Silly Questions: The short and the long of it

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The Independent Culture
READING a leader in the Independent shortly after taking in 'Silly Questions' made our correspondent John Dinsdale wonder why the French for cul- de-sac is rue sans issue. We have, as yet, no answer, but we can tell you the long and the short about pigeons and penguins.

Why is 'long' shorter than 'short'? J & J Spurway point out (while showing off their printer fonts) that if you use Cyrillic and Danish characters, short is a three-letter word. Phonemically, they claim, long and short are of similar length. They also suggest that long is the 'demotic form of 'elongated', which is much longer than 'short' though the same length as 'shortened'.' We find this unconvincing, since you can only be elongated if you were shorter to start with. What about things that started long? Michael Rubinstein covers that objection in his claim that long is a shortened form of the Welsh town Llanfair PG.

Rufus Isaacs says that it is for the same reason that miles are shorter than kilometres, big is smaller than small and before comes after after in the dictionary.

Why do Stratford wood-pigeons cry 'Bravo, Sid'? 'They are clearly of the opinion,' opines B Atkins Smart, 'that Sir Philip Sidney MP (1554- 1586) was the true author of Shakespeare's sonnets, if not the whole canon.' Joan Pennycook, however, believes the pigeons to be singing the praises of Sidonie Goossens who 'gave an open-air concert in Stratford in 1958, feeling it was a long way to travel only to do the harp back-up to Much Ado About Nothing'. She notes a similar phenomenon in homing pigeons who have chirped the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth after flying over the Hollywood Bowl in 1975.

Mollie Caird, however, puts them all right with the information that it is not the wood pigeon but the collared dove that says 'Bravo, Sid'. Recent immigrants to Britain, the collared doves are unfamiliar with the works of Shakespeare. 'English wood pigeons, however, do coo in pentameters. Curiously, though, they have failed to grasp iambics.' Stuart Cockerill informs us that Rupert Sheldrake says that pigeon-racing is the national sport of Belgium.

Which leaves no room to tell you about penguins.

This week, we should like to know: Why do we have so many toes? (N James). Why are milkmen always running? (Fred Barnfield). Why does it matter which side your bread is buttered on? (Geoffrey Langley). What is the origin of the phrase 'Go boil your head'? (J Williams).

Replies and further mysteries to: Silly Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.