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My son says he has it on good authority that the phrase is "Feed a fever, starve a cold." I thought it was "Feed a cold, starve a fever." Can you tell me who's right, what it means, and who said it? --Bob White, Arroyo Grande, California

Your son thinks there's a better authority than dad? For shame. Although I have to admit, even when you're dad and the world's smartest human being, sometimes the only way to win an argument is to threaten no dessert.

Your version of the proverb is the traditional one, but you can find citations in the literature that have it the other way around. The idea, if not the exact wording, dates back to 1574, when a dictionary maker named Withals wrote, "Fasting is a great remedie of feuer."

You're thinking: this guy wrote a dictionarie? His medical advice wasn't so hot either. Doctors have been trying to stamp out the above piece of folklore for years. Current medical thinking is that you want to keep an even strain when you're sick with either a cold or a fever, and you certainly don't want to stress your system by stuffing or starving yourself.

Nobody's sure where the notion of feeding colds and so on arose. (It surely didn't originate with Withals.) One somewhat dubious explanation has it that the proverb really means "If you feed a cold now, you'll have to starve a fever later." A more plausible interpretation is that the feed-a-cold idea arose out of a folk understanding of the disease process, namely that there were two kinds of illnesses, those caused by low temperatures (colds and chills) and those caused by high temperatures (fever). If you had a chill, you wanted to stoke the interior fires, so you pigged. If you had a fever, you didn't want things to overheat, so you slacked off on the fuel.

Bottom line: you're right--your son's out to lunch. But I can relate. When I had sniffles as a kid the feed-a-cold thing was usually good for a few extra Twinkies. So you'll just have to forgive me if, in the delirium of a 99-degree temperature, I used to imagine it was feed a fever too.

You're familiar with the green freeway signs that announce when you enter a new city. They always show the population, which we understand, and the elevation, which we don't. Is the elevation measured at the sign itself (no way), some standard place like city hall (improbable), or is it the average elevation of the town (if so, how does the state of California perform this calculation)? --John and Mary Schelling, Orinda, California

This is not the scientific process you might think. As far as I can tell nobody publishes an official list of elevations for cities in North America. Highway departments, mapmakers, almanac compilers, and what all do come up with numbers for their own purposes, but they use different sources, and their figures don't always agree. For example, Denver, the mile-high city, is listed in the World Almanac as having an elevation of 5,280 feet. But if you tap into the Geographic Names Information System maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey (http://www-nmd.usgs.gov/www/gnis), you find Denver has subsided to just 5,260 feet.

Town elevations may be the altitude at some prominent public place (Caltrans uses city hall) or they may be an average for the downtown area. Either way they're often just estimates. Caltrans got its numbers from the U.S. Geological Survey, but the USGS got them by eyeballing the contour lines on maps. OK, it's not like they grabbed the maps off the rack at the gas station, but jeez, doesn't anybody do original research anymore?

It's only when we get into the no-nonsense world of engineering that we start to get some precision. Many big towns have established a "city datum," a standard elevation pegged to some known point, which is used in blueprints for major construction projects. For instance, on a drawing for an office building, the elevation of the sidewalk in front of the entrance may be marked as " Podunk city datum."

Even that's no guarantee things won't get screwed up. In 1989 officials in Chicago were trying to dig a pedestrian tunnel connecting city hall with the state office building across the street. The city started at one end, and the state started at the other--and when they met in the middle they found they were nine inches off. (They fudged it with a ramp.) Turns out ground zero on the city hall blueprint wasn't Chicago city datum; it was just the bottom of city hall. When people say things are crooked in Chicago, little do they know.

--CECIL ADAMS

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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