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Hey, Matt: My son and I were in the park the other day, and we heard this very, very loud peeping noise. We finally decided the peeping was coming from a squirrel. It just kept peeping and never shut up. My son said, “It sounds like he’s got the hiccups.” I suggested that squirrels don’t get hiccups even though I didn’t really know. Anyway, to set the record straight, did the squirrel have hiccups? Can squirrels even get hiccups? My son is still convinced that’s what was going on. — Just One Dad, Carlsbad

A real wildlife adventure in the park, I’d say. First of all, you’re right, the loud, irritating, endless peeping was coming from a ground squirrel. Your furry friend was fulfilling his duty to warn his friends that danger lurked nearby. The lurking danger, of course, was you and your son. Aggravating peeping is the ground squirrel alarm system.

The evenly spaced peeps might sound like hiccups. Pretty imaginative kid you’ve got there, Dad. And believe it or not, squirrels can get hiccups. We’re just one more bunch of animals in the wild world that has hiccups in its repertoire. If an animal has a diaphragm as part of its breathing apparatus, it can get hiccups. Cows, kittens, mice, moose, all hic-susceptible. In domestic animals, hiccups seem to be related to digestive problems; usually, the pup or kitten ate too fast and sucked in a lot of air. It takes care of itself eventually. In an animal like a horse, the hiccup is heard in the belly, not the throat, and can be a sign that the large-animal vet should trot right over and check things out.

A hiccup is just an irritation of the diaphragm or esophagus. In people the reaction to the irritation starts with a big inhale, then ends with a hic noise caused by the epiglottis snapping shut. Different animals have different acoustic properties, so if they make a sound at all, it might not come from the throat. Your squirrel in the park wasn’t hiccupping, but maybe if you force-fed it acorns for a while it would develop a good case.

Dear Mathew Alice: Where does the word “fly” come from for men’s trousers? I believe the WW2 dress blue trousers had “panels” in front. Do you know the significance of the number of buttons, if any? — Walt in P.B.

It’s a no-go on the button question. Just a design element, as far as I can tell. But the word fly has flown through much of history and landed right at the front of a man’s pants. It’s a sort of logical story. At least not as ridiculous as some word tales from the word nerds.

“Fly” is a very, very old word, originally meaning to float or flow along. Old English broke the word up into noun and verb forms; the verb began to mean “to fly with wings,” then became linked with flags that now were “flown.” Oddly enough, we can forget about the evolution of the noun form, which was attached to flying insects. So the pants-noun “fly” comes from the old verb, not the old noun.

Now think of a flying flag. A piece of cloth attached to a pole along one edge. I guess old-timey tailors didn’t miss the connection when they began calling the flap of cloth covering the closure on the vital area of a man’s pants “the fly.” This happened sometime in the 1800s, when lots of even stranger things were going on. This is a stroke of vocabulary genius by comparison. I hope this buttons things up for you, Walt.

Dear Matthew: Can you find out why, when I stick out my tongue, it sometimes shudders or vibrates or pulses and other times it doesn’t? Am I the only weirdo with a shuddering tongue? It’s not happening right now when I do it…. Ever happen to you? — S. T., via email

Yep. Often stick my tongue out at the elves. Sometimes it shakes, sometimes it doesn’t. Seems to depend on exactly how irritated I am. This explanation is confirmed by physicians. Our tongues are a huge medley of muscles going in all sorts of directions. Stick your tongue out too far, and you strain these muscles and they can shimmy. But if it’s an ordinary tongue-stuck-out event, then the shuddering can come from nervousness, fatigue, too much coffee or nicotine, anger, or other high emotion. A once-in-a-while event is probably nothing. Continual shaking can indicate a serious illness, and you’d better go stick your tongue out at your doctor. But, Donna, just how often do you stick your tongue out? So often that you can come up with this question, apparently. That might require a shrink instead of a neurologist.

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HonestGovernment April 28, 2010 @ 7:50 p.m.

"very loud peeping noise"??? HEY, Just One Dad, Carlsbad, with all due respect to Matthew: I'd hedge my bets on a towhee. Their peeping drives me crazy at this time of year. At any time of night or day, if you or any other critter are near a towhee nest, they will peep you crazy. They are medium-size brown birds with sort of rusty bottomsides. They are the brown birds you may see hopping about on the ground all over the park and everywhere. They are nervous and brazen, simultaneously.


Matthew_Alice April 29, 2010 @ 10:11 a.m.

Yeah, California towhees do peep a lot -- their "feeding note," I think. But in my experience, a towhee will eventually shut up. A ground squirrel won't stop until you go away. And they're much louder than towhees. And two people walking around the park will eventually make the bird scoot for the underbrush, while the squirrel is likely to remain at his post. I suppose there's a chance that what they heard was a towhee. There certainly are enough of them in almost every dry habitat, but a ground squirrel is more likely, I'd think. But thanks for checking in and offering a different perspective.


HonestGovernment April 29, 2010 @ 7:46 p.m.

MAlice: As my spouse usually says, "You are probably right!" Love your writing, ...have for so many years.


Matthew_Alice April 30, 2010 @ 10:50 a.m.

And I'm glad to say your spouse is probably right about me being probably right. My rightness factor is always open to challenge, though. When that happens, I blame the elves and Grandma bakes me a pie to make me feel better. Thank you for the kind words.


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