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9 Ways of Saying "Stupid" Across the United States

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You could call someone stupid, or you could say he hasn't the sense to find his rear-end with both hands and a roadmap. "She's an idiot!" you could proclaim, or, "If her brains were dynamite, she wouldn't have enough to blow her nose." Get smart about how to say "stupid" with these nine regional idioms brought to you in our continued partnership with the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

1. NOT ENOUGH SENSE TO COME IN OUT OF THE RAIN

When DARE surveyed readers to complete the sentence "He hasn't sense enough to," the phrase "come in out of the rain" got the most responses. It also has a slew of variations, including get in out of the rain, come in out of the wet, and get out of a shower of rain.

2. NOT ENOUGH SENSE TO GREASE A GIMLET

A gimlet, in addition to being a delicious cocktail, is a tool used for boring. So someone who doesn’t think to grease one isn’t the sharpest gimlet in the toolbox. According to DARE, you might hear this put-down in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and New York.

3. NOT ENOUGH SENSE TO BELL A BUZZARD

Why would anyone want to bell a buzzard, and why would you be considered a numbskull if you didn't think to do so? Alternates of this saying include bell a bull or cow, which make more sense. But a buzzard? DARE says belling and releasing these birds of prey was an occasional practice, at least according to “scattered 19th- and early 20th-century accounts, and that such birds were regarded by some with superstitious fear.” But there’s no explanation as to why “the practice should have been regarded as self-evidently desirable or simple.”

4. NOT ENOUGH SENSE TO POUND SAND DOWN A RATHOLE

The same seems to go for pounding sand down a rathole, something you’ll hear chiefly west of the Mississippi River, according to DARE, and in the North Central region and upstate New York. The idiom pound sand means to waste time or act ineffectively. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from 1857; slang expert Jonathan Green says that it might be a euphemistic shortening of go pound sand up one’s ass. However, like belling a buzzard, why pounding sand down a rathole would be considered basic isn’t clear.

5. NOT ENOUGH SENSE TO POUR PISS OUT OF A BOOT

Or, if you want to get even more colorful, pump piss out of a boot with the directions on the heel. Dumping urine from footwear before putting it on definitely seems smart, but we wonder how the pee got in there in the first place.

6. NOT ENOUGH SENSE TO CARRY GUTS TO A BEAR

This odd expression might be heard in Maine, New Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana. There's also he’s not fit to carry guts to a bear, or he's unable “to do the most menial or simple task.” The idea might come from old-timey bear-baiting days, when carrying innards to the poor beasts was apparently elementary. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1692: “Wee, the Kings Officers, crys the Fellow that carrys Guts to the Bears.”

7. NOT TO KNOW B FROM A BULL’S FOOT

This expression meaning someone “ignorant or illiterate” is chiefly used in the South and Midland regions, perhaps from the idea that “the foot- or track-print of a bull is somewhat like the letter B,” or perhaps simply as a colorful play on not knowing A from B. Varieties include not to know bee from a bull’s foot, not to know beeswax from bull foot, and not to know beef from bull’s foot.

8. NOT TO KNOW SPLIT BEANS FROM COFFEE

In the South Midland and Texas, you might say this of someone who is “very ignorant or stupid.” From a December 2005 issue of the Austin American-Statesman: “Former Rep. Barry Telford of DeKalb [TX], a Democratic leader under Laney, said: ‘Bush didn’t know split beans from coffee about the Legislature when he was first elected.’”

9. NOT TO KNOW SIC 'EM

You’ll hear this ignoramus phrase in the Inland North, the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, and Upper Midwest. But what does “sic 'em” mean? William Safire explored this back in 1993 when then Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole told him, "Those guys in the White House just don't know sic 'em.” Safire put in a call to DARE and found out that at least one reader thought someone who doesn’t know sic 'em is as lazy and shiftless as a dog who shows no “instant reaction to the command ‘sic 'em.’”

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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