Pink Slip (Rebroadcast) - 20 August 2018


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This week on "A Way with Words": The language of political speech. Politicians have to repeat themselves so often that they naturally develop a repertoire of stock phrases to fall back on. But is there any special meaning to subtler locutions, such as beginning a sentence with the words "Now, look…"? Also, a peculiar twist in Southern speech may leave outsiders scratching their heads: In parts of the South "I wouldn't care to" actually means "I would indeed like to." Finally, how the word "nerd" went from a dismissive term to a badge of honor. Also, dog in the manger, crumb crushers, hairy panic, pink slips, make a branch, and horning hour.


A listener in Weathersfield, Vermont, remembers going on car trips as a young child and wondering why, toward the end of the day, her parents would be on the lookout for motels with bacon seed.

Someone who is likened to a dog in the manger is acting spitefully, claiming something they don't even need or want in order to prevent others from having it. The story that inspired this phrase goes all the way back to ancient Greece.

A Denton, Texas, caller wonders: Are politicians increasingly starting sentences with the phrase Now, look . . . ?

A listener in Ellsworth, Michigan, shares a favorite simile from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

Make a branch is a euphemism that means "to urinate," the word branch being a dialectal term for "a small stream."

Quiz Guy John Chaneski puts on his toque and serves up a quiz about kitchen spices.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener is puzzled about a story in The Guardian about Mavis Staples speculating about her romance with Bob Dylan: "If we’d had some little plum-crushers, how our lives would be. The kids would be singing now, and Bobby and I would be holding each other up." Plum-crushers? Chances are, though, that the reporter misheard a different slang term common in the African-American community.

Nerd used to be a term of derision, connoting someone who was socially awkward and obsessed with a narrow field of interest. Now it's used more admiringly for anyone who has a passion for a particular topic. Linguists call that type of softening amelioration.

A Toronto, Canada, caller wonders how a notice that an employee is being fired ever came to be known as a pink slip.

Martha reads Jessica Goodfellow's poem about the sound of water, "Chance of Precipitation," which first appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal.

A man who moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, was puzzled when he offered one of his new neighbors a refill on her beverage. She said I wouldn't care to have any, which he understood to be a refusal. What she meant was that she did want another glass. Turns out in that part of the country I wouldn't care to can mean I would like to, the key word being care, as in "mind" or "be bothered."

If someone's really intelligent, they might be described with the simile as smart as a bee sting.

We're off like a dirty shirt indicates the speaker is "leaving right away" or "commencing immediately." Similar phrases include off like a prom dress and off like a bride's nightie. All of them suggest haste, urgency, and speed.

Hairy panic is a weed that's wreaking havoc in a small Australian town. The panic in its name has nothing to do with extreme anxiety or overpowering fear. Hairy panic, also known as panic grass, in the scientific genus Panicum, which comprises certain cereal-producing grasses, and derives from Latin panus, or "ear of millet."

A woman in Bozeman, Montana, wonders if any other families use the term horning hour as synonym for happy hour. The term's a bit of a mystery, although it may have something to do with horning as in a shivaree, charivari, or other noisy celebration in the Old West.

One way of saying someone's a tightwad or cheapskate is to say he has fishhooks in his pocket, meaning he's so reluctant to reach into his pocket for his wallet, it's as if he'd suffer bodily injury if he did. In Australia, a similar idea is expressed with the phrases he has scorpions in his pocket or he has mousetraps in his pocket. In Argentina, what's lurking in a penny-pincher's pocket is a crocodile. This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


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