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What's the Song That Clock Chimes Play?

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Readers Meg, Wayne, and Rajiv all wrote in to ask about the tune that clock chimes typically play. What’s it called? Where did it come from? How’d it get so popular? Here’s the story.

In 1793, a new clock was installed at St Mary the Great, the University Church of the University of Cambridge. Rev. Dr. Joseph Jowett, the Regius Professor of Civil Law, was asked to compose a chime. With the help of Dr. John Randall, a professor of music, and an undergraduate student named William Crotch, he wrote a melody reportedly based on a movement from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah.

The chime was dubbed “Jowett’s Jig” by Cambridge students and later became known as “The Cambridge Chimes.” The melody was copied by the men who installed the new clock and bells at the Palace of Westminster in the mid-1800s. (The clock, bells, and sometimes even the clock tower are commonly collectively known as “Big Ben,” though the nickname originally referred to just the 13½-ton hour bell, named for engineer Benjamin Hall, who oversaw its installation). From then on, the tune has been known as “The Westminster Chimes” or “Westminster Quarters.”

Edmund Beckett Denison, who designed the movement mechanism for the Westminster clock, said of the chimes:

"The repetition of four ding dongs can give no musical pleasure. The case is different with the Cambridge and Westminster quarter chimes on four bells, and the chime at the hour is the most complete and pleasing of all. It is singular that these beautiful chimes had been heard by thousands of men scattered all over England for 70 years before anyone thought of copying them, but since they were introduced in the Great Westminster Clock, on a much larger scale and with a slight difference in the intervals, they have been copied very extensively, and are already almost as numerous as the old-fashioned ding dong quarters."

The tune's prominence at the famous clock tower led to it being copied for small and large clocks worldwide (plus doorbells and school bells), to the point where it might be the only tune people think of when clock chimes are mentioned. Daniel Harrison, a music theorist and Chairman of the Department of Music at Yale University, writes that the tune's popularity also “certainly owes much to the attractive melodic sequence, but perhaps more to sentimental associations of British imperial pomp and circumstance, reinforced by the use of [the Quarters] by the BBC World Service for many years to preface the top-of-the-hour world news report.”

Is there something that you've always wondered? Email your questions to askmatt@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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