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The Straight Dope



Why am I having a hard time finding the word "callipygian" in the dictionary? No one I ask seems to know what it means. --Kurt Jacobsen, U.S.A.

One of my favorite words, callipygian. Means "having shapely buttocks." As opposed to steatopygous, or "fat-assed." Lends that little touch of class to your locker-room conversations, I've often thought. The reason you can't find it is you're looking in the wrong place. Try Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, a landmark reference work this column has often recommended in the past. Where else could you find gems like hircine, "goatlike, especially in smell," or hircismus, "the condition of having stinky armpits"?

Is there a phenomenon known as February the 30th? When I was in fourth grade my somewhat eccentric teacher explained that in some years there could be as many as 367 days per annum! Everyone knows there are 365 1/4 days in a year, requiring an extra day every four years to keep the calendar in sync with the cosmos. My teacher claimed there were something like an extra six minutes after that quarter day which are being slowly counted up by the timekeepers in Greenwich until they get enough to make another day, which is to be tacked on at the end of February. Theoretically, if this alleged extra day occurred in a leap year, there would be two extra days in February, thus creating February 30th. Was my teacher playing a cruel joke on innocent children, or did she speak the truth? I shudder to think of those poor kids born on the 30th who'd only have one official birthday in their lives! --S. Dodds, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Forget Oedipus and all that Freudian jive--the real source of the world's neuroses is the incredible swamp of misinformation peddled by elementary school teachers. I recall spending my grade school years in chronic terror over my posture, having been told that slouching in your seat caused curvature of the spine. Your February 30 yarn is equally absurd. It's true there aren't exactly 365 1/4 days in a year. But the real figure isn't six minutes more, it's 11 minutes and 14 seconds less. To compensate we don't add an extra leap day, we skip one every so often--on average, once every 128 years.

Let's start at the beginning. The original calendar with every fourth year a leap year was the Julian calendar, authorized by J. Caesar in 46 BC. Scholars recognized that it was a little cockeyed as early as the eighth century AD, but the authorities, not wanting to rush into things, delayed doing anything about it for 800 years. Finally Pope Gregory XIII decided to get serious in 1582. To get the calendar lined up with the seasons, he decreed that the world should skip from October 4 to October 15. Amazingly enough, most countries complied, although some took their sweet time about it--Greece was a holdout until 1923.

Greg also imposed a new method for figuring leap days. The most accurate thing would have been to skip a leap year every 128 years, but Greg's advisers evidently figured humans were such screwups they'd lose track of the count. Instead they settled on this scheme: every year divisible by 4 is a leap year, except that years divisible by 100 are nonleap years, except that years divisible by 400 are leap years. Thus 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 will be. Under this system the calendar will be off by one day after 3,323 years have elapsed, but we'll let future generations worry about that.

Why are clams happy? --Curious, Washington, D.C.

How come you always see just one shoe by the side of the road? --Anonymous, Saint Paul, Minnesota

How come your feet smell but your nose runs? --Lisa Fisher, Little Rock, Arkansas

You folks ever think of becoming entertainers? (1) What's a clam got to be sad about? An ocean view, no rent, and zero danger of poisoning from apples. (2) The other one ran off with the sock that's missing from the wash. (3) Go ask your mother. I swear, sometimes I feel like baby-sitter to the universe.

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

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