Mustard on It (Rebroadcast) - 9 July 2018


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When does a word's past make it too sensitive to use in the present? In contra dancing, there's a particular move that dancers traditionally call a gypsy. But there's a growing recognition that many people find the term gypsy offensive. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. Plus, the surprising story behind why we use the phrase in a nutshell to sum things up. A hint: it goes all the way back to Homer's Iliad. And finally, games that feature imaginary Broadway shows and tweaked movie titles with new plots. Also, the phrases put mustard on it, lately deceased, resting on one's laurels, and throw your hat into the room, plus similes galore.


A game making the rounds online involves adding the ending -ing to the names of movies, resulting in clever new plots. For example, on our Facebook group, one member observed that The Blair Witch Project becomes The Blair Witch Projecting, "in which high-schooler Blair Witch reads too much into the inflection of her friends' words."

Which is correct: rest on one's laurels or rest on one's morals? The right phrase, which refers to refusing to settle for one's past accomplishments, is the former. In classical times, winners of competitions were awarded crowns made from the fragrant leaves of bay laurels. For the same reason, we bestow such honors as Poet Laureate and Nobel Laureate.

When someone urges you to put some mustard on it, they want you to add some energy and vigor. It's a reference to the piquancy of real, spicy mustard, and has a long history in baseball.

Need a synonym for "nose"? Try this handy word from a 1904 dialect dictionary: sneeze-horn.

Those little musical interludes on radio programs, particularly public radio shows, go by lots of names, including stinger, button, bumper, and bridge. By the way, the fellow who chooses and inserts them in our show is our engineer and technical editor, Tim Felten, who also happens to be a professional musician.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about Broadway show titles--but with a twist.

There's a long tradition in contra dancing of a particular move called a "gypsy." Many people now consider the term "gypsy" offensive, however, because of the history of discrimination against people of Romani descent, long referred to as gypsies. So a group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. We explain why they should.

In the game of adding -ing to movie titles, Erin Brockovich becomes Erin Brockoviching, the story of a crotchety Irishwoman's habit of complaining.

When is it appropriate to use the word late to describe someone who has died? Late, in this sense, is short for lately deceased. There's no hard and fast time frame, although it's been suggested that anywhere from five to 30 years is about right. It's best to use the word in cases where it may not be clear whether the person is still alive, or when it appears in a historical context, such as "The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 in honor of the late John F. Kennedy."

In the game of appending -ing to a movie title to change its plot, the movies Strangers on a Train and Network both become films about corporate life.

A simile is a rhetorical device that describes by comparing two different things or ideas using the word like or as. But what makes a good simile? The 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases, by Yale public speaking instructor Grenville Kleiser, offers a long list similes he'd collected for students to use as models, although some clearly work better than others.

In a nutshell refers to something that's "put concisely," in just a few words. The phrase goes all the way back to antiquity, when the Roman historian Pliny described a copy of The Iliad written in such tiny script that it could fit inside a nutshell.

Among many African-Americans, the term kitchen refers to the hair at the nape of the neck. It may derive from Scots kinch, a "twist of rope" or "kink."

Some of the more successful similes in Grenville Kleiser's 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases include The sky was like a peach and Like footsteps on wool and Quaking and quivering like a short-haired puppy after a ducking.

To throw your hat into the room is to ascertain whether someone's angry with you, perhaps stemming from the idea of tossing your hat in ahead of to see if someone shoots at it. Ronald Reagan used the expression this way when apologizing to Margaret Thatcher for invading Grenada in 1983 without notifying the British in advance.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


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