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June 11, 2000 - Slangman: Anatomy of Slang - 2002-01-31

INTRO: This week, VOA Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti examine the anatomy of slang, from head to toe.

MUSIC "Dry Bones"/The Delta Rhythm Boys

AA: Hundreds of slang expressions in American English are connected to the human body. But translated literally, many of these expressions leave non-native English speakers scratching their heads -- in other words, confused.

RS: For instance, how is a non-native speaker to know that the expression "you're pulling my leg" means "you're kidding me" or "you're teasing." But, don't get discouraged. Other languages do the same thing.

RS: Slangman David Burke tells us that in French the equivalent of "you're pulling my leg" is, "You're treating yourself to my head." In Spanish it's, "You're taking my hair." He writes about this kind of idiomatic body language in his book "Street Speak Two."

AA: We asked David Burke, in Los Angeles, to guide us through some of the slang expressions of the human anatomy, without putting his foot in his mouth -- saying something embarrassing.

And we asked him to start at the top.

TAPE CUT ONE: DAVID BURKE "Well, let's see! `To come to a head,' which means to come to a final climatic, emotional level. Or, `to get a head start' which means to be given an early start or an advantage. Someone gives you a `head start' in a race. You get an advantage." (A person) who is very sensible, we say that person has a `good head on their shoulders.' For example, a sentence would be, `Chuck has a good head on his shoulders. I'm sure he will make the right decision.' So, to have a good head on one's shoulders, it just means to be very sensible. That's a really good one."

RS: Next we zoom in on the mouth, as Slangman David Burke continues our tour.


DAVID BURKE: "Someone who talks and talks and talks and someone who can just not stop talking (is)... "

RS: "A blabbermouth."

BURKE: "Right! A blabbermouth! To blabber means to talk a lot. But, for some reason we like to add blabber and mouth together to make a real kind of funny sounding word. Here's a good sentence: `Why did you tell Howard about the surprise party for Helen? What a blabbermouth!'

"OK, in your mouth, we have of course, hopefully ..."

RS: "Teeth!"

BURKE: "Teeth! There are lots of expressions with teeth. We're going to pick one: Somebody who lies, grossly, somebody who tells huge lies you say to that person, `You are lying through your teeth.' For example, Todd lied through his teeth when he said that he planned to pay me back next week. He didn't. He didn't pay me back. He lied through his teeth.'"

"Now we're going to go a little bit lower to your shoulder. If somebody refuses to talk to you anymore and is really mad at you, I'm going to give you ... "

RS: "The cold shoulder."

DAVID BURKE: "That means to refuse to acknowledge someone, usually because you're angry or your feelings were hurt. An example would be, `I saw Chuck at the movies last night, but he gave me the cold shoulder. I asked him what was wrong, but he ignored me. He gave me the cold shoulder.' I asked him what was wrong, but he ignored me."

"And your shoulder is connected to your spine ... your spine goes up to your shoulders, and if you have no courage ... " AA: "You're spineless!"

DAVID BURKE: "Right. To be cowardly, to be weak. `Every time the boss is verbally abusive to Pat, he just takes it and doesn't fight back. Pat is spineless. He's cowardly. He's weak.

Somebody without courage."

RS: But, maybe poor Pat was scared out of his skin. David Burke says the situation could have been "hairy."


DAVID BURKE: "You hear this often when you go to an amusement park and there's a roller coaster, and the ride was scary, thrilling, exhilarating. 'It was hairy!'"

AA: "I thought you were going to say hair-raising."

RS: "Or make your hair stand on end!"

AA: "Or curl your hair."

DAVID BURKE: "(It's interesting) that many things that have to do with hair have to do with fear and being scared, unless we decide to `split hairs.' That's really popular, `to argue about trivial details.' `We could have signed the contract hours ago, but the other side started splitting hairs.'"

RS: Slangman David Burke says the best way to learn these expressions, is to write them down when you see them in print or hear them in conversation.

AA: David Burke also invites you to let your fingers do the walking, over to his Internet Web site at

RS: And you can write to us. Our address is or VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237, USA.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.