Wednesday, 23rd March 2011
Q. In a world that gets drunk on euphemisms, what are a few of the favorites?
A. The thousands of synonyms for drinking and drunkenness range from the mundane ("tipsy") to the arcane ("all geezed up") and the colorful ("at peace with the floor,") says Ralph Keyes in his book "Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms." With elaborate decorum, drinkers "lift an elbow" to down a libation as an "eye-opener" to start the day or a "nightcap" to end it. In between, they might enjoy a "pick-me-up," a "nip," a "little snort," a "wee drop." At best, all of this may lead to having "a glow on," at worst, to being "smashed," "schnozzled," "under the table," "pie-eyed," "stewed to the gills."
During Prohibition, some feared that the colorful drinking euphemisms might disappear, one newspaper even fretting that "Hereafter Only Prunes will be Stewed." But, noted writer Paul Dickson, the period from 1920 to 193 constituted a "Golden Age" of euphemistic alcohol talk. In one 1922 U.S. District Court case, when a lawyer asked a witness if he'd been "keyed up," he answered that he'd been "pretty well organized" and "about soused." Then the judge spoke up: "All these slang expressions will not be tolerated in the court. If the man is drunk, all right. I do not know the legal meanings of 'soused,' 'keyed up,' 'organized,' but I do know what 'drunk' means. A man is drunk who is not his normal self, under the influence of liquor."
The lawyer then asked his witness if he'd been drunk. Yes," was the reply. "Yes."
Q. Are you = to the question, "Where did the equal sign of mathematics come from?"
A. Not from the land of the Greeks, Babylonians or Arabs but from a small coastal town in South Wales, where 16th-century astronomer and mathematician Robert Recorde wrote textbooks that included the then-vertical equal sign, say John Lloyd and John Mitchinson in "The Book of General Ignorance." His reason for adopting two parallel lines was refreshingly to the point: "bicause noe 2 thynges, can be moare equalle." It took a while for the sign to catch on, as it alternated with "ae" (from "aequalis") well into the 17th century.
One Recorde invention that never did catch on was his word describing numbers to the eighth power, for example, 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 256: "Zenzizenzizenzic," based on the German "zenzic" for "square," signifies "squared, squared and squared again." Whatever its lack of appeal, zenzizenzizenzic comfortably holds the record for most z's in a single word.
Q. The sounds of the English language are well known to most of us. But can you name a few striking sounds from the world's languages with a "foreign" ring to them?
A. Spanish Silbo, a whistle language, has only four vowel and four consonant sounds, says Dean Christopher in "Discover" magazine. "Audible for miles, it resembles bird calls and is indigenous to - where else? - the Canary Islands."
And when the Dutch encountered Africa's Nama people, whose language includes clicking sounds, they were dubbed Hottentots, or Dutch for "stuttering."
For those of you who recall the old Westerns in which Native Americans made a sound like "ugh," it was "a naive attempt" to reproduce the sound of the glottal stop of many Native American languages, produced by briefly closing the vocal cords during speech.
Indian Sign Language is the world's most widespread silent language, with some 2.7 million users.
And perhaps the ultimate sound of silence: More than a third of the world's 6,800 spoken languages are endangered. "According to UNESCO, about 200 tongues now have fewer than 10 surviving speakers."
Q. From a reader: "I recently read in a prestigious medical journal (well, actually on the back of a Snapple bottle cap) that the average human dream lasts only 2 to 3 seconds. I don't get it. My husband says he never remembers his dreams but almost every night I have what seem like long and convoluted dreams that take several minutes to relate (usually to his great chagrin). What gives?"
A. "Most of the Snapple caps I've seen are fairly accurate but the above 'fact' is completely wrong," says Harvard's Deidre Barrett, author of "The Committee of Sleep." Most dreams occur in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, taking place about every 90 minutes throughout the night so that an average sleeper has five REM periods per night totaling 90-120 minutes. The first REM is usually slightly under 10 minutes, then subsequent ones grow longer up to about an hour, with the wake-up dream most likely to be remembered. "There is nothing to suggest that we would remember only seconds of our many minutes of dream time."
In fact, research has found that when people are systematically awakened 5, 10, 20 minutes into REM, the longer they've been in this state, the longer is their dream recollection. These studies also suggest that while dream time can sometimes be distorted, most dreams are estimated at pretty close to "real time."
(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrueatcs.com)
Letters to the Editor
- A Government Successread more »
Once in a blue moon. As rare as hen's teeth. A Government success. Each of those three sentences are as unusual and as rare as each other. But the last one seems to be about to take place. The Government has announced that it plans to give each child in the State a second year of free pre-school. It might not sound like earth shattering news but if it does happen then it could be one of the most significant things that this Government has done since it took office. Any money that is given over to education is a …
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