Why do some puns strike us as clever, while others are plain old groaners? Martha and Grant puzzle over this question. Also, the difference between baggage and luggage, a royal word quiz, the “egg” in egg on, what to call someone who doesn’t eat fish or seafood, Hawaiian riddles, and why we say “You bet your sweet bippy!”

This episode first aired May 28, 2011.

Download the MP3.

 Puns in the Headlines
When President Barack Obama had the Oval Office redecorated in soft browns and beige, The New York Times headline read: “The Audacity of Taupe.” The hosts discuss how puns work, and what makes them clever. Martha recommends John Pollack’s new book, The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics.

What do you call someone who doesn’t eat fish? A caller wants to know, but not because of dietary requirements. He’s a string bass player who plays in an ensemble that’s tired of being asked to perform Schubert’s famous composition, the Trout Quintet. Martha and Grant tells him he has several options. Among them: non-pescatarian, anti-marinovore, anichthyophagist— and, of course, non-seafood eater.

 Baggage vs. Luggage
What’s the difference between baggage and luggage? After all, it’s not as if anyone confesses to having emotional luggage. The hosts conclude that usually the word luggage specifies the container, while baggage is more likely to refer to that which is lugged inside the container.

 Manly Strokes of Wit
Martha shares a quotation from Joseph Addison, no fan of puns: “If we must lash one another, let it be with the manly strokes of wit and satire: for I am of the old philosopher’s opinion, that, if I must suffer from one or the other, I would rather it should be from the paw of a lion than from the hoof of an ass.”

 Royal Wedding Word Quiz
Quiz Guy Greg Pliska has a royal quiz in honor of the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William. He celebrates the wedding of the King and Queen with clues to answers that contain the letters “K” and “Q” next to each other. The answer to “The band that recorded ‘Take Five,'” for example, is the “Dave BrubecK Quartet.”

Where’d we get a word like skyscraper? Martha explains the image literally refers to scraping the sky, but first applied to the topmost sail on a ship, and later to tall horses, and high fly balls in baseball. There are similar ideas in other languages, as in the Spanish word “rascacielos” and French “gratte-ciel.” In German, the word is picturesque as well. It’s “wolkenkratzer,” which literally means “cloud-scratcher.”

 Fill-In-The-Blank Puzzles
Grant shares some fill-in-the-blank puzzles from a listener. For example, “There’s one w______ on a u________” and “There are 5 d________ in a z_________ c__________.”

 Monday is Longer than Tuesday
A listener remembers her mother used to say, “Your Monday is longer than your Tuesday.” This phrase offered a subtle way to notify someone that her slip was showing. Other expressions convey that warning as well, including “Monday comes before Sunday” and “Saturday is longer than Sunday.” Also, if someone whispers “Mrs. White is out of jail,” it’s time to check to see if your slip is showing. Ditto if you’re told you have “a Ph.D.,” but you’ve never earned that degree. In this case “Ph.D” stands for “Petticoat Hanging Down.”

 Preacher Meat
Martha’s been reading the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English again, and stumbled across a synonym for “fried chicken.” It’s preacher meat.

 The Die is Cast
“The Die is Cast” is the title of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A listener and his wife disagree about what kind of “die” is meant here. It’s not a reference to metallurgy– it’s a quotation attributed to Julius Caesar. When he crossed the Rubicon to lead a campaign against his enemies, he supposedly declared, “Alea jacta est.” The word alea, which refers to one piece of a set of dice, is an ancestor of the modern English word aleatory, which means “by chance.”

 Mixed Feelings about Puns
What happens when a clock gets hungry? It goes back four seconds. Martha talks about how puns weren’t always considered “bad.” Cicero praised them as the wittiest kind of saying, and Shakespeare made plenty of them, for both serious and comic effect. In the early 18th century, though, things changed. Pamphlets with titles like “God’s Revenge Against Punning” began appearing, and the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson denounced them as “the last refuge of the witless.”

 The Pun Also Rises
Martha and Grant discuss why some puns work and others don’t. Martha recommends John Pollack’s observation in The Pun Also Rises describing how “for a split second, puns manage to hold open the elevator doors of language and meaning as the brain toggles furiously between competing semantic destinations, before finally deciding which is the best answer, or deciding to live with both.”

Where’d we get the expression “You bet your sweet bippy!”? It’s from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a zany television show from the late 1960s. The word bippy, by the way, means “butt.” The phrase “You bet your sweet bippy” is a linguistic descendant of earlier versions that go back to at least the 1880s, when phrases like “You bet your sweet life” were commonly used. The show also popularized such phrases as “Sock it to me!” and “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.”

 Foreign City Names in America
Why are some American place names pronounced differently than the famous place they were named after? Why is Cairo, Ill., pronounced “KAY-roh”? Why do Midwesterners pronounce Versailles as “Ver-SALES” and the New Madrid Fault as “New MAD-rid”? Grant explains that these names are far removed from their earlier incarnations and function as a sort of shibboleth among the locals.

 Tarzan Pun
Martha springs another pun on Grant: Knock-knock. Who’s there? Tarzan. Tarzan who? “Tarzan Stripes Forever.”

 Egg On
Why do we speak of trying to egg on a person, meaning to urge them to do something? Martha explains that the egg in this case has nothing to do with chickens. This kind of “egg” is derives from an old root that means to “urge on with a sharp object.” It’s a linguistic relative of the word “edge.”

 Hawaiian Riddles
Grant wraps up with some Hawaiian riddles from the book Riddling Tales from around the World, by Marjorie Dundas, including this one:

My twin was with me from the day I crawled
With me till the day I die
I cannot escape him
yet when storms come, he deserts me

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

Photo by Will Curran. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Broadcast

The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack
Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English by Michael B. Montgomery
Riddling Tales from around the World by Marjorie Dundas

Music Used in the Broadcast

Title Artist Album Label
La Gigouille Bernard Estardy La Formule Du Baron CBS
Strawberry Letter 23 Phil Upchurch Phil Upchurch Marlin
Easter Parade Jimmy McGriff Step One Solid State
Yekermo Sew Mulatu Astatke Mochilla Presents Timeless Mochilla
Munaye Mulatu Astatke Mulatu of Ethiopia Worthy Records
Funky Flutes Duncan Lamont Serenity Bruton Music
Step One Jimmy McGriff Step One Solid State
Funky Express Duncan Lamont Sounds of The Times KPM Music Ltd.
Hanged Man Alan Tew Bullet Contour Records
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book Verve
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17 Responses

  1. bluehorse says:

    For the non-Trout ensemble, how about “Ensemble Nontrutta” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_trout).

  2. Heimhenge says:

    That was a great episode! Thanks Grant & Martha. The talk about puns reminded me of an old adage:

    A pun is the lowest form of humor … unless you thought of it yourself.

    A Google for that adage cites one Doug Larson as its source, but that seems too recent to me. Is there a precedent source?

  3. Kaa says:

    In Alabama, near where I grew up (Eutaw, Alabama) is a small community called Mantua. MAN-chuh-Way. And here in Atlanta, Ponce de Leon Ave. is PAWNCE duh LEE-awn. In Arkansas, there’s Mount Petit Jean: PETty JEEN. And, finally, here in Georgia is a city called Villa Rica. The ‘ll’ is not a ‘y’, but an ‘l’, and the ‘i’ in ‘Rica’ is short: VIL-luh RICK-uh. This is so common, I tend to collect them as I see them.

  4. Kaa says:

    I forgot Arab, Alabama. AY-rabb.

  5. Glenn says:

    Havre de Grace, MD, (Hav-err dee Grayce) is named for a French town whose name is now shortened to Le Havre, formerly Le Havre de Grâce.

    Also, the secret code that my mother and sister would use for “Your slip is showing” was “Did you know it’s snowing down south?” This was sometimes shortened to “It’s snowing down south” or “It’s snowing.”

  6. telemath says:

    5 d__ in a z__ c__ -> 5 digits in a zip code

    For the non-pescatarian bassist group, if they had 9 bass players instead of 5, they could be the “bass non-et”.

    …and a quote on puns by Oliver Wendell Holmes:
    “A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homocide.”

  7. zinger11 says:

    64 squares on a chessboard.

  8. CheddarMelt says:

    There is a Milwaukee suburb by the name of New Berlin, emphasis on the BER. When I lived in Milwaukee, I was told that the pronunciation was changed sometime around WWII, to distance it from its obviously German roots. In the smallish town where I grew up, Berlin Avenue was renamed around the same time.

    I wonder how common such changes were, and sometimes when I run across place names with pronuncations unlike their apparent namesakes, I wonder about the reason. It hadn’t occurred to me that founders might choose unfamiliar names from books.

  9. Gemma says:

    “5 d__ in a z__ c__” had me stumped. But I don’t feel so bad now I see it’s an American thing.

    I amused myself with ideas like “5 dudes in a zumba class”. I was also trying to fit it to “zebra crossing”. The best idea I could come up with fitted “4 b__ on a z__ c__”. (Abbey Road.)

  10. Glenn says:

    Drat, I was going to say 5 dimensions in a Zadoff-Chu? Five Dong in a Zimbabwe Cent? Five denominations in a Zero Coupon? Five dances in a zydeco concert? Five defenses in a zombie combat? Five dogmas in a Zwinglian confession?

  11. MountainGuy says:

    The phrase “The Die is Cast” does indeed come from Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon River. But it reflects the seriousness of what he was doing. The Rubicon was the historic boundary between Gaul Cisalpine and Italy. So, by leading the XIII legion across the Rubicon, Caesar was invading the Roman heartland, and was then committing treason and was committed to a civil war against the Senate and the People of Rome (Senatus Populusque Romanus).

  12. Christopher Murray says:

    You’ve covered slips showing before. The phrase I remember from school in South Wales in the 70s is “Charley’s dead.” I don’t know who Charley was.

    My favourite pun: On a desk sign: “Incorrigible punster. Do not incorrige.” (From a Unix fortune cookie.)

  13. johng423 says:

    Can we construct a new word with a meaning similar to non-pescatarian?
    Here’s what I’m thinking:

    1. Martha mentioned this term comes from the Latin word PISCES (“py-seez”), meaning fish. Use that as the root.

    2. >Incorporating the concept of contrary, use the root word backward, adding the appropriate suffix: SECSIP + -IAN

    3. As an additional reference to the root word, the pronunciation would be backward as well, using the same vowel sounds
    that is, long I and long E): “zee-sy-pee-an”
    (I know it isn’t spelled the way it sounds, or doesn’t sound the way you would expect from the spelling.
    If you insist on that, I suppose you would use short vowel sounds: “se-si-pee-an”)

    Thus I propose the word SECSIPIAN (“zee-sy-pee-an”; colloq. “se-si-pee-an”), meaning “a person who disfavors fish”.

    a. Although not commonly used, the World English Dictionary does list “disfavor” as a verb, meaning “to regard or treat with disapproval or dislike”.
    See entry at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disfavor.
    Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition, 2009
    © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986
    © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009

    b. LEADING TO A NEW TOPIC: I’m unsure what the appropriate suffix would be: -ian? -ist? -arian? (There might be others.) What are the specific meanings of these? What are the differences? When should each one be used (or not used)? Looking in the dictionary, I didn’t find enough information to answer my questions. Maybe Grant could pursue this as a topic during one of the shows.

  14. drasil says:

    telemath said:

    For the non-pescatarian bassist group, if they had 9 bass players instead of 5, they could be the “bass non-et”.

    although a group of five–or nine!–string basses playing together would be awesome, you might want to know that a “bass quintet” is a string quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello) with a double bassist added. (the bass isn’t a traditional member of a chamber ensemble.)

  15. telemath says:

    drasil said:

    telemath said:

    For the non-pescatarian bassist group, if they had 9 bass players instead of 5, they could be the “bass non-et”.

    although a group of five–or nine!–string basses playing together would be awesome, you might want to know that a “bass quintet” is a string quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello) with a double bassist added. (the bass isn’t a traditional member of a chamber ensemble.)

    …making the bad pun even more of a stretch. Ah, well…

  16. johng423 says:

    And “piano quintet” normally implies two violins, viola, cello, and piano. Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” (mentioned by the caller) was unusual in that it was written for one violin, viola, cello, piano, and double bass. (I’m not pursuing the fish jokes about “bass” vs “trout” that the podcast conversation alluded to.)

  17. Glenn says:

    How about a slogan or motto?

    The Trout is out.
    Flout the Trout.
    We brook no Trout.
    Basso continuo: Trout, though, continue no!

    This last one is less of a motto. It should be shouted in unison by several people carrying picket signs.