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My MA diploma says the degree was conferred on me "with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto." Ever since, I have been trying to figure out what rights and privileges I have pertaining thereto. I once even met one of the people who signed the diploma. When I asked him, he said, "Beats me." Can you tell me where the phrase comes from and what it means? --Edith W., Greenbrae, California

It's about time somebody called the diploma industry's bluff on this. As far as I can tell, the only rights my degree conferred on me were the right to get into the university library after 3 PM and the right to receive unlimited fund-raising letters from the development department. (Don't hold your breath, gang.) A diploma does give you the right to say you're an alumnus, not an entirely trivial matter, but otherwise its significance is pretty nebulous. One of my sources grandly declares that it grants you "the privilege of being counted among the community of scholars." Pardon me while I gag. I gather the phrase is used in lieu of some more practical benefit, e.g., a "job," which, as holders of English lit and anthro degrees can tell you, isn't necessarily part of the program. The phrase is redolent of 19th-century humbuggery, but exactly where it originated is unknown.

In More of the Straight Dope you discuss how to refer to the "dawning of the millennium." You mull over "two thousand" and "twenty hundred" for that year, and for the year following, "two thousand and one" and "twenty-oh-one."

I'm from the Midwest (North Dakota, to be specific, which spawned Eric Sevareid), widely held to be the paradigm for the nation, pronunciation-wise. Back home we called the year that begins the next millennium "two thousand one" and the year following it "two thousand two." The year 2000 is the last year in this millennium. Just what do you think happened in Year Zero, anyway?

But don't worry about this minor lapse--who said knowing everything had to mean knowing it all at the same time? --Dave Seuss, Hermosa Beach, California

I can see why you're in Hermosa Beach, Dave; obviously the good citizens of North Dakota had you deported. I'm well aware that the next millennium starts on January 1, 2001. (See The Straight Dope, page 130.) As anybody with a lick of sense (or a dictionary) would realize, "dawn" does not mean "sunrise," and the "dawning of the millennium" does not mean "the year the next century begins." Dawn is when daylight first appears, i.e., the time just before sunrise. I thus felt justified in referring to the year 2000 as the dawning of the millennium. Your apology graciously accepted.

AREA CODES: A WRONG NUMBER?

Unless I'm missing something, you slipped a bit in your discussion of area codes. You said "the switching system requires that the middle digit in each code be a 1 or a 0, which means there are only 152 numbers available." If this in fact were the only constraint, there would actually be 200 possible combinations (10 x 2 x 10). But I believe there's a further constraint: the first and third digits may not be 1 or 0. This leaves eight digits available for positions one and three, or 8 x 2 x 8 = 128 possible area code combinations. So where does 152 come from? And if in the future the constraint on the middle digit is eliminated, how do you figure there will be 792 potential codes? --Paul Chapin, Reston, Virginia

I was hoping to spare you this, Paul, but obviously you're not one to leave well enough alone. There are eight potential digits in the first position; zero and one are ineligible. There are two potential digits in the second position and ten in the third. 8 x 2 x 10 = 160. Codes 211 through 911, eight codes in all, were reserved for special uses, e.g., 411, directory assistance. This leaves 152. (Most of the "-10" codes, such as 210, have not been assigned, but they could be. The international long-distance access code, 011, is not considered part of the area code universe by definition.) When the middle digit constraint is eliminated, the number of potential codes will be 8 x 10 x 10 = 800 minus the eight reserved codes, or 792. Satisfied?

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

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