Take Tea for the Fever - 22 October 2018

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Silence comes in lots of different forms. In fact, says writer Paul Goodman, there are several kinds: There's the noisy silence of "resentment and self-recrimination," and the helpful, participatory silence of actively listening to someone speak. Plus, the strange story behind the English words "grotesque" and "antic": both involve bizarre paintings found in ancient Roman ruins. Finally, the whirring sound of a Betsy bug and a moth's dusty wings give rise to picturesque English words and phrases. Plus millers, keysmash, subpar, placer mining, dinklepink and padiddle, machatunim and consuegros, and to clock someone.

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Another term for moth is miller or dusty miller, so named the powdery wings of these insects recall the image of a miller covered in flour. That's also the inspiration behind the name of the dusty miller plant.

Elaine from Boulder, Colorado, wonders: What's the origin of the slang term to clock someone meaning to hit them?

After the death of Aretha Franklin, her ex-husband described her as someone who didn't take tea for the fever. If you don't take tea for the fever, you refuse to put up with any nonsense. This .expression appears in a story by Langston Hughes.

Jeff from Huntsville, Alabama, remembers playing a game on family road trips called padiddle. If you see a car at night with one headlight out, you say Padiddle! The first person to do so gets to punch a fellow passenger. His wife's family played a variation in which the winner was entitled to a kiss. There are various rules for the game and various names, including perdiddle perdunkle, pasquaddle, cockeye, cockeye piddle, dinklepink, and popeye. There's also the slug bug version that specifically involves spotting a Volkswagen.

A keysmash is a random string of letters typed as a way of indicating intense emotion, such as frustration.

There are scores of new television shows out there, which inspired Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle based on names of TV programs you may not have heard of. For example, is Cloak and Dagger a series about spies in the 1940s, or is it about two superheroes called Cloak and Dagger?

Cecily from Indianapolis, Indiana, recalls her North Carolina-born grandmother would describe someone doing something stupid as being crazy as a Betsy bug. The phrase alludes to the horned beetle, also known as the patent-leather beetle, a large black insect that makes a whirring noise when disturbed. It's also called a Betsy bug, bess bug, or bessie bug.

Joseph from Wilson, Wyoming, wonders: Why is subpar, or in other words under par, a good thing in golf but nowhere else?

Sue from Rancho Palos Verdes, California, says her daughter Pip used to talk about how much she loved the jazz singer Elephants Gerald.

Judith in Newbury Park, California, shares a funny story about how she used to mispronounce the word grotesque with three syllables. This term meaning strange or unnatural or absurdly exaggerated goes back to Italian grottesca, or having to do with caves, and refers to fantastical subterranean murals discovered in Roman ruins featuring strange and exaggerated figures. Thus grotesque is a linguistic relative of the word grotto. Another English term associated with those bizarre paintings the word antic, from Italian antica, meaning old, and a relative of the English word antique.

Susan in Traverse City, Michigan, wonders if there's a single English word that denotes the relationship between two mothers-in-law, two fathers-in-law, or a mother-in-law and father-in-law. Co-mother seems too vague, and the psychologists' terms affine or co-affine, from the same root as affinity, aren't used widely among the rest of the population. In Spanish there's consuegro, and in Yiddish machatunim, as well as words in Portuguese, Italian, and Greek, but nothing that's been adopted into English, and the German Gegenschwiegermutter doesn't seem a likely candidate, either.

Silence exists in more than one form. In his book Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry, Paul Goodman eloquently evokes several of them.

Will from Lexington, Kentucky, has a long-running dispute with his girlfriend. Is it appropriate to call the machine that launders your clothing a clothes-washing machine rather than just a washing machine? And why do we call the machine that cleans the dishes a dishwasher rather than a dish-washing machine?

In an earlier conversation, we discussed the term gypsy and its ugly history as a slur against the Roma people. That history prompted the Actors' Equity Association to choose a new name for its traditional Gypsy Robe. For decades, this garment was awarded to the chorus member in a Broadway musical who has the most production credits. However, it's now called the Legacy Robe.

Placer mining is a method of extracting gold from alluvial deposits. You might guess that the word is pronounced with a long a, but used in this context, it's actually a short vowel. The term derives from a Spanish word for that kind of surface, and goes back to the same Latin root that gives us both plaza and place.

Brian in Church Hill, Tennessee, had a band called Smackin' Bejeebus. The latter word, more commonly rendered as Bejesus or Bejeezus, is a mild oath that euphemizes the name Jesus, is often used for emphasis.

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