My mom was always both flattered and annoyed at the multitude of questions I
asked her when I was younger: flattered because I thought that because she was
Mom, naturally she would know everything, and annoyed because there were some
questions she couldn't answer. Feldman calls these difficult
questions "Imponderables," and has attempted to answer them in print for the
curious public. Learning the answers to these nagging questions is
satisfying and enjoyable. Besides, even when I forget the answer to one of
these question, it's nice to know there are other people asking things that I've
always wondered myself.
Incidentally, Feldman invented "Frustables." These are "FRUSTerating
imponderABLES." These are questions that people have sent in that are
unsolved. At the end of each book new frustables are posed, speculations
are circulated for old ones. At the end of "Do Penguins have knees, he has
printed numerous reader responses to the question, "Why do you so often see one shoe lying on the side of the road?" This has never been a question
which intrigued me, but I was rather amused by the theories whcih were advanced
to explain it.
Feldman makes Imponderables interactive. His questions come from the
public, and often the public helps solve them. He gives out copies of his
book to people who contribute, as well as giving them credit for their question
or solution. Do you have any Imponderables clanking around in your head
late at night...?
What sorts of questions might these imponderables be?
Here are some examples from "Do Penguins Have Knees?":
- Why are there dents on the top of cowboy hats?
- What's the difference between a lake and a pond?
- Why do straws in drinks sometimes sink and sometimes rise to the surface?
- Do earlobes serve any particular or discernible function?
- Why are some watermelon seeds whte and some black?
- Why was April 15 chosen as the due date for taxes?
Here are some more examples from "When Do Fish Sleep?":
- Why do chickens and turkeys, unlike other fowl, have white meat and dark
meat? (I actually knew that one.)
- Why haven't vending machines ever accepted pennies?
- Why is a blue ribbon used to designate first prize?
- Why are rented bowling shoes so ugly?
- When I put one slice of bread in my toaster, the heating element in the
adjacent slot heats up as well. So why does my toaster specify which slot
to place the bread in if I am toasting only one slice?
- What exactly is One Hour Martinizing?
Although I enjoyed both of the Imponderables books, "Who Put the Butter in
Butterfly?" was a bit of a disappointment. This is one book not consisting
of answers to Imponderables, but rather of answers to etymological questions.
Except that some of the answers seem more like attempts at answers. Some
research was done, some speculations are mentioned, and Feldman leaves it at
that. I understand that not every word can be traced to its root, and that
folk etymologies (fictional etymologies) have displaced true ones.
However, since many of the words in fact *are* explained definitively, I thought
that the ones which weren't were out of place and unsatisfying.
Another annoying aspect of the book is that it explains the
origins of phrases which I had never heard and wasn't curious about at all.
It's not nearly as much fun learning the origins of something obscure when there
are so many well-used phrases whose origins I don't know.
I did learn a few interesting things from Feldman's etymology book, though.
I am happy to say that I now know why denim is denim and jeans are jeans.
(The names come from the city names Nimes, France and Genoa, Italy.) A
white elephant gift was originally just that: a gift of a sacred white elephant
from the emperor of Siam. (It was purportedly an honor, but was actually
an intentional punishment: the white elephant could not be ridden, killed,
worked, released, or sent far away, but had to be fed and cared for.) The
plant name "dandelion" is a British corruption of the French name for the plant,
"tooth of lion" or "dent de leon." But the British were already calling
the dandelion a "lion's tooth" in English, so it seems silly that they gave it
an identical French name, doesn't it?
Books by David Feldman
(O=own, R=read, E=enjoyed)