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This summer I’ve done a lot of just sitting around not doing much. I don’t want to go back to school with a fat butt, so I was wondering how much energy I burn up just sitting around so I can plan out my meals so I don’t eat too much and get fat.

— Anonymous, via email

You’re on your way to fatness already, so maybe you should switch right now to the lettuce and crack diet. Just a kick-start for your quick-weight-loss regimen. Of course, you are using some calories just getting out of bed, breathing, blinking, digesting those pizzas, and a little for the thumb action on the TV remote. So, what’s the minimum number of calories your flabby body needs to barely maintain life? Well, it’s called your basal metabolism rate, and if you can find the energy, you can calculate your own. Maybe spread the calculations out over several days so you don’t get too dizzy from the exertion.

If you’re an anonymous male (why do I suspect you are?), you’ll need a pencil, paper, your weight, height, and age. Once they’re assembled, multiply your weight in pounds by 6.23. Add to that 12.7 times your height in inches and 6.8 times your age in years. Next Wednesday, or so, when you’ve completed all that, add your answer to 66. The result is your BMR, your daily expenditure of energy in an unstimulated state, expressed in calories. With that information in hand, you can calculate the amount of celery and kale and puffed-rice crackers you can shove into your mouth every day.

For you anonymous loafer females, the equation is slightly different. Multiply your weight in pounds by 4.35, your height in inches by 4.7, your age in years by 4.7, then add your answers together, then add that answer to 655. These equations are a close approximation of your true BMR as measured by a physician in a much more annoying series of tests. I’m sure they’d be too much for you to deal with.


I’ve seen this sign around different places, such as prisons and construction sites. It’s a big sign that says “Sally Port.” It’s usually on a chain-link fence across a driveway or something. I always wonder what it means, and who’s Sally?

— “David Port,” downtown

Your sister Sally isn’t so much human, David. She’s more like a verb than a proper noun. And she’s old. Really old. She’s had a few face lifts along the way, but don’t let her fool you. She dates back to about 1650.

The “sally” business is originally from the Latin, salire, “to jump.” And what was jumping? Soldiers. They were springing an attack on the enemy by charging out of a doorway in a sneak attack. (The “port” is just a doorway, a portal.) So, castles and fortresses had sally ports in their walls for covert defense. Slowly the term came to mean any heavily guarded passage anywhere. These days we don’t expect soldiers to come from a sally port; it’s now any guarded entrance/exit, usually for people who handle a lot of money or for prisoners being transported into or out of a lockup. And “sally” nowadays is quaintly used to mean going out for a day of fun or light entertainment. “We sallied forth to the picnic grounds, where we had tea sandwiches and whiskey.”

Dear Matthew Alice:

Where does the term “basket case” come from? It usually means somebody who’s completely unable to care for themselves because they’re very messed up. But that doesn’t explain the basket.

— Excellent John Sheldon, North County

Excellent, John. Good question. And the answer starts out with two meanings for the word “case.” In the U.S., around 1900 or so, a basket case was just a storage box made of wicker, like a basket. A basket case usually contained linens or other dry goods. So, the term was hanging around in our collective lexicon waiting to bloom into even more meanings. World wars have always enriched our vocabulary; and in 1919, post-WWI, a miserably bloody war, a grim story started circulating in some credible publications about thousands of injured soldiers in army hospitals, quadruple amputees who had to be transported in baskets. They became, in the folk tales, “basket cases.” The “cases” part referred to medical cases. Everybody heard the stories, though the army denied there was any truth to them. The tales subsided until after WWII, when Dalton Trumbo wrote his popular novel Johnny Got His Gun, in which the protagonist was a quadruple amputee who had also lost part of his face and was carried around in a wicker basket. So, the expression was born out of false war stories but is still with us.

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