Where Did The Phrase “Spick And Span” Come From?

Batman and Robin. Peanut butter and jelly. Bitcoin and not having a clue what bitcoin is.

There are some things that just go together. You would be hard pressed to find one without the other.

One example is the phrase “spick and span.” The term whose words on their own mean have nothing to do with being new, but together mean “fresh” or “clean.” Where did the phrase come come? Why do we not really use the words on their own?

Let’s find out in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

Where Did The Phrase “Spick And Span” Come From?

Fun fact: the term was originally spick and span-new. A use from 1579 comes from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes, 1579:

“They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe.”

The phrase dropped “new” in 1665 when it was first found in Samuel Pepys’ Diary:

“My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes.”

It is unclear exactly how this phrase came about, but as Phrases.org.uk puts it, “The alliteration in the phrase suggests the possibility that that one of the two words alluded to cleanliness and freshness and that the other just followed along.”

So which word most closely resembled something new or fresh, you ask? Probably spick.

The word spick was sometimes used in place of spike or nail. In the 1500s a new nail may have been associated with cleanliness because it was cleaned as soon as it was made. There is a phrase “as neat as a new pin” which alludes to this idea.

So, basically that’s the best guess out there. The phrase probably started just because it featured alliteration and was fun to say. It was a stretch from the original meaning, but it stuck nonetheless. Kinda like what we do today with emojis and memes. #notagreatcomparison

Why is a Ping Pong Paddle Black on One Side and Red on the Other?

My younger brother is good at many things. He has a great job, many friends and the unique ability to be able to take a nap anywhere.

But there is one thing he is just not very good at…ping pong.

He possesses many of the things that make for a good ping pong player — strength, hand-eye coordination and a ping pong paddle. But try as he might, he just can’t seem to win many ping pong matches.

Most of the time when he loses, he blames one thing. Not his strength. Not his hand-eye coordination.

He blames the paddle.

The other night, after yet another loss, he was once again admonishing the paddle for his loss when he posed an interesting question: why does a paddle have two colors?

Good question. Let’s find out in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

Why is a Ping Pong Paddle Black on One Side and Red on the Other?

The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) allows the two sides of a paddle to have different surfaces. This is used to create varying degrees of spin and speed. In order to allow each player to know what type of shot may be coming, regulations specify that one side of a paddle must be red while the other must be black.

So, what are the differences between the two sides on a standard paddle?

According to ThoughtCo.com,

When you hit the ball with the red rubber, the ball jumps more (vertically) than the hit with the black side. Many players feel that red rubbers are usually a bit faster and less spinny than black rubbers, since slightly different materials (pigments and dyes) are used to give the rubbers their red and black colors.”

The same article stats that most professionals use the red side on their forehands and the black side on their backhands.

Maybe my brother should try that. Ah well, probably wouldn’t help him much. He just isn’t very good.


What Are Ramparts?

Pop quiz time…what was so gallantly streaming in the Star-Spangled Banner?

Answer: the ramparts.

Second question: what are ramparts?

Let’s find out in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

What Are Ramparts?

Here’s the definition according to dictionary.com:

[ram-pahrt, -pert]



  1. a broad elevation or mound of earth raised as a fortification around a place and usually capped with a stone or earth parapet.
  2. such an elevation together with the parapet.

anything serving as a bulwark or defense.

My first thought is now I want to know what a parapet or a bulwark are. Sounds like animals from whatever weird land a Teletubbies came from.

But back to the topic at hand…

The Star-Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key after the US victory at the Battle of Baltimore, during the War of 1812. Scott Key was reflecting on the patriotic feeling he had when he saw the enormous US flag flying over the US fort in Baltimore.

So, basically, a rampart is the protective protective barrier Scott Key saw when he witnessed the flag flying over Fort Henry. If you sprinkle in a little poetic license you get the following:

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?”

Why do we say ‘boo’ on Halloween?

I am not sure if there were Halloween decorations in the year 1515, but if there were, they very well could have featured the word boo.

Boo, and the variations “bo” or “boh,” date back to around 500 years ago. The word is of Scottish origin but some trace it to a Greek word that meant “to cry aloud, roar or shout.”

In the 18th century, booing began being used as a sound of displeasure, as Italian opera fans were often called boo birds when they did not enjoy a show. According to linguists, the word is such a great word to show discontent “because ‘ooh’ or ‘oh’ sounds can be pronounced at a higher volume than other vowel sounds, such as the ‘ee’ in ‘wheel.’ Since boo is a monosyllable, it can also be said very quickly, which may add to its scariness.”

So let’s recap…the word boo is based on a Greek word that means to roar & it is easy to say loudly and at a rapid pace. A loud & fast road. Seems like the perfect scary word for Halloween.

But not everyone agrees. In Spain, they say “uuh” to scare somebody. In France it’s “hou” and in Czech it’s “baf.”

Why Does The Hair On My Head Grow Longer Than The Hair On My Body?

Xie Qiuping set the Guinness World Record for longest hair on May 8th, 2004 when her hair was measured at 18 ft 5.54 in (5.627 m).

Kenzo Tsuji holds the Guinness World Record for longest arm hair at 7.44 in (18.90 cm).

Both have far more hair than any of us will ever have, but it raises the question: why does the hair on our heads grow much longer than the hair on our bodies? Let’s find out in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

Why Does The Hair On My Head Grow Longer Than The Hair On My Body?

To learn why our head hair is longer than our arm hair we first must understand how hair growth works.

The Washington Post explains it this way:

All hair and fur grows in cycles. In the anagen phase, a protein root down in your hair follicle starts accumulating cells that form into a rope-like structure we know as hair. Your scalp’s blood supply feeds the follicle and allows it to divide into more cells. As long as the anagen phase lasts, your hair will grow longer and longer, unless you cut or break it, at a rate of about a half-inch each month.”

The growth cycle for head hair varies for each of us, but it usually lasts a few years. At the end of the cycle the follicle slowly withers and the hair new cells no longer get fed.

The reason our body hair is much shorter is because their growth cycle is much shorter. The hair on our arms, legs and other parts of our body may have a cycle that lasts just a few weeks, rather than years. In less than a month, our body signals to the hair follicle that its time is done and the dead strand either falls off or is moved out by a new one as the new anagen phase begins.

How Was The Length Of A Marathon Determined?

I will probably never run a marathon, but I can definitely appreciate how difficult a marathon must be. I have a hard enough time running 6.2 miles, that I can imagine how long 26.2 miles must feel like.

I’ve always wondered how they came up with that length, 26.2 miles. Why not 26 or 27? And what is that distance in kilometers? Let’s find out in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

How Was The Length Of A Marathon Determined?

Before I started researching this topic, I figured that a marathon was such an odd number of miles because it was a whole number of kilometers.

I was wrong. A marathon is 42.195 kilometers. So if it isn’t a whole number of miles or kilometers, where did the distance come from?

First some history…

The name “marathon” comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, who ran from the city of Marathon to Athens to deliver the message that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in the 490 BC Battle of Marathon.

The most common route and the one Pheidippides would have used on his journey, is roughly 26 miles.

The marathon has been an Olympic event since the birth of the Modern Olympics in 1896. However, from the first Modern Olympics through 1920, a span of seven Olympics, a total of six different distances were used in the marathon.

  • 24.85 miles in 1896 and 1904
  • 25.02 miles in 1900
  • 26.01 miles in 1906
  • 26.22 miles in 1908
  • 24.98 miles in 1912
  • 26.56 miles in 1920

In 1921, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) figured it was time to determine an official distance for the marathon. They chose the 1908 Olympic distance of 26.22 miles (or 26 miles and 385 yards) which has been the official distance for the marathon ever since.

The course for the 1908 Olympic marathon was set to begin at the Windsor Castle and end with a lap inside White City Stadium. In order to have the race finish in front of the Queen of England and her Royal Box, the final lap was shortened to a partial lap. The distance from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium was 26 miles and the shortened lap was 385 yards. Thus the official length of the marathon was set.

Why did they pick the 1908 distance, you ask?

Because the 1908 Olympic marathon was one of the most famous marathons ever. Italian Dorando Pietri led as he entered the Olympic Stadium. He was well ahead of the competition but because the temperature was so hot, he was dehydrated and could barely walk. In fact, he was woozy that he fell numerous times on the final lap and even started running the wrong direction. As the other runners entered the stadium, Pietri was so close, but it was clear he could not finish on his own. Olympic officials decided to help him across the finish line.

Johnny Hayes from the United Stated finished second. The US protested the assisted finish and Pietri was disqualified. Hayes was awarded the Gold Medalist.

So there you have it. A controversial finish, an altered route and the Queen of England all helped determined the length of the marathon. And that length is still going strong 100+ years later.

Here are some fun marathon facts:

  • Fastest time by a female – 2:15:25 by Paula Radcliffe of Kenya on September 29, 2013
  • Fastest time by a male – 2:02:57 by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya on September 28, 2014
  • On September 28, 2014, not only did Dennis Kimetto break the record, but Emmanuel Mutai, also of Kenya, also broke the old record of 2:03:23, with his finish of 2:03:13. He broke the record but had to settle for 2nd place.
  • Oldest finisher – Fauja Singh was 100 years old when he finished in 2011. But he could not produce an official birth certificate from India, so his record is not accepted by the official governing body.
  • Youngest finisher – Budhia Singh from India finished at just 3 years. His coach was later arrested for exploiting and being cruel to the child. Shocker.
  • There are approximately 500 marathons organized worldwide with roughly 550,000 finishers every year.



Sources: LA Times & Wikipedia

Why Is There Traffic?

Picture this…

You are cruising down the freeway, minding your own business and rocking out to the latest Taylor Swift song. Just a nice, casual drive to the mall. Everything is going great until you notice some traffic up ahead.

“Uh oh,” you think, “there must be an accident.”

Five Taylor Swift songs later, you are still inching along through the traffic. This accident must be big.

All of a sudden, cars start to move. Poof! The traffic jam is over. But wait. There was no major accident. No police cars. Not even a fender-bender.

“What? How could that happen?” you ask T-Swift. She just tells you to shake it off.

But you can’t just shake it off. You want answers! What the heck just happened? How was there no accident? What caused that traffic?

Well, you’ve come to the right place. I will answer those questions and more in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday.

Why is There Traffic When There’s No Accident?

Has the above scenario happened to you? I’m guessing it has. According to The Atlantic, Americans spend 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. With all that time spent in traffic, we are bound to run into a few instances where the traffic appears to have no cause.

But actually, the cause is quite easy to explain.

To answer this question, a Japanese research group set up circular track with a circumference of 230m. They put 22 cars on the road and asked the drivers to go steadily at 30km/h around the track. Initially, there were no problems. But as soon as a driver altered his speed, things changed and led to brief standstills.

Yuki Sugiyama, physicist from Nagoya University, said, “Although the emerging jam in our experiment is small, its behavior is not different from large ones on highways. When a large number of vehicles, beyond the road capacity, are successively injected into the road, the density exceeds the critical value and the free flow state becomes unstable.”

So basically, traffic jams that are not caused by accidents are simply the result of there being too many cars on the road.

HowStuffWorks.com calls these types traffic jams, “network overload.” They echo the findings of the Japanese researchers and explain that it boils down to demand outweighing capacity. Just as your computer slows down when you have too many programs open at once, highways and roads are slowed down because of too many drivers.

The site breaks down the occurrences of traffic in two areas: network overload and traffic disturbances.

Traffic disturbances are the accidents, collisions, and breakdowns. According to the 2007 Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute, this type of traffic accounts for between 52 and 58 percent of the delays motorists experience

So the other 42 to 48 percent, or roughly 17 hours of the year you spend in traffic is caused by network overload.

17 hours of year sitting in phantom traffic. That is a lot of Taylor Swift songs to listen to. Don’t worry. Shake it off.

How Big Is A Rainbow?

Rainbows are pretty amazing things. We have urban legends about them, viral videos featuring them, and even cereals based on them.

But how much do we really know about rainbows?

I, for one, know very little. I know they are colorful (kinda like hipsters) and they like to come out in the rain (kinda like hipsters).  But, honestly, I don’t spend much time thinking about them (unlike hipsters, apparently).

Until now.

Wonder Why Wednesday: How Big Is A Rainbow?

Before I could figure out if it is possible to measure a rainbow, I had to determine just exactly what a rainbow is. Here’s what I learned,

Rainbows appear when light originating from the sun is refracted and reflected by small water droplets suspended in the air.”

Next, I had to look up what refracted means.

After that, I learned that the size of a rainbow has more to do with how we see it than actual length. The size we see depends on three things: how many particles there are for light to refract off, the angle in which it reaches the eye, and any objects that obscure the view of the rainbow.

Finally, after much searching on the Internet, I learned that measuring the actual size of a rainbow is very, very difficult. One site puts it this way:

It’s probably not impossible, but it is difficult. A rainbow looks circular because it’s basically the circle where a cloud of rain droplets intersects with your cone of vision, like the circle on the end of an ice-cream cone. Imagine said ice-cream cone with the point in your eye (don’t actually try this experiment unless you’re looking for a career in piracy). Now make the cone bigger and bigger until the round end hits the cloud of raindrops that are reflecting the sun’s light. The big circle on the end of that cone is where the rainbow appears to be — as someone else pointed out, you can only see the top half of it (because the other half is below the surface of the earth). The raindrops reflect light at about a 40 degree angle, so you can calculate the diameter of the circle if you also know the height of the cone (because the height of the cone, the radius of the circle, and the 40 degree angle are all part of a right angled triangle). The challenge is knowing the height of the cone, which is how far away the cloud of raindrops is from you. If you can work that out then, yes, you can measure the diameter of the rainbow (diameter = (2*distanceToCloud) / tan 40).”

Now, if you are anything like me, your mind started to wander after you read ice cream cone. But he’s what I think we learned:

  • we only see half of a rainbow, the other half is underground
  • we can determine the size of a rainbow if we can figure out its height
  • to find out the height, we need to know how far we are from the cloud of raindrops
  • not sure how you do that, but if you can, then you use the following equation: diameter = (2*distanceToCloud) / tan 40

Got all that?

In short, rainbows are really complicated and figuring out their size is probably not worth our brainpower.


Sources: Scientific AmericanAsk PhilosophersAnswers.com


Why Do We Call Them the ‘Dog Days’ of Summer?

Recently, in my discussion of why schools have summer break I wrote, “There was no extra work to be found in the dog days of summer.” As soon as I wrote that, I wondered, “why do we call them the ‘dog days’ of summer?”

Here’s the answer…

Wonder Why Wednesday: Why Do We Call Them the ‘Dog Days’ of Summer?

According to National Geographic, the term “dog days of summer” has nothing to do with dogs lying around in the heat. The phrase stems from ancient Greek astrology.

As Wonderopolis confirms, the ancient Romans called the hottest, most humiddays of summer “diēs caniculārēs” or “dog days.” The star Sirius is associated with the hottest days of summer, and Sirius is known as the “Dog Star” because it was the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog). Sirius also happens to be the brightest star in the night sky.

Because it is the brightest star, Romans thought it radiated an extra amount of heat toward Earth, causing hotter temperatures.

Romans considered from about July 24 to around August 24 to be the dog days of summer. Today, The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the traditional timing of the dog days of summer as being July 3 until August 11.

Where is Sesame Street Located?

I’ve always been terrible with directions. If not for the GPS on my phone, I doubt I’d ever get anywhere. I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember.

Once in junior high, my parents were late to pick me up from basketball practice and my coach offered to take me home. Only one problem. For the life of me, I could not describe how to get to my house.

Outside of knowing the city, I could not provide any other important facts, like crossroads or even zip code. It was not as if we had just moved houses. I had been driven to that same house for years but was unable to recall how to get there.

In my defense, I was just a kid. At that point in my life, the only place I had asked to locate was how to get to Sesame Street. And I didn’t know how to get there either.

Eventually I learned my crossroads, my zip code and figured out where the heck I lived.

The other day I was watching this Kid President video featuring Grover from Sesame Street and it got me thinking…where is Sesame Street? I realized that although I had figured out how to locate my own home, I had never uncovered the answer that the show’s intro asks, “can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?”

Luckily that is what Wonder Why Wednesday is for.

Where is Sesame Street Located?

According to Wikipedia, the fictional Sesame Street is set to represent a Manhattan street in a neighborhood of New York City. However, the show’s creators disagree on the specific neighborhood where you can find Big Bird, Bert and Ernie.

Art director Victor DiNapoli thinks that it is supposed to be located on the Upper West Side. The show’s founder, Joan Ganz Cooney, stated in 1994 that she originally wanted to call the show 123 Avenue B, after the Alphabet City area of the Lower East Side and East Village.

So the exact location is undetermined.

My 12-year old self would be able to relate to that.