There’s a frisson you get when you meet a word for the first time—feeling pleasantly stumped in between wondering, “What the heck does that mean?” and hurrying off to find out. Martha and Grant talk about some terms that had just that effect on them: ucalegon and cacoethes scribendi.

This episode first aired April 12, 2008.

Download the MP3.

A recent college graduate from Portland, Oregon, calls to ask about a term popular on her campus. She and her classmates use sketchy to mean “creepy, shady, possibly dangerous,” as in “a sketchy part of town” or “that sketchy guy over there.” Grant and Martha discuss this term and how it lends itself to such variations as Sketchyville and Sketchy McSketcherson.

In San Diego, a man says increasingly he hears the phrase down the pike at work but suspects it was originally down the pipe.

Martha discusses another word she happily tripped over in the dictionary: spanghew.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski tries to stump the hosts with a puzzle called Cryptic Crosswords. How about this one: “Do-re-mi-fa follower + sneaker feature = comfort.”

Why are cave explorers called spelunkers? How do you pronounce the word? A naturalist at Mystery Cave in Minnesota wants to know and in return she tells us how to tell a stalactite from a stalagmite.

A listener from Texas heard an NPR report from Asia in which an interpreter translated a speaker’s words into English as a whole new ball game. He wants to know if that’s a literal translation from an Asian language, and if so, is it a reference to baseball or some other sport?

Grant shares a strange word from the fringes of English: mofussil.

This week’s “Slang This!” contestant is asked to guess the meanings of the slang terms gauge and head-up.

A California caller is curious about the words Shia and Shiite. Is there difference between them or are they interchangeable?

A Michigan woman working a study-abroad program at a large university is bemused by the many applicants who write that they want to study overseas so they can be “submerged in the culture.” She thinks there’s a difference between “immersed” and “submerged” but wants to be sure.

Are more and more people talking about standing behind a podium? A San Diegan says the traditional rule has been that one stands behind a lectern and stands on a podium. Has this traditional rule changed?

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29 Responses

  1. felixblackcat says:

    A listener from Texas heard an NPR report from Asia in which an interpreter translated a speaker’s words into English as a whole new ball game. He wants to know if that’s a literal translation from an Asian language, and if so, is it a reference to baseball or some other sport?

    Well, they do have baseball in Asia. Japan, of course, has had professional baseball for a long time, and they competed in (and won) the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, along with Korea, Taiwan and China. (I was glad to see that, since Japan hasn’t forgotten how to play “small ball” and doesn’t rely on the home run so much — I wish American baseball would return to that.) The current major league baseball season even started with the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics playing a couple regular season games in the Tokyo Dome, playing a couple exhibition games against Japanese teams beforehand. The Dodgers and the Padres also played a couple exhibition games in China during spring training.

    So, with baseball in Asia, I’m wondering if it might have been more than the interpreter substituting one idiom for another? Could the saying have been imported along with the game of baseball?

    On a similar note, being from Minnesota originally, I’m a Twins fan, but, living in Wisconsin now, I have to listen to the radio broadcasts of the games online. This year, the Twins Radio Network has been airing commercials that provide the origin & meaning of some of the many idioms, sayings, jargon words, etc., associated with baseball. (They’re some of those commercials that present themselves as “mini-programs” of a sort. They start with an introduction of the phrase, providing a “cliffhanger” while they give their commercial blurb, and then they proceed to explain the jargon’s origin & meaning. Is there a term for this type of “mini-program” commercial? I think they’re mainly heard on radio.) A couple phrases they’ve featured: getting “caught in the cooking jar” means that a batter checked his swing, but not soon enough to avoid being called for a strike, and “around the horn,” i.e., throwing the ball around the bases (such as during a double play) comes from going around Cape Horn, i.e., “the long way.” At least, that’s what they said in the commercials. If you have better information, chime in!

  2. felixblackcat says:

    Oops! of course, that should be “caught in the cookie jar” — I’ve been “caught in the cookie jar” when it comes to spelling — my browser’s spell checker wouldn’t have caught that one!

  3. Wordsmith says:

    I don’t want to toot my own horn BUT… it was my birthday on the 11th, which day I turned 31! Wow! I was surprised to hear someone else turning 31 around the same time as I did and call in to the world’s greatest word show! What a coincidence!

    As for me, I feel no odium for “podium”. I know about the foot root in the word but think of all the misnomers already in English. “Grape-Nuts” consist of neither grapes nor nuts. A “Guinea pig” is neither a pig nor is it from Guinea. A “hedgehog” is not a hog. A “jackrabbit” is not a rabbit. “Scotland Yard” is not in Scotland. Feline innards do not constitute “catgut”. A “blackboard” is not black. “Rush hour” often moves at a snail’s pace. And this one from Wikipedia:

    The band Barenaked Ladies consists entirely of clothed men.

    (Kind of sounds like something from Ripley’s Believe it or Not!) Oh, and the “Jerusalem artichoke” is neither an artichoke nor is it from Jerusalem. Etc., etc., etc.

    And speaking of Believe it or Not!, believe it or not, “spelunker” is now usu. considered derogatory among “cavers”. Who’d-a thunk?!

  4. dilettante says:

    This mnemonic for the difference between stalactite and stalagmite has always worked for me:

    Think of “c” for “ceiling” in stalactite, and “g” for “ground” in “stalagmite.”

  5. Wordsmith says:

    Also, stalactites are on the top.

  6. Glenn Peters says:

    I’m very glad you included the spelling of “cacoethes scribendi” above. I need to use that somewhere.

    Cave explorers? Is there some reason to beware spelunkers?

    OK, off to a meeting on campus — I’ll try not to look sketchy, even though I’m going underground.

  7. Wordsmith says:

    I’m not making that up about the term “spelunkers”!

    BTW, some people spell the Latin for writer’s itch thus: cacoëthes scribendi, but it might not be required in most usages.

  8. Glenn Peters says:

    Caveat spelunkers, then.

  9. Tom Kennedy says:


    I heard your show the other day about the practice of expanding one’s earlobe in successively larger holes in a practice known as “gauging”. While I am not in that demographic, I did have some acquaintances who were, especially a friend of my brother’s that we referred to as “Shotgun Ear Man” because he had shotgun shells in his earlobes. He was happy to state that he had made it up to 12 gauge, the largest shell diameter through hard work expanding his earlobes. Apparently, the term Gauge in this context refers to the use of successively larger ammunition shells as you expand your earlobe.

    Just thought I would pass that along.

    Tom Kennedy
    Escondido, CA

  10. Wordsmith says:

    Caveat spelunkers, then.

    Or: Cave at spelunkers.

    (Sorry, that one didn’t quite make sense…)

  11. Tom, thanks for the tidbit about shotgun shells. The term “gauge,” however, can apply to the circumference of anything that comes in graduated sizes. Plus, I’ve seen many people with gauged ears but nobody with ammunition stuck in their lobes.

  12. Huh. The stalactite/stalagmite mnemonic I learned was from a combination of drawings and letters that looked like:


  13. Wordsmith says:

    Wow, that’s interesting, Martha! Seriously, I never thought about it that way. That is, with the use of a visual mnemonic. Hm. Neat.

  14. Wordsmith, I think this might have been in the same book that noted that “onion” is ZO-ZO spelled sideways. Don’t recall the name of the book, but funny the things we remember from grade school, eh?

  15. Joe says:

    Baptism in the New Testament is always portrayed as an act which involves immersion of a person into a body of water. (Also, it is always described as the act of a believer, never a child). The original Greek word is (transliterated) BAUTIDZO, which always means to dip, plunge, immerse or submerge. This explains why some Christian believers insist that this is the only way to correctly obey the command to be baptized (Acts 2:38). One comparison often given for this act is the making of pickles, which involves submerging the vegetable in a bath with certain ingredients, changing it from one thing into another.

  16. Joie de Vivienne says:

    That makes me think of a spelling bee trick from the fifth grade that was my saving grace when learning how to spell in French… DeSSert is full of strawberry shortcake, while a deSert has only sand. (Because a single “s” makes a “zzz” sound–it takes two to make an “ess”).

  17. MikeTheBee, England says:

    I’m am no wordsmith, but enjoy the programme very much. I listen to the podcast version so am a little behind, although words don’t age that quickly.

    Regarding cave features, we were taught that Tights come down and Mites crawl up. A bit risqué but it worked for me.

    On Gauge I will contribute ‘Narrow Gauge Railway’ from the gauge of the railway line or track.

    On Fess-up/Own-up, these are phrases I have always known here in Southern England, the usage being as Martha described.

  18. MiketheBee, I’d not heard that one about the tights. But you’re right — it’s most memorable! And thanks so much for the kind words about the show. Much appreciated!

  19. Debby with a why says:

    I’m just sure there was a lot more to say about ‘sketchy,’especially about all the related words beginning with sk — or perhaps sch, like ‘schizzy’ or ‘schizo.’ I first heard ‘skeevy’ when I moved to New Jersey in 1977, and perhaps that’s because I had never lived anywhere with such a rich Italian heritage: Is it true that ‘skeevy’ comes from ‘schifo’ or ‘schifoso,’ Italian words meaning ‘disgust’ or ‘disgusting?’

    My favorite usage of the word ‘sketch,’ I think, is as a way to say that somebody is especially amusing: “She’s such a sketch!” Perhaps this has fallen out of use now, because it is so different from the usage described by the caller.

  20. ArteNow says:

    StalacTites are stuck ‘Tight’ to the ceiling. StalagMites are Mounds on the floor.

  21. ArteNow says:

    Debby with a why – I’ve never heard “She’s such a sketch!”, but I have heard “She’s such a stitch.”

    Where did you hear “sketch” used to mean amusing?

  22. Orange says:

    It’s so great to see all the mnemonics that deal with stalactites and stalagmites!

    For me, I took geography in French in grade 7, so I learned that les stalactites tombent et les stalagmites montent.

    What were the origins of the two terms? I would imagine that they were probably created and defined as a pair, so what do the -ctite and -gmite part of the word mean?

  23. Debby with a why says:

    I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that — I’ve known that expression for a long time, and when I brought up the topic with a group of colleagues yesterday, a few people nodded when I mentioned it. I am currently in New Jersey, but I don’t think this is a New Jerseyism. It’s possible that I heard it the most when I lived in Wisconsin, but the people I remember nodding were from Los Angeles and Toronto. They were over 45 years old, as am I, and maybe that’s the key point.

    This newer meaning of ‘sketch’ is news to me; it completely passed me by. What a geezer.

    ArteNow said:

    Debby with a why – I’ve never heard “She’s such a sketch!”, but I have heard “She’s such a stitch.”

    Where did you hear “sketch” used to mean amusing?

  24. ArteNow says:

    Debby with a why – Interesting…I’m in that same mid-40 age range and have spent my entire life in the Midwest, although a little further south and west than Wisconsin…Iowa, to be precise. I think ‘sketch’ actually makes more sense than ‘stitch’ in this case…cartoons sketches are usually funny/entertaining but I can’t think of a case where a stitch is funny. There’s also ‘leaving them in stitches’ for when a performer makes an audience really laugh. But that always reminds me of a post-surgical ward where everyone has stitches. Definitely not funny and a situation where if you’re the one in stitches, you DON’T want to laugh. Maybe it comes from laughing so hard you get a stitch in your side.

  25. Debby with a why says:

    ArteNow: I just wrote to a friend that comes to mind when I think of using sketch that way, and I’ll keep you posted. (I’ve been hoping that Grant or Martha could help, but alas, they aren’t showing up. :^)

    I have also used stitch just as you describe, and I agree with you that sketch is more colorful or evocative — just more fun, somehow.

  26. Glenn says:

    My parents used Sketch in that same context: What a sketch; he’s such a sketch.. As a child I always associated it with their use of Sketch in the phrase Comedy sketch, synonymous with a Skit / comedy skit. Think Jackie Gleason or Red Skelton.

  27. Debby with a why says:

    Thank you! I was beginning to think I was dreaming. Where did your parents live?

    I’m just now watching a CSI rerun (home with a cold). One of the CSI’s describes a disoriented, apparently inebriated guy he saw on a surveillance tape: “You should have seen that guy. He was really sketched out.”

  28. Glenn says:

    My parents and I are pretty much products of the Philadelphia, PA language stock.

  29. Debby with a why says:

    Well, my friend agreed, and so did her mother in Minneapolis. And my friend’s mother, a retired reference librarian, took a bold step:

    Then she decided to look it up in the American Heritage Dictionary (College
    Edition) and there it was as the last of 4 definitions of “sketch”:
    4. noun informal “an amusing person.”