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Question of the Day

Back when telephones were first used, what did people say when they answered the phone?

We're so glad you asked, because it allows us to mention a short feature on the subject in The 1993 Old Farmer's Almanac. The word hello, as used today, didn't really exist back in the 19th century. Halloo was used to hail someone from a distance -- as in "Halloo! You up there on the roof!" -- or to incite hounds to chase, but it was not used as a greeting. Thanks to the discovery of a letter buried for more than a hundred years in AT&T's archives, we now believe that the word originated with Thomas Edison and the telephone he invented. Edison suggested using "Are you there?" or "Are you ready to talk?" to start a conversation on his phones. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, was insisting on "Ahoy!" as the preferred greeting. In a letter to a colleague, Edison wrote, "I don't think we shall need a call bell, as hello can be heard 10 to 20 feet away." From then on, hello became the recommended greeting in telephone operating manuals.

Last 7 Days

    Is there such a thing as a cold-air funnel?

    Yes, it's an official term for a funnel cloud or relatively small, weak tornado that can develop from a small shower or thunderstorm when the air aloft is unusually cold. This is a rare occurrence, and these funnels are much less violent than the usual tornado.

    Was Stonehenge built to celebrate the winter solstice?

    That's one theory. The people who built the great monument were probably farmers, and they would have used Stonehenge to celebrate the most important festival of the year--the promise of the return of the growing season. The word solstice comes from the Latin sol, or "Sun," and stitium, or "stoppage." The Sun stops on the solstice (this year, December 21), then begins to move again. After the winter solstice, the days gradually grow longer. The priests, or shamans, at the time of the building of Stonehenge would have called the community leaders together to celebrate and mark the continuing cycle of the seasons and the fact that they were not heading into an endless night.

    How did December get its name?

    It comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten, because this had been the tenth month of an early Roman calendar.

    My wife's grandfather used a weather-predicting method he called "the old 12 days." I believe he analyzed the last six days of a year and the first six days of the next year, with each day representing one month. Are you familiar with this method?

    There are at least a half dozen time periods mentioned in folklore to forecast the weather for the coming year -- including one that says the 12 days between "New Christmas" (December 25) and "Old Christmas" (January 5) foretell a year's worth of weather. The Old Farmer's Almanac uses a secret formula to predict the weather. Robert B. Thomas, who founded the Almanac in 1792, did not, however, use certain days in December and January for his forecasts. He also did not use woolly worms, wasps' nests, or the number of nuts squirrels gathered, all of which occurred in the fall, after his July publishing deadline.

    This time of year there are little snow storms that are referred to as "skiff's" or leaving only a "skiff" of snow. What is the origin of the word "skiff"?

    According to Webster's Third Edition New International Unabridged Dictionary, the word "skiff" is of Scottish etymology. It means "to pass lightly over" or "a flurry," as of rain or wind (noun).

    I've heard a lot lately about how good apple cider vinegar is for you. Is it really that good?

    Indeed it is; it's the all-purpose bromide -- seasoning, preservative, cleanser, purifier, and healing agent. Mixed with rosemary and water, it can make hair shiny and keep skin soft. It can relieve sunburn and retard the onset of old age (believers advise two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar in a glass of water at least twice a day). It's advocated for minor ailments ranging from hay fever to heartburn to sore throat. Further, it has at least 40 household uses, from washing windows to deodorizing a fishy skillet, and it's a lot cheaper than specialty products.

    When making quick breads, does it make a difference whether I use a glass or a metal pan?

    Not really. Glass is a better conductor of heat, so you should probably reduce the oven temperature by about 25 degrees F and the baking time by about 10 minutes when using it. A dark metal pan, versus a shiny metal pan, also conducts heat better. You should reduce the cooking time by 10 minutes when using dark metal.

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