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March 30, 2020

You Are (in some species, the color of) What You Eat

Newborn flamingos have grey feathers, but get pink by eating brine shrimp. These shrimp are full of carotenoids, which they get from the tiny algae they eat, and the flamingos break down carotenoids in their liver and deposit the compounds as orange and pink pigment throughout the bird’s body.


Salmon flesh also gets that salmon color from the tiny algae-eating crustaceans in their diet.


Those fishy carotenoids don’t just make things orangy-pink, though. The strikingly blue and large feet of the blue-footed booby also comes from these compounds in the bird’s seafood diet.

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March 29, 2020

Getting Soft on Us

Soft drinks contain no alcohol, and so were first called soft to differentiate them from hard liquor.


Often people are said to “soft pedal” inconvenient information or positions they’ve taken before. This is actually a reference to the soft pedal on a piano, which quiets tones when pressed.


The game of softball was born of an Ivy League alumni rivalry. One day in November 1887, some Yale and Harvard alumni at Chicago’s Farragut Boat Club finally got word that Yale had won their football game against Harvard, causing one exited Yale alum to throw an old boxing glove at a Harvard alum, who attempted to hit it back with a stick. This led reporter George Hancock to lace up the glove like a ball, draw out the diamond’s lines with chalk, and prompt the first softball game. Over the next few decades, the rules and governing bodies were established, as was the name “softball,” since the game had, until 1926, been variously known as Indoor Ball, Kitten Ball, Playground Ball, Diamond Ball, Pumpkin Ball, Recreation Ball, Twilight Ball, Army Ball, Lightning Ball, Mushball, Big Ball, and Night Ball.

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March 28, 2020

Quite the Sporty Hat

When one player scores three goals in a single hockey game, it is called a “hat trick.” However, this term actually originated in a 1858 cricket match in England, when bowler H.H. Stephenson hit all 3 wooden stakes behind the batter 3 times in a row, that is, he bowled three consecutive wickets. Money was collected to recognize his impressive feat and used to buy him a hat.


Boxing wasn’t always two predetermined fighters facing off in a square ring. It used to be an actual circular ring with spectators all around who could themselves become one of the fighters. Someone would “throw their hat in the ring” to announce their interest, and the referee would look for a second hat, if needed, to recognize a challenger.


When the competitors were ready, races and fights had to start on a clear, fast signal. Before starting guns, this was often an official dropping a hat or swiftly swinging one downward. Hence, something done or decided quickly is said to be done “at the drop of a hat.”

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March 27, 2020

Alice in the Real World

“Down the Rabbit-Hole” is the first chapter in Lewis Carroll’s famous classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” wherein Alice enters the surreal world via that white rodent’s entrance. Since then the term has grown in use as a metaphor for getting into something either bizarre or time-consuming and attention-intensive (like many internet travels are).


During a race with the Red Queen, the queen tells Alice that in Wonderland, “…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that! ” Among other fields, this idea has made its way into evolutionary biology with the “Red Queen hypothesis.” If a predator species in a predator-prey relationship, for example, does not evolve to be fast or stealthy enough to catch its prey, it might starve and eventually go extinct, while the prey species must evolve to run faster or otherwise escape the predator or it may go extinct. The result is a continuing evolutionary “race” for both species.


The character in Wonderland commonly referred to as the Mad Hatter was not just a product of the author’s imagination. Exposure to mercury via the potent chemical mercury nitrate, widely used in making felt hats in Carroll’s time, often gave real-life hatmakers serious health problems, including tremors, hallucinations, psychosis and emotional disturbances. As a result, the term “mad as a hatter” was common, and “erethism,” or mercury poisoning which affects the entire central nervous system, is also called “mad hatter disease” or “mad hatter syndrome.”

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March 26, 2020

Keep Your Pants On

With far less instrumentation, early pilots had to rely on their own senses a lot more to fly. Their rear end had some of the most direct contact with the plane, from which they could feel engine vibration, angle, and other input. This is why flying intuitively with little or no input from instruments and radios came to be known as “flying by the seat of your pants.”


The association with the person who “wears the pants in the family” (or trousers of you’re British) being the family decision-maker it is simply based on the fact that only men historically wore pants and also traditionally had that role.


That garment likely covering your legs is named for a creepy old man common in European theater a few centuries back. Crafty, greedy “Pantalone,” whose schemes often failed and led to his humiliation, was a stock character in plays from the 16th-18th centuries. Early on, he typically wore breeches and red stockings, but in later years wore long trousers. When similarly-styled trousers caught on outside the theater, they were called “Pantaloons” in England, which eventually got shortened to just “pants, ” which is part of “underpants” and “panties.”