My home-office chair is missing its back, and I nearly fell out of it this morning, giving me the “butterflies.” While the vision of a tiny jar full of butterflies fluttered through my head, I find it highly unlikely. Only one man will truly know, and so I ask.…
— Catch me, I’m falling, via email
Man, anybody who’s been called on the carpet by Grandma has a major case of small birds in the stomach. Seagulls. Eagles. Or maybe big old spiders. Why did we decide it’s butterflies we have in there? Houseflies can flutter around just as well. Anyway, your particular butterflies come from our flight-or-fight response. Heavy-duty panic, like what can be caused by the threat of falling off the chair and landing on the back of your dome. Your body goes into panic mode, adrenalin is released, all your blood is corralled for your muscles, leaving your stomach pretty much abandoned. Stomach spasms are your butterflies. Fix your chair, Bubba.
What’s the deal with fall/autumn getting two different names for the same season? Are there any other names for spring, summer, or winter that exist? Also, which word is more appropriate? “Autumn” sounds a bit more romantic, doesn’t it?
— Jay, via email
Many of our long-ago ancestors didn’t give much of a damn about autumn/fall. Or spring either. They divided the year up into winter and summer, which pretty much makes sense if you’re an ordinary guy scrabbling around in your stone hut, living with the cows in the winter and trying to get edible weeds to grow in the summer. No big surprise then that winter and summer are very ancient words, and those seasons have never been known by other names. “Summer” is derived from words related to the sun. “Winter” comes from “wet” words.
Spring and fall seem to pop up during the early Renaissance, at least in England. At some point before this, once domestic agriculture was well established, the planting season acquired the name lenten (has nothing to do with the religious observance). “Lenten” is derived from words related to “long.” No obvious connection with the season that I can see. The word nerds speculate it has to do with how long the spring months seem, what with all the tilling and planting. But that’s the word nerds, not me. They also speculate that “spring” really is related to the meaning “to jump.” Like, the way plants jump out of the ground. Leaves jump out of tree branches. Writers of the era did refer to the time as “the spring of the leaf.”
I’ll bet you know what’s coming. If they wrote about the spring of the leaf, you bet they talked about the fall of the leaf, the source of the word “fall.” But the original name for the vague season between summer and winter, again derived from agriculture, was harvest. Then people started moving into cities, and they didn’t have much connection with harvests. So the French loaned the British their word, which was Anglicized to autumn. Autumn and fall, coming from different sources, existed side by side. The British tend to favor autumn; Americans tend to favor fall. Apparently we’ve never felt forced to choose between them. So, no, there is no other season that currently has two names. But at one time the four seasons were winter, lenten, summer, and harvest.
I was boring the socks off my son with old girlfriend stories, and somewhere along the way I told him that back in the day it was believed that if you were chewing gum and then gave a girl a passionate kiss, your gum would disintegrate. My son said he’d never heard of that and from his experience didn’t think it was true. Is this an urban myth? I always thought it was true. Well?
— Old Fart, via email
I’d figure the passionate kiss would have to be of Guinness caliber to screw up your gum. Even then, the odds are slim. Gum is not digestible. If you swallow it, it goes right through you like, oh, corn, maybe. But that’s not to say it doesn’t fall apart. Heat seems to be the biggest culprit in chewing-gum breakdown. Leave a pack on your sun-baked dashboard, and when you come back to it, you’ll probably find it falls apart fairly soon. Hot coffee or any hot drink washed over a big chaw will also speed things up. The explanation seems to have something to do with the breakdown of carbohydrate chains, the same thing your saliva will do if you make your gum last three or four days.
The whole story sounds like something some high school boy made up to try on some hot freshman, figuring it was just weird enough that she might fall for it. Kids today are way past that kind of stuff. More likely you have to have a stick to fight off the girls who are stalking your son.