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Plenty of examples of horsing around with the language

     Q.  Unpacking a new pair of shoes, you notice in the box a packet of silica gel with directions to THROW AWAY, “DO NOT EAT.”  What happens if you do eat it?

     A.  All sorts of products are packaged with silica gel, from consumer electronics and furniture to shoes and handbags and even at times food items such as beef jerky and dried seaweed, says Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website.  It’s a desiccant, designed to keep things around it dry.  “Basically, silica gel absorbs moisture, keeping the cell phone, leather shoes or dried meat it’s packed with from getting ruined.”

     According to the North Carolina Poison Center, if you ripped open a packet, you’d find either granular silicic acid, which resembles sand, or tiny gel beads.  You shouldn’t eat it, says Lewis, because it’s not food, but if you did, the gel is non-toxic so you’d most likely be okay.  There’s no risk of overdose, and if a child were to ingest some, it may cause a bit of dry mouth, which a few sips of water will dispel.

     Interestingly, you may have eaten silica before, since it’s added to improve flow in powdered foods.  The “gel” indicates it contains water.  If you eat silica, it will pass through your gastrointestinal tract without being digested and will then be excreted.

     The danger arises because the packet tends to get stuck in the throat, and if children were to eat the whole packet, “the hazard isn’t poison, it’s choking” (“Slate”).

      Q.  Do you have horse sense?  Do you also know the meaning of these horse-related words: “unhorse,” “chevalier,” “hippocrene” and “horse marine.”

     A.  The origin of “horse sense” is unknown, but why not foxes instead, asks Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  Perhaps it’s the association of horses with the country and the sound practical judgment associated with unsophisticated country folk.  Or perhaps it’s the animals’ sense of staying out of trouble.  Compare with “horsefeathers” (nonsense).  Dating back to 1390, “unhorse” metaphorically means “to unseat from a position of power.”

     From Anglo-Norman and ultimately from Latin “caballus” (horse), a chevalier is a chivalrous man, with qualities of bravery, honor and gallantry.  And from Greek mythology comes “Hippocrene,” a spring created by Pegasus’s hoof, from the Greek “hippos” (horse).  The term refers to “poetic or literary inspiration.”  Finally, says Garg, though it sounds ridiculous that a cavalryman would be of much use on water, that’s the idea behind “horse marine.”  Besides being a marine part of a cavalry, the term also means “something imaginary” or “someone out of their element,” “a misfit.”

Q.  When rummaging through a cluttered bag, you can find, purely by touch, an object you have previously only seen.  And, conversely, you can visually identify an object you’ve only experienced through touch.  The recognition of objects across different senses suggests the creation of mental images-–a sophisticated cognitive function.  Can other animals do this?

A.  Apes, monkeys and rats have been shown to associate across sight and touch, dolphins across sight and hearing, and some fish across sight and electric-field mapping, say cognition researcher Cwyn Solvi and her colleagues in “Science” magazine.  Now add bumble bees, which Solvi et al. trained to find a sugary solution inside either a cube or a sphere in complete darkness, then let them encounter the same two shapes visually without being able to touch them.  The bees knew which one held the treat.  And it worked the other way, as well.

     Conclude the authors: “This suggests that similar to humans and other large-brained animals, insects integrate information from multiple senses into a complete, globally accessible, gestalt perception of the world around them.”

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