Sure, it’s scary to send your writing to a literary agent. But pity the poor agent who must wade through hundreds of terrible query letters a week! One of them shares excerpts from those hilariously bad query letters on a blog called SlushPile Hell. And get ready for some colorful conversation: Purple cows do exist–only they’re made with grape soda and ice cream. And yes, Virginia, there IS an English word that rhymes with “orange”!  Plus, catawampus, mesmerize, all’s I’m saying, plus messing and gauming.

This episode first aired October 18, 2013.

Download the MP3.

 Slushpile Hell Blog Letters
A query letter from SlushPile Hell, the blog of a curmudgeonly literary agent, reads, “Have you ever wished you had represented the author of the Holy Bible and placed it with a publisher?” Erm, sure.

The exclamation Fiddlesticks!, meaning “a trifle” or “something insignificant or absurd,” goes back to the time of Shakespeare. It endures in part because it’s fun to say.

 Stiletto Made of Sugar
Dorothy Parker, known for her acerbic wit, was once described as “a stiletto made of sugar.”

What do you say when you’re in a restroom and someone knocks on the door? Many people answer Ocupado!, which has made its way from bilingual signage–including old airline seat cards from the 1960’s–to common speech.

 Miss Word Pageant Quiz
Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski struts his stuff with a Miss Word beauty pageant for words beginning with “mis-.”

 All’s I’m Saying
All’s, as in the common clause all’s you have to do, isn’t grammatically incorrect.  It’s a valid contraction of the archaic construction all as.

 The Writing is Final
Another cocksure query letter received by the book agent at SlushPile Hell includes the line: “The writing is final, and I do not want it changed.” Okay, then.

 Dead On
The idiom dead on, meaning “precisely,” might sound morbid, but it makes sense. It’s a reference to the fact that death is certain and absolute.

 Better Door than a Window
When someone’s standing in front of the TV, do you shout, “Move over!” or something more creative? How about “Your daddy weren’t no glassmaker,” or “You make a better door than a window.”

 Messing and Gauming
Messing and gauming, meaning “dawdling and getting intro trouble,” comes from gaum, a term for something sticky and smeary like axle grease or mud. A baby with schmutz all over his face is all gaumed up.

 No Arguing with Samuel Johnson
Oliver Goldsmith observed that there was no use arguing with lexicographer Samuel Johnson, because “when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”

The term mesmerize, meaning to attract strongly or hold spellbound, comes from Franz Mesmer, the German doctor who purported to heal people by righting their internal magnetic forces.

 Insure vs. Ensure
Insure and ensure mean two different things now, but back when the U.S. Constitution was penned, they were interchangeable. Hence the line in the preamble to insure domestic tranquility.

 Dog Wrote a Book
Another overly optimistic query to the book agent at SlushPile Hell reads in part: “My dog has written a book on how to be a success.”

 Purple Cows
Gelett Burgess famously wrote I never saw a purple cow, but plenty of folks know a purple cow to be a grape soda float.

 Rhymes with Orange
There’s a proper noun out there that rhymes with orange, and it’s The Blorenge, a hill in Wales.

Catawampus, meaning “askew,” can be spelled at least 15 different ways. It likely derives from the English word cater, meaning “diagonal. ”

 Jealous of the Grand Canyon
J.B. Priestley once described George Bernard Shaw as being so peevish, he refused to admire the Grand Canyon because “he was jealous of it.”

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

Photo by Fredrik Rubensson. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
Cirrus Bonobo Cirrus Ninja Tune
Horny Tickle Clutchy Hopkins Walking Bachwards Ubiquity
Skull Session Oliver Nelson Skull Session Flying Dutchman
On The Hill Oliver Sain On The Hill Vanessa Records
Keep On Sockin’ It Children Phil Flowers and The Flower Shop Keep On Sockin’ It Children A&M Records
One Note Brown The New Mastersounds Keb Darge Presents: The New Mastersounds Cooker Records
Roctober Clutchy Hopkins Walking Bachwards Ubiquity
Rock Dirge Pt 1 Sly Stone Every Dog Has His Day Selected Sound Carrier AG
Josus The New Mastersounds Tallest Man Records Tallest Man Records
Freckles The New Mastersounds Breaks From The Border Tallest Man Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve

  1. pixelsound says:

    I’m curious about the origin of Martha’s use of “stop down” or “stopped down,” as she uses it in the Mesmerize section of the show: halting a conversation to discuss etymology. I assume it is a colloquial bundling of plain ol’ “stop” and “bringing down” or “slowing down” – pausing briefly, lowering the tone of a conversation for an aside, as a band leader may say to “bring it down” for a quieter interlude – but not a full blown “bringing down the house” or “burning (or tearing) [something] down.”

    I find it additionally interesting because I am a photographer, and to “stop down” or “stopping down” in photographic terms means to reduce the opening of the aperture of a lens (aperture sizes are measured in f/stops) – to let less light in – which results in a greater depth of field (a wider range of sharp focus.

    Either way – the temporary suspension of the stream of a conversation for an interlude, or for acquiring greater depth of etymological understanding – works for me! But I wonder where it is coming from for Martha…


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