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Where Have All the Pachyderms Gone?

Fair enough question: wild elephant populations in Africa and Asia have been under serious threat from poachers for many decades. But are elephants actually pachyderms? The answer is yes, and no.

African elephants

Photo by Kevin Walsh

Pachydermata is a scientific classification of hoofed mammals; the word ‘pachyderm’ comes from the Greek for thick skin. Elephants are the example which most readily comes to mind but the order also included rhinos, hippos, warthogs, aardvarks and even pigs.

But this classification is now considered obsolete, because the most recent common ancestor of all pachyderms is extinct. Hence, elephants are no longer pachyderms, but members of the Proboscidae order (a word which refers to their trunks).

The word pachyderm has persisted in language and is still an accepted way to refer to an elephant. But it’s no longer scientific.

Archived under Science & Nature

Galoshes! Who Gets Naming Rights for Footwear?

The answer is: a conquering imperial army. But don’t expect much creativity.


Galoshes, also known as gumboots, rubbers or Wellington boots. Photo by Mac_NZ.

Galoshes are waterproof footwear for wet or muddy conditions. You either wear them over your standard shoes or instead of shoes, depending on which way you roll. The word is a derivation of the French ‘galoche’, which in turn is a derivation of the Latin ‘gallicula’, which means ‘small Gallic (French) shoe’.

The reference dates back to Roman occupation of France; the Romans adopted a local style of wearing shoes or boots with an ornately carved wooden heel and sole. ‘Gallicula’ is an acknowledgement of the origins of the footwear. The French retained a variant of the Latin word, although over time it has evolved as much as galoshes themselves.

Archived under Culture

Linguistics 101—Speaking in ‘Schwa’

What is the most commonly used vowel sound in the English language? You might quibble over ‘a’, ‘e’, or ‘i’, but to find the answer you have to look beyond the five commonly accepted vowels (or six if you include ‘y’) to a little-known vocal utterance called schwa.


Photo by Julian Tysoe

Schwa is defined as the toneless, neutral vowel sound found in the unstressed part of a word. The ‘e’ in happen is an example of schwa, as is the ‘a’ in affect (which could be why affect and effect are so commonly mixed up). The International Phonetic Alphabet writes schwa as ə, like an e that came to a stop halfway through a somersault (the ‘e’ in somersault is a schwa, by the way).

So any vowel sound that comes out as ah, eh or uh is more than just slacker speak; it’s a legitimate part of the spoken language.

Archived under Culture

City Names of Tongue-twisting Proportions

Buenos Aires is a city with an evocative name: ‘Fair Winds’ in Spanish. But how about Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Santa María del Buen Aire? This translates as ‘City of the Most Holy Trinity and Port of St Mary of the Fair Winds.’ Evocative, yes, but not easy to fit on a postcard, shop front or flight boarding pass.

The lengthy name was given to the city in 1580. Not surprisingly it only took a few decades before it was routinely shortened to Buenos Aires.

South America map, 1585

1585 map of South America: Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

The Spanish Conquistadors who marched through Central and South America in the 16th century established a trend for naming their settlements with religious zeal (and perhaps a good amount of homesickness).

San Cristóbal de la Habana was named for St Christopher in 1519 but is now better known as Havana in Cuba. Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (‘Our Lady of the Assumption’) was established in 1536 and is now known simply as Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. Pueblo Nuevo de Nuestra Señora de la Paz (‘New Town of Our Lady of Peace’) is Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, founded in 1548. Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura (‘St James of New Extremadura’, named after a region in Spain) appeared in 1541 and has likewise been shortened to Santiago, the capital of Chile.

Others have kept their extended holy names as the formal name of the city for more than five centuries. Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is officially San Francisco de Quito and San Salvador in El Salvador is La Ciudad de Gran San Salvador (‘The City of the Great Holy Saviour’) in full.

But the name that surpasses them all can be found in South-East Asia, given to a capital established around two hundred years later, in the 18th century.

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit

This impressive name translates into English as ‘The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma’.

Locally, the city is known as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (or simply Krung Thep). Globally, this now massive metropolis is better known by the name of the fishing village which used to be on the same spot: Bangkok.

Archived under Geography

The Myth about Camel Humps

Camel and rider, 1892

Camel and rider, 1892. State Library of South Australia.

Camels get a bad rap, ridiculed as horses designed by a committee, and with a reputation for a terrible temper. They’re almost never acknowledged as hardy survivors in some of the toughest terrain on the planet. And there’s much more to their desert survival than those ungainly humps on their backs.

Water is stored in camel humps to tide the beasts over prolonged periods in arid conditions, right? Wrong. The humps instead hold reserves of fatty tissue. But camels do store water for their bodies to draw on over an extended period. The question is, where do they keep it?

The water is absorbed by their red blood cells which are oval in shape (no other mammal has red blood cells this shape, although reptiles, fish and birds do) and can hold water in large volumes which would destroy the blood cells of other mammals. This is handy for an animal which easily drinks up to 150 litres of water at a time.

Gobi camel

A very well insulated Gobi camel. Photo by Matt Spurr.

Less of a surprise is the great insulation that camels get from their thick fur. They can reach a body temperature of at least 41°C/106°F (a temperature at which humans experience dangerously high fevers) before breaking into a sweat, and they can safely lose up to 25% of their body weight through sweat. But camels are so good at holding onto their water reserves that their urine is passed as a thick syrup!

Archived under Science & Nature

Space Food: Not Without My Kimchi

If you think airline food is bad, spare a thought for astronauts on space missions and how they eat and drink in close to zero gravity conditions. One of the trickiest foods prepared for space travel so far has been the spicy Korean dish, kimchi.


A conventional dish of kimchi. Photo by Tristan Kenney.

Decades of research have gone into developing space food which is not only palatable and nutritious but survives the rigorous journey and can be eaten without floating away, breaking up or clogging equipment on board.

Several countries have been represented in space missions and most have catered to their astronauts’ culturally specific tastes: borscht and caviar for Russian cosmonauts, ramen and sushi for Japanese astronauts, even moose jerky for a Swedish researcher. But the Korean cabbage dish, kimchi, has proved especially challenging to adapt for space travel.

International Space Station

International Space Station: NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org.

Kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine and was brought by astronaut Yi So-yeon for her mission to the International Space Station in 2008. But it took years to create a space-ready version of the spicy dish. One of the key concerns was keeping bacteria at bay. Traditional kimchi is fermented and contains high quantities of microbes which are safe for human consumption (when prepared properly). However, the effects of radiation exposure from space travel on kimchi bacteria are unknown and no one was prepared to take the risk of creating dangerous mutant strains.

Kimchi is also a very smelly dish, so the version developed for the space mission had to be substantially less pungent to accommodate others at the International Space Station with Yi.


Archived under Man-Made

East Berlin: Walled Up in Your Own Home

The rapid construction of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961 (fifty years ago this month) ended freedom of movement for thousands of citizens of Soviet-controlled East Berlin to other sections of the city. But nowhere would the restriction have been felt more acutely than for one group of people suddenly and irreversibly denied the right to walk out of their own front door.

The border between the Soviet zone and a French-controlled district ran down the middle of a street called Bernauer Strasse; people living on the Soviet side crossed into West Berlin as soon as they walked out of the front door and onto the footpath.

Ida Siekmann memorial

Memorial to Ida Siekmann. Copyright Ralf Skiba (Creative Commons)

However, from August 13 onwards the terrace buildings on the Soviet side of Bernauer Strasse were treated as part of the new Berlin Wall and occupants were banned from leaving by their front entrances. Some did anyway, and made their escape to West Berlin on foot, but this ended after a few days when front doors were nailed shut. Residents began jumping out of windows and were caught by firefighting teams from the West. One person who tried this method of escape was Ida Siekmann, who attempted to jump from her third floor apartment very early on the morning of August 22 (the day before her 59th birthday). She was gravely injured and became the first person to lose their life attempting to escape across the Berlin Wall.

More than 100 people lost their lives in efforts to escape over the Berlin Wall between August 1961 and November 1989 when the border reopened.

Archived under History

A Shift in Time

Clock face

image by judepics

What time of day do you normally get out of bed? Around six or seven am (or later if you’re lucky)? How about getting up every day at twelve or one o-clock? Some people do, and usually they’re shift workers. But can you imagine a country where almost the entire population starts their day at 1am, or perhaps even earlier? And not a small country, but a nation of more than 80 million people?

There is one country where the day begins at around 1am. The country is Ethiopia.

The notion of that many people—an entire society—getting up routinely in the middle of the night is implausible. But then Ethiopia isn’t known for people getting up en masse in the middle of the night. So what’s going on here?

Map of Ethiopia

Map of Ethiopia: University of Texas Libraries

Ethiopia operates to a unique clock, or system of time. The clock starts approximately at the break of day, which means that 1am occurs not long after sunrise, equivalent to 7am anywhere else. The sun is at its highest point in the sky at 6am (midday for the rest of us). The time of day we would call 6pm is 12 o-clock in Ethiopia, and one hour later it’s back to 1 o-clock again. It’s a twelve hour clock operating from dawn to dusk, to dawn again.

It may sound confusing but on the positive side, if you travelled to Ethiopia from Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina (or the Eastern Seaboard of North America during Eastern Summer Time), you wouldn’t have to change the time on your watch!

Archived under Geography

How to Mispronounce at 29,000 Feet

Tibetans call this mountain Jomolungma, or ‘Holy Mother’. Most of the rest of the world knows it as Mt Everest, the highest peak in the world. It’s named after Lieutenant George Everest, British Surveyor-General of India. Or is it?

Mt Everest

photograph by Steve Evans

George Everest oversaw a substantial section of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, a massive undertaking by the British in the 19th century, to record the topography of the Indian subcontinent, including the heights of the enormous Himalayan peaks. The survey brought Mt Everest to the attention of the British for the first time. Everest’s successor recommended the peak should be named in his honour to recognise the time he had spent surveying the region. In 1865, the Royal Geographical Society formally adopted Mt Everest as the mountain’s name.

George Everest

George Everest: Wikipedia Commons (Public Domain)

So the answer is yes, it was named in honour of George Everest. But the name that we’re familiar with is not quite the same as the Surveyor-General’s surname, because it’s now universally mispronounced. In The Great Arc, a book about Everest’s surveying work in India, author John Keay writes:

“The name … was pronounced not ‘Ever-rest’ (like ‘cleverest’), but ‘Eve-rest’ (like ‘cleave-rest’). That was how the family always pronounced it, and the Lieutenant would not have thanked you for getting it wrong.”

Everest died in 1866, one year after his name was adopted for the world’s highest peak.

How high is Mt Everest?

8,848m (29,029ft) is the officially accepted height of Mt Everest. Recently, Nepal and China have been engaged in a dispute about the height; Nepal arguing for the official height, and China claiming the peak is 4m shorter. That 4m is the difference between the height of the mountain with or without snow.

Archived under Geography

Would vineyards on the moon look like this?

This amazing, pock-marked volcanic terrain looks like a landscape from the moon or another planet. It’s hard to imagine a stranger place to find a vineyard. This is La Gería, on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, and grapes are cultivated here in a very unusual way.

vineyard in La Geria

photograph by loranger

Each vine is grown in an individual pit, about 4-5m wide and 2-3m deep, in a layer of volcanic particles called picon. Crescent walls called zocos are built in semi-circles around the pits to protect the vines from strong winds. Rainfall is very low in the region, but the picon absorbs moisture from the air and prevents evaporation, allowing the vines to grow. Most of the wine produced in the region is a variety called Malvasía.

The unique method of cultivation was developed after Lanzarote experienced a series of devastating volcanic eruptions in the 18th century. For an incredible six-year period from 1730, volcanic eruptions continuously hammered the island of Lanzarote across a 20km front, destroying farming communities and villages and leaving a barren landscape behind.

Archived under Man-Made
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