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Dear Matthew Alice: I’ve heard that after you die your hair and fingernails keep growing. How is that possible? Or maybe it’s not true. Straighten me out. — Daniel S., San Diego

I couldn’t find any post-mortem beauty shops (aside from mortuaries), so if it is true, somebody’s missing a great marketing niche. The old wives responsible for this tale I’m sure are long gone by now, and I hope they arranged for a blow-out and a mani-pedi after the funeral.

The idea is actually based on close observation of corpses, strangely enough. They didn’t conjure this up one day when the salon used way too much hair spray on them. Along with a whole plate full of other nasty things, after death our skin loses fluid, dries out, and shrinks like a cheap shirt in the wash. So, you know what your friend Edna’s hair looks like, and you know how long her fingernails are, so if they have occasion to see Edna exhumed in a year or so, in her shrinked-up state, her nails and hair look suspiciously long. If you measured them very carefully, you probably would find that her fingernails are slightly longer than before and so’s her hair. Edna’s friends can only assume this is because things are still growing on the corpse. Naw. Her skin is shrinking away from the hair shaft and fingernails, making them appear to have grown.

Hey Matthew: Just wondering if you know the origin of the word “toots” when used as an old-fashioned nickname for a woman, which I guess means something like “baby” or “doll,” pronounced to rhyme with “puts.” Does it come from “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Roll”? It doesn’t have anything to do with “tooting,” does it? (Hope not!) — Donna

Well, calling your girl a fart wouldn’t get you very far, I suspect. So we can eliminate that guess. This is one of those terms that has the old word wizards in a knot when it comes to the origin. Nobody can agree on a thing. Considering the guesses from word-origin sources, it comes from the French ma chere toot-toot, meaning “darling.” Naw. Probably not. Not old enough, since tootsie goes way back to the middle of the 1800s. Merriam-Webster and several other high-cred people offer what I’m going to declare the winner. The first reference to the word “tootsie” comes from 1854, and it was a baby-talk rendition of “footsie,” a darling, adorable reference to women’s or children’s feet. So, from this cutesie slang term came tootsie, a not-necessarily-insulting reference to a cute woman. I suppose comparing your gal to her cute toes is better than comparing her to breaking wind. At any rate, we’ve been doing it for a long time.

Matthew, Sir: How smart are birds? Smarter than cats? Smarter than snakes? Smarter than me? The birds around my house seem to have learned when and where I feed them and have even told some of their friends about the free lunch. How does this rank on the smartometer? — B, San Diego

In the big-brain weigh-in, birds are relative lightweights, I’m afraid. They have the highest brain-to-body-weight ratio of any mammals, but of course birds’ bodies are designed to be as light as possible, so that traditional measure may not say much. Most of their gray matter is devoted to vision and hearing, not analytical thinking. And if a snail pulls off what we see as a really clever stunt, we might be inclined to say it is “smart.” Likewise, if your expectations of house sparrows are low, then certain behaviors might make them look like Nobel candidates.

Birds have innate systems of behaviors related to feeding, reproduction, safety, and social interaction, but through habituation, imitation, and trial and error, each bird can refine these behaviors to suit its environment. And when food is the reward, many birds can appear to be very smart. In your case, they’ve just identified a location in their territory where there seems to be an abundance of food, so they return to it every day on their regular rounds of food gathering. And a few birds eating will attract other birds who want to share the chow. Stop feeding them, they’ll go someplace else. Smart? Well...

But consider an anecdote reported in an ornithological journal about some house sparrows in Hamilton, New Zealand. The local bus station’s sliding doors open automatically when an object passes through a light beam. The sparrows knew there were crumbs around the tables in the station’s restaurant, and several of them learned that by hovering in the beam or by flying through it, the doors would open. Some sparrows even learned to perch on top of the light sensor and tilt their heads down to interrupt the beam. It’s difficult to say how much they could generalize from this specific learning experience, but the bus-station birds rank pretty high on the Matthew Alice smartometer.

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