this is part of as days pass by, by Stuart Langridge

BBC Radio 4 have a show called Questions, Questions in which people write, email or phone in with bizarre questions and the Q,Q team provide answers. They also have a messageboard on which they post the questions, and on which other people may post their own questions. I've written some answers to various questions, and they're below.

Why do archeologists have to dig to find artefacts from the past? What are the processes that cause them to be buried in the first place? I could understand that things may get covered with dust,wind-blown soil and debris ..etc and that this may build up over time, but can this alone result in things ending up several metres under the surface? Is the earth's surface constanly moving and burying relics and if so does this movement sometimes result in things being uncovered naturally?

Archaeologists have to dig because people are basically messy, and because houses (especially mud houses) fall down. In areas where buildings were constructed from mud bricks (rather than something like fired clay), a house would sometimes fall down if it got rained on a lot; the guy who owned the house would then go somewhere else and further rain would reduce the collapsed house to a small pile of mud with artefacts buried within. Eventually that bit of land was flat, and someone else built a new house on top of it -- repeat this process until Indiana Jones turns up with his shovel.

The messy thing also comes into it -- before the advent of black dustbin bags, rubbish and sewage would pile up in the streets until eventually a town would end up sitting on a shallow hill. Since the sorts of places archaeologists are usually interested in (temples, etc.) were kept clear of this rubbish at the time, they were often partially buried while they were being used, let alone a few thousand years later.

Buildings that aren't made of mud don't collapse as much, and hence don't get buried as much, unless the building itself is razed to the ground and the resultant area used as prime real-estate. The reason that most of Ancient Rome isn't still visible is that Middle Ages builders pulled all the structures down and used the bricks for new buildings -- the Colosseum went this way.

Can anyone else remember X-Ray machines in shoe shops? And how powerful and dangerous were the X-rays used?

Well, dangerous is a relative term. The "pedoscope", or "fluoroscope", was pretty much uncontrolled in terms of how much radiation it used; as is pointed out in another reply, the link between radiation and cancers was poorly understood and denied. One study in the 50s established that there were machines that emitted up to 116 roentgens per scan, which is pretty flamin' high (someone a mile away from the Hiroshima nuclear explosion would have been exposed to about 300 roentgens across their body). It's a pretty safe bet that, since X-ray exposure and cancer are now known to be firmly linked, that some people died when they didn't have to. The shop assistants were most at risk, working with the machines every day -- getting zapped once or twice is unlikely to have done you any harm, unless you were a weird shoe fetishist who went every day.

What is happenening when a part of your body falls asleep. I know its something to do with blood supply - but what creates the tingling sensation of pins and needles?

Ah, you see, everyone knows that bits of you falling asleep is something to do with blood supply. And everyone's wrong. The medical name for this is neurapraxia. It's usually caused by compression of a major nerve between two hard objects, one of which is one of your bones, and the other being either another bone or something like a chair-edge, a table, or someone else's bone (a possibly attractive scenario). It normally happens to your forearm or calf and foot, because the nerves that run to there are particularly vulnerable: the ulnar nerve runs through your elbow (and is also the one that is actually hit when you jar your "funnybone"), and the peroneal nerve runs through your knee. Blood supply is unaffected.

The pins-and-needles sensation, known to doctors as parasthaesia, is caused by nerve misfires; some of the pinched nerves stop firing and others fire hyperactively, which confuses your brain and leads to the nerve impulses being interpreted as burning, tingling, or pins-and-needles feelings.

What is spontaneous human combustion and are there any explanations for what causes it?

What is SHC? It's a ticklish subject that causes arguments is what it is. It tends to get put in the big "paranormal" pot along with walls manifesting ectoplasm and that sort of thing, so it doesn't get much discussion except by people who wear tinfoil hats. Whether it actually occurs in the colourful way it's described as a phenomenon in itself is open to doubt. To enlarge on this point, SHC is often described as a human body spontaneously bursting into flames (with no sources of ignition nearby) and burning completely (or almost completely, occasionally leaving grisly remains like one unburned hand) while leaving nearby flammable materials (such as the floor, or possibly even the victim's clothing) untouched. Whether this occurs as stated is in serious doubt.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not disputing that there are cases where human bodies have burned, sometimes in slightly mysterious cases, and left nearby furniture and carpets untouched. What's in doubt is whether this is in any way supernatural. A report published by Joe Nickell and John Fischer established a number of telling facts that count against the supernatural argument: firstly, that in most cases sources of ignition were found near the victims -- candlesticks, pipes, cigarettes; secondly, that a smouldering fire will consume a body at a reasonably low temperature (much lower than the 2000C used in crematoria) and leave nearby flammable material unburned; thirdly, that where the body was completely destroyed, there was normally a combustible material nearby to act as fuel. A rather grim confirmation of the latter point was given in an experiment by Dr. John de Hann of the California Criminalistics Institute, while investigating a seemingly genuine SHC case that had occurred (unusually) outdoors. He burned the carcass of a fully grown pig (an animal similar to man in fat distribution) wrapped in a blanket and laid on a carpet. The body fat of the pig fuelled the fire and acted much like a candle-wick on the carpet and blanket, which were not burned by the fire. Moreover, the fire burned for hours and eventually consumed the bones as well as flesh of the pig, leaving a pile of grey ash and an unconsumed carpet and blanket.

It seems plausible that similar "SHC" fires have purely natural causes. After all, if the fire manages to ignite the surrounding carpet, it's fairly likely that the whole building, or at least room, will catch fire, so only those cases which do not develop into building fires will be considered as "SHC", and this will skew the results.

In short, human combustion is a real factor, but there are no provably "spontaneous" cases, and there's a perfectly rational explanation for some of the more bizarre effects associated with this phenomenon.

Why is the four on clocks IIII and not IV?

It's a weird one, this. People will try and feed you all sorts of lies about it, but the truth is that no-one really knows. The belief that IV are the first two letters of Jupiter (IVPITER) in the Roman alphabet and having them on a clock is total rubbish, as someone points out below; the Romans didn't use IV at all to represent four, and, moreover, didn't have clocks (they had sundials, which might have had IIII on them). By the time people started making clocks there weren't that many believers in Jupiter who would be worried about offending him. Sometimes clockmakers used VIIII for nine as well, just for a little bit of extra confusion. Most of the problem here is that there is no standard way to write numerals in Roman format -- is 99 LXXXXIX, LXXXXVIIII, IC, or what? The "subtractive method" (i.e., using IX for nine, meaning "take one (I) from ten (X)", is a relatively modern invention, so IIII for four was a pretty legitimate answer; IV just didn't exist. Again, as someone else points out below, it's an indicator of the age of a clock, which sigil it uses for 4.

"The opera's not over until the fat lady sings," goes the saying. Who was she and did she manage to warble?

The phrase doesn't refer to any specific diva. Some people believe that it was coined by Dan Cook, an American sports editor, in 1976 in a column in the San Antonio News-Express. Others suggest that it's much older; Ralph Keyes says in "Nice Guys Finish Seventh" that several informants recalled hearing the expression for decades before it suddenly became nationally known in 1978. Regardless, it's a generic expression to remind people that it's the final result that matters, which is why got heavy sporting associations, and there's no specific fat lady to which it refers.

On cereal packets etc there is usually an 'e' after the volume/weight is stated. What does it stand for?

t stands for "estimate", to cut a long story short. What it actually means is "net quantity", i.e., the weight/volume of the foodstuff without packaging. The "estimate" part is because it's allowed to be slightly wrong (within legal limits); these limits start at 9% variance for amounts under 50g/50ml, decreasing on a sliding scale to 1.5% error on packages over 10k/10l.

The symbol is described in "75/106/EEC: Council Directive of 19 December 1974: on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the making-up by volume of certain prepackaged liquids", an outstandingly ponderous document, as "A small 'e' at least 3 mm high, placed in the same field of vision as the indication of the nominal volume of the contents, certifying that the prepackage meets the requirements of this Directive" and goes on to say, "This letter shall have the form shown in the drawing contained in Annex II, Section 3, to Council Directive No 71/316/EEC of 26 July 1971".

J S Bach had some 20 children. Some survived to carry on the Bach musical tradition. There must now be many descendants. Are any known to have inherited his musical genius, and are any working in the musical world today?

There was a musical tradition in the Bach family even before Johann Sebastian. His great grandfather Johannes was a choral composer, and cousins Johann Christoph and Johann Michael were composers in the Pachelbel tradition. Carl Philipp Emmanuel, one of J.S.Bach's sons, was harpsichordist to Frederick the Great, and was more famous in his own lifetime than his father was! Another son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was the organist of Halle, a position turned down by his father years earlier. Another son, Johann Christian, was music master to the Queen. The last great musician from the family was a grandson, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst, described by Schumann in 1843 as "a very agile old gentleman of 84 years with snow-white hair and expressive features." No further musically talented Bachs are recorded, although the family almost certainly still exists.

Who decided which letters appear on the optician's chart and why were they chosen?

(after someone suggested that they were called Snellen charts and were therefore probably created by a Dr Snellen)

Correct on both counts; the original idea and implementation of a letter chart to test visual acuity were developed by Dr Herman Snellen, a Dutch opthalmologist. He also invented the measurement scale for visual acuity -- the famed "20/20 vision" means that you can just distinguish, from 20 feet, a letter that the hypothetical "normal person" with good eyesight can see from 20 feet. Someone with worse visual acuity might have 20/40 vision, meaning that they can just distinguish a letter from 20 feet that can be distinguished by our normal person at 40 feet. It's also possible to have better than normal eyesight, which might be expressed as 20/15, for example. The bottom two rows on a Snellen chart are frequently those that are just distinguishable for those with the better than "normal" 20/15 and 20/10 eyesight respectively. British opticians sometimes use a 6/6 notation, where the digits are metres. The principle is the same -- it's the ratio between the two numbers that counts. If you've got 20/10 eyesight then you can see a thing from twice as far away as the "normal" person can. The hypothetical "normal person" is someone who is just able to distinguish a letter which subtends an angle of 5 minutes of arc at the eye, in case you were wondering.

But why did he choose those letters? Best guess, randomly. Letter charts are not the same now as they were when Snellen drew up the first one; the letter choices have been changed numerous times over the years, in order to "tune" the quality of eyesight required to see the letters (because some are more recognisable when blurred than others). Even today you may see some Snellen charts with A on the top and others with E. Snellen probably just picked a group of letters for each line that he felt were roughly equivalent in recognisability.

In the House of Commons, the House of Lords is never referred to as such, but always as "another place". When did this convention start, how and why?

It's a nineteenth century innovation which was originally more common in the Lords. Parliament themselves are unclear on why the tradition started; it extends back before there were reliable written records of the workings of the Commons and the Lords. The Parliament of the State of Victoria in Australia based its parliamentary rules and proceedings on those of Britain and they claim that the practice "has its roots in a grievance between the two Houses". Quite where they obtained this information is unspecified. The BBC themselves, in their excellent A-Z of Parliament, merely describe the practice without any attempt at explanation, leading me to believe that no-one really knows why it's done. It's just one of those traditions that make the workings of Parliament a constant source of fascination.

Is it scientifically possible to measure accurately the diameter from end to end of a perfect rainbow?

Hm. It's probably not impossible, but it is difficult. A rainbow looks circular because it's basically the circle where a cloud of rain droplets intersects with your cone of vision, like the circle on the end of an ice-cream cone. Imagine said ice-cream cone with the point in your eye (don't actually try this experiment unless you're looking for a career in piracy). Now make the cone bigger and bigger until the round end hits the cloud of raindrops that are reflecting the sun's light. The big circle on the end of that cone is where the rainbow appears to be -- as someone else pointed out, you can only see the top half of it (because the other half is below the surface of the earth). The raindrops reflect light at about a 40 degree angle, so you can calculate the diameter of the circle if you also know the height of the cone (because the height of the cone, the radius of the circle, and the 40 degree angle are all part of a right angled triangle). The challenge is knowing the height of the cone, which is how far away the cloud of raindrops is from you. If you can work that out then, yes, you can measure the diameter of the rainbow (diameter = (2*distanceToCloud) / tan 40).

How are seedless grapes propagated? If there are no seeds how are new vines grown?

Ah, you see, it is Magic.

That not going to satisfy you? OK, the real answer.

Cast your mind back to school biology; you may remember that there are two sorts of reproduction; sexual and asexual. Sexual reproduction involves a male and a female, whether people or dogs or grapevines. It's important for numerous reasons, the fun therein notwithstanding, and one of those reasons is to keep your gene pool mobile; combining chromosomes from the male and the female leads to evolution and more robustness and so on. This is why incest is illegal; brothers and sisters have very similar gene sets (since they came from the same mother and father) and therefore any genetic abnormalities, like haemophilia, are magnified rather than diluted. This said, though, when you grow new grapes you want them to be the same as the last batch; shoppers value similarity much higher than genetic diversity when it comes to fruit and veg.

So fruit growers use the other method, asexual reproduction. Instead of breeding two plants to produce a child, begat by both but identical to neither, you instead take a cutting from the parent plant and grow a new plant from it, just like you may have seen Alan Titchmarsh do. Because the cutting came only from the parent and there were no other plants involved, the new plant that grows is an exact genetic duplicate of the old one, and you can take a cutting from the child and make a new plant again, and so on, yea, even unto the fiftieth generation.

So, you say, that explains how we get new seedless plants. But how did we get the first one in this chain? Where did the first seedless plant come from? Well, there you get into what makes an expert vintner different from a bloke with a grapevine on his back fence. You can alter the properties of a grapevine, say, by selectively and carefully breeding it with other, different vines. Pedigree dog breeds are produced in the same way; you can breed a dog especially suitable for hunting by choosing its parents correctly, and then breeding it with another hunting dog, and so on -- magnifying the desirable characteristics of both parents in the children. One of these desirable characteristics in grapevines is seedlessness, and this is made easier when we remember that hybrid breeds are often sterile; witness a mule, a sterile breed of a horse and a donkey. Two mules can't make a third mule, but we can keep making mules by breeding horses and donkeys. This refinement process has been taken so far in some cases that it is actually possible to buy seeds that grow into plants that then grow seedless fruit! This hybrid plant is sterile; to make more seeds you mate the parent plants again.

See, I told you it was Magic.

A man visits a barber for a shave. He asks if the barber has much custom in the town. He replies that he shaves every man who doesn't shave himself. The customer notices that the barber is clean shaven. So who shaves the barber?

Anyone can shave the barber. The problem becomes the famed Barber's Paradox if you also state that no-one else in the town does any shaving at all, at which point you conclude that either the barber was lying or, as someone else said, that someone from another town does it. This is one of a collection of similar paradoxes which come about when you start thinking about set theory, specifically whether sets can be members of themselves; the idea caused Bertrand Russell some considerable problem while he was writing the Principia Mathematica and it similarly caused all sorts of problems for set theoreticians in general.

I have heard from friends of mine that they have been asked to leave a theatre in Italy for wearing the colour purple because it is considered unlucky in theatrical circles in that country. Is this true and if so, how has this superstition arisen?

(after someone suggested that it harked back to the colour purple being reserved for the Emperor in Ancient Rome)

Your classical facts are certainly right, Paul; the colour purple, known as Tyrian purple, was extremely expensive, owing to its extraction from various molluscs. (The molluscs used were mainly of genus Murex and found near Tyre on the Mediterranean, hence "Tyrian".) This expense meant that only the most privileged could wear it, and this eventually led to it being reserved solely for the Emperor in ancient Rome. I'm not convinced I'd describe wearing it as a faux pas, mind, since that would imply merely a social gaffe; wearing purple amounted to a criminal offence (the hubris you mention -- it was not a good idea to think yourself as good as the Emperor!), and you were likely to find yourself shortened by the length of your head for trying it.

I'm having less luck turning up any basis for an Italian theatrical superstition about the colour, though. Purple in dreams tends to signify majesty or spiritual authority -- bishops wear purple (well, amaranth red, but it's purple-ish), for example -- and Shakespeare refers to "the purple light of love" in a sonnet, but superstitions? No luck so far. Research continues.

Why is Latin America called that when the inhabitants don't speak Latin?

Latin Americans speak Spanish, Portuguese and French, languages derived from Latin. The term was presumably invented as a catch-all to cover all the nations.

I am wondering if the monthly cycle which causes PMT in some women is actually related to the lunar cycle. Is there any evolutionary link between the two?

Nah, theories of a link between the lunar and menstrual cycles are bunk. But you're not the first person to think that there might be a link. The words "month", "menstrual" and "moon" all have the same root, for example, which shows you how far back this belief goes in just English. Darwin was convinced of a link working through the moon's influence over the tides. But studies have consistently failed to show said link. A 1980 study showed that 40% of women in a random sample showed "a preponderance of menses onsets" in the two weeks centred on the full moon. As Cecil Adams points out when commenting on the study, this means that 60% of the women did not show such a correspondence. Now, some women have regular cycles, and the average length of the menstrual cycle (according to yet more studies) is a bit over 29 days, which is pretty close to the lunar cycle of 29.53 days. However, this most certainly does not mean that the two are related, and it's likely that the similarity in cycle lengths is just coincidence. George Abell notes in "Science and the Paranormal" that, while humans and opossums have an average menstrual cycle of 28 or 29 days, lengths for other creatures vary from 5 to 37 days. It seems reasonably clear to me that the opossums' cycle length being the same as the lunar cycle is a coincidence (unless opossums are amazingly more in tune with the moon than other animals), and if it's coincidental for them, why not for us?

This question is also completely unrelated to the phenomenon of synchronous menstruation, where women living together tend to find that their periods will synchronise. This really does occur, in a straw poll I've just done it would appear that all women know about it and very few men do, and there have been some (frankly disgusting) studies establishing why it happens -- it's related to pheromones, or scentable hormones.

Also interesting in this context is the study result that women who associate with men ("associate" here isn't a euphemism, I really mean just "hang around with") often find that their periods become shorter and more regular, although clearly Eileen has nothing to worry about on the regularity front.

This whole area is a mine of fascinating facts, not least of which because most of those facts are only known to 50% of the population. This seems a golden chance for better communication between the sexes.

Why does the Queen always face left on ordinary stamps and right on commemoratives?

I spoke to Larry Rosenblum, columnist for Linn's Stamp News, and he had this to say:

"As I recall, the idea of the monarch facing left is so that he or she is facing into the envelope rather than away from it. This tradition has been true, of course, since the Penny Black. It is interesting to note that the situation is different with coins, since there is no equivalent to the envelope. The direction that the monarch faces on a coin alternates from left to right and back as new monarchs come to the throne.

"Early commemoratives (up through the mid-1960s) have a full portrait of the monarch, and on these stamps the monarch always faces left (except, of course, when the portrait is full-face). In the 1960s, a transition was made to the small cameo which remains in use today. Generally, the cameo is in an upper corner, either right or left, and the Queen faces into the stamp. I think this is done for design aesthetics and balance. It would look odd for the cameo in the upper left, for example, to be facing to the left. This consideration probably supplanted the "facing into the envelope" rule because of the small size of the cameo.

"Also, design considerations probably take a higher priority today than they did many years ago. The use of the cameo was suggested by David Gentleman, an artist who would be more concerned with the overall appearance of the stamp than with the orientation of the monarch with regards to the envelope."

Were helicopters used in WWII?

They certainly were. By 1941, Igor Sikorsky had designed a prototype that attracted the attention of the American military, who contracted for a two-seater version. That helicopter, the XR-4 (later the XR4C, and later still the R-4B) first flew in January 1942. A year or so later there were 130 of them flying in real use; the first helicopter landing aboard a ship was accomplished in an XR-4, and there were 52 in use by British forces (but we called it the Hoverfly I). It was mainly used in medical missions rather than air combat, though.

The German Kriegsmarine had already flown the Flettner FL 282 Kolibri; it was used in limited combat in the Mediterranean, but plans for a thousand to be built had to be abandoned after the BMW and Flettner factories were bombed. Only three of these helicopters survived the war; the others were destroyed to prevent capture by Allied forces.

David Hanson's "American Aircraft of World War II" is an invaluable reference for this sort of thing; in there you can read about, among much other stuff, the other two American Sikorsky helicopters used in WWII.

Why do we have candles on birthday cakes?

Candles on birthday cakes have been around for some considerable time. Birthday celebrations were originally not celebrations at all, according to some; instead, people worried that they would be attacked by spirits on the anniversary of their birth, and so clustered with family and friends in order to keep safe. This quasi-religious aspect to a birthday "celebration" continued; we have birthday cakes because either the Greeks made round cakes to venerate Artemis, goddess of the moon, or because the Germans made a special bread (which might be called Geburtstagorten and might not) in the shape of the baby Jesus' swadding clothes. The candles were an extension of this; Gibbons stated in 1986 that the Greeks put candles on their round cakes to make them glow like the moon, hoping to gain Artemis' special favour. Alternatively, the candles were intended to carry the birthday wishes up to God (or the gods), along with the smoke. Some Germans even today place a large candle in the centre of a birthday cake to symbolise the "light of life" (from Corwin, 1986).

Adding a number of candles that correspond with years is a fairly obvious extension of the general candles-on-cakes principle, once you're into it anyway. Blowing them out is, I suspect, just done because it's fun to blow out candles, now that the religious aspect has faded away somewhat. Besides, if you don't blow them out then you can't inflict on people those trick candles that relight, which would be the end of a venerable birthday tradition.

When did Britain get the 'Great' prefix? (... and who put it there and why?)

(after Sam noted the existence of Brittany and Doreen asked how the Act of Union came into the equation)


You're pretty much right, here. James I proclaimed himself "king of Great Britain" in 1604, and the term became official in the Act of Union in 1707 (which referred to "one United Kingdom by the name of Great Britain"). The "Great" was originally prepended, as Sam notes, to differentiate these isles from Brittany, or Britannia minor from the Latin. "Britain", the term, had been revived in the 16th century as a term for the whole set of islands as a way of aiding the unification of the separate nations.

As regards the history of the Act of Union, it's a bit complex, yes. When King William died in 1702, he recommended (on his deathbed) a union with Scotland. In 1703, the Scottish Parliament passed an Act of Security that provided for a Protestant Stuart succession upon Anne's death, unless the Scottish government was freed from "English or any foreign influence." The English Parliament promptly passed an "Aliens Act", which banned all Scots imports to England unless the Scots accepted the Hanoverian succession (Anne's heir being Sophia of Hanover, as defined in the 1701 English Act of Settlement). The Scots caved in and accepted this, probably because they saw the advantages in free trade with the larger English market. This interdependence continued, and eventually was made official in 1707 with the Act of Union, which no-one was happy with but everyone saw as the lesser of two evils.

Books and books have been written about this, and it's quite an interesting topic. Don't ask anyone, whether English or Scottish, who is fiercely nationalist about it, though, unless you like diatribes. The library is the place to go to find out more about all this, and there are some decent summaries on the web.

What's the highest metalled road in the UK?

This is, unsurprisingly, one of those questions that has many answers. Much like asking where the oldest pub in England is, a disinction claimed by about forty pubs. But I digress. Anyway, there are at least three places that claim to be the highest road in the UK:

The Applecross pass, on the north-west coast of Scotland, is a single-track coast road. I have here a picture of a sign on the road reading "Road Normally Impassable In Wintry Conditions", so you might want to get up there quickly before the nights start to draw in.

The Kirkstone Pass in Cumbria. You'll also find here the highest pub in Cumbria, the Kirkstone Pass Inn. Apparently it's haunted, although that might just be hallucinations caused by lack of oxygen.

Devil's Elbow, a "notoriously dangerous hairpin" near Balmoral in Scotland.

Spittal (or Spittle) of Glenshee, another Scots road.

Take your pick, really. If you've cycled near Penrith then Kirkstone might well be accessible to you.

Are there more people alive today than there have ever been?

You may have heard the suggestion that there are three types of falsehoods: lies, d*mn lies and statistics. This applies very definitely to estimates of total dead world population. Creationists, who assume that we're all descended from Adam and Eve and that the Flood wiped out everyone bar Noah's family, quote a figure of around 51 billion people. (It's amazing what you can work out by close reading of the Bible -- look at Archbishop Ussher's calculation of the creation of the Earth in 4004BC.) Demographers' figures vary between 69 billion and 110 billion, and this is further complicated by the exact definition of what a person is -- do you only count Homo sapiens sapiens ? What about Neanderthals? Primitive Homo forms? Do you need to own a suit to be human? If you're determined to only include H. sapiens sapiens (from about 25000 years ago or so) then the figure might drop as low as 33 billion for a total count of all humanity ever. Regardless of which of these figures you choose, they're all considerably higher than the current (living) world population of five or six billion (depending on who you ask), so "no" is a safe answer to your original question.

What does "OK" stand for?

(after Cavan suggested that it was a misspelling of "all correct" or possibly from the American Indian "okeh")

I'm afraid I'm going to have to slightly disagree with you here, Cavan, although you're in the neighbourhood of a correct answer. Oll korrect, in fact, as we'll see in a minute.

Allen Walker Read wrote a series of articles in the journal American Speech in the early sixties which explained, with commendable scholarship and research, exactly from where the term "OK" comes. It's the result of a trend for amusing misspellings and abbreviations in America, particularly the American media, in the 1830s and 1840s. Cecil Adams cites Bostonian newspapers using phrases such as "NG" to mean "no go", "GT" to mean "gone to Texas", and "SP" for "small potatoes". This abbreviatory fad meshed with another fad for misspellings, giving rise to "OW" for "oll wright", "NS" for "nuff said", and the famous "OK" for "oll korrect". There it would have rested (and probably disappeared into the byways of etymology) were it not for the soon-to-become-US-President Martin van Buren. Well, specifically his supporters' association, who rechristened themselves the "OK Club", referring to van Buren's nickname of "Old Kinderhook" (he grew up in Kinderhook, New York) and punning on the "OK" abbreviation. Van Buren's political enemies used its derivation from a misspelling as a way of attacking him (and Andrew Jackson, his predecessor), inventing more and more ridiculous misspelled phrases ("Out of Kash", "Orfully Konfused", "Often Kontradicts", ad nauseam) for which it could have stood. By the time van Buren's campaign was over "OK" was a nationwide phenomenon, and its usefulness in all sorts of situations kept it in the public lexicon.

However, there are a lot of people who either don't know this or don't believe it, because this phrase seems to have more folk etymologies than any other, all of which share the distinction of being false, and a fair few of which also share ridiculousness to the point of absurdity. Suggestions that it comes from "okeh", the Choctaw Indian word for "yes" or for expressing agreement, should not be listened to -- I suspect that this is the derivation that Cavan refers to above. There are reports that it comes from olla kalla , Greek for "all good", or from Aux Cayes, a Haitian port, or from biscuit manufacturers O. Kendall and Sons. All are rubbish. Go with Allen Read on this one; he provided cites and hundreds of references to back up his argument, and it's never been challenged successfully. It could do with wider publication, though.

What's the difference between a lawyer and a solicitor?

The legal field is fraught with obscure terminology. In addition to lawyer and solicitor we have barrister and attorney with which to contend.

The difference between a solicitor and a barrister is most often defined by their respective roles; solicitors (from the Latin solicitator , one who solicits) collect evidence and documents to prove your (criminal) case, and barristers (from bar , where one pleads, and the obsolete legister )stand up in court to defend or prosecute. This difference is to some extent illusory; an experienced solicitor may well attend court on your behalf in the same way that a barrister may. Solicitors also deal with non-crimiinal legal work and the giving of legal advice not directly pertaining to a criminal case, such as property conveyancing.

Attorney is an American term; barristers are usually called attorneys (from, eventually, Old French atorner , to appoint), whereas solicitors are more normally called attorneys at law by Americans.

Lawyer seems to have no specific meaning in the sense that these other terms do; it is more a generic term for "legal professional", and as such could be applied to any of the above.

What is roaccutane? Is it dangerous?

Roaccutane, a trade name for isotretinoin, is a treatment for severe acne. It's very effective in many cases; according to the South African EPI guide to medicines, "a single course of therapy has been shown to result in complete and prolonged remission of disease in many patients".

However, it's not good for use during pregnancy. There are documented cases of foetal malformation, including hydrocephalus, microcephalus, abnormalities of the external ear (micropinna, small or absent external auditory canals), microphthalmia, cardiovascular abnormalities, facial dysmorphia, thymus gland abnormalities, parathyroid hormone deficiency and cerebellar malformations. It also may increase the risk of miscarriage. It is not to be given to pregnant women, and the recommendation is that non-pregnant but potentially child-bearing women should only take it if they're also using effective contraceptive precautions.

There are also some indications that it may contribute to depression and suicidal ideation in some cases, but this link is much less well proven or understood. There is an Accutane/Roaccutane Action Group for those who believe that they have suffered psychiatric side-effects from use of the drug.

One non-severe but much more likely side-effect is that of dryness; your skin, lips, hair and eyes may well become very dry (which may also mean that contact lenses cannot be worn), as the drug inhibits production of grease from glands. This is part of how it works, but it's apparently not entirely pleasant to experience. One user recommends petroleum jelly on the lips to avoid severe chapping.

What is St Anthony's Fire?

As regards St. Anthony's Fire, it's the mediaeval name for ergotism. Ergotism, or ergot poisioning, is caused by ingesting toxic amounts of ergot alkaloid, a potent neurotoxin produced by the Claviceps purpurea fungus, which infests rye. It occurred more in the Middle Ages because there were groups that had rye bread as a staple of their diet. Every now and again you hear someone suggest that any one of a dozen bizarre things were actually caused by ergot poisoning, including attacks of "dancing mania" in the 13th century. More bizarre yet is the suggestion that women accused of witchcraft at Salem were actually undergoing ergot-induced convulsions and psychosis.

Why does arak go cloudy when you add water to it? And why can you "layer" it so that it has clear and cloudy parts?

It's, basically, because the essential oils in ouzo, arak, &c. are miscible with alcohol (i.e., they'll dissolve in it), but not in water. Thus, when you add water to the ouzo, the alcohol content of the solution is reduced (as a percentage of the whole) and some of the oils (anise oil, normally) come out of solution as fine white crystals. The crystals are too small to be individually seen, but because there are a lot of them the mixture as a whole looks a white colour.

The reason that the parts separate if you pour carefully enough is that the solution isn't completely mixed; the clear transparent layer on the top is neat arak without any water in it, and hence the anise oil in that layer stays in solution.

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