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Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels

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If you say to someone the Spanish equivalent of “you’re giving me green gray hairs” (me sacas canas verdes), it means that person is making you angry. In Japan, the phrase that literally translates as “one red dot” refers metaphorically to “the lone woman in a group of men.” Martha and Grant discuss colorful idioms around the world, plus: making money hand over fist, don’t take a wooden nickel, names for the end of a loaf of bread, and where a sneeze may evoke the response, “Scat, Tom! Get your tail out of the gravy!” This episode first aired Feb. 26, 2011.

Colorful Idioms

 If you say to someone the Spanish equivalent of “you’re giving me green gray hairs” (me sacas canas verdes), it means that person is making you angry. In Japan, the phrase that literally translates as “one red dot” refers metaphorically to “the lone woman in a group of men.” Martha and Grant discuss these and other idioms collected online in Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project.

Utilize vs. Use

 Is it proper to speak of servicing a customer, or does that sound too suggestive? Is it okay to use the word utilize instead of use? Is it pretentious to use the term formulate instead of simply form?

The End of a Loaf of Bread

 What do you call the end piece of a loaf of bread? Names for that last slice include heel, bread butt, kissing crust, bunce, skirk, krunka, truna, tumpee, canust, the nose, and in Spanish, codo, which means “elbow.”

White Night and White Week

 In Spanish and French, if you have the equivalent of “a white night,” it means you didn’t get much sleep. In Sweden, if you have a “white week,” it means you didn’t drink a drop of alcohol.

Say Can You See Puzzle

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a word puzzle about portmanteau words called “Say Can You See.”

Hand Over Fist

 Why do we say someone is making money hand over fist? Does it have to do with two competitors putting one hand over the other on a baseball bat to determine who’s up first? Or does it have to do with pulling a rope?

Can’t See a White Cat

 More great color idioms, this time from Serbo-Croatian: In that language, a phrase that translates as “I can’t see a white cat” means “I’m very tired,” and to “stare like a calf at a colorful door” means to “look upon something with surprise and wonder.”

Don’t Get Swindled

 A Dallas man says his father, who served in Vietnam, signed letters back home to the family with the phrase “don’t take any wooden nickels.” The hosts explain that this expression means “don’t let anyone swindle you.”

Big Red and Big Purple

 In Mandarin Chinese, if you’re “big red and big purple,” it means you’re “famous and popular.”

Scat, Tom!

 “Scat, Tom! Get your tail out of the gravy!” In some parts of the country, especially the South, people say this after someone sneezes. But what does a cat warming its tail in the gravy boat have to do with sneezing?

Black Beast Idiom

 Some foreign idioms involving color have been adopted whole into English. A case in point: French bête noire. Literally, it means “black beast,” and it’s used figuratively now in English to mean anything particularly disliked or avoided.

Blogs on Writing Well

 Grant recommends two blogs about writing well and copyediting: Merrill Perlman writes The Language Corner blog for the Columbia Journalism Review, and Philip B. Corbett of the New York Times reports on actual grammatical and usage mistakes in that newspaper in his blog, After Deadline.

Thrice Happy Pair

 An Indianapolis listener has a copy of a wedding poem that refers to the thrice-happy pair. Is a thrice-happy pair three times as happy as anyone else? Martha explains that the idea goes all the way back to Roman poetry. Here’s an example from a translation of Horace’s Ode 1.13.

Petered Out

 Does the expression petered out have to do with the Apostle Peter denying he knew Jesus? No, “petered out” may derive from the French peter, meaning to “pass gas.” Another theory is that the expression originated in mining and the use of saltpeter in explosives.


 A fan of the TV series West Wing was puzzled by a character’s use of the term pulchritude. It’s a pretty ugly term for a word that means “beauty.” Check out what some other commenters are saying about the word.

The Vanguards

 Is it grammatically correct for a high school football team to call itself the Vanguards? A Wisconsin listener argues that Vanguard is already a plural noun.

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

Photo by Ole Houen. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Episode

Joyful NoiseBreakestraDusk Till DawnStrut
Back At The BoathouseBreakestraDusk Till DawnStrut
The Rat CageBeastie BoysThe Mix-UpCapitol Records
Set The SunBreakestraDusk Till DawnStrut
Me And MichelleBreakestraDusk Till DawnStrut
Need A Little LoveBreakestraDusk Till DawnStrut
North-East To NipponBreakestraDusk Till DawnStrut
Dramastically DifferentBeastie BoysThe Mix-UpCapitol Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing OffHarry Connick Jr.When Harry Met Sally: Music From The Motion PictureSony

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