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Episode 1590

Primary Colors

Centuries ago, monks who took a vow of silence developed their own hand signs, with hundreds of gestures, that are still in use today. Plus, how do speakers of different languages distinguish similar shades and tints of colors such as red, yellow...

Butter of Antimony, Flowers of Zinc

Butter of antimony, blue vitriol, flowers of zinc are terms used for centuries by alchemists, now replaced by the scientific names antimony trichloride, cupric sulfate, and powdered zinc oxide. In his delightful memoir Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a...

Sugar of Lead

Writing in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Bookshop|Amazon) about his youthful fascination with chemistry, Oliver Sacks notes that lead acetate once went by the more appetizing name sugar of lead. This is part of a complete episode.

Case Quarter in South Carolina

Jennifer in Andrews, South Carolina, is curious about the term case quarter, meaning “a single 25-cent coin — not two dimes and a nickel and not five nickels.” It’s heard mainly in South Carolina, particularly among African...

Xylyl Meaning and Origins

Olivia, a sixth-grader in Somerville, New Jersey, says she and her classmates were flummoxed by a word on their spelling-bee study list: xylyl. It’s a term from chemistry, referring to a group of atoms derived from a liquid called xylene. One...

Lifebuoy Soap Pronunciation

As we noted in an earlier conversation, people in the United States usually pronounce the word buoy as BOO-ee, but their counterparts in Britain tend to pronounce it BOY. Commercials airing in the U.S. for Lifebuoy soap use the British...