Good Questions: Teething - the bottom line

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The Independent Culture
POTATOES, couch potatoes and babies bottoms have been at the top of our list of readers' worries this week. We hope the following answers will provide enlightenment.

Why do babies develop sore bottoms when they are teething? (Alison Davies, Huddersfield, and others)

There seem to be almost as many opinions on this matter as there are baby books and paediatricians. Some deny any connection, claiming that mothers tend to suppose a causal connection exists between teething and anything else that happens at the same time. So if the baby cries, or has nappy rash, dry skin or diarrhoea when teething, it is the teething that caused it.

Others insist that teething causes excess salivation, which leads to dribbling. The dribbles cause face rashes, and swallowing the saliva causes looseness of the bowels and sore bottoms. Yet another explanation is that it is the change of diet associated with teething that causes the problems.

The most likely scientific explanation blames a hormonal imbalance. Endocrine is produced during teething as a result of stress. Extra peptides (endocrines facilitating the digestive process, but whose precise function is not properly understood) are released in the gastro-intestinal tract, which can lead to fluid imbalance, resulting in diarrhoea, poor fluid absorption and a sore bottom.

There is nowadays a tendency to discourage the association of other symptoms with teething, because this may cause more serious problems to be overlooked. In the last century, teething itself was often listed as a cause of death in infants. In 1842, the Registrar General reported that 4.8 per cent of all babies dying in London before their first birthday had been killed by teething.

Sources: Assorted baby books, paediatricians, and The Body (Anthony Smith).

Why do supermarkets put fresh fruit and vegetables by the entrance to the store when this maximises the likelihood of their getting squashed at the bottom of the trolley? It also necessitates a long detour on my trip round the store, since I do not decide what vegetables I need until I have chosen the meat. (G Keleny, Charlton, south London)

'Basically,' said the man from Safeway, 'we used to have it the other way round, but we changed it as a result of customer research.' Customers, it seems, like to buy their frozen foods last of all, so that they would not have to spend too long out of the freezers. 'We regard our produce aisle as the key thing in the store, setting the tone and exemplifying our commitment to range of produce. The variety of colour and a nice wide aisle also make a lovely impact.

'We have eight different types of trolley', he explained, 'and perishables may be protected in the small basket at the front. The trolleys are a direct result of our listening to customers, as is the decision to keep at least one check-out in ten free of sweets that might tempt the impulse buyer'.

Sainsbury's uses a computer programme called 'Spaceman' to help decide how shelves should be laid out. 'Customers generally walk round a supermarket by walking down a wide aisle to the back of the store. In Sainsbury's, that wide entrance aisle usually displays fresh fruit and vegetables because it makes an attractive, welcoming display. Customers generally visit other departments in the store by walking along the back and dipping in and out of the shelves adjacent to it.'

Tesco say it is mainly a question of the 'cold chain' - moving chilled food into the shop in the shortest time. Once it arrives in special containers, it is moved automatically as quickly as possible to its designated place in the shop. Frozen and heavily chilled food is at the back of the shop, nearest to the loading bay, while the next most perishable category of fruit and vegetables is positioned in the next most accessible place, which happens to be near the entrance.

Hard produce, such as potatoes, cabbage and swede, Tesco advise, should be put at the bottom of the trolley anyway. It is bread and cream cakes that need protection. Most 'housewives', they say, are highly sophisticated shoppers who know what vegetables they want when they enter the shop. 'I think the gentleman who has written to you is older and more traditional.'

Sources: Sainsbury's, Tesco, Safeway.

Can you throw any light on the origins of the term 'couch potato', a modern cliche used to describe (in a pejorative sense) addicted and uncritical viewers of television such as myself? (Philip F Dyer)

The term dates back to the late 1970s, when it was invented in Southern California by Tom Iacino. In 1979, the Couch Potatoes appeared in the Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena, but dropped out the following year when motorised floats were prohibited and none of the Couch Potatoes would push.

In 1982, Dr Spud's Etiquette for the Couch Potato was privately published by Robert Armstrong and Jack Mingo and in 1983, the same authors produced The Official Couch Potato Handbook, described by one reviewer as 'a manual of style for those who repose, spud- like, in front of their sets all day.' The etymology of the term may have connections with the earlier 'boob-tube' - a term applied in derogatory fashion to the television, dating back to 1966 (though appropriated in the late 1970s for a close-fitting strapless garment for females). The original couch potato was therefore a 'boob-tuber', and the link between tuber and potato does the rest.

According to Mingo and Armstrong, the Couch Potato is essentially male, although 'the Couch Tomatoes were founded soon after as a women's fetch and adjust auxiliary.'

Sources: Fifty Years Among the New Words, (John Algeo, Ed); The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (John Ayto and John Simpson)

A phrase much used in my office is that of 'passing the buck'. So much so that my colleagues and I, as frequent recipients of 'the buck', would like to unveil ceremoniously said buck on permanent display. Our problem is that nobody is sure of what 'the buck' is in this context. Please advise.

It comes from poker games in the USA, where a knife with a buckthorn handle was held by the most recent winner of the jackpot. When the deal reached him again, a new jackpot was made and the responsibility of holding the buck passed on. In other versions, the buckthorn knife indicated who the dealer was, and the buck passed as the deal changed.

Other objects were often used in place of the buckthorn knife, but they were always called the buck. It has been suggested that the popularity of a silver dollar as 'buck' may have led to the word being used as slang for a dollar. However, since the first recorded use of 'buck' in poker was in 1865 and 'buck' as dollar was in 1856, this seems unlikely. Brewer's suggests that 'buck' as dollar derives from the classification of skins into buck and doe of which buck was the more valuable.

Sources: Dictionary of Phrase & Allusion (Nigel Rees); Concise Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (B A Phythian); Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.

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