By Gareth Edwards

Thursday 4 October 2012

Two Years Explaining the Universe

Some Kind of Explanation is two years old today, and already the blog that aims to explain every mystery in the universe has explained 203 of them.  I’ve no idea how many that leaves, but we must be well on the way.  These are some of my favourite explanations of the last two years.

What is the one weird old tip that will help me lose belly fat?
My Great Uncle Emlyn, a keen Methodist, had a job in Smithfield meat market collecting unwanted offcuts to deliver to the tallow chandler. One day while taking some pork trimmings to Walthamstow a strange old man with home-made shoes told him to wager a shilling on Velvet Kipper to place in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Although he had never gambled before Uncle Emlyn felt strangely drawn to enter the bookies to place a bet. He won seventeen shillings and sixpence! However, in his excitement my uncle completely forgot the bag containing twenty-two pounds of belly fat. Exactly the same thing could work for you. Except I suppose we’ve gone decimal, so it won’t.

Is terracotta red, orange, or brown?
No, that’s autumn leaves. Terracotta is a Sardinian dessert made out of milk and clay

Why do Americans drop the “u” when they spell words like neighbour, colour, and humour, but leave it in other words like contour and velour?

The American Declaration of Independence (or as it was known in Britain “Fine, See If We Care”) was followed by immensely difficult years for the newly-formed US government. Up to that point the erstwhile colonies had imported all letters of the alphabet from Britain, but in an attempt to undermine the prestige and name of the newly-formed USA in 1776 the British banned all trans-Atlantic trade in the letter U. The Americans were determined to keep the U in pride of place in their new nation’s name and so made sacrifices elsewhere, salvaging non-essential “u”s from words like “honour”, “harbour” and “elephaunt” (a usage that eventually became adopted back in Britain too) to keep the new national sobriquet intact.  As the blockade continued patriotic mums became “moms” and farmers exchanged their ploughs for plows while ukulele players took up the banjo. Eventually however the masses complained of this hand-to-moth existence, and there was even talk of a second revoltion so that by winter 1789 the Fonding Fathers had to face up to the possibility of becoming a Nited States of America. But as grim preparations were made tomake do without the letter U altogether and George Washington prepared a sombre State of the Onion address a French schooner, L’Ululation, carrying several tons of fresh letter “u”s wrapped in the finest contoured velour broke the British blockade of the ports.  The Americans fell on the vowel-rich cargo and the letter flooded back into the New World. But the years of shortage had left their scars and American spelling was never the same again.

Which is best, Earl Grey or Normal?
It depends. Earl Grey was a British prime minister famous for liking the strong citrus aroma of Bergamot oil, which he added liberally to everything. This worked very well in tea, but history has been less kind to Earl Grey Mashed Potato; Earl Grey Trousers; and the infamous Earl Grey Elephant, which rampaged furiously through both Houses of Parliament dripping with strong-smelling unguent until it was finally put to sleep with a reading from one of Benjamin Disraeli’s early novels. The story of Thomas Normal who amassed a great fortune by not adding Bergamot to a range of every-day products is too well-known to need repeating here.

Are there really people who can’t understand what to do when they approach roundabouts?
Yes. Most people can’t understand what to do and this condition is unaffected by proximity to roundabouts.

Who invented scissors?
Scissors weren’t invented, they were discovered in Massachusetts in 1749 by Jeddadeddadiah Lowell who came across two knives that had been riveted together with a thunder bolt during a mechanical storm (the standard kind of storm before Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the electrical storm two years later). Excited by his discovery he picked up the scissors and ran home to show his family but tripped, and was naturally killed instantly.

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.

That's all for now, but if you have enjoyed this blog you might also enjoy brownies, the poetry of Edward Thomas, breeding mice for fun and profit, or water-skiing. I simply have no way of telling. 


  1. Community service is on the decrease and so you are to be commended for devoting so much of your spare time on explaining the universe. My personal favourites (and it was hard to decide among so many) include: Where do all the socks go once they enter the washing machine? Why bother? and Why do cats catch and release mice...?

    1. Thank you Nance, And thanks for all your excellent questions. Together we'll get the universe explained in next to no time.

  2. I hope a Big Book of Explanations is coming in the future. Something with diagrams and handy footnotes?

  3. If we can have wireless broadband, why can't we have telepathy?

  4. Why do people use the adjectives "ice" and "downhill" to describe hockey and skiing? Is hockey on ice and skiing down a hill the norm rather than the exception in sports?

  5. candyflossandvodka23 October 2012 at 22:39

    Is 'Dry-Clean Only' a polite suggestion, or will the world plungeinto a swirling vortex of misery and despair if that instruction is not followed?

  6. What are the essential items needed for a "survival kit"?

  7. Who invited Melba Toast?

    1. Oh boy -- gremlins in the keyboard. Who invented Melba Toast?