A caller with a 25-year-old parrot wonders: How much language do birds really understand? Plus, Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo. Well . . . you can guess the rest. But there was a time when these goofy jokes were a brand-new craze sweeping the nation. Finally, the words "coffee" and "sugar" both come from Arabic, as does another familiar word: ghoul. There's a spooky story about its origin. Also, freckle, diamond in the rough, spur of the moment, literary limericks, the pronunciation of divisive, and a cold vs. the flu.
In 1936, newspapers across the United States breathlessly reported on a new craze sweeping the nation: knock-knock jokes -- and they were at least as corny as today's version. A seventh-grader from Colorado wonders where the word freckle comes from. This word's origin is a bit murky, but appears to be related to old Scandinavian term rooted in the idea of "scattering," like the seeds that freckles resemble. The German word for these bits of pigment is Sommersprossen, literally, "summer sprouts." A native New Yorker who lived as a boy with his grandmother in South Carolina recalls coming home late one day and offering a long-winded excuse, prompting his grandmother to declare, Boy, you're as deep as the sea! She probably meant simply that he was in deep trouble. Our earlier conversation about the word ruminate prompts a Fort Worth, Texas, listener to send a poem that his aunt, an elementary-school teacher, made him memorize as a child: A gum-chewing boy and a cud-chewing cow / To me, they seem alike somehow / But there's a difference -- I see it now / It's the thoughtful look on the face of the cow. What's the meaning of the phrase diamond in the rough? Does it refer to a rose among thorns, to unrealized potential? The phrase derives from the diamond industry, where a diamond in the rough is one taken from the ground but still unpolished. The word diamond is an etymological relative of adamant, meaning "unbreakable," as well as adamantine, which means the same thing. Looking for an extremely silly knock-knock joke? Here's one that's as silly as they come: Knock, knock. Who's there? Cows go. Try figuring out the rest. Quiz Guy John Chaneski's challenge involves phrases of two words, each of which ends in the letter a. For example, if you mix nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, you get a yellow, fuming, corrosive liquid that eats metals, even gold. What's it called? A listener in Hartland, Vermont, has a 25-year-old African parrot named Trouble, and says he's often asked about the bird's vocabulary and how the two of them communicate, which raises the question "What is a word?" Grant argues that the better question is "Does this bird have a language?" and the answer is no. For example, the bird might associate an object with a particular word, but wouldn't understand pronouns, nor would the bird be able to comprehend recursive statements that contain ideas embedded in ideas. Before knock-knock jokes swept the country in 1936, another silly parlor game called Handies was all the rage. To do something on the spur of the moment, or to "act spontaneously," comes from the idea of using a sharp device to urge on a horse. The English language includes several words deriving from Arabic, such as coffee, sugar, and giraffe. Another is ghoul, which comes from an Arabic term for a "shapeshifting demon." How do you pronounce the second syllable in the word divisive? This question divides lots of English speakers. Either is fine, but the use of a short i is more recent, first recorded in dictionaries in 1961. Why do we say someone has a cold when we say someone else has the flu, and another person has croup? A listener in Abu Dhabi responded to our request for literary limericks with one of her own. It starts with "There once was a lass on a ledge … " A bank teller suffered a brain injury and now sometimes finds it hard to remember simple words. She wants a succinct way to explain to her customers why she's having difficulty. Some knock-knock jokes stir the emotions, including Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo ... A woman in Middlesex, Vermont, says that when she was a girl her parents sometimes described her as porky, but they weren't referring to her appearance -- they meant she was acting rebelliously. This use of the word might be related to pawky, or "impertinent," in British English. Don't worry, be happy -- or, as a quote attributed to Montaigne goes, My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened. This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine. -- A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate
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