We use the term Milky Way for that glowing arc across the sky. But how people picture it varies from culture to culture. In Sweden, that starry band goes by a name that means “Winter Street,” and in Hawaii, a term for the Milky Way translates as “fish jumping in shadows.” And: the history of naming rooms in a house. Some old houses have a room off the kitchen with only a sink and cabinets. It’s not a kitchen, exactly — but what’s it called? Plus, the colorful flag of one European town features a visual pun on its name. It’s a drawing of a hand holding a heart. All that, and head over teacups, humpty-twelve, lowdown, chockablock, overhaul, Desperate Ambrose, honyock, an imaginary boyfriend named Raoul, so mad I could spit nickels, and more.
This episode first aired November 6, 2021.
Following up on our conversation about indefinite hyperbolic numerals like forty-eleven and zillion, we discuss humpty-twelve. Another slang term used to denote a large quantity is telephone numbers, which can be applied to “an excessive amount of money” or “a long prison term.”
Bobbie in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, wonders about the expression What’s the lowdown?, meaning “What’s happening?” Lowdown, meaning “the skinny,” “the scoop,” or “the details” originated in the idea of something low-down being “dirty” or “naughty” or otherwise “close to the ground.” When it was first used to mean “information,” the implication was that the information itself was base, or that the act of sharing the information was naughty.
A listener shares a story about the time his young granddaughter proudly showed off having tied her shoes. He points out that her shoes are on the wrong feet, but the granddaughter takes it literally, with amusing results.
Jennifer, an elementary-school teacher in Tallahassee, Florida, loves saying the term chockablock, meaning “closely packed together,” and wonders about its etymology. Chock can refer to a kind of wedge used to hold something in place, and chockablock is the point in a block-and-tackle pulley system where the wooden blocks that contain pulleys on a rope are pulled in contact with each other, so that they can move no farther. Sailors also call this situation two-block or block-and-block, but by the 19th century, the term chockablock had come ashore and taken on the meaning of “very full.” For a good illustration of this condition, check out The Overlook Illustrated Dictionary of Nautical Terms by Graham Blackburn.
Fans of vexillology, the study of flags, know that the town of Manacor on the island of Mallorca has a municipal flag that features a visual pun on its name. It’s a drawing of a hand holding a heart, inspired by the Catalan words mà, meaning “hand,” and cor, meaning “heart,” linguistic relatives of the Spanish words for the same, mano and corazón.
Lola in Madison, Wisconsin, just bought a 1921 house that has a separate room beside the kitchen for a dishwashing sink and cupboards. She and her partner are unsure what to call it. The sink room, maybe? Yes! The name reflects the history of how houses were designed in that era. Or, as many listeners have suggested, the scullery.
In nautical parlance, if you slacken a rope by pulling in the opposite direction to separate the blocks in a block-and-tackle system, you’re said to overhaul it — the inspiration for the more general term that means to “change significantly,” “revise,” or “update.”
Nick in Cincinnati, Ohio, is fond of his Appalachian-born grandmother’s phrase colder than blitney, meaning “extremely cold” or “cold as the dickens.” It’s likely a version of cold as blixen, which has a number of other variants including blitzen, blixens, blixes, blixian, blixum, and blixies. Cold as blixen may derive from German Blitz, meaning “lightning.”
Martha in Portland, Oregon, has long joked about having an imaginary boyfriend named Raoul. Then she discovered that two friends of hers also joke about their own imaginary boyfriend named Raoul. Then a third friend told her about yet another woman whose imaginary boyfriend named Raoul. What’s going on? Was there some pop-culture ur-imaginary boyfriend named Raul or Raoul? It might be inspired by the short-lived 2005 TV sitcom Committed, in which Jennifer Finnegan has an imaginary boyfriend she calls Raoul. Do you know of any other imaginary boyfriends named Raoul?
Look up into the night sky, and imagine that you’ve never heard the term Milky Way. What would you call that glowing band of stars across the heavens? In Sweden, it’s called Vintergatan, or “Winter Street.” In Hawaii, the Milky Way is sometimes called Iʻa-lele-i-aka, a name that translates as “fish jumping in shadows.” And in the Cherokee language, this celestial arc goes by a name that translates as “where the dog ran” — an allusion to a folktale about a dog that snatched some cornmeal in its mouth and spilled some as humans gave chase.
Deborah in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, remembers a phrase from her grandfather: Desperate Ambrose. He’s so desperate he would steal a hot stove. The first part is a reference to Desperate Ambrose, a character in the comic strip “S’Matter Pop?,” by cartoonist Charles Payne, which ran from about 1910 to 1940. The Lambiek Comiclopedia is a good resource for information about comic strips. The description of someone who would steal a hot stove goes back to the 1860s, and emphasizes the idea of someone being a thieving rascal. Playwright Wilson Mizner is credited with elaborating on that phrase, describing someone so desperate that they would steal a hot stove and come back for the smoke.
The Spanish word candado, or “padlock,” comes from Latin catenatus, meaning “chained,” also the source of the English word concatenation, which means “a series of things,” or literally “links in a chain.” In parts of the Spanish-speaking world, candado is also slang for “goatee and mustache,” which resembles a padlock. It’s also sometimes called a circular or barba española, a “circular,” or “a beard in the Spanish style.” That type of facial hair is sometimes jokingly known in English as a pudding ring.
Kyle in Fort Monroe, Virginia, says his family jokingly uses the term honyock to refer to “someone who acts in a silly way,” and often applies this word to politicians and bad drivers. Variously spelled, hunkyak, hunyakker, or hunyokker, the word originated with the wave of Hungarian immigrants to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This term for one of those immigrants is likely a combination of Hun, a term for “a German person,” and the suffix -ack as in Polack for “a Polish person.” It originally applied to rowdy, boisterous characters, but over time, underwent what linguists call semantic bleaching, as the term’s original negative sense faded. Variations of this term include bohunk, hunky and hunk. It also gave rise to the term honky, meaning “a white person.” The nicknames Hunky Town and Hunky Row were once applied to neighborhoods with a high concentration of immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Juice in Genoa, New York, remembers her mother used to say I am so mad I could spit nickels. It’s one of several variations on the idea of being angry enough to spit, period, or to spit something specific, such as spit tacks, spit nails, spit rust. Other examples: I could chew nails, I could spit rivets, I could spit blood, I could spit ten feet. When Australians are thirsty, they sometimes say, I’m so thirsty I could spit chips, or I’m so thirsty I could spit cotton. Juice also wonders about the phrase head over tin cups to describe someone taking a tumble. Other versions (which we also talked about here) include head over heels, rump over teakettle, head over teacups, ass over appetite, ass over elbow, and head over apple cart. A somewhat similar idea is expressed in the idea of going full scorpion, when you fall face first and your legs go back up over your head so that your body mimics a scorpion’s shape.
Book Mentioned in the Broadcast
|The Overlook Illustrated Dictionary of Nautical Terms by Graham Blackburn|
Music Used in the Broadcast
|Alto Glide||Brian Bennett & Alan Hawkshaw||Synthesis||KPM Music|
|Girl In A Sportscar||Alan Hawkshaw & James Clarke||Friendly Faces||KPM Music|
|Mermaid||Brian Bennett & Alan Hawkshaw||Synthesis||KPM Music|
|Comencemos||Jungle Fire||Tropicoso||Nacional Records|
|Studio 69||Keith Mansfield & Alan Hawkshaw||The Big Beat||KPM Music|
|Tokuta||Jungle Fire||Tropicoso||Nacional Records|
|Getting It Together||Brian Bennett & Alan Hawkshaw||Synthesis||KPM Music|
|Volcano Vapes||Sure Fire Soul Ensemble||Out On The Coast||Colemine Records|