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No one's ever been able to tell me why basketball players are called "cagers." Can you?

-- Wes, San Diego

Dear Matthew Alice:

Why is a football called a pigskin? Best I can tell, they were never made of pigs, so what's the deal?

-- R.V., Rancho Bernardo


Don't get mad. This is an L.A. question. And a "where did the name come from" question. I just have to ask, since my friends in L.A. can't give me the answer. Where did Los Feliz Boulevard and the Los Feliz area (near Glendale) get their names? In Spanish it means either "the happy person" or "the happy people," but "los" is plural and "feliz" is singular. It drives me crazy! Why isn't it "Los Felices"? Or "El Feliz"? Please, please give me the answer!

-- Ramona, Ramona

Dear Matt:

Why does my mommy say "Bless you" after I sneeze?

-- Amanda, age 6, Mission Valley

Golly, Amanda, I don't know any other six-year-old who can type and use a fax machine. If the elves don't get the hang of it pretty soon, I'll can them, and you can work here instead. That way I won't have to buy new grownup-size desks. But in the meantime, Mommy says "Bless you" because people have been saying that to sneezers for about a jillion years. Back before people got as smart as we are today, they believed that when you sneeze, a part of your soul could be blown out through your nose or your mouth. If some kind person said "Bless you," maybe that would keep your spirit from escaping. And now it's time for you to practice making back-to-back copies on the Xerox machine. Leave your résumé with Grandma Alice and we'll get back to you.

As for how many people are happy in Los Feliz, well, Madonna wasn't. She sold her big ugly house there. And if the rest of the neighborhood's kazillionaires are blue, at least they have enough money to look for fun in luxurious, exotic places. Anyway, the area was named for José Vicente Feliz y familia, a pioneer from Sonora who received a land grant of prime turf around present-day Silver Lake and Griffith Park. The nabe was the rancho of the Feliz family -- in Spanish, Rancho Los Feliz. Instead of making the family name plural, as we do in English (the Joneses, the Alices, the Snodgrasses), Spanish speakers double up on the definite article and leave the surname alone (los Jones, los Alice, los Snodgrass). Neater, easier, more mystifying to latter-day gringos who never knew Los Feliz.

To R.V.: True, a pigskin's not, never was, made of pigs. But a soccer ball's not made of socks and nobody complains. Can't you leave it at that? Of course not. In return I'll give you the vague but handy "nobody really knows." "Pigskin" was popularized in the early part of the century by sports writers, imaginative word wranglers who enriched America's slanguage. It may have been inspired by football's parent sport, rugby, once played with an inflated pig's bladder. But today, when the QB launches that bomb, he's hurling a cow, not a pig.

"Cagers": the final entry in our orgy of origins, our fiesta of facts. In the first two decades of basketball's history, the rules said an out-of-bounds ball belonged to the first team to touch it after it crossed the line. Naturally, this sent both squads into elbow-throwing stampedes to claim possession. Naturally, this resulted in bruised and battered spectators. Naturally, the spectators fought back. Pre-1914 basketball was a free-for-all -- players trampling fans, fans lobbing vegetables. A wire cage around basketball courts was the solution until one night some official sat bolt upright in bed and yelled, "Hey, Madge, wake up! I've got it! Howzabout we save on the chickenwire and just change the rules!" Backboards date from this era too. They kept missed shots from beaning fans, who often didn't like giving the ball back.

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