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A Way with Words (Series)

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Highway Robbery (#1626)

From A Way with Words | Part of the A Way with Words series | 54:00


What happens when you de-pluralize a book title? As members of our Facebook group discovered, if you make the plurals in the name of a book singular, you can come up with some interesting plot lines. For example, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath becomes the story of a giant dangerous fruit:The Grape of Wrath. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is reduced to Lion and Prejudice, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women becomes the story of one Little Woman. And, with a nod to a collective noun, a twist on an Agatha Christie novel becomes A Crow on the Orient Express.
Emily from New Orleans, Louisiana, wonders about the expression Holy cow! to indicate surprise or delight. It's one of many minced oaths, in this case a replacement for the stronger exclamation, Holy Christ! These euphemistic expressions, such as Holy Moses! or Holy smokes! allow the speaker some of the satisfaction of swearing without saying anything truly sacrilegious. As early as the 1860s, the exclamation Cow! was sometimes as a substitute for God!
The term sun grin literally means a kind of squinting expression caused by facing bright sunlight. Metaphorically, though, it indicates a fixed or humorless grin.
The word nurdle, sometimes spelled nerdle, can be used to denote various "small bits of things," such as styrofoam packing material or detritus in one's pockets. Like thingamabob and whatsit, the word nurdle, can also serve as a general-purpose placeholder for a word you can't think of. In industry, nurdles are tiny pellets used in the production of plastic, now becoming a major source of pollution. At least as early as the 1960s, the word nurdle was also used for the wavy dab of toothpaste on a toothbrush, a definition of which was cited in a 2010 legal battle between rival toothpaste companies.
Inspired by the biological process of cell division, Quiz Guy John Chaneski came up with a puzzle in which a vowel inside a word divides into two, as in the words cot and coot. If E and O are the only vowels that might replicate, guess what pair of words might be clued by the following observation? When I was a kid in the '50s, we'd either go to a dance or play ring toss.
Lizzie calls from Bromgrove in the West Midlands of England to ask about the phrase Would you jump in my grave as quick? She remembers hearing friends say it when, for example, someone took their nice warm spot on the sofa when they got up to make a cup of tea. The phrase is used with an element of faux or real indignation, as if to say "How dare you take my spot?" A version of this phrase appears in the hilarious action movie Hot Fuzz and novelist Jojo Moyes used it in the novel Me Before You (Bookshop|Amazon).
Mick in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, shares that a co-worker from Texas used to advise him when lifting heavy objects to heave carefully because You don't want to strain your milk. The origin of this expression is uncertain, although it may simply be a play on the word strain. 
Zack in Tallahassee, Florida, wonders: Why do we use the name John Doe to refer to someone anonymous or unknown? The names John Doe and Richard Roe go back to at least the 1300s, when they were used in land-related legal matters as pseudonyms for plaintiff and defendant. But those weren't the only names. Sometimes Doe was spelled Doo, and Roe was spelled Roo. The name Peter Poe was also used, as well as John Den and Richard Fen. Sometimes they were Latinized as Johannes Hunt and Johannes Den, Johannem Doo and Ricardem Doo, as well as John Noakes or John O. Noakes, John Hunt, and Tom Stiles. Jane Doe and Jane Roe are now used as substitute feminine names. In ancient Rome, the names Titius and Seius were similarly used as generic names for Roman citizens.
Abishek in Gaffney, South Carolina, found himself using the word Tetrising to refer to trying to pack a lot of small items into a moving van, based on the video game Tetris, in which players try to make various combinations of squares all fit together. Can you use the word Tetris as a verb? Although it's not yet showing up in dictionaries, Tetris is already proving a handy verb for denoting the process of "trying to make variously shaped things fit together." In other words, the word Tetris is going through the common process that linguists call denominalization, in which a noun develops an additional sense as a verb, and people are already using the words Tetrising and Tetrised because they express the idea so well. Soon after the game of Tetris became popular, people naturally used the word Tetris to refer to what you'd want to do after playing the game, namely start rearranging things in the offline world, such as a poorly arranged shelf of canned goods at the grocery, and to be Tetrisized meant having the conceit of the game overtaking the way you look at the real world.
In the late 1800s, waitresses at the Harvey House chain of restaurants at railroad stops across the American West employed a cup code. One server would ask customers about their preferred beverages, then briskly arrange their cups on the table according to their preferences. A cup placed upside down, for example, meant the customer wanted hot tea.  A second server would arrive and, without even asking, provided each customer the correct beverage. This restaurant code helped ensure quick, efficient service during rail passengers' brief stops for food. Judy Garland played one of those restaurant workers in the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls.
The term highway robbery has its roots In the late 17th century, when traveling in and out of town by night could be particularly dangerous. Highway robbers would leap out of the darkness, point a weapon at the occupants of an approaching carriage, and demand they turn over their valuables. Over time, these outlaws became romanticized as dashing figures, and highwaymen became the subject of poems and ballads. They were known for demanding money and jewelry with the order Stand and deliver! and also helped popularize the expression Your money or your life! 
A listener reports that when his Kentucky-born grandmother heard anyone say Who, me? she'd respond Your feet don't fit a limb. It's a pun on the sound an owl makes.
Tammy in Atlanta, Georgia, says her father-in-law often uses the expression That's too much sugar for a dime, suggesting that something is more trouble than it's worth. Variations include too much sugar for a cent, too much sugar for a penny, too much sugar for a nickel, and too much sugar for a shilling. Some people use the expression too much sugar for a dime to express skepticism. Versions of this phrase go back to one from at least the 1830s, too much sugar stick for a cent. Her father-in-law also describes something really fine as finer than frog hair, which is pretty fine indeed.
Listeners continue to chime in on the topic of funny street names. One of them points out that in Philadelphia, there's a Rhoads Street and a Street Road.
This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.