Good Questions: Only as cold as you feel

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What is the origin of the phrase 'Old Bill' as a euphemism for the police? (Unsigned, of Woodford Green, Essex)

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, the expression dates back to 1958, or without the 'old' only to 1969. It says 'Origin uncertain', but suggests a connection with the cartoon character 'Old Bill', a grumbling old soldier with a large moustache, created by Bruce Bairnsfather.

Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English suggests an association with the pre- World War II London police - 'many of them World War I veterans with 'Old Bill' moustaches'. Brewer's 20th Century Phrase and Fable agrees that the derivation is obscure, but 'could be related to the weapon the policeman used to carry.'

The most complete and convincing explanation comes in B A Phythian's Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which dates the expression back to the constables of the watch who carried a weapon known as a bill. Even Dogberry, Shakespeare's favourite copper, in Much Ado About Nothing, warns members of his watch to 'have a care that your bills be not stolen'.

The bill (also known as halberd) - a blade or axe on a wooden handle - led to the name 'billman' for a watch member, often abbreviated to bill. The appearance of Bairnfather's 'Old Bill' seemed to jog the nation's collective linguistic memory and bring the expression back into common usage.

Are there any documented instances of the life of a person spanning three centuries?

Discounting unauthenticated claims, such as that of Noah who was reputedly 600 years old when he launched the Ark, and lived for another 350 years after its landing, or more recently Li Zhongyun of China, whose death was announced on 5 May 1933 at the age of 253, we can name only one definite instance of a person living through three centuries. Margaret Ann Neve of Guernsey was born (as Margaret Harvey) on 18 May 1792 and died on 4 April 1903.

Other claims include those of Old Thomas Parr of Winnington in Shropshire, 'who lived in the reign of 10 kings and queens', who died in 1634 allegedly aged 152, and Jane Lewson, who died in London in 1816 at the age of 116. Ms Lewson never washed the insides of her windows and never took a bath.

There are currently an estimated 40,000 centenarians worldwide (with women outnumbering men by more than 3 to 1). Since there is no reason to believe that figure will change greatly in the next few years, we can confidently predict that the number of triple-century makers will rise by 40,000 at the turn of the millenium. You have, incidentally, about one chance in 2 billion of living to the age of 115.

Main source: Guinness Book of Records.

We have had severe winters in 1979, 1963, 1947 and, I believe, 1932. It appears there may be a cycle of around 16 years here. Is there any further evidence to support this? Can we expect a severe winter in 1995? (Christopher Corney, Leicester)

'Who knows?' replied the man at the Meteorological Office. They have tried for many years to correlate supposedly periodical weather phenomena, but remain unconvinced of any statistically significant patterns. 'The weather in the UK is pretty random.' There is, however, some evidence of a loose cycle of weather affecting the Pacific ring.

Would you explain 'the wind- chill factor' - an expression often used by weather forecasters. I realise it means it feels colder than the air temperature, but why? And how is it measured? (Patricia Ferguson, Dorchester).

The wind-chill temperature is a measure of how cold it feels, rather than how cold it is. The drier the air and the stronger the wind, the colder it feels. Dry air results in greater evaporation, and increased wind speed results in more air passing the body in unit time, thus increasing evaporation still more. In practice, a graph is used to derive apparent temperature from real temperature and the other relevant factors, although such graphs are based on various formulae designed to calculate the temperature of still air that would produce the same chilling effect as the actual conditions.

One such formula is a heat-balance equation, which calculates the rate of heat loss as proportional to the product of the square root of the wind speed, the difference between surface temperature and ambient air temperature, and the sum of the heat transfer coefficients of conduction and convection.

The whole concept is only relevant to living bodies. Car engines do not feel colder when it is windy.

Sources: Meteorological Office and London Weather Centre.

(Photograph omitted)

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