Space Cadet - 24 December 2018


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We have books that should be on every language lover's wish list, plus a couple of recommendations for history buffs. Plus: how did the word boondoggle come to denote a wasteful project? The answer involves the Boy Scouts, a baby, a craft project, and a city council meeting. Plus, wordplay with palindromes. Instead of reversing just individual letters, some palindromes reverse entire words! Like this one: You can cage a swallow, but you can't swallow a cage, can you? Also, squeaky clean, Dad, icebox, search it up, pretend vs. pretentious, toe-counting rhymes, comb the giraffe, and a Korean song about carrots.


The French expression peigner la girafe means to do a useless, tedious, or annoying job, but literally means to comb the giraffe. That's one of the many gems in Mark Abley's new book Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean. Abley also observes that Korean youngsters use words meaning Of course! or Absolutely! Literally, though, the expression translates as It's a carrot! You can hear the expression dang geun in an adorable Korean cartoon that shows carrots singing to each other that of course they'll always be friends.

Andrew from Annandale, Virginia, asks: What's the origin of the word boondoggle? Why does it mean a wasteful project or plain old busywork, but also dentoes a kind of leathercraft lanyard made at camp?

A palindrome is a word or phrase with letters that read the same backwards and forwards, such as taco cat, nurses run, and a nut for a jar of tuna. Word-unit palindromes are similar, although you read them word by word. One example: You can cage a swallow, but you can't swallow a cage, can you? Another is goes Fall leaves after leaves fall. And then there's Did I say you never say "Never say never?" You say I did.

Judy in Miami, Florida, wonders how the expression squeaky clean came to mean spotless, whether literally or metaphorically. At least as early as the 1930s, the term squeaky clean referred to hair that was so free of oil and dirt it makes a squeaking sound between your fingers. Later, TV commercials for Ajax dishwashing liquid played upon that idea, touting the so-called Ajax squeak that results from using that soap to wash dishes.

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a Latin palindrome doubling as a riddle. It's variously translated as We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire or We turn in circles in the night and are devoured by fire. The answer to the riddle: moths. This Latin palindrome is also the title of a film by French director Guy Debord, and is referenced in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a Take-Off Quiz. All the answers to this quiz involve removing the letter E from a word to form another word. For example, if the clue is The man at the piano played the black keys with skinny, knobby fingers, what two words does that suggest?

Kirk from New Braunfels, Texas, wonders about the origin of the word Dad. It's one of many names for a parent that arose simply from the sounds an infant makes when trying to communicate.

Keith in Valparaiso, Indiana, wonders why his mother uses the term icebox for what other people call a refrigerator. Before electric refrigeration, people kept food cold by putting it in a an insulated box that was literally cooled with a block of ice delivered by the local iceman.

If you want someone to calm down, you might say Cool your jets! This expression is among several catchphrases from a 1950s TV show about the extraterrestrial adventures of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Others include plug your jets, meaning to shut up; cut your jets, meaning to quit doing something; blow your jets, which meant to get angry. The TV series was apparently inspired by by the Robert Heinlein novel Space Cadet, which also led to space cadet as an ironic term for someone whose head is metaphorically in the clouds.

Our conversation about slang terms for traveling by foot prompted an email from Tom in Canton, Texas, who reports that while living in Israel, he used to hear fellow high school students say in Arabic that they were taking Bus Number 11, the long, straight numerals representing their two legs.

More book recommendations: For a smart, in-depth look at language change and usage controversies, Martha suggests Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can't Be Tamed by Lane Greene. Grant says his 11-year-old son thoroughly enjoyed all of the graphic series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. That series includes such books as Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, which, as it happens, was a great complement to the book for adults that Grant just finished, Barbara Tuchman's excellent history of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August.

Sophia is a 13-year-old from Napierville, Illinois, says she and her peers use the phrase search it up on the internet to mean look it up on the internet. Her mother says it's look it up or just search it, not search it up. Sophia and her friends aren't wrong, though. Search it up is used by lots of people, particularly younger ones, and it's becoming more common.

What's the linguistic connection between pretend and pretension or pretentious? They all go back the Latin praetendere, meaning to put something forward.

Susan from Virginia Beach, Virginia, remembers a toe-counting game from her childhood that goes This Toe Tight / This Penny White / This Toe Tizzle / This Penny Wizzle. She doesn't recall the rest and has no idea where it came from. There are many versions of this kind of rhyme, particularly in the traditions of Scandinavia and Germany. Among them are the one that goes Peedee / Peedee Loo / Loodee Whistle / Whistle Nobble / and Great Big Hobble Tobble! And another that goes Little Pea / Penny Rou / Judy Whistle / Mary Tossle / and Big Tom Bumble. Susan remembers another one that involves gently slapping the bottom of the child's foot: Shoe the old horse / and shoe the old mare / and let the little colt go bare, bare, bare. The blog Mama Lisa's World has a multitude of other versions. Henry Bolton's 1888 book The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children, which is available in its entirety online, is another good source of these, although some of the rhymes may be offensive to modern readers.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.


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