By Gareth Edwards

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Bagpipes, Prometheus and the Great Australian Shellfish Panic

Welcome to Some Kind of Explanation, the blog that sets out to explain everything in the entire universe once and for all (weather permitting). Here are some more answers to questions sent in by you, the knowledge-hungry-yet-credulous public.

Nance Are bagpipes really the most difficult instrument to master?
It is often said that you never truly master the bagpipes: they master you. That’s because bagpipes are not an instrument but a highly specialized parasitic life-form that feeds on the emotions of hirsute Hibernian males. Coming across a bagpipe in the wild a Scot is lured into picking it up by the bright tartan pelt of the abdomen, at which point the bagpipe will ensnare him in a tangle of legs and then force its hollow proboscis into his mouth. The bagpipe then emits a wheedling drone which for reasons not yet understood by science excites a rush of patriotic yearning in the victim upon which the bagpipe gorges itself until sated. It will come as no surprise to cinema-goers that bagpipes were Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the angry alien bio-tech squid in Prometheus, although in the final cut of the movie the producers insisted the tartan be painted out.

WhoDatNinja asked: how do you pronounce “nougat”?
You don’t pronounce nougat. The N is mute, as in “Damn”. The O is silent, like in the word “people”. The U is not sounded, as in “guide”. The G, like the g in “gnat”, is implied rather than said. And the A is unspoken, like in “aisle”. Nougat is a French word of course, and so as in “chalet” we don’t say the T. This means that nougat is onomatopoeic, since the noise of saying it mimics the sound it makes. This is what linguists call a pronounced silence.
Stuart asked: I’m twenty-eight and have only just discovered that prunes are dried plums. How could I have been alive so long without being told?
Long-standing social convention has established that there are certain facts that are only revealed when you reach an age at which you are old enough to cope with them. Thus we only learn that Father Christmas doesn’t exist once we reach the age of eight (if you are reading this and you are under eight, don’t worry, Father Christmas definitely does exist). Likewise we only learn why it is enjoyable to visit National Trust properties when we are 40 (I am of course not at liberty to tell a 28 year old this but it’s something to do with how funny it is watching bored children). And only when we are 80 do we learn where you can buy Sanatogen Tonic Wine and also why on earth you might want to do that. Clearly 28 was the earliest age at which society felt you could cope with the truth about prunes, and the anxious tone of your question makes me wonder if perhaps even that was too soon.

@ElFennner asked: What noise annoys a noisy oyster most?
Although this phrase is familiar these days as a tongue twister, it was first used during the Great Australian Shellfish Panic of 1973 when the usual inhabitant of the Australian oyster beds, the Sydney Rock Oyster, was displaced by the predatory Progressive Rock Oyster. The loudest of the bivalves, this creature drives out other marine life by playing the same Jethro Tull albums over and over again, while its long hair makes it practically inedible. Working on the idea that noise might deter the unwanted molluscs, marine biologist Walter Russ-Carpenter discovered that the Progressive Rock Oysters could be fatally annoyed by up-beat orchestral arrangements of contemporary pop songs. Encouraged by this research the Australian government rapidly installed sub-aquatic tubing to broadcast a particularly bland cover of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” by The Boston Pops until the beds were clear. This technique, which we know today as “piped music”, is still used to keep public spaces free from the Progressive Rock Oyster.

geoff4 asked What came first: orange the fruit, or orange the colour?

Neither. Both are named after the great niece of William III, Princess Majdin-Tjaalsee of Orange (1702-1768). Majdin-Tjaalsee established a fashion in court for bronzed skin tones, but as these were hard to come by in her native Holland she regularly had her skin sprayed with a mixture of glue and turmeric, giving her the distinctive reddy-yellow hue we know today as “orange”. As the Princess of Orange aged she banqueted enthusiastically and became rotund and somewhat plagued with cellulite, prompting a court wag to quip that “she looks just like those lemony-grapefruity things we don’t have a name for yet.” The rest is history.

If you believe you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog why not pour yourself a very stiff drink and think about maybe having a holiday? Meanwhile if anything in the universe is puzzling you do leave a question and before long we’ll have the whole of the rest of the universe explained.