Facebook Twitter



QUESTION: Why does it seem that only men stutter?

ANSWER: Because for the most part, it's true. The male-female stuttering ratio is about four to one. Like baldness or hemophilia, stuttering is an essentially male handicap. Dyslexia is another predominantly male affliction. So is autism. Men have all manner of language problems that are rare in women.So why do men get singled out for all these plagues? Because men are the weaker sex.

That's the best we can do until more is known about the precise cause of these dysfunctions. Suffice it to say that stuttering appears to have a slight hereditary bias, being passed from one generation to another, and a strong sex bias. These genetic causes are probably reinforced by emotional and environmental factors - like parents who chastise their stammering child, exacerbating the anxiety and perpetuating the problem. Boys get pressured the most because more is expected of them, in the naive belief that males are supposed to be superior creatures.

QUESTION: Why are there 24 hours in a day?

ANSWER: The Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom determined that 12 major constellations rise in the sky during the night. This was, obviously, back when there was no TV and people had nothing to do but wander in the dark. So the Egyptians divided the night into 12 segments, what we now call hours. Despite their pyramid skills, however, they were so daft they didn't think to make the hours of equal length. That came later. They also had a peculiar system for daytime: There were 10 daylight hours - the decimal system is popular in every culture because you can count with your fingers - and then, since it seemed kind of weird having 12 night hours and only 10 day hours, they slyly added an additional "twilight" hour to either end of the daylight hours, bringing the total to 24. Then they made them "equinoctial," which is an extremely fancy way of saying they all lasted 60 minutes. But now you want to know why there's 60 minutes in an hour. That's because 60 is a special number: Divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30. Very impressive! You can do funky things with 60, like make a clock face in which a one-twelfth turn means both five minutes and one hour.

QUESTION: Why did Prufrock say, "I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled"?

ANSWER: The line is the dramatic, quirky zenith of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of those excruciatingly important literary lines that high-school students are supposed to analyze at term paper time with original insights. Naturally there's not a jot of meaning that you can detect in the thing, so you are forced to consider suicide, truancy, drug abuse and teachercide before finally settling for simple plagiarism. That's where we come in, here at the Why Literary Bureau (a division of the Department of Words). We're like Cliff's Notes, only more credible and funnier.

First of all, we have to wonder why it is even memorable, much less significant. The obvious reason is that the mantra "I grow old . . . I grow old . . ." is the most economical statement of the essential tragedy of life, and therefore of literature. You can't condense the pain of mortality any further. (Of course, you could wipe out the ellipses, but they're crucial, a hint of longing that turns factuality into mournfulness.)

Then you come to the kicker, the payoff, and it's shockingly, unforgettably silly: "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." What a goofy rhyme! How Mother Hubbard of him! But perfect. It's like a Herman's Hermits song, you hate it but can't get it out of your mind. It actually reads, at a quick glance, like the first thing he could come up with on deadline. (We would have chosen, "I shall wash my dirty underwear with Bold.")

Traditionally, students have been told that Prufrock will need to roll up his trousers when he gets old because he'll be thin, and shrunken, and won't want his pants to drag on the ground.

That's a tedious argument of insidious intent. Eliot is making a much more profound statement.

Prufrock is a brilliant, pompous, self-pitying dude who wants to put the hit on some women but doesn't have the nerve. He's letting life pass him by. He's getting old and going nowhere. He's not a tragic Hamlet figure, just a fool. He's worried about going bald. He knows he's a stuffed shirt and even describes his conservative clothes: "My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin/My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin . . ." The firm collar - read gobs of starch. How can he score if he's dressed like a banker?

This is where the slacks come in. One of our unusually literate readers/sources, Bob Dattoli, has unearthed a passage from Jules Romains' "Men of Good Will," which describes the fashions of the early 20th century: "A fold at the bottom of the trouser-leg, simulating a cuff, was regarded as a rather frivolous elegance or a fashion for young men."

Prufrock, at the height of his despair - "I grow old" - suddenly shifts, as almost comic relief, into a darkly humorous vision of himself reinvented as a dandy: "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." He'll be a fashion plate, shallow, trendy, un-Prufrockish. Then he goes on, thinking of how he'll cover his bald spot, and how he'll do dashing things like walk on the romantic shore:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk along the beach.

A contemporary version of the same idea might go something like this (without the rhyme): "I grow old . . . I grow old . . . Hey! Maybe I'll start dressing all in black! And moussing my hair! And disport myself doing the proverbial wild thing!"

Which brings us to the bit about the peach. The meaning of that line is, well, a little fuzzy. Eating a peach is symbolic for another bold move he fantasizes about. We'd explain further, but this is a family newspaper.

Send questions to Joel Achenbach, in care of Tropic Magazine, The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.