There's nothing like hanging out with very young children to make you aware of the gaps in your knowledge base. Of course, part of the fun of hanging out with little kids is being able to make things up and have them believe you -- this morning I had a conversation with my nephew Henry about Santa's army of deputies, and another with my niece, Meg, about what space aliens eat.
But my nephew Matthew pulled a small metal disc out of a basket of crayons and asked, "Do washers go on washers?" and I had to admit that I did not know.
Over at The Straight Dope, Cecil explains the purposes of washers: to distribute the pressure of a nut or bolt evenly, to provide a smooth contact surface, and (in the case of plumbing) to form a water seal. Even he, however, cannot come up with a decent explanation for why they're called washers; all he does is cite the OED, which dates the word from 1346 but gives the etymology as "of doubtful origin."
What I've Read Lately
It's been a while since I've posted a reading list, for the usual reasons: I have four different books going at the moment, in addition to three manuscripts, and have been spending a lot of reading time chasing down arcane research questions for clients. I've also set a couple of books aside because they weren't good enough to finish, which is rare for me. But here's what I've finished lately...
Julie Andrews, HOME. A lovely memoir by a lovely woman, which manages to make even the terrible stuff (war, an alcoholic stepfather, a disturbed mother, a childhood spent under horrendous economic and emotional pressure) feel like a blessing to the woman who lived it. She's such delightful company that I didn't mind the sometimes-extreme detail (we don't really need to know how she learned to wash dishes).
Stephen King, DUMA KEY. A ghost story about a man who loses his arm and finds a strange genius for painting, thanks to an island off Florida's Gulf Coast where not all the residents are benign. Some interesting stuff here about the creative life, and a couple of truly scary scenes, but the book is way, way, WAY too long. Way.
Marlene Wagman-Gellar, ONCE AGAIN TO ZELDA: The Stories behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications. A birthday present from Claire, which I was delighted to get, since I'm always fascinated by dedications and acknowledgments. Sadly, though, a great concept is wasted here, with grade-school level prose, excessive sentiment, and embarrassing typographical errors (children "pouring" over books, etc.). It makes me want to write my own version.