Silly Questions: At the bottom of a cul-de-sac

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The Independent Culture
THE origins of the phrase 'Go boil your head' lie in industrial Lancashire, where according to Caroline Hull, thrifty mothers will sleep with the butcher for the price of a sheep's head ('with the eyes left in because it's expected to see the family through the week'). Thus, she says, the phrase carries connotations of poverty of both diet and morals. In the best haiku of the week, she adds: 'The stock produced when you boil a sheep's head is fine for growing rhubarb.'

Geoffrey Langley says the phrase is derived from the existentialist French slang objurgation 'faire bouiller a la coque de tete', applied to hard-boiled intellectuals. L Manning traces it back to a cure for skin diseases recommended by African witch doctors. The remedy involves cutting off the head of a friend, boiling it down with certain roots and herbs, and smearing the resulting potion on the afflicted areas. It was known as pal o'mine lotion.

Why do people have so many toes? Jasper Fforde believes the answer to be glaringly obvious: 'With only four toes, the final line of the verse about piggies ('this little piggy went 'wee wee wee' all the way home') would have to be omitted, thus leaving the verse hanging and denying generations of infants the delight of having their toes tweaked and tickled at bathtime.'

Gaston Grin points out that since God made man in his own image, he must also have five toes per foot, and since he is perfect, that must be the right number.

Why does it matter which side your bread is buttered? Mark Walmsley, a chief butler, brings a rare professional insight to the question, pointing out the damage one's social reputation could suffer from the gastronomic faux pas of serving cucumber sandwiches inside out. Stuart Cockerill adds: 'If it is buttered on the wrong side, the sugar won't adhere.'

Nicholas Edwards believes the whole expression to be misconceived, having started with a remark by Antonin Dvorak concerning Bedrich Smetana knowing which on side his bride was bartered.

Finally it turns out that our question about culs-de-sac, and why the French called them rues sans issue, was a blind alley. As several readers have pointed out, cul is a rude word in French meaning 'bum'. So a cul-de-sac is a bum-bag.

This week's questions: If one is omniscient and omnipresent, how can one tell if one has come in at the start of the film or the end? (Gaston Grin). Why does PC stand for so many different things? (R Bannerman). At what level of authority does one stop referring to the authorities as 'they'? (P G Bernard). Answers to: Silly Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

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