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The Straight Dope

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Why doesn't water burn? It's made of hydrogen, which is flammable, and oxygen, a necessary component of flame. Yet every time I put this question to someone who knows about chemistry their eyes roll back in their head and they nearly pass out, and when they come to they give some explanation that is so complicated and incomprehensible I have to lock them in the trunk and drive them around town for a while to make them shut up. I'm appealing to your brilliance to help me live a more settled life.

--Sean Cearley, via the Internet

Sean, buddy, I've been there. But over time I've learned that this kind of behavior is just not nice. Besides, there's an easy answer to your question. Water doesn't burn because it's already burnt.

Oh, sure, it doesn't look burnt. Nonetheless, it's one of the chief products of combustion. Light a candle, gas jet, whatever, and what do you get? Mainly carbon dioxide and water. We started off with a hydrocarbon and the hydrogen oxidized. The result is water, a substance far more stable and thus less flammable than an unburnt mixture of hydrogen and oxygen.

Still, if you try hard enough you can get even water to burn. Try torching the stuff in the presence of fluorine gas. You get a nice hot flame that produces oxygen and hydrogen fluoride, which are more stable than water plus fluorine. That's about as simple as I can make it, pal. Hope it brings you inner peace.

KEMO THERAPY

Hey, Cecil, tonto certainly is Spanish for "stupid" or "fool" [July 18]. And Tonto, who was not so tonto, responded by calling the Lone Ranger qui no sabe (with an Indian accent), which roughly translates from Spanish as "he who knows nothing" or "clueless." --David Holmstrom, via the Internet

This is funny, David. Very very very very funny. But WRONG! I must have heard from 50 people claiming that kemosabe comes from a Spanish phrase meaning either "he who knows more" or "he who knows nothing," signifying that Tonto was either sucking up or mouthing off to the Lone Ranger. No proof was offered for these assertions; the writers had simply "heard" or "liked to believe" them. Well, I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU LIKE TO BELIEVE, GODDAMMIT! I DEAL IN THE FACTS! Sorry, but one must be firm. To review:

(1) Jim Jewell, first director of The Lone Ranger on radio, stated in an interview that he had gotten the term from Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee, a northern Michigan summer camp run by his father-in-law, and that he understood it to mean "trusty scout."

(2) There is a photograph of the camp on which is written, "Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee 1919." The Lone Ranger was not conceived until 1932.

(3) At least two experts in Native American languages say that several closely related languages spoken by tribes in northern Michigan, among them the Potawatomi and the Ottawa, have the term giimoozaabi, "he who peeks," which is reasonably close to "scout." In their opinion, and in the opinion of at least one native Potawatomi speaker, this is the source of kemosabe. This is as close to a definitive answer as you get in my business, so I say case closed.

That said, I have no objection to reviewing various other colorful if stupid theories:

(1) In the language of the Yavapai Apaches in central Arizona, k-nymsav-e means "white man."

(2) In the language of the Tewa Indians, kema means "friend" and sabe means "Apache." These terms may be found on back-to-back pages in an obscure Tewa dictionary; one scholar speculates that a Lone Ranger script-writer may have stumbled across this dictionary while doing research for the show. Scriptwriters do research? It is to laugh, lady.

(3) The same scholar, clearly somebody who needs to find more constructive things to do with her time, spent an afternoon coming up with possible etymologies of kemosabe in Cree, Southern Paiute, Osage, and Navajo.

(4) I'm told that in the Genus III edition of Trivial Pursuit, an answer on one card claims that kemosabe means "soggy bush." Trivial Pursuit, you'll remember, also claims that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure you can see from space, which is likewise bereft of factual foundation.

(5) In an old Gary Larson cartoon, the Lone Ranger looks in an Indian dictionary and discovers that kemosabe is "an Apache expression for a horse's rear end."

Yuk yuk yuk. Now get outta here.

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

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