Silly Questions: Calling all cars

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The Independent Culture
WE BEGIN with an apology. As Chris Noel rightly says: 'The question of why we like Silly Questions (as posed by Geoffrey Walker last week) is a serious one and therefore has no place in the column.' We fully accept this criticism and withdraw, without reservation, the above publication of his answer.

The pluralising of place names by non-natives has produced a variety of explanations. Duncan Bull says 'Non-natives revisiting an interesting place do not always connect it with their previous visit. They fondly imagine that two locations have identical names and so refer to them (it) in the plural.'

Colin Hayward believes that pluralisation is a sign of ignorance: 'You pluralise a place name if you haven't a clue where it is.' Shetland, he claims, is a real place because both his daughters were born there (which sounds rather a flimsy argument to me since one of my sons was born in the virtual unreality of Hammersmith). He believes that 'the Shetlands' in the plural is 'a mythical realm dreamed up by southerners and kept safely in a box in the Moray Firth.' Since Shetland Islanders have better geographical sense, they do not refer to anything south as 'the Englands'.

Leslie M Bell says 'any Francophile who has ever travelled from the singular city of Lyon to the duplicitous capital of perfidious Albion, the twin cities of London and Westminster', refers to them jointly as 'Londres'.

He also points out that the inhabitants of the Netherlands call it 'Nederland', while English speakers mistakenly lump together Nord Holland and Zuid Holland as Holland, while the locals call them Hollands. But he is confused by Napoli and Athenai which are plural in the original, and would like to know why we call Germans Germans, when they should be Germanians, or possibly Germen.

Which brings us to white wine. Caroline Hull says it's a corruption of 'wight' meaning for humans, to distinguish it from red wine, the 'drink divine' of Ben Jonson. Geoffrey Langley blames an 'acute synonym shortfall'. He claims: 'We have some quite decent ashens, sir', or 'Will you have red or ghastly' do not have the right tone, while 'waxen, wheyfaced and pallid are little better'.

Now here's a brilliant idea: 'If every car in the queue at traffic lights', writes Mike Corner, 'started moving immediately the lights turned green, instead of waiting for the car in front to move off, then more cars would get through the lights before they turned red again. Instead, we sit impotently champing at the bit until the bloke in front (and all those in front of him) gets going, by which time the lights have changed again.' It's not a silly question, of course, but he sent it to us anyway. He is interested in road-testing the idea with similar-minded people.

Meanwhile some questions yearning to be answered:

What is the correct term for a piece of string that is too short to be tied in a knot? (Caroline Hull's three-year-old daughter). Why does the English language slander bulls, as in 'cock and', 'in a china shop', 'at a gate', 'Papal', and bovine excrement. (Duncan Bull). What do train-spotters do while their anoraks are in the wash? (Stuart Cockerill).

Finally, Arnout de Wall is dissatisfied at the answer given in Monday's Good Questions column about why banks take four days to process a cheque. He is confident that our Silly Questioners will have better ideas on the subject. Replies and more questions please to: Silly Questions, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

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