puzzled by some jargon she hears in her workplace. As a management consultant, she’s often warned by her bosses to make sure that employees don’t think that management is moving their cheese. The phrase references Spencer Johnson’s 1998 bestseller, Who Moved My Cheese? (Bookshop|Amazon) This motivational fable is the story of two mice and two tiny humans caught in a maze, and how they adapt — or don’t — when their usual food source is moved to another location.

Making One Disappear

  How do you make the number one disappear? Hint: add a letter.

Two-Word A Puzzle

  All the answers to this puzzle from Quiz Guy John Chaneski are two-word phrases, and the only vowel they contain is the letter A. For example, suppose John is lounging in a shaded spot where only one variety of fruit is allowed. Where is he?

How Are “William” and “Guillermo” Related?

  Justin in Dallas, Texas, is curious about the origin of the name William, and why the Spanish version is Guillermo. Its popularity goes back to the days of William the Conqueror. Modern languages have several versions of this name, such as German Wilhelm and Dutch Willem. For a good explanation of the phonetic changes that led to these different versions, check out Trask’s Historical Linguistics by R. L. Trask, revised and edited by Robert McColl Miller. (Bookshop|Amazon)

W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

  H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening” contains some lovely examples of the rhetorical device called adynaton, which are impossible things, including: I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet, / And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street.

Do It Up Brown

  The phrase do it up brown can have two very different meanings: to “do something to perfection,” as in something that is perfectly cooked, and “to swindle” someone or beat them at their own game — metaphorically leaving them “cooked.”

Salting the Earth vs. Salt of the Earth

  The phrase salt of the earth describes someone who is essential and pure of heart, a reference to the biblical Sermon on the Mount. To salt the earth usually means to render the ground useless, whether metaphorically or literally.

David Ray’s Poem, “Thanks, Robert Frost”

  Following up on our discussion about the many meanings of the word regret, we share David Ray’s poem “Thanks, Robert Frost,” which addresses hope for the past as well as hope for the future. This poem was read with permission of the author.

All Out Are in Free Hide-and-Seek Call

  Kit from Pulaski, Tennessee, recalls that when he played hide-and-seek as a youngster in Miami, Florida, the call he and his friends used at the end of the game to draw everyone out of hiding was All y’all come in free!. However, he’s aware of other versions and wonders if they’re all variations of one original phrase. There’s no written record of an original version, and since this phrase tends to get passed along more often by word of mouth more than in written form, it can be highly variable. The Dictionary of American Regional English lists dozens of versions, including Ole Ole Olson all in free and all-ee all-ee ump free and all home free.

Adynaton Origin and Meaning

  The word adynaton, which refers to a jocular phrase that emphasizes the idea of impossibility, was adopted into English from Greek, where adynaton means “impossible,” a combination of a- meaning “not” and dynatos, which means “possible.” This Greek word derives from a root that means “to have power,” the source also of the English word dynamic. One Hungarian adynaton translates as “when it’s snowing red.” A Russian version translates as “when a crayfish whistles on top of a mountain.” In Serbian and Croatian, the same idea is expressed by a phrase rendered in English as “when grapes grow on willow.” The Roman poet Virgil expressed the idea of something doubly improbable with the idea of “when golden apples grow on oak trees.”

Stop Wooling Me!

  Tabitha from Palmer, Alaska, remembers her mother used to exclaim Stop wooling me!, a phrase used in parts of Appalachia, the Southeast US, and the Ozarks to mean “stop bothering me,” “stop roughhousing,” or “stop tussling.”

Why is Q Followed by U?

  Quinn from Excelsior, Minnesota, is five years old — well, five and three-quarters, as she points out. She wonders why the letter Q is so often followed by U. In Old English, the alphabet didn’t include the letter Q. The word quick, for example, was spelled cwic. The QU combination was introduced as a result of the Norman invasion, when many French words and language custom reflected the influence of Latin and helped create modern English. Latin, in turn, had been influenced by the Etruscans, whose alphabet included the letter qoppa. Two wonderful books about the evolution of the letters we use today are Letter Perfect by David Sacks (Bookshop|Amazon) and Michael Rosen’s Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story (Bookshop|Amazon).

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

Photo credit: Ruth Ziegler, “Iowa Farm,” n.d., watercolor on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson (Bookshop|Amazon)
Trask’s Historical Linguistics by R. L. Trask, revised and edited by Robert McColl Miller (Bookshop|Amazon)
Letter Perfect by David Sacks (Bookshop|Amazon)
Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story by Michael Rosen (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

TitleArtistAlbumLabel
Funky LadyTeddy ChisiFunky LadyMotaxis Muisc & Arts Promotions
Love and DeathEbo TaylorLove and DeathStrut
TropicosoJungle FireTropicosoNacional
Theme From The Anderson TapesQuincy JonesSmackwater JackA&M Records
CulebroJungle FireTropicosoNacional
The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedGil Scott HeronPieces of A ManFlying Dutchman
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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