Saturday, 22nd September 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. How did WCopyfind, software typically used to detect plagiarism, help illuminate inspiration for some of William Shakespeare’s plays?

A. Of course, researcher Dennis McCarthy and English professor June Schlueter are not suggesting that William Shakespeare plagiarized, writes Michael Blanding in the "New York Times," but rather that the Bard read and was inspired by an unpublished manuscript ("A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels") written in the late 1500s by George North, a minor figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Combining WCopyfind and literary analysis, McCarthy and Schlueter conclude that Shakespeare likely consulted North’s manuscript to write eleven plays, including "King Lear," "Macbeth," "Richard III" and "Henry V." Their focus was common words and phrases: For example, in the manuscript’s dedication, North urged those who see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, using words like "proportion," "glass," "feature," "fair," deformed" and others. And in the opening soliloquy of Richard III, "the hunchback tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be." Says McCarthy, "People don’t realize how rare these words really are."

Further, Shakespeare uses the same words as North in scenes about similar themes: North uses six terms for dogs, including "trundle-tail," to argue that "just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in ‘King Lear’ and ‘Macbeth.’" Searching the database Early English Books Online (1473-1700), McCarthy found that "trundle-tail" appears in only one other work before 1623.

Q. What animal, like humans, mates for life and may overindulge in alcohol? A. elephants B. parrots C. prairie voles D. wolves

A. Surprisingly, it’s prairie voles (C), since they’re one of the few mammals that form long-term monogamous pairs and willingly drinks alcohol, reports "New Scientist" magazine. Andrey Ryabinin and Andre Walcott of Oregon Health and Science University knew that divorce rates increase among couples who are "discordant drinkers" (one a heavy drinker, the other not) and wondered whether studying prairie voles might offer a reason why. Starting with pair-bonded voles, the researchers gave them either water, or alcohol and water, then offered the voles a choice between their own partner or a new mate. Their findings: "Males tended to stick by their partners if both had drunk similar amounts of alcohol. But if only the male had been drinking, he was more likely to mate with a stranger."

But more research is needed since factors other than discordant drinking may be at work here. Stay tuned.

Q. The following may be familiar to you, but did you know they’re all nautical lingo: "leeway," "flotsam," "jetsam," "copper-bottomed" and "groggy." Can you explain their origins and their current metaphorical meanings?

A. Let’s get underway, shall we? "Leeway" means "freedom to do something" and stems from the sideways drift of a ship to leeward, away from the wind, says Anu Garg on his A.Word.A.Day web site. "Flotsam" and "jetsam" are often paired together, the first meaning "people or things considered useless or unimportant," the second "discarded material." In nautical terminology, "flotsam" was "goods found floating after a shipwreck," while "jetsam," an alteration of "jettison," referred to "goods thrown overboard to lighten a ship in distress." Next, "copper-bottomed," suggesting "reliable, genuine or trustworthy," stems from the practice of covering a ship’s hull with copper to protect it from wear.

Not becoming "groggy" yet, are you--that is, "weak or dazed, as from tiredness, sickness, intoxication"? The word owes its name to Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), nicknamed Old Grog because he wore a grogram cloak made of silk, wool and mohair. The Admiral ordered his sailors be served diluted rum, thus helping coin the term "grog."

Q. The seven-year-old boy lay close to death, having lost most of his skin to a rare skin condition that affects 1 in every 20,000 babies born in the U.S. Today, he is back to school and playing soccer. What brought about this stunning reversal?

A. When the child’s body rejected a skin graft from his father, his prognosis was bleak, reports Tina Hesman Saey in "Science News" magazine. "People with this condition are sometimes called ‘butterfly children’ because their skin is as fragile as the insect’s wings." So even mild bumps can cause severe blistering, which in turn can affect mucus membranes inside the body, making breathing, swallowing and digesting food difficult. More than 40% of such children die before adolescence.

Surgeons turned to stem-cell researcher Michele De Luca of the University of Modena, whose group had been successful in growing small patches of gene-repaired skin for kids with the same condition. Taking a small patch of the boy’s unblistered skin, they grew skin stem cells, used genetic engineering to repair the cells’ DNA, then grew large sheets of healthy skin in the lab. Eight months and three grafting-surgeries later, that small number of corrected stem cells had replenished the skin, and the boy was released from the hospital.

Q. We can generally tell whether a speaker is male or female by voice alone-–on a phone call, for example. Pitch (higher in women) and resonance (deeper in men) are important indicators, stemming primarily from vocal anatomy differences. But they’re not the whole story. What are some other, more subtle cues?

A. Beyond pitch and resonance is prosody (the fluctuations of pitch) and the emphasis and cadence of speech. The pitch of a woman’s voice changes continuously, in sing-song fashion, covering a frequency range about twice that of men, says speech-language pathologist Christie Block on the New York Speech and Voice Lab website. In comparison, men’s voices are monotone and louder.

And it’s not only the sound of speech which differs between men and women but also its content. Women are typically more polite and empathetic, less likely to interrupt, and more likely to disclose personal information and feelings. Women also ask more tag questions ("It’s nice out, isn’t it?"), which soften a declarative sentence. Research has established that the gender of a person using Twitter can be established with about 75% accuracy based solely on the content of a collection of their tweets.

Most of us are not consciously aware of these nuances. But for many transgender adults, mastering a new style of speaking is as important as any physical transformation.

Q. How might it be true that "wax in your lugholes hides your filthy secrets," as "New Scientist" magazine recently wrote?

A. Besides waxy compounds that protect the ear canal and kill off bacteria, as well as bodily cast-offs, cerumen (aka earwax) contains a unique chemical signature that could be used to extract plain old DNA, says the magazine’s Christie Wilcox. Engy Shokry and her Brazilian colleagues have used earwax "to detect drug and tobacco use and diagnose both types of diabetes."

Earwax offers several advantages: Collection is more straightforward and less invasive than blood or urine samples and requires little processing to be analyzed. Also, because earwax builds up over time, tests on earwax can detect drugs up to three months after they’re taken, so they can be used for both short- and long-term monitoring.

Yet currently, using earwax as a diagnostic tool remains problematic since it lacks the centuries of data that exist for blood and urine samples. Says Sweden’s Craig Wheelock, "Normalizing it so that earwax is earwax is earwax will be a challenge."

Concludes Wilcox, "For now, any confidential information will stay archived in your ear where nobody can get at it."

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


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