Good Questions: Cracking the solution to the supermarket code

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I was once told that the word 'peewit' was one of the oldest words in the dictionary. Is this correct? If not, what is the oldest English word currently in use? (John Reynolds of Taunton, Somerset).

While 'Did you know that peewit is one of the oldest words in the dictionary?' may be a good chat-up line, our researches indicate that it is totally false. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word (in the form puwyt) back only to 1529, which is recent compared with some entries.

The question of the oldest word currently in use poses impossible problems of definition. Do we allow (as with peewit) changes in spelling? Or changes in meaning? And should we include words (such as professor, for example) which have survived unchanged from the Latin with meanings intact?

When the editors of the OED were posed a similar question a few years ago, they produced this list of the 10 oldest words, all dating back to 7th-century documents or stone inscriptions: Town, priest (both seen in the laws of Ethelbert, dated 601-4); earl (as eorle in 616); this (on the Bewcastle column in 670); streale (On the Ruthwell cross in 680); ward (in a hymn of 680); thing (in the Laws of Hlothaer and Eadric 685-6); theft (Laws of Ine 688-95); worth (Laws of Ine 695); then (Laws of King Wihtraed 695-6).

A search of the current OED on CD- ROM also yields 'yield' as a strong candidate to join town and priest in first place. A streale, incidentally, is an arrow.

Sources: Russell Ash and OED.

Of all the recent commercial innovations, I wonder if there is any about which the public knows less than bar codes? Is the idea patented? Who allocates bar codes? What is the printer's tolerance on line-width? Is a register kept? (W G Lee of Lymington, Hants).

There are two main organisations responsible for the allocation of bar codes throughout the world: the Uniform Code Council (in the United States) and EAN International (which began life in 1977 as the European Article Numbering association). These authorities allocate blocks of numbers to different countries. National bar code numbering authorities are then responsible for allocating numbers within the block.

The bar code itself is simply a 13-digit number written in a coded form of bars and spaces in a way that can be read by a scanner. The number itself is usually printed immediately below the bar code (so it can be typed in manually when the object is too scrunched to let the machine read the bar code).

The 13 digits come in two groups of six, with an additional digit on the left to provide information not of the object but of the mode of codifying. Different codes (or symbologies, as the bar coders call them) are known by names such as 'three of five' or 'code 39' or 'coda-bar'. Different systems may use just thick and thin bars, or four different widths, or utilise the spaces as well as the bars.

After the first number, the next two digits signify the country of origin of the bar code. This may be of no relation to the object itself. Any company may apply to any national allocation agency for its numbers. Coca-Cola always use Belgian numbers and Gillette bar codes always start with 30, indicating French origin.

Any manufacturer applying to the Article Number Association, which is responsible for UK bar codes, will be allocated a seven digit number beginning with 50. That leaves them five digits to play with, which may be used however they like to classify their products. The total bar code is thus only a catalogue number which the scanner may read and then compare with computer records of the product.

Since bar codes are generally printed on items by manufacturers rather than retailers, it is very unusual for the price of an item to be encoded. Where mistakes happen (and there have been prosecutions against supermarkets for shelf prices not tallying with check-out prices as read by bar codes) it is the shop's fault for not keeping its records up to date.

Principal Source: John Pearce, Article Number Association.

FEEDBACK: Following last week's information on migratory lobster queues, D E Jillings of Kingston-upon-Thames writes: If a queue of lobsters can travel at 35cm per sec, whereas a single one can only reach 28, how does the leading lobster manage? Does he/she drop off the lead, like a cyclist in a team time- trial?

Oddly, the logic of this question seems faulty, but the conclusion is correct. The advantage of these bumper-to-bumper lobster queues is a streamlining effect through lessening of water resistance, which speeds up the whole queue. The lobster wearing the yellow jersey can move faster because the others are behind him/her. But our lobster-watchers assure us that the lead lobster does, as in team cycle races, periodically drop off and rejoin the queue at the back. It must be the strain of all that water and sand in its face.

Further questions will always be welcome at Good Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

Compiled by William Hartston.

(Photograph omitted)