I got a Swiss Army Knife for Christmas. The person who gave it to me keeps trying to tell me that the Swiss Army actually uses these knives. I think that’s baloney. It’s just a marketing tool to make them seem cool. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as the Swiss Army. I mean, who do the Swiss fight with? Why do they need an army? What’s the truth, Matt?
— Skeptic, via email
The Swiss Army isn’t the busiest outfit in town, that’s true. But there is such a group. And each man is issued a variation on your Christmas gift and has been since 1891. Now, you might wonder, why does an army have to go into battle armed with corkscrews, scissors, and toothpicks? Those are just popular elaborations offered to the general public. Well, except for the corkscrew, which for 100 years has been part of the actual Swiss Army’s Swiss Army Knife, but issued to officers only. The original knife had a wooden handle with a knife blade, screwdriver, can opener, and a punch — handy things to have in the field. About eight years later, the manufacturer came up with the clever spring-loaded mechanism, allowing more and more gadgets to be fitted into the handle. And eventually the whole thing was made up in aluminum instead of wood. The red plastic is the version for general sale.
Sitting around with nothing much to do, I started thinking about how long it would be until it was summer again. And then I started thinking about sitting on the beach and hitting the surf with my Boogie board and then I started thinking about getting sunburned and then tan and then my hair going all beach blond. And then I started wondering why the sun turns my skin brown but turns my brown hair blond. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me. But maybe it does to you. If it does, would you tell me why that happens?
— Andy, via email
Whoa, surprised you could get it together to send the email, Andy, with all that thinkin’ goin’ on. I’ve sort of got an answer for you, but considering what a dreamy kinda guy you are, I think you’ll be satisfied. When you’re out there on the sand, the sun rays hit your skin cells and trigger a chemical reaction that causes you to produce more melanin (dark pigmentation) to protect your skin from the evil UVs. Those same mysterious rays hit the melanin pigment in your brown hair and break it down. Go figure. Science guys aren’t quite sure why that should happen. Despite how attractive your surfer locks are, hair is dead tissue, not a living organism, so the melanin in your hair is in a different environment. More likely to break down when exposed to sunlight. So now you’re all set for summertime, and you won’t have these questions cluttering up your dreamy mind.
You know those little baby corn ears that you find in salads sometimes? They look just like big corns but they’re only a few inches long. Are these really baby corn ears? If they’d left them on the plant, would they have grown into big corn ears? Or are they some special mutant plant that only produces tiny corn ears?
— Cornie, San Diego
Hard to believe, but those miniature, baby-size ears of corn are really miniature, baby corn. No mutants. No gardening tricks. They’re corn ears harvested wa-a-a-a-ay too early, if you ask me. Not so with the popular bag o’ baby carrots. They’re big carrots shaved down into bite-sized bullets. But baby corn? Real baby corn!
I really enjoyed the TV show Six Feet Under. Where did the expression “six feet under” come from? Is there really a law that says people have to be buried six feet under the ground? I’ve only seen one grave in my life, and I don’t think it was six feet deep.
— Maris Davis, via email
No, there probably isn’t any city that demands that bodies be buried six feet under. In California the law says burials must be a minimum of 18 inches below ground level. Best the word- and phrase-origin guys can figure, the term came from a novel written by Daniel Defoe about the Great Plague in London in 1665. Defoe had the city’s mayor declare that bodies of those who’ve died of the plague must be buried six feet deep to help prevent the spread of the disease. There’s no historical support for this, but the book was popular enough that the expression might have spread from that source.