Good Questions: When and why human hair headed headwards

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The Independent Culture
ALL three questions this week have somewhat hairy connotations.

Why do people have armpit hair? I have been puzzling over its possible genetic advantage for months. (Anne Cooper, Oxford)

Aristotle was very clear on this topic: 'The hair is the ornament of the head, and the brain is purged of gross humours by the growing of the hair, from the highest to the lowest, which pass through the pores of the exterior flesh, become dry and are converted into hair.' The basic constituents of hair, in his theory, are moisture and phlegm, so it's your sweaty bits that produce hair.

Modern theorists are less dogmatic, generally taking the view that one purpose of hair is to reduce friction, so armpit hair would reduce chafing between arm and body. For more information see the following question.

Among primates in general, the female is as hairy, or nearly so, as the male. How has it come about that women are so much more smooth skinned than men? (Roger Baines, Ludlow, Shropshire)

Again Aristotle provides an explanation. Woman lack beards 'because they want heat; which is the case with some effeminate men, who are beardless from the same cause, to have complexions like women'. To the question, 'Why do women show ripeness by hair in their privy parts, and not elsewhere, but men in their breasts?', he replies: 'Because in men and women there is abundance of humidity in that place, but most in women, as men have the mouth of the bladder in that place, where the urine is contained, of which the hair in the breast is engendered, and especially that about the navel. But of women in general, it is said, that the humidity of the bladder of the matrix, or womb, is joined and meeteth in that lower secret place, and therefore is dissolved and separated in that place into vapours and fumes, which are the cause of hair. And the like doth happen in other places, as in the hair under the arms.'

Women are smoother and fairer than men because 'in women much of the humidity and superfluity, which are the matter and cause of the hair of the body, is expelled with their monthly terms; which superfluity, remaining in men, through vapours passes into hair'.

Aristotle also explained that men have more teeth than women 'by reason of the abundance of heat and cold which is more in men than in women'. A good argument, if it were not for the fact that men don't have more teeth than women.

Contemporary theories of hair are very woolly. Perhaps human hair headed headwards as a response to the evolving brain's need for more oxygen, which led to increased heat loss through the head. Or it may have served to protect the evolving human on the African savannah from sunstroke. Or it could be something to do with the erect posture. Or it could just be a result of sexual selection, reflecting an old female preference for hairy males. Since one of the functions of hair is insulation, the extra layer of subcutaneous fat in women's bodies may lessen the need for body hair; females have as many hair follicles as males, but the hair is not so conspicuous. Only males, incidentally, have hair around their ear rims. A hairy ear rim is one of the few things apart from maleness known to be linked to the Y-chromosome.

How does the phrase 'playing gooseberry' come to have the meaning of acting as chaperon, or being an unwanted third party to a pair of lovers? (Joanna Spencer, Wimbledon)

The expression dates back to the 19th century, first spotted as Devonshire dialect in 1837, and in general colloquial use since 1860. One theory traces it back to the dessert, gooseberry fool, so-called because light desserts were foolish things - even trifles. Gooseberry became synonymous with fool, and playing gooseberry came to mean playing the fool, in the specific case of being the unwanted third in a two-person romantic setting.

Another theory, which sounds too specific and seasonal to be believed, connects it with the ruse of ostensible gooseberry-picking to ensure that a young couple are not left alone together.

The derivation of the word 'gooseberry' is a matter for speculation. Some say it is because gooseberries were formerly a popular stuffing for roast goose, others link it via the French groseille to the German kraus, meaning 'curly' - a reference to the hairs on the fruit.

Gooseberry sources: The Guinness Book of Curious Phrases (Leslie Dunkling); Dictionary of Modern Slang (Tony Thorne); Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Eric Partridge).


Why do your feet seem further away when lying in bed than when you stand up?

Sarah Morris (age 10), from Kettering, has been thinking about it: 'We did an experiment at home. We found that when you are lying down, you can see your feet by lifting your head up just a little bit off the ground, but when you are standing up you drop your head and shoulders so your eyes are nearer to your feet. You also have to bend a little bit at your middle to stop you overbalancing.'

What does the D in D-Day stand for?

Professor Glanville Price of the University of Wales agrees with us: 'Yes, the 'D' in 'D-Day' stands for 'Day' - and the French equivalent is 'le jour J'.' (We have also learned that Allied High Command confirmed to the BBC in 1944 that the D stands for Day.)

Who was Humpty-Dumpty?

Mr H G Roberts of Nantwich, Cheshire, tells us another theory: 'Humpty Dumpty was the nickname the Parliamentarians, defending the city of Gloucester, gave to the large mortar which, mounted on a gun carriage, the Royalist forces brought up to bombard the city. They set it up on the west bank of the Severn, opposite the Castle, but misjudged the strength of the river wall, which collapsed, throwing Humpty Dumpty off his carriage into the river, and 'all the King's horses and all the King's men . . .' etc etc.'