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Word Encounters of the First Kind

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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.

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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