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The truth about direction of spin when water goes down the plughole

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I write a newspaper column. Badly, some might say. I also read other newspaper columns. I enjoy a few of them very much, others less so.

I’m going to have to be unfaithful to The Courier and say my favourite column was called “Things you didn’t know you didn’t know” in a newspaper that is now defunct. It was, each week, an erudite, insightful cornucopia and fulfilled the promise of its title.

It told of things like: water doesn’t go down a plughole spiralling in different directions dictated by whether it is in the northern or southern hemisphere. Iron Maidens (body-shaped boxes with spikes on the inside, claimed as instruments of torture) never existed in the Middle Ages. They are a hoax invented 200 years ago.

It also explained things. An asteroid is a space rock; a meteor is a space rock that collides with Earth’s atmosphere; a meteorite is a space rock that hits the ground. They are all bits of space rock, the terminology changes depending on where they are.

There is no dark side of the moon, each side gets the same amount of light. Bats aren’t blind, despite the idiom that proclaims “blind as a bat”. You don’t lose 90% of body heat through your head, it is between seven and 10%.

The topics I liked best (given my fixation for accurate word definitions) were about imprecise terminology. In Britain we have a grave of the unknown warrior, not a tomb of the unknown soldier. What we call the central belt of Scotland isn’t in the centre of the country, it is in the south. The dance is the cha-cha-cha, not the cha-cha.

Lamb is the meat of a sheep younger than one year; the meat of a sheep aged between one and two years is hogget; mutton is from a sheep older than two years.

Have you noticed the differing spellings of duffel/duffle coat? It should be duffel. The coats are named after the town of Duffel in Belgium. And sushi doesn’t translate from Japanese as “raw fish” it means “sour tasting”. A nemesis is an agent of retribution and vengeance. It doesn’t mean merely an enemy.

There is no mention of three wise men in The Bible, the number of men (wise or otherwise) is never specified. And there is no suggestion the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden is an apple.

To “go back to the future” is impossible. You’d have had to come from the future. It is the name of a film in which that happens. It does not mean to again do something you’ve done before.

There seem to be fewer and fewer people who care about accurate definitions. I like to be accurate. I think it really matters.



Word of the week

Fernweh (noun)

A longing for a place you’ve never been (German loanword). EG: “I have fernweh for a land of perfect word definitions”.

Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at

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