Good Questions: Starting right at the bottom

WE RETURN after the seasonal disruptions to answer readers' queries concerning matters meteorological, kinetic, fiscal and, to begin with, rectal.

Whose was the original bum immortalised in the remark: 'It's a bummer'? (Brian W Aldiss, Oxford).

This is a complex matter and we must be careful not to confuse the English 'bum' - meaning buttocks - with the American 'bum' - a drunkard, vagrant or worthless fellow. The latter derives from the German, bummler (a loafer or habitually tardy fellow), which in turn comes from the verb bummeln - to waste time or go slowly.

The English 'bum', far from being a contraction of buttocks as some have suggested, is a word of far older pedigree, dating back to at least 1530 ('I woold thy mother had kyst thy bum' is the oldest quotation given in the OED) and even spotted, in the form 'bom', in 1387. One of its earliest respectable uses was in the term 'bum-bailiff', an official who would make an arrest for debt by touching the debtor on the back. The word 'buttock' only made its first appearance with its present meaning in the 18th century.

The word 'bummer' itself has had several meanings in English. As long ago as 1675, it was used as a colloquial term for a bum-bailiff. Later meanings include 'a small truck with two low wheels and a log pole used for moving logs' (from a 1905 dictionary of forestry and logging terms), and 'that which hums or buzzes' (as in a 19th century Scottish proverb: 'The loudest bummer's no the best bee').

Meanwhile, back in America, bum was being used as an derogatory adjective in the middle of the 19th century, with a bum steer and a bum rap the earliest common expressions. The phrase 'it's a bummer' first appeared in the drug culture of the 1960s from 'bum trip' meaning an unpleasant or unsatisfactory drug experience.

As with the phrase 'bum's rush', whereby a person is propelled through a door by his collar and trouser-seat, the derivation is undoubtedly from the American bum (a tramp). So the questioner should have asked not whose bum, but which bum was the first bummer.

Sources: OED, Brewer's, Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang.

Is it ever too cold to snow? If so, at what temperature does this happen? (J McCormack, Widnes).

Under normal conditions, it is unlikely to snow if the temperature is much more than two degrees above or below zero. But under certain circumstances, it can snow when it is much colder, and that is when British Rail may, quite legitimately, refer to 'the wrong type of snow'.

In general, snow is an aggregation of ice crystals which are formed in the atmosphere at temperatures far below freezing point. Near freezing point, crystals cling together and form snowflakes. (According to a recently accepted international classification system, incidentally, there are seven types of snow crystals: plates, stellars, columns, needles, spatial dendrites, capped columns and irregular.)

In the simplest terms, very cold temperatures in this country occur with clear skies in winter. With no cloud, there can be no snow. This is because cooler air holds less moisture, and no moisture means no snow.

In general, the higher you go, the colder it gets, but when the surface is colder than the air immediately above it, the inversion can lead to freezing rain - what starts as snow high in the atmosphere turns to rain on its way down, then freezes again on the ground.

The right conditions for snow are generally a near-zero temperature on the ground and moisture in the atmosphere. If it is too cold, however, there will be insufficient moisture. This is not always the case, however, particularly on the east coast of Britain, where a blast of cold air from central Europe can bring with it very dry snow - the wrong type of snow in BR terms.

Normal, reliable, British snow can be dispersed with salt (lowering its freezing point), but the colder, powdery snow from the east is liable to turn into an ice hazard if the same methods are applied.

Main source: Meteorological Office.

When the front car of a stationary queue of traffic begins to move forwards, why does the whole queue not move at the same time? Why does it take time for the movement to be transmitted down the queue? (Andrew Belsey, Cardiff).

This seems quite obvious when you consider the desire of each driver to leave a safe distance between himself and the chap in front in case sudden braking is necessary. But the question becomes more interesting when we bring lobsters into it.

Research on the spiny lobster (palinurus argus) has identified a habit of these creatures to migrate by walking along the sea bed in orderly tail-to-antenna queues. Experiments have shown that such lobster queues serve to reduce water resistance. In the laboratory, it has been shown that lobster queues can travel at 35cm per second, whereas the top speed of a lone lobster is only around 28cm per second.

This does, however, raise the question of how any lobster can join a lobster queue, since once the queue has got up speed another can never catch it, unless new recruits are swept up and joined to the front of the queue, which seems unlikely.

Perhaps if the bumpers of cars had devices attached to them which automatically clamped onto the car in front at traffic lights, lobster-like car queues could move off simultaneously when the lights turned green. There could also be benefits with reduction in drag, but there could be considerable hazards when the lights changed again.

It is easy to visualise 'turning on a sixpence', and to appreciate 'a penny for your thoughts' and even 'ten a penny' but what is so superior about ninepence that eightpence or sevenpence do not have, in the saying 'as nice as ninepence' or 'as right as ninepence'? (John Walker, Salisbury).

According to B A Phythian's Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the expression 'as neat as ninepence' owes 'more to alliteration than good sense'. Another old expression 'as fine as fippence' seems to be equivalent, even if nominally four pence less.

Brewer maintains that 'nice as ninepence' is a corruption of the phrase 'nice as nine-pins' and refers to the skittles' being set 'in three rows with the utmost exactitude or niceness'.

Silver ninepences, which were in common circulation until 1696, when all unmilled coin was called in to counter the growing crime of coin-clipping, were very pliable and were often given, bent, as love tokens. 'Nimble as ninepence' was a common phrase alluding to their pliability.

Also worth nine pence in the 17th century was the Irish shilling, which probably had no connection with the West Country phrase 'ninepence to the shilling', meaning deficient in intelligence, or thick as two short planks, but that's another story.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit