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Word Births and Bird Words

Hi, ho!

In this week’s episode, we discuss odd words, how children learn to talk, “in my wheelhouse,” “high as Cooter Brown,” and “good leather.” Greg Pliska metagrobolizes us with a quiz based on the 2011 Oscars. May we have the link, please?


Speaking of acquiring language, Wired magazine reports on an astonishing project by MIT cognitive scientist Deb Roy involving his newborn son:

“He and his wife wired their home with 11 cameras and 14 microphones to capture every word the infant and his caregivers spoke and record the environment and events around which these utterances occurred.”

We’re talking 90,000 hours of video and 140,000 hours of audio. By his second birthday, the child knew 530 words.

The data also revealed that closer the toddler got to pronouncing a word correctly, the more the parents slowed down and simplified their own sentences using that word until he mastered it:


More visuals and audio from the study in this article from Fast Company, including video of so-called “word birth”:


Love “Curious George”? Do you know the poignant story behind the story?

The book’s creators, Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein, were German Jews who escaped Paris by bicycle just ahead of the Nazis, carrying an early draft of the children’s classic.

More in “The Curious Story of Curious George,” a museum exhibit in San Francisco that runs through this weekend:


BEHIND THE SCENES: Martha had a blast as auctioneer for the Buena Vista Audubon Society’s birdhouse sale. Beforehand, she gave a talk on the ornithological roots of such words as words “geranium” and “pedigree.”

She would also like to apologize to the guy who asked about “titmouse.” She guessed that it’s from the sound of the bird’s call. She later discovered that it derives from a less familiar sense of “tit,” meaning “something small.”

More about “titmice” (yes) here:


We love learning from your questions, so keep ’em coming!

Oh, and the Audubon Society also surprised Martha with a lovely parting gift, which you can see over on our Facebook page:


Up, up, and away,

Martha and Grant

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Further reading

Funny Papers (episode #1601)

There are word nerds, and then there’s the woman who set up a folding chair on sidewalks throughout the country, cheerfully dispensing tips...

Go Bananas (episode #1600)

A caller wonders if she’s being hypersensitive about the way her boss addresses her in emails. Can the use of an employee’s first name...