Good Questions: Compiled Falling into the spinal trap

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ANOTHER instalment of instant erudition to throw light on readers' questions, beginning with a vertically challenged literary query:

Looking at the books on my shelf, the majority have their titles printed from top to bottom, but some, apparently intent on causing a crick in my neck, have them from bottom to top. Is there any system behind this, or indeed any reason for preferring one direction to the other? (A Johnson, Bristol, and others with similar problems).

We first asked the Folio Society about this because they, about three years ago, changed direction in spinal-title orientation. Their main reason for changing to a downwards look, however, was simply that most other publishers seemed to do it that way. A more complete explanation seems to lie in the history of titles on book spines.

In the Middle Ages, books were never lettered on the spine. If their titles were visible at all on the outside, they were written in ink on the fore-edge of the book itself. When binders began to write the titles on spines, the lettering was always horizontal, so that it could be read normally when the book stood on a shelf. The problem of slim books with long titles was dealt with by simply printing whatever would fit. So Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1769) might appear on the spine as 'Blacksto Comment'

Printing up or down the spine began around 1800, when it was customary, although by no means universal, to print upwards. The practical reason for changing to downwards printing came with the introduction of illustrated covers at the beginning of the 20th century. Whereas previously books had been designed to stand upright on shelves, it was now respectable for them to lie flat on tables.

In fact the concept of the coffee-table book pre-dates the coffee-table. And when the book lies flat on a table with its front cover uppermost, the title on the spine must go from top to bottom if it is not to be upside-down. The French, however, still seem to prefer bottom to top.

We have heard only one supposedly logical argument advanced for upwards lettering, which goes as follows: Suppose you are carrying, for example, a four-volume set of books such as Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. Since it is more natural to scan a pile from top to bottom, you would hold them with volume one at the top and volume four at the bottom. In this case, their titles will only be the right way up if they are printed upwards on the spine.

In other words, they are printed from bottom to top because it is more natural to read from top to bottom. Perhaps this sounds more logical in French.

Principal source: Hylton Baynton-Coward, former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

I have seen it written that one cannot attain a sun-tan through glass because ultra-violet rays cannot penetrate. If that is the case, how do they work through the glass on a sun-bed? (Tim Brownson, Matlock, Derbyshire).

They work because the glass on a sun-bed is not glass but perspex. Glass normally cuts out the UVA and UVB rays responsible for tanning. The 'glass' on a sun-bed is high quality acrylic sheeting which allows UVA to pass through. The most dangerous rays from the sun, incidentally, are UVC.

What is the origin of the word 'prat'? (Tony Blades, Birkenhead, Cheshire)

We presume you mean 'prat' as a term of abuse, whose history dates back to a glossary For Commen Cursetors vulgarely called Vagabones compiled by Thomas Harman in 1567. Among the 120 words listed, he includes 'prat' meaning 'a buttocke'. By the 19th century, according to Partridge, the meaning had changed to 'the female pudendum', though by the 1940s, the term pratfall (or prattfall) was common for a fall onto the posterior.

Only in the 1960s did the word become used to mean (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) 'a person of no account', with the earliest literary reference found in a 1968 novel, Without City Wall by Melvyn Bragg: 'He had been looking for the exact word to describe David and now he found it: prat.'

Geoffrey Hughes, in his scholarly survey Swearing, published in 1991, cites the change in meaning of 'prat' as an example of the instability of sexual terms. 'The semantic tendencies known as 'Loss of Intensity' and 'Verbicide' would seem to be a major feature in the development of swear-words.'

The faster you drive on a motorway, the further apart the cars need to be for safety. What is the optimal speed to get the maximum flow of traffic passing a point in cars per second. I worked it out and got a best speed of 22mph. Is this correct? (Owen Gwynne, Runcorn, Cheshire).

According to paragraph 51 of The Highway Code: 'The safe rule is never to get closer than the overall stopping distance shown below. But on the open road, in good conditions, a gap of one metre for each mph of your speed or a two-second time gap may be enough.' The table then gives stopping distances ranging from 12 to 96 metres as speeds increase from 20 to 70mph.

If we accept the advice of 'one metre for each mph of your speed or a two-second time gap', then the traffic flow is the same whatever speed you go at. This is obvious for the two-second time gap, which guarantees 30 cars a minute passing any point. It is almost as obvious for the one metre per mph formula, which also guarantees a fixed time interval between cars irrespective of their speed.

Using the non-linear table of overall stopping distances, however, the calculations reveal the paradoxical conclusion that the slower the traffic is going, the faster its rate of flow. A stream of cars 12 metres apart travelling at 20mph will allow 44 cars to pass a given point every minute, while those racing along 96 metres apart at 70mph, will only manage 20 a minute.

We should stress that these are idealised calculations and apply only to cars of zero length with drivers who obey the Highway Code and never overtake anyone. For lobsters, as regular readers know, the analogous question is solved by an optimal inter-crustacean distance of zero.

What does the 'buff' in Blind Man's Buff mean? (Sarah Hull, Wimbledon).

According to Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the English People (1876): 'Hoodman Blind, more commonly called Blind Man's Buff, is where a player is blinded and buffeted by his comrades until he can catch one of them, which done, the person caught is blinded in his stead. This pastime was known to Grecian youth and called by them myia chalki. It is called Hoodman Blind because the players formerly were blinded with their hoods.' Several versions of the game are illustrated in a 14th-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

While confirming the view that 'buff' is an old word meaning buffet or hit, the Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by B A Phythian gives slightly different early buffing regulations in which 'the blindfolded one was pushed around or given three 'buffs' or pats when he succeeded.'


Harold Brend of Hitchin, Herts, writes: Regarding your item on 'Nice as ninepence', I thought you might be interested to know that, many years ago, shapely chorus girls were - I am told - described as having 'ninepenny legs', that is, three threepenny bits could reputedly be held between the thighs, knees and calves. I have been unable to verify this by practical experiment, but am always on the lookout for suitable subjects.

(Photograph omitted)