This question has gnawed at me since I was a young boy. It is a question posed every day by countless thousands around the globe and yet I have never heard even one remotely legitimate answer. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? --R.F. Boggs, Arlington, Virginia
Are you kidding? Everybody knows a woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood. Next you'll be wanting to know why she sells seashells by the seashore.
This devoted fan (teem as I may, I can hardly imagine 999,999 more like me) has been reading your book, The Straight Dope: A Compendium of Human Knowledge, and finds she must take you to task for your woefully inadequate discussion of terminology for animal excrement. Surely you can appreciate the importance of thoroughness in this regard. Imagine how mortifying for an educated person to have to refer to a pile of animal leavings as "poop" or "doodoo" for lack of the proper term. I enclose copies of a couple pages on the subject from Cyril Hare's Language of Field Sports, which is the locus classicus for this stuff: Hart and all deer--fewmets; hare--crotiles, crotisings; boar--lesses; fox--billitting; other vermin [Hare's term]--fuants; otter--spraints; hawk--mutes. Let me also add scumber for dogs. --Avise Nissen, Mt. Rainier, Maryland
Really now, Avise. "Poop"? "Doodoo"? I'm trying to run a respectable column here. All the terms you mention check out in the Oxford English Dictionary, allowing for some variation in spelling. The OED also offers buttons, sheep droppings, and suggests that lesses may issue from a bear or wolf as well as a boar. Be that as it may, you have helped to expand the pitiful reaches of human knowledge. I'll send you a six-pack as soon as I start collecting on the 2,000 cases the Teeming Millions owe me.
I have a somewhat stupid question, but it's been nagging me for a long while. What are you supposed to call your cousin's children? Because I'm Oriental, my family considers my cousin's children my nieces and nephews, but I know that's not right in the Anglo-Saxon system. --James Wu, Wheaton, Maryland
The simplest thing, assuming your cousin's child's name is Frank, is to call him "Frank." Strictly speaking, the children of your first cousin are your first cousins once removed. (Your first cousin's grandchildren, should it come to that, are your first cousins twice removed. If you have children, your children and your cousin's children are second cousins.) "First cousin once removed" is far too cumbersome to use in casual speech, but for an adult to abbreviate the term and refer to a child as his cousin implies an unseemly generational parallelism--ideally you want to indicate you outrank the little rug rats. You could try "my young cousin," I suppose, but this sounds a bit patronizing. If you give up and refer to the kiddies as your nieces and nephews, Cecil will understand.
I often receive sweepstakes notices offering spectacular prizes like trips around the world, Rolls-Royces, houses, and the like. But I notice the contest rules usually allow grand-prize winners to take either the prize or a cash equivalent, which often appears to be worth more than the prize. I always wonder why anyone would take the prize over the money if they had a choice. Does anyone? And why? --Kent Rasmussen, Van Nuys, California
There are probably some contest winners who take the prize instead of the money, but not many, and that's just the way the sponsors like it. They'd much rather write out a check than go to all the hassle of actually delivering on some of their gaudier offerings, and fortunately most people would rather take the dough than try to fit a pink Cadillac (or whatever) into their lifestyles. Publishers Clearing House, for instance, says that every single winner of the $250,000 custom-built homes it used to offer opted for the money instead. So why offer noncash prizes at all? Because offering only cash would be boring--you want to give people something tangible they can fantasize about. This isn't to say the whole thing is a fraud; contest sponsors are fully prepared to deliver on their promises if they have to. They just hope they never do.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.