Infrequently Answered Question #74: Why are marbles called marbles when they're made of glass?
A: Not all marbles are made of glass. Some modern marbles are plastic. In some places marbles are made of agate. In Australia they sometimes use balls of polished wood. In NYC they play marbles with steel ball bearings. In the Middle East they play with balls of baked clay or the knucklebones of sheep. All over in various times and places you'll find marbles made of all sorts of things other than marble. Though on rare occasions you'll find marbles were made of actual marble.
When I was a kid we called the little glass orbs marbles, and we called games played with them marbles. This isn't the case everywhere. You may have played ringer or immies or mibs. In England, Scotland and Ireland it's taw or boss or span. In Brazil children play gude. They play pallina di vetro in Italy. All over in various times and places you'll find marble games that are not called marbles.
So then, marbles aren't always called marbles and aren't always made of glass. Still, some are glass and called marbles. Why is rather hard to pin down. As are a lot of terms that go way back in the mists of time. Maybe it's because they have viens of color running through them, they're marbled. Maybe it's because they once were made of marble. No-one is really sure. At least I'm not. Here's a bit more about marbles if you care.
Less hard to trace are some old sayings that derive from marbles. Like, for keeps, knuckle down, for all the barbles, no backsies. These are explored in Quotes & Sayings.
4/3/13 Pants Split
Infrequently Answered Question #73: Why do men wear pants and women wear skirts?
A: I can guess what you're thinking, men need the extra crotch room more than women. You'd think so. And so you'd think it'd be the other way around, men in skirts and women in pants. But things happen for reasons that might not apply in modern times.
I'm not saying I have the definitive answer, pants and such were worn by different folks at different times in different places. We will look at one case were men went from skirts to pants. Or rather from skirt-like wear to pants-like wear.
The ancient Romans wore tunics and the more formal toga. These were dress-like, without pants, no separate leggings. Pants came in when they switched from war chariots to mounted cavalry. So it was all about practicality and avoiding chafing and whatnot while on horseback. The pants-wearing practice didn't spread beyond the cavalry to men in general until around the 8th century.
Since it was men riding horses, women retained skirt-like wear. This explains how it came about, but it doesn't really apply much any more. Now it's a tradition. But the skirt/pants split can explain why a girl's bike has a dipping frame. So they can ride a bike wearing a long skirt, which is not something you see much nowadays.
3/20/13 Do Elephants Never Forget Mice?
Infrequently Answered Question #72: Are elephants really afraid of mice?
A: There's plenty of animal folklore out there. Like cats always land on their feet, bulls are provoked by the color red, and elephants never forget. Another bit of elephant lore there. I have no personal experience with bulls or elephants, but I know first-hand cats have an uncanny ability to twist themselves in mid-air and land on their feet. But I seem to have drifted off the point.
On the face of it, it seems absurd that an elephant would be afraid of a mouse. What could a mouse possibly do to an elephant? It's like a cat being afraid of a fly or something. Ridiculous. How do such tales ever gain traction? I can't explain it.
Well, the Mythbusters tested this old bit of folklore and here are the results. If this video is right, elephants ARE afraid of mice. Or at least they shy away from mice. Hard to believe, but there it is in living color. I can't explain this either. All the same, I'll never forget it. Whether the elephants in the video will forget or not, I simply don't know.
11/7/12 It Won’t be Furlong, Four
Infrequently Answered Question #71: I get furlongs, knots, miles and nautical miles. Now then, what's a fathom and a league?
A: A fathom is six feet. Or two yards if you'd prefer. Fathom comes from Middle English fathme, which comes from Old English faedm, meaning "outstretched arms" even though people were shorter back in the day and likely didn't have six foot arm spans. All the same, though it's highly unlikely anyone will ever ask you, a furlong is 110 fathoms and a mile is 880 fathoms.
Just like furlong, folks don't much talk about ye olde fathom any more. Except to say something like, "That's hard to fathom." In which case fathom means understand rather than six feet. Though that meaning of fathom comes from the other meaning of fathom.
Sailors used to fathom the deep, that is they'd measure water depth under their ship. They did so with a weighted rope marked off in fathoms dropped over the side. In the open ocean the sea floor was often so deep their rope wasn't long enough to touch bottom. In which case the depth was unfathomable, it couldn't be measured, it was hard to fathom. From there it was a easy step from if you fathom it, you knew it.
A league is three statute miles. It comes from medieval Latin leaga, a measure of distance. A league is another of those measures rarely used any more. About the only time you'll run across it is in old writing. Like in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Half a league, half a league,
A league is 2,640 fathoms. Not that the Light Brigade cared much about that. They had other things to worry about. File that under absolutely worthless information.
11/5/12 It Won’t be Furlong, Three
Infrequently Answered Question #70: OK. You explained nautical mile. What's this other term sailors use, knots?
A: Unlike statute miles and nautical miles, a knot is a speed and not a distance. A knot is one nautical mile per hour. Since a nautical mile is one minute of arc, a knot is one minute an hour. At the equator, that is.
Knot comes from the way they used to measure speed before they had speedometers. They did this with a log on the end of a rope, called the stuff line, which was marked at intervals with knots. They'd drop the log into the water and sail away from it. Speed was the number of knots paid out on the stuff line over a set time.
Landlubbers don't have a single word for speed. We say miles-per-hour, mph. Maybe we could turn mph into a word, meph. Or mepah. Or mpah, pronounced pah with a silent M. But most places use kilkometers-per-hour, which would be keph. None of these have a nice ring to them in my estimation.
Perhaps we could take a page from flying where they have mach, the speed of sound named for Ernst Mach. So we might have land speed named after someone having to do with the steam locomotive or something. Instead of going 75 miles-per-hour you could be going 75 stephensons. Though stephenson, being three syllables, is no shorter than miles-per-hour. To keep it short and sweet we could make it 75 stephs.
Besides being unclear whether steph should be pronounced steve or steff, it wouldn't be universal since most places go by kilometers. Anyway, we already have a speed word that would work on land, knots. We could use that, but it'd mean changing all car speedometers and speed limit signs. Seems hardly worth the bother.
11/3/12 It Won’t be Furlong, Two
Infrequently Answered Question #69: OK, a mile is eight furlongs. So then, why is a nautical mile longer than a mile on land?
A: Nautical miles are longer because sailors tend to exaggerate everything. Fish stories, tales of sirens, hippogriffs and "Ar-r-rh, matey, here be monsters." Not being a sailor, I'll give it to you straight. The nautical mile is not based on so many feet, or furlongs, where the mile on land is. Rather than an adding up, it's a dividing down.
A nautical mile is one minute of arc at the equator. Which makes a nautical mile a subdivision of the circumference of the globe (1/21,600th) rather than a multiple of feet or what-have-you. As a result, a nautical mile is about 15% longer than a regular mile. I guess that was close enough so they called them both a mile. Confusing, perhaps, but so it goes. Why they couldn't come up with a new word, I don't know.
This is a little odd because sailors make up their own words for lots of other stuff. A floor is a deck, a rope is a line, a toilet is a head, a barrel of water is a scuttlebutt. Even left and right are port and starboard. Or the other way around, I never could get that straight. I suppose they do this just to confuse us landlubbers. If so, it works. I mean, what's this lubbing they're talking about us doing on land?
11/1/12 It Won’t be Furlong
Infrequently Answered Question #68: Why is a mile 5,280 feet rather than a nice round 5,000 feet or something?
A: It's because a mile is based on X number of furlongs rather than so many feet or yards or whatever. The X number being eight. The word furlong comes from furrow-long, the length of a plowed field. Somehow, sometime a furlong was set as 660 feet. Eight furlongs make a mile. Eight times 660 feet is 5,280 feet, a mile.
Nobody outside of horse racing uses furlongs very much any more. In days of yore furlongs were more meaningful than miles to the average man on the street because most folks worked on farms and farm fields were measured in furlongs. So the average man on the street was in a field and not on the street, but we'll not linger over that. Anyway, it was important for farmers to keep track of farmland measured in furlongs, but not so important to know how far it was from London to York measured in miles. So when they finally ironed out what a mile would be they based it on furlongs. That's my story and I'm sticking with it.
It's pretty hard for folks nowadays to relate to a furlong. We might be able to think in terms of football fields, which are 100 yards long, or 300 feet. Not counting the endzones. That's a bit under half a furlong. A Canadian football field is 110 yards long, 330 feet. Which is exactly half a furlong. So a furlong is two Canadian football fields. And a mile is 16 Canadian football fields. Which might be relatable if you lived in Canada, except they mark their roads in kilometers. Before you ask, I must admit I have no idea how many football fields, either American or Canadian, there are in a kilometer.
7/19/12 Get ‘em While They’re Hot
Infrequently Answered Question #67: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
A: This puts me in mind of the old glass half empty or half full bit. Which I answered some time ago in Infrequently Answered Question #2. Another way to look at it, an optimist says every cloud has a silver lining. A pessimist says what goes up must come down. At least, cliché spouting optimists and pessimists say these things. Below is an amusing bit from Zero Hedge on the two types, sans clichés.
Recently two noted Spanish economists were interviewed. One was always an optimist and one was always a pessimist. The optimist droned on and on about how bad things were in Spain, the dire situation with the regional debt, the huge problems overtaking the Spanish banks and the imminent collapse of the Spanish economy. In the end he said that the situation was so bad that the Spanish people were going to have to eat manure. The pessimist was shocked by the comments of his colleague who had never heard him speak in such a manner. When it was the pessimist's turn to speak he said that he agreed with the optimist with one exception; the manure would soon run out.
4/24/12 Whatever Happened to Centigrade?
Infrequently Answered Question #66: I notice a lot of places use the Celsius scale for temperature while the US stays with Fahrenheit. Which do you like better?
A: The problem with both Celsius and Fahrenheit is negative numbers, readings below zero. But how can anything be less than zero, less than nothing at all? Temperature is a measure of kinetic energy, motion of matter. But there can't be less than no motion, negative motion.
Anyway, negative numbers make math tricky. That's why scientists use the Kelvin scale where 0 degrees is absolute zero so there's no negative numbers. Of course, if we went with Kelvin we'd have to adjust our perception of what temperatures mean head for the beach or bundle up because it's cold out there. The average temperature of the earth's surface is 288° Kelvin. Which sounds pretty hot until you realize water freezes at 273° Kelvin.
Still, it occurs I haven't answered the question, which do I like better, Celsius or Fahrenheit. I prefer Fahrenheit. It's more graduated, there's more numbers between freezing and boiling. Meaning you can be more accurate without getting into fractions of degrees. Plus, it has to get colder before you're below zero. Somehow 20°F doesn't sound as cold as -5°C. Besides, I'm used to Fahrenheit and there's that old saw about old dogs and new tricks. File me under old dog.
2/6/12 ...Which Starts with L Which Stands for Pound?
Infrequently Answered Question #65: Why is pound abbreviated 'lb' when there's no L or B in the word?
A: It's confusing because 'lb' is not an abbreviation for the word pound, but an abbreviation of a Latin word for weight, libra. In which case the abbreviation makes sense. Sort-of. The word pound derives from the Latin pondo, "by weight." Why they took one Latin word for use and a different Latin word to abbreviate is something of a puzzle.
Libra also explains the symbol for British money, the pound. You know, £. It's a script L with a crossbar for Libra. This is found on a computer keyboard at option-3. And shift-3 gets you a different pound sign, #. Well, sort-of a pound sign as it's only a pound sign on a telephone. On a computer # stands for number, which is abbreviated 'no.' despite there being no O in number.
To go off on another tangent, the astrological symbol for Libra is not £ or # but a horizontal line with a hump in the middle over a straight line. Sort-of a pictogram of a balance scale. You won't find that on a computer keyboard so you'll have to type out the word. On a telephone pad you'd have to dial 5-4-2-7-2 to spell libra. Then again, there's no longer a dial on a phone to dial yet we say dial anyway.
Though you didn't ask, here's why ounce is abbreviated oz. even though there is no Z in ounce. It stands for the Italian onza, ounce. This comes from the Latin uncia, meaning one 12th, which is also the source of the term "inch."
1/16/12 Electric Blueberries Aren’t Green
Infrequently Answered Question #64: Why are blueberries red when they're green?
A: For the same reason green beans are green when they're green. Sort-of.
Your question is actually an old joke riddle my father used to say. One he never explained and I didn't get until I figured out the word green didn't signify color, but meant unripe. You know, as in eating green apples will make you sick. Except Granny Smith apples are green after they're green and don't make you sick.
Now-a-days green has another meaning it didn't back in my youth. Eco-friendly and all that. Though a lot of what's claimed to be green is not as eco-friendly as is supposed. Some of these green ideas started for other reasons and then became fashionably green, even though they're not really so green.
Take electric cars. These were originally championed in the 60s to reduce smog. Which they do, as long as the power plant generating the electricity is located outside the city. The car itself doesn't produce emissions, but if it's charged from a fuel-burning power plant that does... basically it becomes an emission relocation program. Mostly, electric cars are green when they're painted green.
12/5/11 Red Light on Modern Myths
Infrequently Answered Question #63: I am thinking of buying a red car. Are drivers of red cars really more likely to get speeding tickets?
A: No. Statistics show they are slightly less likely to get speeding tickets. But the difference is so small it is statistically meaningless. That the police target red cars for speeding is just another modern myth. Here are a few more modern myths that seem to make the rounds:
Suicide rates go up during Christmas.
Suicide rates are constant throughout the year. Crime rates are constant regardless of the phase of the moon. In the US by law you are allowed as many phone calls as it takes to get a lawyer or arrange bail.
Inuits have about as many words or descriptions for snow as English speakers have. In English there's powder, hardpack, slush, sleet, drifts, blizzard, white-out, flakes, flurries, and more. Inuits probably talk about snow more than English speakers, but they don't have a lot more words to do it.
10/7/11 Of Fruits and Nuts
Infrequently Answered Question #62: Is Post Grape-Nuts cereal made of grapes or nuts?
A: Neither. When Post Grape-Nuts first hit store shelves in 1898 it contained maltose. In those days maltose was known as grape sugar. That's the grape part of Grape-Nuts. The nut part comes from the cereal's crunchiness and nutty flavor.
This is a case of a name based on a notion of the time that no longer is in vogue. Such are fads, in foods and product names. Like adding o-rama to a name in the 50s, or cyber or e- tacked onto names now-a-days. Though I suppose not for cereal. A bowl of Cyber-Nuts, anyone? Doesn't work.
On the other hand, Post Raisin Bran does contain grapes. Only dried grapes, which are called raisins. Whether there's any maltose in there, I couldn't say. Wine is made from grapes. Don't know about the malt content of wine. Malt liquor should have malt. I can't imagine folks having malt liquor with breakfast. For breakfast, maybe.
9/19/11 Skip the Knees
Infrequently Answered Question #61: What is the only mammal with four knees?
A: They like to say the elephant, but not really. Depends on what you want to call a knee.
Elephants have the same basic skeletal structure and musculature as other quadrupedal mammals. Though the bone lengths and angles may differ a bit, their legs are built and work the same way. It only looks like elephants have four knees because their legs are fat all the way to the ground, they don't taper like horses and the like. So a skinny joint on a horse doesn't look like a knee, but does on an elephant even though they are the same thing.
What IS different about elephants is they are the only four-legged mammal with just one gait. A gait is the order and timing of how the feet hit the ground. Elephants walk, but don't gallop, trot, pace or canter. They're just too heavy. Nonetheless with such a big stride a brisk walk can cover a lot of ground pronto.
Being bipedal humans don't really trot, cantor, pace or gallop either. But we do have two gaits. For people, walking, trotting and running are all different speeds of one gait, where it's one foot in front of the other equally timed. The second gait is skipping, where you alternate little hops on one foot then the other.
8/10/11 Who Knows?
Infrequently Answered Question #60: Which is more important, nature or nurture?
A: Which is to ask if we are more a product of our genetics or our environment. I don't know that we can work that out logically or otherwise.
Consider the Spartans, a warrior culture. Young men were raised to be warriors and so became warriors. They were a product of their culture. Except, who created the culture to begin with if not the Spartans? It's not like the culture was there first and they just fell into it against their will or by accident. I mean, it's hard to imagine a group of pacifists would found a settlement, develop their customs and ways of living, and then, oops! they're a warrior culture. Would that happen?
So then, were Spartans warriors because they had a warrior culture, or did they have a warrior culture because Spartans were warriors to begin with? Does culture create people or do people create culture? Obviously culture can't predate the people who founded it. Though once it gets going... seems one reinforces the other.
What we have here is a question of direction of causation. Which is cause and which is effect? Or in everyday language: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Answering that probably wouldn't help much since chickens don't have what you'd call culture. The chicken crossed the road to get to the other side, not to get to the opera.
Infrequently Answered Question #59: Do you remember the Alamo?
A: Egad! it completely slipped my mind. And the Maine, too.
Which may raise the question, do I have a good memory. Some folks have really good memories. Good memories as in effective, like total recall, not good memories like happy memories. Good could also mean reliable, as in recalling things accurately, or recalling them at all. So you could have good memories of things you don't really remember, or maybe didn't happen the way you remember at all.
I recently became acutely aware I don't have a good memory in the reliable sense while talking about "the good old days" at Orbit magazine and Suck.com. I rather remember being involved in both, what I did generally, but I was woefully short on events, specifics, details. I seemed to have no stories to tell. I've forgotten all my memories!
They say you are the sum of your experiences. But if you don't recall any of them, what does that make you? Who are you then? To be or not to be, what was the question?