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Where did the Grateful Dead get their name? What does it mean? I've heard a lot of tales, but I'll believe only you. --S. Seidman, Stevenson, Maryland

I am a rock of comfort, ain't I? The official story on the Grateful Dead, as related by Jerry Garcia in the book Playing in the Band, is as follows: "We were standing around in utter desperation at Phil [Lesh]'s house in Palo Alto [trying to think up a name for the band]. There was a huge dictionary, big monolithic thing, and I just opened it up. There in huge black letters was 'The Grateful Dead.' It...just cancelled my mind out." I'll say. I mean, what the hell kind of dictionary was Garcia looking at, anyway? But it turns out he may not have hallucinated the whole thing after all. In the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, we find a page headed "GRATEFUL DEAD" in big type. Beneath this is an entry to the effect that the "grateful dead" is a motif figuring in many folktales.

Being nothing if not thorough, I can now report that I have read a rare volume of folklore entitled The Grateful Dead by G.H. Gerould (1908), lent to me by reader Charles Kroon. In it we find a typical grateful-dead story:

"Graf Willekin von Montabour...learned that a beautiful and rich maiden had promised her hand to [whichever] knight should win a tourney she had established. Thereupon he set forth and came to the place announced for the combats. There he found lodging in the house of a man who would only receive him if he paid the debts of a dead man, whose body lay unburied in the dung of a horse-stall. Willekin was moved by this story and paid seventy marks, almost all his money, to ransom the corpse and give it suitable burial. He then had to borrow money from his host in order to indulge in his customary generosity. On the morning of the jousting he obtained from a stranger knight a fine horse on condition of dividing everything he won. He succeeded in [beating] all the other contestants, and so wedded the maiden. On the second night after the marriage the stranger entered his room and demanded a share in the marital rights. After offering instead to give all his possessions, the hero started from the room in tears, when the stranger called him back and explained that he was the ghost of the [presumably grateful] dead, then disappeared." Definitely puts a different spin on "Sugar Magnolia," I gotta tell you.

In other Dead news, I learn that John Epler, a leading bug authority and loyal Straight Dope reader, has named a newly discovered species of chironomid midge after the Dead, namely Dicrotendipes thanatogratus. (Thanatos is Greek for death, gratus Latin for grateful.) Abrim with boyish enthusiasm, he sent the band a note, but can you believe it, the ingrates (oh, rich irony!) never bothered to reply! Maybe they were turned off by the gauche commingling of Latin and Greek. Or maybe they're just too jaded. Whatever, when John names his second new bug, you can be sure I won't forget the thank-you note.


Far be it from me to question you, but in your discussion of eelskin wallets [March 3], you mentioned that the "eelskin" in question was actually the skin of the hagfish. Hagfish are agnathans, or jawless fishes, and thus barely related to eels at all. I've had the "honor" of having to care for live hagfish for a zoology class. If you've ever seen one you know it exudes gobs and gobs of disgusting mucus and can turn a whole tank full of water into a tank full of slime in minutes. What I would like to know is (a) how come the companies call them "eelskin" wallets instead of "hagfish" wallets, and (b) what do they do with all that slime? --Karen Moody, College Park, Maryland

Why do people feel compelled to tell me this stuff, anyway? My feeling is, if it's long, squirmy, and unconnected to a higher vertebrate, it's an eel. Besides, I doubt they mind--would you want to be called a "hagfish"?

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

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