Home » Episodes » XYZ PDQ (episode #1447)


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How often do you hear the words campaign and political in the same breath? Oddly enough, 19th-century grammarians railed against using campaign to mean “an electoral contest.” Martha and Grant discuss why. And, lost in translation: a daughter accidentally insults her Spanish-speaking mother with the English phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Finally, just how many are a couple? Does a couple always mean just two? Or does “Hand me a couple of napkins” ever really mean “Give me a few”? This episode first aired May 20, 2016.

Etymology of Campaign

  Today’s pet peeve is often tomorrow’s standard usage. Nineteenth-century grammarians railed against the use of the word campaign to denote an electoral contest, arguing it was an inappropriate use of a military term. C.W. Bardeen’s 1883 volume Verbal Pitfalls: A Manual of 1500 Words Commonly Misused is a trove of similarly silly and often unintentionally hilarious advice.

Examine Your Zipper

  The slang phrase XYZ, meaning “examine your zipper,” has been used since at least the 1960’s as a subtle tipoff to let someone know his zipper is down. A variant, XYZ PDQ, means “examine your zipper pretty darn quick.” Other surreptitious suggestions for someone with an open fly: “There’s a dime on the counter,” “Are you advertising?”, and “What do birds do?”


  A listener in Palmer, Massachusetts, wants a term for when something, such as a piece of art, evokes fondness by combining both old and new things, such as a Monet painting reimagined by a digital artist. How about a combination of the Italian words for “new” and “old,” nuovovecchio? Or newstalgia, perhaps? Retrostalgia?


  A bollard is a post that helps guide traffic. It probably derives from the Middle English word bole, meaning “tree trunk.”


  You’uns, a dialectal form of the second-person plural, generally means “you and your kin.” The term is heard in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and much of the South, reflecting migration patterns of immigrants from the British Isles. It’s also related to yinz, heard in western Pennsylvania to mean the same thing.

Sibilant Word Quiz

  Quiz Guy John Chaneski serves up a sibilant quiz about three-word phrases that have words beginning with S separated by the word and. For example, what 1970’s sitcom featured a theme song by Quincy Jones called “The Street Beater”?

Go Lemony At

  “Go lemony at” is slang for “get angry.”

How Many in a Couple?

  Does the term a couple mean “two and only two items”? Nope. Plenty of folks use couple to mean “a small but indefinite” quantity, and to insist otherwise is pure peevishness.

Around My Elbow to My Thumb

  A colloquial apology for telling an overly long story is “Sorry I had to go around my elbow to get to my thumb.” The phrase is also a handy way to indicate you took the opposite of a shortcut.

Alternatives to Old Dog

  A woman whose mother is a native Spanish speaker learning English was bothered when her daughter used the phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” taking offense at the idea that her daughter was calling her a dog. She might instead have used “A leopard can’t change its spots,” or “As the twig is bent, so inclines the tree,” and from Latin, “Senex psittacus negligit ferulam,” or “An old parrot doesn’t mind the stick.”

Greek Roots

  The words plethora and drastic both have roots in ancient Greek. Both were first used in English as medical terms, plethora indicating “an excess of bodily fluid” and drastic meaning “having an effect.”

Love or Like?

  In his 1869 volume Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech, self-appointed grammar maven Richard Meade Bache gave specious advice against using the word love when you merely mean like.

Brother and Sister-In-Laws

  A San Diego, California, listener bemoans the lack of a specific term for the person who is married to one’s brother or sister. The best we can do in English is brother-in-law or sister-in-law, but often that needs further clarification.

No Tea, No Shade

  The slang expression “No Tea, No Shade,” meaning “No disrespect, but …” is common in the drag community, where T means “truth.” The related phrase “All Tea, All Shade,” means “This statement is true, so I don’t care if it offends you or not.” At least as early as the 1920’s the slang verb to shade has meant “to defeat.”

Broken Back in Hell

  Martha’s fond of videos about Appalachian dialect, and in one she came across the expression, “I’d just as soon be in hell with my back broke,” meaning “I strongly prefer to be anywhere else.”


  English speakers borrowed the German term Witzelsucht (or “joke addiction”) to mean “excessive punning and a compulsion to tell bad jokes.” While it might sound amusing to have a word for such behavior, the word refers specifically to a brain malfunction that’s actually quite serious.

Graduating from a Startup

  In Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Dan Lyons writes about slang he heard during his time working at a hot new startup. If someone was fired, that person was described as having graduated, and the word delight and the neologism delightion were used as terms for what the company aimed to provide to customers.

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

Photo by heidi bakk-hansen. Used under a Creative Commons license.


Books Mentioned in the Episode

Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech by Richard Meade Bache
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons

Music Used in the Episode

Fugue State Pt2The Funk ArkMan Is A MonsterRopeadope
Fugue StateThe Funk ArkMan Is A MonsterRopeadope
Deep In A DreamMilt JacksonThe Ballad Artistry of Milt JacksonAtlantic
Doom BuggyThe Funk ArkMan Is A MonsterRopeadope
Mind MeldThe Funk ArkMan Is A MonsterRopeadope
Selassie StrutThe Funk ArkMan Is A MonsterRopeadope
Bouzouki SongThe Funk ArkMan Is A MonsterRopeadope
The Midnight Sun Will Never SetMilt JacksonThe Ballad Artistry of Milt JacksonAtlantic
HeadbandThe Funk ArkMan Is A MonsterRopeadope
ShakaraFela KutiShakaraEMI
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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