Sun Dog - 15 October 2018

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A clever pun can make the difference between a so-so phrase and a memorable one. The phrase "the last straw" refers to an old fable about too many items in a load, but it takes on a whole new meaning in a public-awareness campaign about the environment. Also, why do we use the term "mob scene" to refer to an unruly crowd? This term originated in the world of theater. Finally: the Basque language spoken in the westernmost Pyrenees has long posed a linguistic mystery. Its origins are unclear and it's unlike any other language in the region. But Basque is enjoying something of a revival in a surprising place . . . Idaho. Plus, sun dog, ob-gyn, mob scene, George, Double George, Geezum Pete, and somersault vs. winter pepper.

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Carrie from Waupaca, Wisconsin, confesses she was stumped when that her son Aidan asked,"Mom, can you do a winter pepper?"

An ad campaign featuring the phrase The Last Straw urging people not to use plastic straws has Allie in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wondering about double meanings in advertising. Research shows that such punning can be effective.

On Twitter, @laureneoneal wonders why the term ob-gyn is pronounced by sounding out all the letters, as if it's an initialism.

Eleven-year-old Ben calls from Rapids City to ask about the term sun dog, the meterological phenomenon in which a bright spot appears to the left or right of the sun. No one knows the origin of this term. Synonyms include mock sun, weather gall, and parhelion, from Greek words meaning beside the sun.

Some 50 years ago, says Susan from Burbank, California, she and a friend made up a game involving prefixes and suffixes, which led to such nonsense words as epidormithry and postpreparize.

Ever notice how many comic-book villains have names ending in the letter O? For starters, there's Magneto, Sinestro, and Bizarro. Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle features new villains with names that are common words ending in -o. For example, who's the villain who takes large islands and breaks them up into chains of smaller islands?

Barbara in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, wonders about the term mob scene, means an unruly, dense crowd. The term arose in the world of theater, where it denotes a point in a performance with lots of people onstage. The word mob is a shortening of Latin mobile vulgus, which means fickle crowd.

The phrase throw in the towel, meaning to give up, originated in the world of boxing. An earlier phrase from the same sport that carried the same metaphorical meaning is chuck in the sponge.

Andrew in Omaha, Nebraska, recalls his grandfather's use of the word George to mean exceptionally good, and Double George to mean really great. Other masculine names, including Jake, Tom, and Jerry have meant something similar. In the 1950s, the name George was used among casino workers for a high roller, as in Here comes George.

The German word for longjohns, Liebestoter, literally means love killer.

Rick calls from Rouses Point, New York, to ask about the etymology of the phrase hang for a sheep as for a lamb, meaning go for broke or go all out. The answer has involves the old tradition of capital punishment for theft. Given the risk of such dire consequences, one might as well steal the item that's more valuable. There's a similar Scots proverb that goes as well be hanged for a wedder as for a lamb, a wedder being a male castrated sheep. The word wedder is linguistically related to bellwether, a large, castrated sheep wearing a bell and therefore indicative of where the herd is going.

Our conversation about being criticized for using yes ma'am and no sir, prompted a letter from an Austin, Texas, listener who had a similar experience when she moved from Mississippi to Ohio.

The state of Idaho has a large community of Basque speakers. Their native tongue is what's known as a language isolate, meaning one that is not historically connected to those around it.

The name George derives from the Greek word for farmer, a combination of words that literally mean earth worker.

Ellen in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, wonders about the origin of the exclamation Geezum Pete! It's a minced oath -- that is a way of avoiding saying Jesus Christ! There are dozens of similar euphemized exclamations, including gee willikins, jiminy, Jehosaphat, Judas Priest, Jeekers, Jiminy Cricket, Jiminy Crickets, Gee willikers, Gee Christmas, Jiminy Christmas, and Jerusalem.

Michael in Papillion, Nebraska, asks: Why do we refer to that adjustable vent that regulates air flow in a home as a register?

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

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