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Word Hoard

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Ever wonder what medieval England looked and sounded like? In Old English, the word hord meant “treasure” and your wordhord was the treasure of words locked up inside you. A delightful new book uses the language of that period to create a vivid look at everyday life. Plus, a shotgun house is long and narrow with no hallway — just one room leading into the next. It’s an architectural style with a long history stretching from Africa to Haiti and into the American South. And: say you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, and you know it’s your fault. What’s a quick, clear way to communicate that you’re sorry? NO texting allowed! All that, and feaking, feather merchant, gradoo, spondulicks, echar un zorrito, tocayo and cuate, a take-off quiz, and an onomatopoeic Old English word for “sneeze.”

This episode first aired May 28, 2022.

A Gesture for Apologizing to Other Drivers?

 Following up on our conversation about what to say when coming up behind a stranger so as not to startle them, a Sacramento, California, listener raises another question about communicating quickly with someone in your vicinity: Is there a gesture drivers can use to acknowledge and apologize for an error, such as accidentally cutting someone off in traffic? Perhaps the American Sign Language sign for “Sorry”?

Do You Call In Sick or Call Out Sick?

 A Vermont listener says that if she has to be absent from work due to illness, she would call in sick. Her twenty-something daughters, however, use the phrase call out sick. Is this a generational difference, or a regional one, and is one more prevalent or correct than the other? Both are grammatically correct, but most Americans say call in sick. The call out version is largely associated with the New York metropolitan area, but spreading to adjacent states.

Tocayo/a, Cuate, and Cuatito/a

 David from Black Mountain, North Carolina, is fond of the Spanish term that originally meant “someone who shares the same name as another person” (which is one of the meanings of “namesake” in English) and has expanded to mean “someone with whom you have an emotional kinship or fellow-feeling”: tocayo or tocaya. A word with a similar meaning in parts of Latin America is cuate, which originally meant “a fraternal twin.” Along with its more familiar forms cuatito and cuatita, cuate has expanded to connote a kind of “spiritual twin.”


 Need an Old English word for “sneeze”? How about fnēosung?

Take off a Jot or Iota Quiz

 ​​Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s puzzle is a take-off — literally. The challenge is to take off the letter I or J from the beginning of one word, leaving another word entirely. For example, find the two words clued by this sentence: My factory makes statues of the saints, and we employ men only recently out of prison.

Shotgun House — A Name That May Reflect African Origins

 Connie in Santee, California, is curious about a term she read in Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed history of the Great Migration out of the Jim Crow South, The Warmth of Other Suns (Bookshop|Amazon). A shotgun house is a narrow house, the width of one room, with no hallway, just one room leading into the next. The old saw that the name comes from the idea that you could fire a gun in the front door and its blast would go through the back door without hitting anything in between may just be a funny story. Researcher John Vlach has done extensive work connecting this type of structure with architectural traditions in Haiti, and suggests that the term “shotgun” in the name of the building derives from togu-nan, which in a Dogon language of Mali means “large shelter” or “house of talk,” where men gather to discuss local affairs. Another helpful resource: A Creole Lexicon: Architecture, Landscape, People Jay Edwards and Nicolas Kariouk Pecquet du Bellay de Verton (Amazon).

Echar un Coyotito

 In Mexico, echar un coyotito — literally, “throw a little coyote” — means “to take a short nap.” In Venezuela, it’s more common to talk about a quick snooze using echar un zorrito, the word zorrito being a diminutive for zorro, or “fox.”

Mulligrubs and Mulligrubbing

 Betsy in Murray, Kentucky, reports that a friend was baffled when Betsy told her Quit your mulligrubbing. She was advising her friend to stop complaining. Since the 16th century, mulligrub meant “a state of depression,” or “a bad mood,” and to have the mulligrubs meant “to suffer a stomach ache” or “have an intestinal upset.” These words may be etymologically related to megrim, an old word for “migraine.” The Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English (Bookshop|Amazon) notes that mulligrub is used as a verb as well, meaning “to complain for no good reason” or “to be slightly unwell.”

Spondulix, Simoleons, and Other Words for Money

 Sean from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, is an editor who reads lots of fiction from the 1930s, in which he often runs into the words spondulixand simoleons, meaning “a large amount of money.” They’re both Americanisms. Spondulix, also spelled spondulicks or spondulux, may derive from the Greek word spondylos, meaning “vertebra” or “spine,” suggesting the similarity between a column of those bones and coined stacked for counting. Simoleon is more of a mystery, although some have suggested a link with semolina flour, given that there’s a long list of food names that are used as slang for “money,” including cabbage, cheddar, chicken feed, peanuts, and coliander, a variant of coriander.

Kenning the Life in Medieval England Through Its Wordhord

 A delightful new book offers a taste of life in early medieval England through everyday vocabulary of that time and place. It’s called The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, by Hana Videen (Bookshop|Amazon). The book includes helpful vocabulary lists and pronunciations, as well as information about Old English kennings, or poetic compounds of words, such as the ones that translate as “sky-candle” to indicate the sun, “whale-road” indicating the sea, and “sea-guest” to mean “sailor.” For an Old English word of the day, follow Old English Wordhord on Twitter. Incidentally, even if you don’t understand Old English, it can be mesmerizing to listen to. Check out this reading of “Widsith,” and this one of “The Wanderer,” and this one the opening lines of the epic poem Beowulf.

Gradu or Gradoo, an Unusual Word Meaning Gunk or Schmutz

 Kelly from Cincinnati, Ohio, says her father uses the word gradooto mean “clutter” or “a bit of litter.” Also spelled gradu or gradeau, our listeners report using this word in a variety of ways, to mean “gunk,” “grime” and even “bits of meat left in a skillet used to make gravy.” It might be related to French gadoue, which once meant “manure.” It might also be somehow connected with the French Canadian expression gras dur literally means “really fatty,” or figuratively “happy” or “lucky” or “fulfilled,” as in Il est gras dur, “He is happy,” although how that sense might connect with gradoo’s negative sense is unclear. What is clear is that it’s not just Kelly’s family who uses the word.

Sure Fire Soul Ensemble

 Some of the music you hear on this show is the work of Sure Fire Soul Ensemble, a San Diego-based Afro-funk and soul-jazz band. Their keyboard player is Tim Felten, who, as it happens, is also the editor and engineer for A Way with Words. He selects the musical interludes on this program, and you can always find a list of all the songs played on each episode on our website.

Feather Merchant

 Janine in Charleston, South Carolina, is curious about the derogatory term feather merchant. In the mid-20th century feather merchant was used among members of the military to mean “a weakling,” or “a shirker.”


 During introductory class at Sky Falconry in the mountains outside San Diego, California,, Martha learned the term feaking, the action of a hawk wiping its bill on something to sharpen or clean it. Feak may derive from an old German word meaning “to clean.”

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

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (Bookshop|Amazon)
A Creole Lexicon: Architecture, Landscape, People Jay Edwards and Nicolas Kariouk Pecquet du Bellay de Verton (Amazon)
Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English (Bookshop|Amazon)
The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, by Hana Videen. (Bookshop|Amazon)

Music Used in the Episode

Give Everybody SomeMickey and The Soul GenerationGive Everybody Some 45Funk 45
The Old SpotClutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
Brown Baggin’24 Carat BlackGhetto: Misfortune’s WealthEnterprise
Foodstamps24 Carat BlackGhetto: Misfortune’s WealthEnterprise
Riff Raff Rollin’Clutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
Time To RebuildSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records
OmnificentSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records
The Other SideSure Fire Soul EnsembleStep DownColemine Records

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