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Whistle in the Dark

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The language and melodies of military marching songs connect grown children with their parents who served, as do parents’ love letters from World War II. Plus, “running a sandy” describes an awkward love triangle and Northern Spy is a kind of apple and a bit of abolitionist history. And, whitewater-rafting jargon, wooden spoon, Shakespearean knock-knock jokes, Sunday throat, celestial discharge, and mickey mousing, and more.

This episode first aired December 10, 2016. It was rebroadcast the weekends of August 14, 2017, and January 14, 2019.

Whitewater Rafting Words

 Whitewater rafting has a rich tradition of jargon and slang that includes such terms as boulder garden, strainer, and drop pool.

Whistling in the Dark

 An Indianapolis, Indiana, teacher and his class wonder about the origin of whistling in the dark, which means “to put on a brave face in a scary situation.” As it happens, the teacher’s band, The Knollwood Boys, recorded a song by the same name.

Novi, Michigan

 A listener reports that the pronunciation of Novi, Michigan, is counterintuitive. It’s pronounced noh-VYE.

Northern Spy

 The manager of a cider mill in Rochester, Minnesota, is curious about the name of the variety of apple known as Northern Spy. The origins of its name are murky, but it was likely popularized by the 1830 novel Northern Spy, about a wily abolitionist. Other names for this apple are Northern Pie and Northern Spice.


 An Omaha, Nebraska, listener has a word for using Google Earth to fly around the planet virtually and zoom in on far-flung locations: floogling, a combination of flying and Googling.

Four-Letter Anagrams

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about four-letter anagrams. For example, what letters can anagram into words meaning either “cruel” or “designation”?

Run a Sandy

 A historian in Indianapolis, Indiana, says a World War II-era letter from her father to her mother refers to running a sandy. It’s a phrase that derives from poker and the act of sandbagging, a kind of bluffing of an opponent.

Thoreau, New Mexico

 Locals pronounce the name of the town of Thoreau, New Mexico, as thuh-ROO.

Wooden Spoon

 In Cantabrigian tradition, a wooden spoon was jokingly awarded to low achievers in mathematics. That practice later extended to other types of competitions. It’s also key to a heartwarming story about a charitable organization that arose from a friendly spoon-swapping rivalry between English and Irish rugby teams.

Sunday Throat

 If you complain that something went down your Sunday throat you mean that it went into your windpipe. Saying that something goes down your Sunday throat may derive from the fact that just as Sunday is a special day of the week in some religions, where you may wear special clothes and go to special places, the bite you swallowed also went into an unaccustomed place.

Park and Play

 In kayakers’ slang, a park and play is a part of a river where you park your vehicle closer to a river and enter the water to paddle around a particular water feature, then paddle back to your launch spot rather than continue downstream. If you make a wet exit, you end up in the water.

Shakespearan Knock Knock Jokes

 As we mentioned earlier, knock-knock jokes were once a fad sweeping the nation. What we didn’t mention is that there are quite a few Shakespearean knock-knock jokes. Such as: Knock-Knock. Who’s there? Et. Et who? Et who, Brute? (Hey, don’t blame us! Blame some guy named Duane.)  

Cadence Calls

 A caller from San Antonio, Texas, remembers a song her father, a World War II vet, used to sing: “Around the corner and under a tree / A sergeant major proposed to me / Who would marry you? I would like to know / For every time I look at your face it makes me want to go —” at which point the verse repeats. These marching songs are known as cadence calls or Jody calls. They apparently arose among American troops during World War II, when a soldier named Willie Duckworth began chanting to boost his comrades’ spirits. Such songs echo the rhythmic work songs sung by enslaved Africans and prison chain gangs, which helped to make sure they moved in unison and to pass the time. You can learn more about the songs here.

Who Is She From Home?

 Who is she from home? meaning “What’s her maiden name?” is a construction common in communities with significant Polish heritage. It’s what linguists call a calque — a word or phrase from another language translated literally into another. From home is a literal translation of Polish z domu, just as English blueblood is a literal translation of the older Spanish term sangre azul.

Celestial Discharge

 Celestial discharge, in medical slang, refers to a patient’s death.

Mickey Mouse as a Pejorative

 The terms mickey mouse and to mickey mouse can be used as pejoratives.

River Right, River Left

 In whitewater rafting, river left and river right refer to the banks of the river on either side when looking downstream.

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

Photo by Craig McCaa for the Bureau of Land Management.

Book Mentioned in the Episode

Northern Spy

Music Used in the Episode

BoboPolyrhythmicsLibra StripesKEPT
40 DaysBilly BrooksWindows Of The MindCrossover Records
Fat MamaHerbie HancockFat Albert RotundaWarner Brothers
Libra StripesPolyrhythmicsLibra StripesKEPT
Pupusa StrutPolyrhythmicsLibra StripesKEPT
ChameleonHerbie HancockHeadhuntersColumbia
Boot-legBooker T and The MG’sThe Best of Booker T and The MG’sAtlantic
Moon CabbagePolyrhythmicsLibra StripesKEPT
I Don’t Want To Be RightAlton EllisStudio One SoulSoul Jazz Records
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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1 comment
  • I’m “the guy named Duane” – glad you liked the jokes! There’s actually many more scattered all over the site (which sadly looks like it was designed 10 years ago, because it was). But if you hunt you can find duck jokes, yo mama jokes, chicken crossing the road jokes .. whatever suits your fancy. A friend of mine (who runs the BardFilm website) and I decided that if people wanted to google for Shakespeare jokes, we’d have something for everybody 🙂

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