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The Straight Dope

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I read recently in the paper that approximately 1,000 frogs rained from the sky on a city in France. Is this actually possible? Do I need to take cover next time I see a dark cloud overhead? Help, I don't want to croak! --Joe Athey, Annandale, Virginia

Watch the puns, Joey. People have been targeted by death squads for less. I didn't see the news report you did, but yes, it's possible for critters to rain from the sky. Usually waterspouts are to blame, although you can't rule out a passing Aloha Airlines flight. Waterspouts can suck gobs of stuff out of a body of water and carry it for miles. There have been dozens of reports of falling fish, usually itty-bitty ones, although a few years back some startled folks in India witnessed a rain of eight-pounders. There have also been reports of raining frogs, birds, grasshoppers, hay, grain, and so on.

You might think waterspouts or their inland cousins, whirlwinds, would be the source of the expression "raining cats and dogs." But as usual there are about 50 competing explanations. A sample: (1) It comes from the Greek catadupe, meaning waterfall. In other words, it's coming down in cataracts. (2) It comes from the Latin cata doxas, "contrary to experience," i.e., it's raining unusually hard. (3) In Germanic mythology cats were associated with storms and rain and dogs were symbols of the winds and attendants of Odin, the storm god. Ergo, "raining cats and dogs" meant you had a lot of wind (the dogs' department) and rain (the cats'). (4) In medieval London storm water would sluice down the narrow streets and drown stray cats and dogs, whose corpses would be discovered in the gutters afterward by emerging humans. Aha! they said, it must have rained C&D.

Finally, since you've already polluted this discussion with a pun, you'll just have to endure the following from Gary Lockhart's Weather Companion (1988). Q: What's worse than raining cats and dogs? A: Hailing taxicabs. Painful, ain't it?

I watch Dallas like some people go to church. J.R. is my favorite villain. He drinks "branch water," though, and for the life of me I can't find out what "branch water" is. Bartenders look at me like I'm nuts when I ask for it. Liquor stores don't have any idea what J.R.'s favorite drink is either. What is "branch water" and where can I get some? --Pat Locastro, Jacksonville, Florida

You're looking in the wrong place, bro. Get your nose out of those sleazy saloons and find yourself a babbling brook. Branch water is nothing more than water from a stream (often called a "branch" in the south) rather than a well. I gather such water is highly prized in some parts. Of course, you also hear people ask for a "bourbon and branch," meaning whiskey with plain water instead of soda water. So what J.R. is really supposed to be sipping is anybody's guess.

ZINC SPOTS

I enjoy your column but this time I'm afraid you've missed. White spots on the fingernails [September 28] are often a sign of zinc deficiency. One source of documentation is Dr. Pfeiffer's Total Nutrition by Carl C. Pfeiffer, PhD, MD, former director of the Princeton Brain Bio Center (now deceased). He writes, "Remember that one of the easily recognized signs of a zinc deficiency is the appearance of white spots on the fingernails."

The late Carleton Fredericks talked of this many years ago also. I had white spots for a long time, as did one of my sons. Fifty milligrams of zinc daily stopped the spots. Doctor Fredericks said some individuals either have a greater need for zinc than most people or else a lessened ability to utilize available zinc in the average diet. --Marcia Bernstein, Brooklyn

I'll amend my remarks to this extent: an abundance of large white spots or bands may be a sign of zinc deficiency. But it would be wrong to suggest that zinc deficiency is always, or even usually, the cause of spotting. As I said in my column, there's a long list of things that can cause leukonychia, or nail whitening. You think zinc deficiency is a bummer, try malaria, Hodgkin's disease, or sickle-cell anemia. However, "in the great majority of punctate [spotting] cases . . . , which are extremely common, no cause can be found" (The Nails in Disease, Samman and Fenton, 1986).

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

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