Truth and Beauty - 28 May 2018


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Vocabulary that trickles down from the top of the world. Malamute, kayak, and parka are just some of the words that have found their way into English from the language of indigenous people in northern climes. Also, the surprising language of physicists: in the 1970s, some scientists argued that two quarks should be called "truth" and "beauty." Finally, the many layers of words and worlds we invoke when we describe someone as "the apple of my eye." Plus, to have brass on one's face, frozen statues, good craic, prepone, agathism and agathakakological, and the positive use of I don't care to.


In the 1970s, physicists predicted the discovery of two quarks called T and B for top and bottom. Some poetically-minded physicists argued that the T and B quarks should instead be called Truth and Beauty, but the terms top and bottom eventually won out. terms. For the record, beauty lasts about one picosecond before decaying—at least when you're talking about quarks. Pepper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wonders why something valuable to someone is called the apple of their eye. The expression apple of one’s eye is very old, going back to the ninth century. The use of apple derives from the early misunderstanding that the pupil of the eye is a sphere. Similarly, the French word for pupil is prunelle, or little plum. The word pupil itself comes from Latin pupilla, or little doll, because if you look deeply into someone’s eyes, you’ll see a tiny reflection of yourself. For the same reason, the expression to look babies at each other referred to the way lovers look into each others’ eyes, close enough to see themselves. The expression to have brass on one’s face is used in the South Atlantic region of the United States to describe someone who is bold or overconfident. There’s a similar idea in the word brazen, which derives from an Old English word for brass. Aru in Omaha, Nebraska, says friends and colleagues tease him about his use of prepone, as in to put something in front of something. It’s a word commonly used in Indian English, is morphologically sound, and quite useful. Our conversation about Spanish idioms involving food prompted a tweet from Tijuana, Mexico: del plato a la boca, se cae la sopa, or between the dish and the mouth, the soup spills, or don’t count your chickens before they hatch. A similar idea is reflected there’s many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip, an English proverb similar to a saying in ancient Greek. Quiz Guy John Chaneski's brain teaser involves puzzling out clues to words beginning with de-. For example: Hey, how can our team play baseball when somebody has quite literally stolen second? Craig, a whale biologist in Alaska, wonders how many words have been adopted into English from such languages as Inuit, Yupik, Tlingit and Inupiaq. Indigenous languages in the far North have contributed mukluk, malamute, kayak, and parka.The word parka took an especially long route into English, coming originally from native peoples in the Russian region of the Arctic Circle. Native American terms also give us some familiar animal names, such as opossum and raccoon. Agathism is the doctrine that all things ultimately tend toward good, even though the means by which tha happens may be evil or unpleasant or unfortunate. The word comes from Greek agathos, meaning good, which is also the source of agathakakological, an adjective describing a mixture of good and evil. Rebecca in Austin, Texas, wonders why the terms cold sore and fever blister describe pretty much the same thing. Also, why do we say we have a cold, but we have the flu? The word flu comes from the Italian word for influence, influenza, and is a reference to an old belief that a contagious illness was influenced by celestial movements. Nick, an Englishman who divides his time between Ireland and Virginia, says his American friends were baffled when he described a convivial evening with them as good craic, pronounced just like English crack. The word craic is often associated with the Irish, but it first appeared as crac in Northern England and Scotland, then migrated to Ireland, and its meaning evolved from talk or excited chatter to fun and good times. Another evocative Irish word is banjaxed, which describes something messed up. A proverb about what family members learn from each other: Parents teach their children to talk; children teach their parents silence. The children’s game of frozen statues putting players in awkward poses, which they must then hold for a while. This outdoor pastime has many variations and goes by many names, including falling statues, swinging statues, squat-where-you-be, statue makers, and game of statues. A similar game of spinning around together and then releasing each other is called going to Texas.

Wayne in Sherman, Texas wonders how the term pear-shaped came to describe something that’s gone badly. The expression seems to have arisen during Falklands War of the early 1980s. If you need a word for pear-shaped, there's always pyriform, from the Latin word for pear, pirum. Our conversation about the term bear-caught, describing someone with heatstroke, prompted Sondra in Florida to share a poem on the topic written years ago by her late husband, Bert Furbee. Jane in Austin, Texas, is curious about the expression how the cow ate the cabbage, meaning to give someone a talking-to. Sugar weather refers to a period of time during the spring in Canada marked by warm days and cold nights, when the sap starts running in the trees. Jim from Bowling Green, Kentucky, says he's heard some folks in his area use the phrase I don't care when they mean to accept an offer. This affirmative use is somewhat similar to saying Don't mind if I do, meaning yes, thank you. On our Facebook group, Brett asks: What do you call a society run by rabbits? A carrotocracy? How about a whatsupdocracy?

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


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