News & Politics » Straight Dope

The Straight Dope



Why is "colonel" pronounced "kernel"? --Listener, Ed Busch talk show, Dallas

Mainly to continue the tradition of making English as incomprehensible as possible, thereby keeping the spelling bee industry in business. (Believe me, there's millions in it.) Colonel comes from Old Italian colonello, commander of a column of troops, which in turn derives from colonna, column. It wasn't always spelled the Italian way, though. Four hundred years ago English followed the Spanish practice and spelled the word "coronel," sensibly pronounced the way it looked. Eventually this was corrupted to ker-nel, still not bad considering we're talking about the British, who pronounce "Featheringstonehaugh" "Fanshaw."

But it couldn't last. Some nameless busybody decided coronel ought to be spelled "colonel" to better reflect its Italian origin, doubtless out of the same misplaced love of precision that gave us 161/2 feet to the rod and 27 and 11/32 grains to the dram. It's just the Anglo-Saxon way, I guess. How these people conquered an empire I'll never know.

I have enclosed a package for Colgate toothpaste. Note the words in bold type after the list of ingredients: CONTAINS NO SUGAR. Do you mean to tell me there are toothpastes that do contain sugar? (If so, it's like adding dirt to soap.) Or is this merely a subtle marketing ploy for the unsophisticated? --Stan in Evanston, Illinois

Think of it as a preemptive strike against a budding urban legend. There is a persistent belief among consumers that toothpastes are sweet because they contain sugar. This is not true for Colgate or any other brand I'm aware of, and so far as I know, never has been. Most toothpastes are sweetened with small amounts of saccharin, just like it says on the label. But the sugar rumor endures, perhaps because many labels list an abundance of unfamiliar ingredients, some of which conceivably could be sugar in disguise. Lest this false perception hurt toothpaste sales, Colgate decided to head things off at the pass with its no-sugar notice. Crest does the same thing. Seems silly, but hey, the people at Procter & Gamble thought devil worship was silly. The gambit does have the drawback of raising questions in the minds of people like you who previously had never given toothpaste's sugar content a moment's thought. But in the world of consumer products, that's the risk you take.


Some months ago, Straight Dope fiends will recall, this column struck a mighty blow for truth and freedom by attacking the belief that no two snowflakes are alike, a superstition that has blighted the lives of millions. Not having time to inspect all the world's snowflakes (besides, I lost the tweezers), Cecil relied instead on the crushing logic of mathematics, arguing that so many flakes had fallen since the dawn of time that there were bound to be a few duplicates.

Naturally, many scoffed. One peanut-brain called to say he knew for sure no two snowflakes were alike because he had heard it on Nova. There was also the unfortunate business with the googols, which we won't go into here. My defense in all cases was couched strictly in theoretical terms, since I did not expect any actual cases of twin flakes to turn up (although I must say that the cast of characters in those Doublemint commercials was certainly suggestive).

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to read in the bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that matching snow crystals were recently discovered by Nancy Knight of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The crystals in question admittedly aren't flakes in the usual sense but rather hollow hexagonal prisms. They are also not absolutely identical, but come on, if you insist on getting down to the molecular level, nothing's identical. They're close enough for me, and further proof that not only is this column at the cutting edge of science, but that sometimes we have to wait for the cutting edge to catch up.

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

Add a comment