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The Straight Dope



My friends and I adore your column and read it every week before the festivities begin at Captain White's Oyster Bar and Clog Palace. Recently we were discussing a word we've all heard but have never seen in print. It's pronounced "skosh" (long "o"). Whenever I ask somebody to spell it, they always say, "you mean as in 'a skosh more room'?" I contend that it's not a real word but was created solely for the purpose of a jeans commercial (I'm not sure which brand). Enlighten us, Cecil, and we'll tell you what a Clog Palace is. --Julie Mangin, Silver Spring, Maryland

You figure you're going to tell me? How sweet. Cecil first heard "skosh"--you spelled it correctly--from a printer in Tucson, Arizona, who applied it to any quantity smaller than a centimeter and larger than an angstrom. This fellow had learned his trade in the Navy and had picked up an abundance of off-the-wall weights and measures from his fellow craftsmen. Another example was the "glug," a liquid measure--you wanted two glugs of something, you turned the bottle upside down until it went "glug, glug." Skosh had a slightly more respectable origin: it derived from the Japanese sukoshi, little. United Nations troops first picked it up during the Korean War, presumably while on R and R in Japan, and it's been part of military slang ever since.


Imposter! I don't know who you are or what you've done with the real Cecil, but you can't hope to get away with this. Release the real Cecil at once. I know you aren't the real Cecil because your columns have been so lame and so poorly researched the last few months. As evidence I point to the column in which you scoffed at the idea that in equestrian statues of war heroes, the number of feet the horse has raised indicates whether the rider was killed or wounded in battle. You are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! There is at least one place in this great nation of ours where the horse code holds true, namely that most hallowed of Civil War battle sites, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

At Gettysburg, a statue that has all four of the horse's hooves on the ground means that the rider survived the battle without a scratch. One foot raised means the person was wounded but survived, and both forelegs raised indicates that the man was killed at Gettysburg. The real Cecil (a true American) would of course have known this. I advise you to turn yourself in at once. --Theodore S. Shouse, Washington, D.C.

Just goes to show you, Theodore, there's good in all of us--even a festering bucket of slime such as yourself. You've undoubtedly pinpointed the origin of the horse-statue myth. Others say they also heard it first at Gettysburg. Turning to Gettysburg: The Complete Pictorial of Battlefield Monuments by D. Scott Hartwig and Ann Marie Hartwig (1988), we find photos of six freestanding horse statues (478 monuments and memorials are pictured all told). Sure enough, all six conform to the code you describe, except that the horse of General John F. Reynolds, who was killed at Gettysburg, has one foreleg and one hind leg raised, not both forelegs.

Does this mean there really is a code? Nah--most likely it's just coincidence. One would hardly invent a code to cover a lousy six statues--a code, moreover, that seems calculated to rile the family and friends of many of the depicted heroes. The horse in the statue of General John Sedgwick, for example, has all four feet on the ground. Sedgwick was killed in action, but at Spotsylvania, not Gettysburg. We're supposed to believe Sedgwick was denied his sculptural Purple Heart because he died in the wrong battle? Tell me another one. Further inquiries have turned up nothing to corroborate the existence of a code, and it seems clear we have a case of people jumping to unwarranted conclusions. You want to continue believing, though, fine. Better you should be home writing me letters than out wandering the streets.

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

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