Colonial English - 28 January 2019

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The anatomy of effective prose, and the poetry of anatomy. Ever wonder what it'd be like to audit a class taught by a famous writer? A graduate student's essay offers a taste of a semester studying with author Annie Dillard. Also, what did George Washington sound like when he spoke? We can make a few guesses based on his social class and a look at dialect changes in colonial America. Plus, where is your body's xiphoid (ZIFF-oyd) process? Also: inept vs. ept, ruly vs. unruly, gruntled vs. disgruntled, cross and pile, lick the cat over, anyone vs. anybody, bloody, and rock, paper, scissors vs. paper, scissors, rock.

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The city of Portland, Oregon, where Martha and Grant recently took their live show, owes its name to a coin toss. The city's founders, Asa Lovejoy of Boston, Massachusetts, and Frances Pettygrove of Portland, Maine, each wanted to name it for his own hometown. Lovejoy lost, and the penny tossed to decide the matter is on display at the Oregon Historical Society. Portland also goes by the nicknames Stumptown, Beervana, and Bridgetown.

Nathan, a sailor at the United States Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia, reports a vigorous dispute among his fellow servicemembers: Is gruntled a word? Nathan feels gruntled must be a word, arguing that it's clearly the opposite of disgruntled. But it's more complicated than that. Disgruntled is one of several terms known as orphaned words or unpaired negatives, which look like they should have a commonly used opposite, but don't. Others unruly and ruly, unkempt and kempt, as well as inert and ert. Writer J.H. Parker played with this discrepancy in a poem called "A Very Descript Man."

Responding to our ongoing discussion about unexpected pronuncations for various towns, a listener notes that the names of Cairo, Georgia, and Havana, Florida, are not pronounced the way you might think.

Michelle works for the United States Department of Defense in San Diego, California, thinks of the word alibi as excuse, but her coworkers have an additional meaning for it. Toward the end of a meeting, her supervisor will ask if anyone has an alibi before they wrap up, signaling that it's time to bring up any unfinished business. In Latin, the word alibi means elsewhere. But it has another meaning in the military, referring to unfinished rounds of ammunition.

An old version of the heads or tails coin toss is cross or pile, or cross and pile. That's because an old English coin was marked with a cross on one side; the term pile was a synonym for the back of a coin.

It's time once again for Quiz Guy John Chaneski's annual (and non-political) Limericks Puzzle! Fill in the blank: When somebody says Where's the beef? / Say western Australia in brief / Knickers the steer / Is so huge, I fear / That his photograph beggars . . . ?

Diego from Orange County, California, wonders: How did George Washington sound when speaking. We can make guesses about his speech, accent, and dialect based on the historical context.

Following up on our talk about regional terms for a small, raised section of road, such as tickle bump and belly-tickler, Martha shares a passage from The Guardian Angel by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which references another term for that kind of bump. One of his characters calls it a thank-you-ma'am, referring to the fact that one's head involuntarily nods when going over one.

Debra in Gates, North Carolina, says that her husband tries to do things right the first time because, as he puts it, he doesn't like licking the cat over. To have to lick the cat over is to have to repeat a laborious process for a second time.

When Julie, a journalism student at California's San Francisco State University, got her dream job covering the San Francisco Giants for a season, she noticed while transcribing interviews that the players tended to use the terms somebody, everybody, and nobody instead of someone, everyone, and no one. She wonders if that has anything to do with where those players grew up.

Another town with a name that sounds different from what you might expect: Russiaville, Indiana.

For a taste of what it's like to spend a semester studying writing with a renowned author, check out Alexander Chee's essay in The Morning News called Annie Dillard and the Writing Life. Dillard's remarkable description of the death of a frog in her Pulitzer-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a good example of Dillard practicing the techniques she preaches.

Kim from Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada, is studying anatomy and wonders why the lower end of one's sternum is called the xiphoid process. The word process in this case means projection, and xiphoid comes from the Greek word for sword. Early anatomists likened the sternum to a sword or dagger: the top part is called the manubrium -- literally handle -- the middle part is the gladiolus --which in Latin means little sword -- and the tip is the swordlike projection. The scientific name for a swordfish, by the way, is Xiphias gladius. Many anatomical structures have similarly picturesque names, like tibia, from the Latin for flute, and pelvis from the Greek for wooden bowl or basin.

Our conversation about books that sit on your shelves unread and the difficulty of parting with them prompted Jen in Essex, New York, to write about her own attachment to long-outdated field guides because of the memories attached to them.

Laura in New Bedford, Massachusetts, says her mother often uses the adjective bloody as a mild swear word, but Laura wonders if the expression is more offensive than that. The answer depends on what part of the English-speaking world you're in.

Travis in Austin, Texas, has a dispute with friends: is the popular sorting game called Paper, Scissors, Rock, as he believes? Or is it Rock, Paper, Scissors? In the United States, the latter is the more common variant, although some people say Scissors, Paper, Rock. The game itself appears to go back to counting games in Asia, such as Japanese jan ken pon.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

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