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Today’s language has a real courtship with Shakespeare

Q.  A riddle for you: It resembles a baked potato, with 22 symmetrical tentacle-like appendages sprouting from its nose.  The wiggly, fleshly nose-fingers are covered with 25,000 sensory touch receptors, enabling it to “identify, capture and eat its prey, generally insects and worms, in an average of about 230 milliseconds …, roughly three times faster than a human driver’s reaction time to a red light.”  In fact, it holds the “Guinness World Records” title of the fastest mammalian eater.  What is it?

A.  The star-nosed mole, one of 20+ other burrowing mole species in the Northern Hemisphere, says Gemma Tarlach in “Discover” magazine.  A number of animals called moles, like the mole rat, aren’t moles at all.  However, moleskin, used to treat blisters, is made of fabric that mimics a mole’s velvety pelt, with no nap, “to avoid rubbing the wrong way as the animal moves through tight underground tunnels.”  Also, the neutral color taupe comes from the French word for mole, and the Latin word “moles” refers to a structural mole – a large breakwater or pier of piled earth or masonry.  Finally, one of the seven base units in the International System of Units is a mole, widely used in chemistry to express the mass of particles and molecules.

“Holy moley”!  Explains Tarlach, “That expression has nothing to do with the burrowing animals, either.  It’s a 19th-century euphemism for ‘holy Moses.’”  Well, holy moley!

Q.  Why do the U.S. and nearly two dozen other nations follow the custom of giving a 21-gun salute?  Why not 7 or 11 or some other number?

A.  The custom predates guns themselves, stemming from “the Middle Ages practice of placing oneself in an unarmed position and, therefore, in the power of those being honored,” explains Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website, drawing on Arlington National Cemetery’s website.  And while disarming works for swords, axes and the like, it doesn’t work for cannons on gunships.  So, instead, the ships fired cannonballs into the water, and most likely, due to superstition and a belief that the number seven was lucky, many ships carried seven cannons.

But since land batteries had a greater supply of gunpowder, they were able to fire three guns for every shot fired afloat.  “Hence, the salute by shore batteries was 21 guns,” perhaps based on the mystical significance of the number three in many ancient civilizations (U.S. Army for Military History).

Concludes Lewis:  The tradition remains, but “in almost all cases, today’s saluting guns are firing blanks.”

Q.  What do the following words have in common: “accommodation,” “assassination,” “barefaced,” “countless,” “courtship,” “dislocate,” “dwindle,” “eventful,” “fancy-free,” “lack-lustre,” “laughable,” “obscene,” “premeditated,” “submerged”?  Clue:  Think historically.

A.  They were all first recorded in the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), considered one of the two most important influences in the development of the English language during that period, says David Crystal in “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.”  (The King James Bible of 1611 is the second major influence.)  Interestingly, many words first recorded by the Bard have not survived, including “abruption,” “exsufflicate,” “persistive,” “questrist” and “vastidity.”

Shakespeare also introduced phrases that have become part of the idiomatic expression of modern English, such as “a foregone conclusion” (“Othello”), “in my mind’s eye” (“Hamlet”), “it’s Greek to me” (“Julius Caesar”), “a tower of strength” (“Richard III”),  and “love is blind” (“Merchant of Venice”).

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