Monday, May 6, 2013

Say what? (Q and A edition) with intermittent comments by your roving editor

[Someone sent me the following factoids in an e-mail message. They may or may not be true, but they certainly help to pass the time. I’ll let you do your own research. --RWP]

Q: Why do men’s clothes have buttons on the right but women’s clothes have buttons on the left?
A: When buttons were invented, they were very expensive and worn primarily by the rich. Since most people are right-handed, it is easier to push buttons on the right through holes on the left. [Easier than what? Comparisons that are unfinished simply won’t do. It’s rather like saying it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. --RWP] Because wealthy women were dressed by maids, dressmakers put the buttons on the maid’s right! And that’s where women’s buttons have remained since. [This does not explain why wealthy men were not also dressed by maids, a perfectly delightful idea if you ask me. --RWP]

Q: Why do ships and aircraft use ‘mayday’ as their call for help?
A: This comes from the French word m’aidez meaning ‘help me‘ ’ -- and is pronounced, approximately, ‘mayday.’ [This one is definitely true. We mentioned it the other day in our May Day post, which was published not on May 1 as you might expect but on April 30. Go figure. However, in New Zealand, m’aidez is pronounced, approximately, ‘meedee.’ --RWP]

Q: Why are zero scores in tennis called ‘love’?
A: In France, where tennis became popular, round zero on the scoreboard looked like an egg and was called l’oeuf (French for ‘egg’). When tennis was introduced in the U.S., Americans mispronounced it ‘love.’ [I may be wrong, but I think someone is pulling our collective legs. Still, there is the incontrovertible fact that zero is sometimes referred to as ‘goose egg.’ Also, it is indeed fortunate that France was where tennis became popular, because in Italy a round zero on the scoreboard looked like a pizza. --RWP]

Q: Why do Xs at the end of a letter signify kisses?
A: In the Middle Ages, when many people were unable to read or write, documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous. [This does not explain why Os at the end of a letter signify hugs. Maybe it has something to do with either eggs or pizza. -- RWP]

Q: Why is shifting responsibility to someone else called ‘passing the buck’?
A: In card games, it was once customary to pass an item called a buck from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to deal. If a player did not wish to assume the responsibility of dealing, he would ‘pass the buck’ to the next player. [It would be all too easy here to make a comment involving the homonyms ‘doe’ and ‘dough’ so I will contain myself. --RWP]

Q: Why do people clink their glasses before drinking a toast?
A: It used to be common for someone to try to kill an enemy by offering him a poisoned drink. [It is now common for someone to try to kill an enemy by constructing an improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) using a pressure cooker, some vaseline, and a few other ingredients. --RWP] To prove to a guest that a drink was safe, it became customary for a guest to pour a small amount of his drink into the glass of the host. Both men would drink it simultaneously. When a guest trusted his host, he would only touch or clink the host’s glass with his own. [Remember, the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true. --RWP]

Q: Why is someone who is feeling great said to be ‘on cloud nine’?
A: Types of clouds are numbered according to the altitudes they attain, with nine being the highest cloud. If someone is on cloud nine, that person is floating well above worldly cares. [Who does the numbering? And why are there only nine types of clouds? Why not twenty-three? So many questions, so little time. --RWP]

Q: In golf, where did the term ‘caddie’ come from?
A: Mary, Queen of Scots, went to France as a young girl. When Louis, King of France, learned that she loved the Scots game called ‘golf’ he had the first course outside of Scotland built for her enjoyment. To make sure she was properly chaperoned (and guarded) while she played, Louis hired cadets from a military school to accompany her. Mary liked this a lot, and when she returned to Scotland (which turned out to be not a very good idea in the long run), she took the practice with her. In French, the word cadet is pronounced ‘ca-day’ and the Scots changed it into ‘caddie.’ [To this day, Mary, Queen of Scots, is referred to in some quarters as a ‘mulligan.’ Speaking of quarters... --RWP]

Q: Did you ever wonder why dimes, quarters and half dollars have notches (milling), while pennies and nickels do not?
A: The U.S. Mint began putting notches on the edges of coins containing gold and silver to discourage holders from shaving off small quantities of the precious metals. Dimes, quarters, and half dollars are notched because they used to contain silver. Pennies and nickels aren’t notched because the metals they contain are not valuable enough to shave. [My face contains no metals at all, and yet it is valuable enough to shave. --RWP]

Q: Why are many coin banks shaped like pigs?
A: Long ago, dishes and cookware in Europe were made of dense orange clay called ‘pygg.’ When people saved coins in jars made of this clay, the jars became known as ‘pygg banks.’ When an English potter misunderstood the word, he made a container that resembled a pig, and it caught on.

[As Ethel Barrymore once said, “That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.” Any more and you might be tempted to make a pygg of yourself. --RWP]


  1. Mmm hmm, and could you please tell me why it's a PAIR of pants, a PAIR of glasses and why oh why is English so limited that we have to use the same word for everything??? (pair, pear, pare....) And if I see one more person writing 'bare with me' I shall scream and you may very well here me all the way to wherever you are from here. Off to have coffee and pack a picnic lunch to spend the afternoon at the beach today!

  2. It's true; you never bore a reader with your offerings -- at least this particular reader. XO

  3. Hilltophomesteader, or HTHS, ot HH, you pose some interesting questions as well. I'm looking forward to seeing the answers on your own blog, should you decide to start one. If not, this comment will self-destruct [sic] in ten seconds.

    By the by, where do you live that you are going to the beach? Flah-de-dah? Southern California? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Pat in Arkansas, I take that as the highest compliment possible. Thank you!

  4. This was all very interesting, although I didn't know that explosives were being put in drinks instead of poisons. I should think that suspicions might be aroused if one member of the party excused himself (or herself, as the case may be) to the toilet immediately prior to a toast being offered.

  5. Mr. Snowbrush, I endeavor to say and write exactly what I mean, so I can only surmise that you have misread me, sir, as I never once mentioned or even implied that explosives were being put into drinks. If I did not subscribe to the motto of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), formerly the Society for Technical Writing and Editing (STWE) -- though I have never been a member -- namely, that every sentence should have one meaning, understandable at the first reading, I would suggest that you go back and read that section again.

  6. Southern California, indeed! she exclaimed indignantly. I live about 60 miles from the coast of the Evergreen State! The temp was about 57*, dry, breezy & peek-a-boo sunshine. Almost as good as it gets on our coastline ;-) Today I am back on my hilltop. My agenda: bake bread, make granola, milk the goats. Southern California... snort.

  7. Oh, and I forgot to mention that our words for the day were "lugubrious" and "gormless", so we used them at every opportunity. Everyone chooses a new word for the day, right?
    Off to coffee....

  8. HH-er,how gormless of me. I would never have guessed Washington as a place people go to the beach in May, and that makes me lugubrious. In my defense, however, when it is 57 degrees here, we shiver and shake until it gets warmer. We certainly don't pack a picnic lunch and put on bikinis.

    Granola and goats, now that says Washington.

  9. Do you remember Tweety talking about Granny's 'new bikini bathing suit"? That's as undressed as we modest hilltoppers get. When's the last time you were in W. Washington? We do NOT go to the beach to....gasp...undress. The sand was warm & dry, the ocean placid and the sky holding its moisture far overhead. Nice, not lugubrious at all :-) Besides, in May there ARE no people at the beach - ya know? Didn't mean to get so far off track....sorry!

  10. Hilltophomesteader, the last time I was in "W. Washington," as you put it, was the summer of 1984. Flew into Seattle (and boy, were my arms tired); learned how to say Pew-al-up; went to Snoqualmie Falls; spent a chilly day on Mt. Rainier in the snow on July 2nd; drove down past Mount St. Helens into Oregon; crossed the mouth of the Columbia River back into Washington at Astoria, Oregon; saw a very nice lighthouse near Long Beach (North Head, I think, and not Cape Disappointment); took the ferry from Port Townsend to Anacortes; stayed with friends in Everett; ate at Ivar's Salmon House on Lake Washington; drove into Canada and took the ferry from Tsawassen to Sidney, B.C.; stayed overnight in Victoria; looked across Puget Sound toward Port Angeles; enjoyed touring Butchart Gardens. A good time was had by all. Why do you ask?

  11. "I would suggest that you go back and read that section again."

    Sir, the section before, the section after, or the section in-between?

    "I endeavor to say and write exactly what I mean"

    And I endeavor to read and understand exactly what you mean, with literary-readership license, of course. You really must read the Geneva Convention in regard to this.