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The Straight Dope



How many people have lived on the earth since the beginning of time? The reason I'm asking is I want to know if there's going to be enough room in heaven for all those souls. --Listener, Roy Leonard Show, WGN radio, Chicago

Boy, for a minute there I thought you were going to say something silly. Estimates of the total roster of humankind rely heavily on guesswork (a state of affairs not entirely unknown to us here at the Straight Dope), and accordingly the numbers vary widely. The more reputable demographers, equipped with the latest tools of science, say there have been between 69 billion and 110 billion humans. This gives us a range of 41 billion, a pretty formidable margin of error. Creationists, who get their data from 900-foot apparitions of Jesus and who believe, among other things, that it all started with Adam and Eve around 6,000 years ago and that a flood in 2700 B.C. killed off everybody except Noah and his relatives, come up with 51 billion. To my way of thinking this is entirely too close to the "real" low-end figure for comfort. Perhaps we should abandon the pretense of science and address future demographic inquiries directly to God.

The problem, of course, is that we have only a vague idea of the birth rate and average lifespan in ages past. Another complication, among scientists at least, is that we do not know precisely when our primate ancestors became human. Many researchers have arbitrarily settled on one million years ago, even though our own subset of the genus Homo, H. sapiens sapiens, did not emerge until around 40,000 years ago. If the paleolithic crowd (1 million years to 25,000 years ago) strikes you as too crude for admission to the communion of saints, subtract 36 billion or so from the figures above. Before we start whittling down the eligibility list, though, Les, I just have one question: what makes you think you have to worry about how crowded heaven is?

Why is the New York borough of the Bronx not simply called "Bronx"? I've consulted encyclopedias, native New Yorkers, and even a linguist at a leading university. So far all I've gotten is a partial explanation. At the turn of the century when the five boroughs were consolidated into one city, the large parcel of land north of Manhattan was owned by a wealthy family named Broncks. When city dwellers wanted to escape suburbia, they went up to the Broncks farm or estate. Later the spelling was changed to Bronx. But I'm sure there's more to it than that. Cecil, if I don't get an answer by August 11, the Lord's gonna call me home. --Norman West, E. 70th

I hope you like the Lord's digs better than your previous place of residence, Norm, because I'm a little late. Serves you right--you know how Cecil loathes being rushed. You also got a few facts scrambled on the Bronx story. The name of the family was Bronck (sometimes spelled Bronk). The clan's patriarch, Jonas, settled on 500 acres north of the Harlem River in 1639, and promptly applied his surname to various features of the local geography, notably the Bronx River. As one of his descendants explained, "The termination of 'x' merely indicates the possessive case. Instead of writing Bronk's River or Bronk's farm, the Dutch took the phonetic short cut and made 'x' do duty for the fusion of 'k' and 's'; extremely simple, and a space saver too. Thus, when Jonas impressed his own family nomenclature on the region he settled, the Aquahung River became Bronk's River--the Bronx, as it remains today, correctly expressed in Dutch."

As far as Cecil can tell, the name "the Bronx" didn't signify the entire area until late in the 19th century. In 1874 about 20 square miles of mainland Westchester county was annexed to New York City and known thereafter as the Annexed District of the Bronx. Apparently this referred to the Bronx River, then the district's eastern border. In 1898 the Annexed District became part of the Borough of the Bronx--presumably still referring to the river. After a while, however, people forgot about the river and began casually referring to the entire borough as "the Bronx." The use of "the," in other words, is simply a historical accident.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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