Sniffing out answers about smells

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Gary Clothier

Q: I love the smell of the ground after a summer rain. What is the name of that smell? I assume it does have one. -- M.J., Woburn, Mass.

A: Yes, it has a name: petrichor. The word is constructed from the Greek "petros," which means "stone," and "ichor," the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. The word was created by two researchers in the mid-1960s when they discovered that certain plants excrete an oil during dry periods that is absorbed by soil and rocks. During a storm, the oil is released into the air, creating petrichor.

DID YOU KNOW? As a child, Ginger Rogers was kidnapped by her estranged father several times before her mother took him to court.

Q: What is candlepin bowling? -- O.L., State College, Pa.

A: Candlepin bowling got its start in 1880 in Worcester, Mass. The pins are nearly 16 inches high and 3 inches in diameter; the ends taper, giving them the appearance of a candle. The ball is 4 1/2 inches in diameter and may not weigh more than 2 pounds, 7 ounces. Knocked-down pins, known as "wood," remain where they fall and become an important part of the strategy in knocking down more pins. A game consists of 10 frames, and bowlers get to throw three balls instead of two. A perfect game is 300 points, but the highest sanctioned score is 245.

DID YOU KNOW? On average, a strawberry has 200 seeds on it, and it is the only fruit with seeds that grow on the outside.

Q: What is the coloring used on Muenster cheese? In a cheese store, I saw the spelling Munster (no "e"). Is the spelling interchangeable? What does the name of the cheese mean?

A: Muenster is a semi-soft cheese made in the United States. It is a pale cheese with a smooth texture; the orange rind is colored with vegetable dye.

There is also a Munster cheese made in France. Its name comes from the Alsatian abbey of Munster. It is made with unpasteurized cow's milk. It is not the same thing as Muenster cheese.

Q: Has any presidential family not had a pet living with them in the White House? -- R.E.D., Eddy, Ind.

A: To my knowledge, only Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Chester A. Arthur did not have pets. The White House has been home to lions, tigers and bears -- oh, my!

Q: I enjoy watching the British detective drama series "Midsomer Murders." Where is Midsomer? The stories focus on head detective John Barnaby (played by Neil Dudgeon). How many actors have played the role of Barnaby? How long has the series been on television?

A: Midsomer is a fictional English county. The show is based on books by Caroline Graham, including "Chief Inspector Barnaby." The series first aired in 1997, with John Nettles playing the role of Tom Barnaby; he left the production in 2010 and was replaced by Neil Dudgeon, playing Tom Barnaby's cousin John. Dudgeon first appeared in the series as randy gardener Daniel Bolt. As of February 2014, there have been 100 episodes.

Q: When and where did Elvis Presley perform his last concert? -- J.W., Memphis, Tenn.

A: Presley's last concert was on June 26, 1977, at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, to a crowd of 18,000 fans. The last song Elvis performed in private was a rendition of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" on his piano in Graceland hours before his death on Aug. 16, 1977.

Q: I recall the Moog synthesizer from the mid-'60s. I've often wondered how it got its name. -- H.C., Langhorne, Pa.

A: It was named after its inventor, Robert Moog. Moog introduced the instrument in 1964.

Q: My folks always listened to the radio show "Fibber McGee and Molly" -- I preferred "The Lone Ranger." How many years did "Fibber McGee and Molly" run? What was Gildersleeve's first name? I think he had an unusual middle name also. Were Fibber and Molly married in real life? -- B.H.H., Coral Gables, Fla.

A: "Fibber McGee and Molly" premiered in 1935 and continued until 1959. The stars of the program were real-life husband and wife team James "Jim" Jordan and Marian Driscoll. The couple met at church choir practice in Peoria, Ill.

The next-door neighbor was Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve, played by Harlod Peary. Gildersleeve had his own spin-off, "The Great Gildersleeve," which ran from 1941 through 1957.

Q: My boyfriend gave me a beautiful pendant for my birthday. He asked me, "Why are pendants called pendants?" I have no idea. We'll look for your answer. -- K.B., Peoria, Ill.

A: The word pendant comes from Old French "pendre" and Latin "pendere," which mean, "to hang down," the way a pendant does off a necklace.


In the U.K., it's a "duvet"; in the U.S., it's a "comforter."

Something that takes "two weeks" in the U.S. takes a "fortnight" in the U.K.

Q: It's hard to turn on TV and not see a GEICO insurance commercial. What does GEICO mean? -- J.M., Salinas, Calif.

A: In 1936, Leo and Lillian Goodwin founded GEICO. Leo worked for USAA, an insurer that specialized in insuring military personnel. He rose in the company as far as a civilian could rise in a military-dominated hierarchy, so he decided to start his own business -- GEICO. GEICO stands for Government Employees Insurance Company. In 1996, GEICO became a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Q: Some old movies are promoted as "film noir," while some networks have "femme fatale" films. I know "femme fatale" is French for "fatal woman." But in a movie, what does it mean? I'm also shaky on my knowledge of "film noir," or "dark film." -- H.K., Klamath Falls, Ore.

A: You are right, the phrase "femme fatale" is French for "fatal woman." She is a mysterious and seductive woman who lures her lovers into dangerous situations. You could also describe her as a woman who attracts men by an aura of charm and mystery. The femme fatale is usually a villainous character.

The term "film noir" was coined in 1946 by a French film critic, Nino Frank, to describe many American crime and detective films released after World War II. Film noir is a type of crime film featuring cynical, malevolent characters in a sleazy setting along with an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music.

Some film noir classics include "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "Murder, My Sweet" (1944), "Double Indemnity" (1944), "The Woman in the Window" (1944) and "Laura" (1944). The film noir period lasted until about 1960. According to many critics, the last film of the classic film noir era was Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1958).

Q: In the movie "Mary Poppins," there was a song with the word "supercal..." -- I don't know how to spell it. What does the word mean? -- F.M.L., Carlsbad, N.M.

A: The word is "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." The nonsense word was written for a song by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman for the 1964 Disney film. It was sung by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. In the film, the word means "something to say when you have nothing to say." The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986.