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A while back I was at the Hallmark store buying a tastefully witty card for a friend who's a new father and I saw a row of cards for "Sweetest Day." I asked the cashier what it was, and she said she'd never heard of it. (It's so hard to find decent help these days.) The other cashier didn't know either, but pulled out a Hallmark pocket calendar that said it was October 16. I'm deeply puzzled. I mean, I was raised in this country, mostly, and I've never heard of this particular holiday. Where did it come from? Did Hallmark make it up or what? --Stephanie Faul, Washington, D.C.

A lot of people think Sweetest Day is a tawdry commercial stunt, Steph, but when I broached this possibility with the folks at Hallmark, they assured me this was not the case. My man got a similar reaction when he talked about this on a radio talk show. You cheap cynic, a caller responded, it's to benefit European war orphans or some such thing, so hush-a you mouth. OK, we said, but still harbored suspicions. Hallmark sent us some information saying that Sweetest Day in fact was supposed "to bring happiness and joy to the lives of people who were sick, shut-in, orphaned, forgotten, or neglected." Very noble. However, we then read that the whole thing was dreamed up around 1932 by a guy who worked for a candy company, so we're entitled to some doubts about the purity of motives at work here.

Sweetest Day was invented by one Herbert Birch Kingston, who worked for an unspecified candy concern in Cleveland, Ohio. I quote from Hallmark: "With the help of friends and neighbors, Kingston distributed candy and other small gifts to the underprivileged as a token remembrance that someone cared about them. On the first Sweetest Day, movie star Ann Pennington presented 2,200 Cleveland newspaper boys with boxes of candy to express gratitude for their service to the public. At the same time, another popular movie star, Theda Bara, gave boxes of candy to all who came to watch her films at a local theater. After the movie, she distributed 10,000 boxes of candy to people in Cleveland hospitals." Only a cheap cynic would suggest the candy was supplied by Mr. Kingston's company.

Sweetest Day eventually spread from Cleveland to other cities. Celebrated on the third Saturday in October, "Sweetest Day has evolved in recent times into a day to remember not only the sick, elderly, and orphaned but also friends, relatives and associates who have been helpful or kind. Romantic love also is expressed on Sweetest Day," we read. Hallmark didn't get into the act until the mid-60s. About 2 million cards are exchanged annually, "most of them in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin." I can assure you that even in these hotbeds of Sweetest Day action the event hardly ranks with the Fourth of July or even National Secretary's Week in importance, and it seems safe to say it's kept alive mainly for commercial reasons. Then again, commercial reasons are what keep the whole country going, and Hallmark et al are hardly the first to do well by doing good.

THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM: THE CONTROVERSY TAKES A NEW TURN

Regarding the question of what to say when the calendarometer turns over to two-triple-naught [July 23, October 4], let me say this: one ought not to say "aught"! Aught actually means "all" or "anything," as in, "For aught we know, everyone may have gone mad." The popular sense of aught as used to mean "zero" is actually self-contradictory (as aught means "something," and zero means "nothing"), and all sensible people ought to drop it politely from use. This error was promulgated by people who heard someone say "nineteen naught eight" (1908) and mentally registered the wrong word. The only really correct word to use for buckshot graded as "0-0" is "double-naught buck," not "double-aught," see? --Eric Palmquist, Mountain View, California

I see, Eric, and I really appreciate it. Just the same, I hope I'm never trapped in an elevator with you.

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

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