Words from Walt Whitman: More Than Barbaric Yawps


While best known for his “barbaric yawp,” poet and journalist Walt Whitman was also the creator of words, several of which we still use today. On his birthday, we take a look at six words and phrases Whitman coined or popularized.

open road

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road!”

Song of the Open Road,” 1857

The term open road originally referred to a country road, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “outside the urban areas, where unimpeded driving is possible.” The figurative sense of “freedom of movement” was first used by Whitman in a poem in his collection, Leaves of Grass.


“Besides the hospitals, I also go occasionally on long tours through the camps, talking with the men, &c. Sometimes at night among the groups around the fires, in their shebang enclosures of bushes.”

Specimen Days,” The Complete Prose Works of Walt Whitman, 1862

Before shebang became the whole shebang, Whitman used it to mean a shanty or temporary living quarters. He might have picked it up from Civil War soldiers who, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, popularized the phrase. The word might be an alteration of shebeen, meaning an unlicensed drinking establishment, but the tavern sense of shebang came after the Civil War.

Shebang came to mean any situation or matter of concern around 1869 or earlier, says the OED, which lists Mark Twain’s as the earliest recorded usage: “I like the book, I like you and your style and your business vim, and believe the chebang will be a success.”


Trib: of July 4 to Rob’t Buchanan, Oban S.”

Daybook, 1878

Whitman may have been the first to nickname a U.S. newspaper with “tribune” in its title (e.g., the Chicago Tribune) the Trib.


“There shall be countless linked hands—namely, the Northeasterner‘s, and the Northwesterner’s, and the Southwesterner’s, and those of the interior.”

Leaves of Grass, 1860

If you call yourself a northeasterner, you have Whitman to thank. He was also the first to use native state words Kansian, Oregonese, and Utahan.


“When the fire-flashing guns have fully alerted me.”

A Broadway Pageant,” 1860

Before the 20th century, using alert as a verb was rare, says the OED. Whitman’s is the earliest recorded usage.


“Some three or four hundred more escapees from the confederate army came up on the boat.”

Specimen Days,” 1875–1876

While Whitman’s recorded usage is from the 1870s, the Online Etymology Dictionary says escapee came about in American English around 1865, perhaps, like shebang, in association with Civil War soldiers.

Word Buzz Wednesday: side splash, Greek foot, yuck factor


Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for the most interesting words of the week. The latest: side struck by lightning; an unusual second toe; feeling icky about technology.

side splash

“Justin believes that he experienced what’s called a side flash or side splash, in which the lightning ‘splashes’ from something that has been struck—such as a tree or telephone pole—hopscotching to a nearby object or person.”

Charlotte Huff, “What It’s Like to Be Struck by Lightning,” The Atlantic, May 25, 2017

According to U.S. meteorologist Ron Holle, direct lightning strikes “are surprisingly rare,” and “responsible for no more than 3 to 5 percent of injuries.” Side splashes make up “20 to 30 percent of injuries and fatalities” while “by far the most common cause of injury is ground current, in which the electricity courses along the earth’s surface.”


“Pupil barristers, as trainees are known, start there at £65,000 per year, and the top silks each make several million pounds.”

Simon Akam, “The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks,” Bloomberg, May 23, 2017

Silk is the nickname given to “barristers who’ve achieved the rank of Queen’s Counsel,” says Bloomberg, and comes from “the plush material used to make their robes.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest recorded usage is from 1821: “Our solicitor has heard with due attention the speeches delivered from learned silk.”

postural sway

“‘Most of us aren’t aware that we’re moving around all the time,’ says Lena Ting of Emory University, who measures what’s called postural sway in standing people as well as in animals.”

Susan Milius, “Here’s how flamingos balance on one skinny leg,” Business Insider, May 26, 2017

Postural sway refers to horizontal movement around one’s center of gravity. Simply “keeping the body vertical,” says Business Insider, requires “constant sensing and muscular correction for wavering.”

Greek foot

“Today the toe—and the foot it belongs to—is often called a ‘Greek foot’ by art historians and podiatrists.”

Melissa Banigan, “Why the Venus de Milo Has Extra-Long Second Toes,” Atlas Obscura, May 23, 2017

Greek foot refers to having a second toe that’s longer than the first, says Atlas Obscura, so-called because of its frequent depiction in ancient Greek sculptures. In the early 20th century, Dudley Morton, an American orthopedic surgeon, christened the phenomenon after himself, calling it Morton’s toe. Fifteen to 20 percent of the general population has it, and it may cause bunions, hammertoes, and chronic pain.

yuck factor

“He couldn’t face the idea of the operation. It devastated the family. That shows the strength of the yuck factor.”

Anonymous, “Why I donated one of my kidneys to a stranger,” The Guardian, May 20, 2017

The yuck factor refers to an instinctive negative response against new technology and was coined by bioethicist Arthur Caplan, according to Environmental Health Perspectives. For example, the yuck factor might deter people from using recycled sewage as their tap water or from donating a kidney, as discussed in The Guardian article. The yuck factor is also known as the wisdom of repugnance or appeal to disgust.

Word Buzz Wednesday: Jante, Forer effect, aplatanada

Plantains, bananas

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for the most interesting words of the week. The latest: the Danish law of “average”; how horoscopes pull a fast one; becoming “plantainized.”


“The character of Denmark has been consistent in its exemplification of Jante even though it’s never named as such.”

Cole Seidner, “These 10 Rules Are How Denmark Won ‘World’s Happiest Country’ — Three Times,” Big Think, April 4, 2017

Like the cozy hygge, Jante is a Danish untranslatable and thought to be the reason Denmark keeps getting picked as the world’s happiest country. The law of Jante, says Quartz, is a code of conduct which suggests “Danes are happy because they aspire to be average.” Jante was originally the fictionalized town in a satirical novel which the author wrote “to skewer the people of the small town and region where he grew up.”

Why would such a law make you happy? It’s all about expectations. Quartz cites a therapist who says that if you expect a “very average life,” you’re more likely to be content “when life hands you average things.” And if you get something “above and beyond average,” you’ll probably be “pleasantly surprised” and “pretty darn happy.”

tago nang tago

“Lola’s legal status became what Filipinos call tago nang tago, or TNT — ‘on the run.’”

Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave,” The Atlantic, June 2017

Other Tagalog terms in Alex Tizon’s moving yet troubling piece include utusan, “people who take commands”; katulong, “helper”; and kasambahay, “domestic.”

Forer effect

“It’s hard to know whether I found them to be true — I am charming, TYSM, but am I irresponsible?! — or whether I’d fallen victim to the Forer effect.”

Haley Nahman, “Does Your Birth Order Affect Your Personality?” Man Repeller, May 12, 2017

The Forer effect, also known as the Barnum effect, is a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to agree with “vague descriptions about themselves without realizing they could apply to basically everyone and their cousin,” as How Stuff Works puts it. It’s named for Bertram Forer, a 20th-century American psychologist.

thunder god vine

“Now scientists have figured out how the thunder god vine works to prevent pregnancy.”

Katherine Ellen Foley, “A new study has confirmed the science behind an ancient form of birth control,” Quartz, May 18, 2017

The thunder god vine is known more formally as Tripterygium wilfordii, says Quartz. Researchers at University of California, Berkeley have figured out how a compound in the plant prevents sperm from fertilizing the egg, which “could lead to an alternative to the hormonal birth control pill.”


“Recently, I spent more than a month in this cinematic metropolis, getting properly aplatanada (slang for ‘plantainized,’ meaning Cubanized).”

Anya von Bremzen, “Where to Eat, Stay and Shop in Havana,” Food & Wine, May 22, 2017

Plantains are often equated with Cuban cooking — hence the slang term aplatanada, literally “plantainized,” to mean becoming Cuban — although “the fruit probably originated in India and landed in the Caribbean via the Spanish settlers,” says Fine Cooking.

Word Buzz Wednesday: poudre de perlimpinpin, crotilla, Q

Har Gow

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for the most interesting words of the week. The latest: war of the words, the French edition; another Frankenstein food; and a bouncy mouthfeel.

poudre de perlimpinpin

“Macron used this colourful phrase, meaning ‘fairy dust’, to refer to Le Pen’s promises.”

The new French words we learned thanks to Macron and Le Pen’s verbal joust,” The Local, May 4, 2017

Poudre de perlimpinpin is just one of several interesting French words used during the presidential debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. It “can also mean star dust or snake oil,” says The Local. Other English lying, cheating, and stealing words include smoke and mirrors, chicanery, and subterfuge.


“Based on the response to Crotilla so far, which has ranged from bewilderment to contempt, the product isn’t on its way to living up to the Cronut’s legacy.”

Michele Debczak, “Walmart Unveils the ‘Crotilla,’ a Tortilla and Croissant Hybrid,” Mental Floss, April 25, 2017

This latest culinary monstrosity (only to be rivaled by the frork, which may or may not be a joke) is an unnecessary cross between a croissant and a tortilla.


“I grew to seek out Q like a favored friend, pining for the texture itself rather than looking to satisfy flavor expectations.”

Laura Russell, “The Curious Case of Q,” Roads and Kingdoms, May 2017

Q is a “springy, chewy” kind of mouthfeel — think mochi, fish cakes, shrimp dumplings (or har gow), and tapioca pearls, says Roads and Kingdoms. The term is also known as QQ and tan ya, which translates as “rebound teeth,” and may come from the Taiwanese Hokkien k’iu.


Spaceplan is what’s known as an idle game, or a clicker. They’re the video game equivalent of background noise.”

Andrew Webster, “Spaceplan is a simple sci-fi game about saving the world and also potatoes,” The Verge, May 7, 2017

A clicker is also known as an incremental game, and “consists of the player performing simple actions (such as clicking on the screen) repeatedly to gain currency.” The term might come from Cookie Clicker and Cow Clicker, perhaps the first type of these games to gain success.


“The girls were instructed to slip their paintbrushes between their lips to make a fine point — a practice called lip-pointing, or a ‘lip, dip, paint routine,’ as playwright Melanie Marnich later described it.”

Kate Moore, “The Forgotten Story Of The Radium Girls, Whose Deaths Saved Thousands Of Workers’ Lives,” BuzzFeed, May 5, 2017

After the U.S. joined World War I, hundreds of young women got jobs painting watches and radio dials with radium, says BuzzFeed. Why radium? Because it glowed in the dark.

But it was also deadly. Every time the women lip-pointed, “they swallowed a little of the glowing green paint,” having been told that small amounts of radium was actually beneficial to their  health. While the effect was magical at first — these “ghost girls” would literally shine in the dance halls at night — they were soon beset with disfigurement and disease. In the end, the women’s cases “led to life-saving regulations and, ultimately, to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

8 Old-Timey Names for a Soft Drink

In coke, I trust

Depending on where you live in the United States, you might have a different name for a sweet, carbonated beverage. Live on the west coast or in the northeast? It’s soda. The midwest? That’s pop. Parts of the south? Coke (even if it’s Sprite).

But how about what Americans used to call fizzy sugar water? With our friends at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), we bring you eight old-timey names for a soft drink.

soft beer

This old-fashioned name was used especially in Maine. A 1925 quote in DARE says that “even today in the remote northern part of Maine, carbonated beverages are referred to as ‘soft beer.’” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, small beer refers to weak or inferior beer, and, by extension, unimportant, trivial things. To think small beer of is to think lowly of someone or something, says the Oxford English Dictionary.

soda dope

This old-timey term might have been used especially in North Carolina. Also sodey dope, sody dope, or just dope, a southern colloquialism for a soft drink.


While some of us might equate tonic with tonic water, a quinine-flavored carbonated drink, in New England, it refers to a carbonated soft drink in general.

bottled drink

This vintage phrase was chiefly used in the South, especially North Carolina. Also bottle drink.

cold drink

If you happen to be in the Lower Mississippi Valley and someone offers you a cold drink, you can expect a non-alcoholic, carbonated, bottled beverage that won’t necessarily be cold, at least according to one quote in DARE.


“I need a drink!” some of us might say when we crave a cocktail. But in the southern region, such a term refers to a booze-free, bubbly beverage.

soda water

To some of us soda water might refer to “a solution of water, sodium bicarbonate, and acid,” but to some, especially in Texas and the Lower Mississippi Valley, it refers to carbonated water that’s been sweetened and flavored.

belly wash

This saying originally referred to a drink, usually alcoholic, of poor quality, but in some regions of the U.S. it means any soft drink, usually carbonated. Usage is scattered throughout the country. The Journal of American Folklore cites a 1964 quote from a central Pennsylvania resident: “We had a plant in our town which bottled pop, and we boys would go to the ‘belly-wash factory.’”

What do you call a carbonated soft drink? Tell us in the comments!

Word Buzz Wednesday: snap election, Diaosi, hundslappadrifa

Vík í Mýrdal

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for the most interesting words of the week. The latest: a snap decision, election style; losers winning in China; saving the Icelandic language in the digital age.

snap election

“Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain is calling for a snap election on June 8, breaking a promise not to seek a vote before 2020.”

Russell Goldman, “Key Points About a Snap Election in Britain,” The New York Times, April 18, 2017

Before 2011, says The New York Times, prime ministers in Great Britain could call an election whenever they liked. Then a law was passed scheduling a general election every five years but with two exceptions: if Parliament members “lose confidence in the government, or if two-thirds of the members agree, a ‘snap’ election can be held.”


“Online, types give way and Diaosi is an identification made by those who earn comfortably middle-class salaries, have mortgages and university degrees, to others who work long hours in factories for little pay, having almost no disposable income.”

Graham Candy, “Winning and Losing in Modern China,” Peeps Magazine

The Chinese term Diaosi, which translates as “loser,” originated in 2012, and was originally used to insult others online, says Peeps Magazine. However, a year later, it was estimated that over 500 million Chinese self-identified as such.

While various sources define Diaosi in various ways, they agree on three features: the majority are men born in the 1980s, play online games, and don’t see themselves as Gao Fu Shuai, those who are “tall, rich, and handsome.”


“Ertugrul flips through the book and points to hemdem. ‘Do you have any word in English that means close friend?’”

Alexandra Locke, “The Turkish Shop Reviving Forgotten Words,” OZY, April 21, 2017

Hemdem means more than “a close friend,” says OZY. It means “sharing the same air,” a friend so close “that you’re sharing the same air in your past.”


“As we announce this landmark musical, I keep thinking about the Japanese term gaman, a word that means enduring the unbearable with dignity and strength.”

Jessica Gelt, “The George Takei musical ‘Allegiance’ is coming to L.A.,” The Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2017

Another untranslatable that comes from an Asian language is han, a Korean term that “denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of overwhelming odds,” and “aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.”


“The people of Iceland, a rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen about 1,100 years ago, have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Arctic. Hundslappadrifa, for example, means ‘heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind.’”

Egill Bjarnason,“ Icelandic language at risk; robots, computers can’t grasp it,” The Associated Press, April 22, 2017

The Associated Press says Icelandic “ranks among the weakest and least-supported language in terms of digital technology – along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese and Lithuanian.” One billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, “is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.”

Word Buzz Wednesday: reaccommodate, pingo, maximalism

model interior

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for the most interesting words of the week. The latest: a possible euphemism of the year; a cute name for a dangerous phenomenon; more is more.


“There is something to be said for the fact that the context in which reaccommodate was used was air travel, a realm plagued by stilted euphemisms from the lavatory to the full, upright and locked middle seat.”

Katy Steinmetz, “United Airlines ‘Reaccommodated’ a Passenger. Is That the Euphemism of the Year?” TIME, April 11, 2017

Reaccommodate in this context refers to the forcible removal of passenger David Dao from an overbooked United Airlines flight. Past euphemisms of the year from the American Dialect Society include locker-room banter for “lewd, vulgar talk”; EIT, or “enhanced interrogation technique,” itself a euphemism for torture; and least untruthful, “involving the smallest necessary lie.”


“Despite the huge power of the MOAB, it is a smart bomb with wings and grid fins for guidance, and usually explodes mere feet from the ground.”

Anna Cummins, “5 things to know about the MOAB,” CNN, April 24, 2017

MOAB refers to GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, as well as, more commonly, the “mother of all bombs,” and was recently dropped by U.S. forces on Afghanistan. This thermobaric bomb (it generates both heat and pressure) is not the largest of its kind. Russia claims to have developed one four times larger than the MOAB, says CNN, aptly called FOAB, the father of all bombs.


“Don’t be fooled by its cute name—pingos can do some serious damage.”

Cara Giaimo, “Siberia Has Installed Its First ‘Exploding Pingo Detector,’” Atlas Obscura, April 11, 2017

Pingos are “common in Arctic permafrost,” says Atlas Obscura, and look like small hills (the term comes from an Inuit word meaning “small hill”). However, underneath they’re “full of ice, water, and, increasingly, methane gas, which bubbles up from underground vents.” They can “even explode,” resulting huge craters.


“Appealing to impulses, as maximalism does, could also be interpreted as a consumerist strategy to get more people to buy more design.”

Diana Budds, “Minimalism Is Dead. Hello Maximalism,” FastCo Design, April 14, 2017

Maximalism is a reaction against minimalism (think “less is a bore”). Signs of maximalism might include a multitude of colors, objects, and patterns, and a lack of white space.

shaku maku

“The riddle at the heart of shaku maku seems to sum up the contradictions of the modern Iraqi experience.”

Rob Kunzig, “The Iraqi Version of ‘What’s Up?’ Is an Existential Riddle,” Atlas Obscura, April 14, 2017

Shaku maku is a greeting used in Iraq but also more than a greeting. Roughly translated, says Atlas Obscura, it means, “What is everything and nothing?” One Iraqi expatriate says the phrase “might show the confused and curious Iraqi personality,” and “that we care about everything that happened with the other, but also it shows we don’t know anything specific.”