‘Car Talk’ lives on — in the dictionary
It’s probably not a surprise for “Car Talk” fans that Ray Magliozzi, NPR’s beloved car-advice talk show’s co-host, has now been enshrined in Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary — under the definition for “babe magnet.” (Unfortunately for Ray, that’s not “babe magnet” as in “someone who is very attractive to women,” but the secondary meaning, “something that makes a man more attractive to women.” The citation, from 2008: “Don’t get me wrong. This Cutlass Ciera of yours is no babe magnet.”)
“Car Talk” hasn’t produced a new episode since Ray and his brother Tom retired in 2012. (Tom died from Alzheimer’s disease last November.) But the show lives on, not just in repeats each Saturday morning, but also in its contributions to the English language. The “babe magnet” citation — added last year and tweeted recently by Merriam-Webster editor, and “Car Talk” fan, Kory Stamper — is only one of many places “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers” pop up in the dictionary’s deep files of citations, according to Stamper.
A large part of what made “Car Talk” so successful was Tom and Ray’s Hahvahd-Yahd-inflected banter, which mingled Italian-American working-class smart-alecky-ness with MIT-educated sophistication (both brothers were graduates of the institute). Their accents — Tom’s broad “cahhh”; Ray, he said recently, pronounced his r’s so listeners across the country could understand — made them sound like regulars at the nearest sports bar. But the brothers also employed a creative, highly erudite, often pun-filled private slang to connect with listeners — insulting common enemies (sleazy mechanics or overbearing husbands), joshing each other or callers, or commiserating over the shared agonies of life on the road. And lexicographers, among others, are still paying attention.
The Magliozzis’ language, on-air, wasn’t too different from the way they spoke to each other or their friends off-air, Ray told me. It came out of the way he and his brother, whom he called his “best friend,” had always talked: inventing in-jokes and funny slang terms. (The pun-addled credits at the end were a major part of the show’s signature argot: “head of our working-mother support group, Erasmus B. Dragon”; “Russian chauffeur, Picov Andropov.”) In looking back at their language on the show — some terms culled from Stamper’s files as well as others collected by executive producer Doug Berman — a distinctive flavor emerges.
To start, the vast majority of the terms are insults, a nearly Shakespearean collection of vitriol. Aspersions directed toward bad drivers tended to be much more affectionate: “bozo,” for instance, or “jamoke.” “Jamoke,” a frequent mild insult — “If your husband tells you should warm up your car for 20 minutes before you drive it, he’s a jamoke,” Ray said — has obscure origins. Merriam-Webster defines it as slang for coffee, derived from a blend of “mocha” and “java.” According to Ray, he got it not from the mean streets of Cambridge, but from the 1970s Robert Blake cop show “Baretta,” where it was used often.
Also in the “bad driver” category are a number of putdowns focused more specifically on either the falling-apart vehicle or some particular bad decisions by its operator. Stamper noted the Magliozzi brothers’ frequent usage of “idiot light” for dashboard panel warnings. They also seem to have invented the term “black tape solution” for what to do, at least maybe if you’re a jamoke, when the idiot light is flashing — i.e., cover it with black tape.
The Merriam-Webster citation files also feature Magliozzi quotes attached to a number of “babe magnet” antonyms: “heap,” “clunker,” “junker,” and “rust bucket.”
Mechanics, lawyers, and pushy husbands received some less affectionate insults: “sleazeball,” for instance (“We did use ‘sleazeball’ quite a bit, especially referring to unscrupulous repair shop owners,” Ray said) or Tom’s fake-Latin version, “Myxomycetes Spheroid,” meaning “slime ball.” “Mechanic’s shrug” is a classic “Car Talk” term for the know-nothing shuffle performed in response to question after question.
“Boat payment” played off Ray’s discovery “from a lot of my colleagues that owned auto repair shops, that the ones who were the least honest and the least on the up-and-up, all owned boats.” On the show, it became not simply a descriptor but actually a unit of measurement: Some colossal and unnecessary repair job could be described as costing “four boat payments.”
Tom had a particular genius for terms that just barely skirted on-air profanity guidelines, often through rather highbrow detours, like “anal cranial inversion” or “T.S., Eliot” (the T stands for “tough”). Then there was a bounty of bathroom-humor words. “Shnerdling” is a word for toilet invented on a trip to Iceland, when the Magliozzis found the Icelandic term — possibly “snyrting” — hilariously and incomprehensibly Icelandic. “Urgent haircut” came from an old “puzzler” (the show’s weekly quiz feature) about a man “in urgent need of a haircut.” It evolved to mean, Berman said, “have to use the bathroom.” It’s now the name of Berman’s production company.
In 2009, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman discussed the “Car Talk” brothers’ use of the word “bogus” on the linguistics blog Language Log: Were they using the older British definition, meaning “fraudulent, dishonest,” or was it a more modern definition meaning “unsupported by evidence”? (Liberman settled on the latter.) “Bogus,” and the “BOOOOGUS” sound effect, show up often on the show, mostly as an insult delivered by Tom to Ray. “There’s ‘bogus’ in the classical sense,” Ray said. “But my brother used it exclusively to demean puzzlers of mine whose answers he didn’t like,” for just about any reason ranging from “too easy” to “too hard.”
Another affectionate coinage, and the word Ray called his favorite, was “dope slap.” Stamper put the first usage of this term back to 1992, from Tom: “Well, the first thing I’d do is give that kid a dope slap for driving home after the oil light came on. When the oil light comes on, you should always stop the engine immediately.” According to Stamper, Merriam-Webster is now reviewing the term, and “it’s a good candidate for entry” into the unabridged dictionary. Asked to define “dope slap” for Merriam-Webster’s benefit, Ray described it as “kind of a quick slap to the back of the head when the recipient is unaware that it’s coming.” It’s always administered in a “didactic” fashion, he said, to teach a lesson — and ideally you should never get a second one for the same offense.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.