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Sunday, July 12, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Use of lead white shows the lengths we’ll go to look better

Q.  Strips of lead are placed into one half of a special two-partitioned clay pot and vinegar is poured into the other half. The pot is then placed inside a shed, surrounded by animal dung, the door is closed and the pot is left there for 30 days.  What is being made?

A.  A versatile and historically important pigment called lead white.  Fumes from the vinegar react with the lead, then carbon dioxide from the fermenting dung completes the transformation to crystalline lead carbonate, a pure white substance which can be powdered and used as a pigment for paints and cosmetics, says Kassia St. Clair in her book “The Secret Lives of Color.”  In continuous production for at least 4,000 years, lead white has decorated ancient buildings and tombs around the world.  “It was used in the enamel on ceramic dishes and bathroom fittings, in house paints and wallpapers, well into the twentieth century.”  Artists liked it because it was so opaque and adhered well to almost any surface.  “When paintings are X-rayed, its dense outline can form a kind of skeleton within a painting, allowing technicians to see alterations and later additions.”

But lead white is also poisonous.  From ancient Greece through Elizabethan times, it was used in cosmetics to make skin look smooth and pale.  “The irony of generations of women slowly killing themselves to look their best is of the darkest kind.”

 Q.  The English language is constantly adding new words, building some up like Legos, coining others after people, borrowing from other languages and more, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  Are you ready to add these to your personal word bin: “agerasia,” “proditomania,” “rupestral” and “marcescent”?

A.  All in the category of “There’s a word for it,” “agerasia” (a-juh-RAY-zee-uh) means “to look younger than your age,” from “geros” (old age), which also gives us “gerontology.”  As Garg explains, while you can’t alter your chronological age, your biological age— how well you’ve aged — is quite likely up to you.  The Latin “prodere,” (to betray) is the basis for “proditomania,” or the feeling that everyone is out to get you.  And “rupestral,” from the Latin “rupes,” relates to rocks — living in, carved on, made of rock.

Finally, “marcescent” means “withering without falling off,” as penned by Keith Quincy in 2002: “She took up scissors and trimmed the hair above his ears and clipped away the frizzy marcescent strands languishing in the desert of his bald head.”

Q.  In November, 1889, four states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington — entered the Union, raising the number of states from 38 to 42.  But which Dakota was number 39?

A.  No one knows, answers Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website.  Before becoming states, both made up Dakota Territory, and though they could have been admitted as one state, several reasons argued against it.  At the time, the territory had a relatively large population situated in the northeast and southeast corners, hundreds of miles apart.  Also, the Republican Party, in control of the federal government, wanted two states, with their four Senate seats.

But a problem developed, when both North Dakota and South Dakota wanted to become state number 39.  Yet the mechanism for becoming a state requires the President of the United States to sign an order to that effect, “making simultaneous admissions impossible.”  But President Benjamin Harrison had a solution.  He ordered his Secretary of State to shuffle the admission documents and conceal the names, then signed both on November 2, 1889, never knowing which he signed first. 

Concludes Lewis: “Yet North Dakota may have gotten the last laugh:  By virtue of being alphabetically before South Dakota, it is often listed first, as a matter of convenience.”

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