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Where did the name "Dixie" come from? And exactly what states comprise Dixie? --Leigh-Anne Horton, Dallas

Dixie is usually thought to include the states of the Confederacy, but where the term comes from nobody knows for sure. Here are the three leading theories: (1) Before the Civil War, the Citizens Bank of Louisiana, located in New Orleans, issued ten-dollar notes that bore the Creole/French word dix, ten, on one side. These notes were known as "dixies" and the south came to be known as the "land of dixies." (2) The term comes from the Dixon in "Mason-Dixon line," the famous pre-Revolutionary War surveyors' line that separated Maryland and Pennsylvania. (3) It comes from "Dixy's land," Dixy supposedly being a kindly slave owner on Manhattan island, of all places. Dixy's regime was supposedly so enlightened that for slaves his plantation came to symbolize earthly paradise. Sounds ridiculous, but the story was widely told in the years just after the Civil War.

The trouble with all these explanations is that there are no published citations of the word prior to the appearance of Daniel Emmett's song "Dixie" in 1859. One etymologist notes that a minstrel named Dixey performed in Philadelphia in 1856, but that's not much help. For what it's worth, the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary, normally reliable in these matters, come down foursquare on the side of explanation #1, on the basis of what evidence I do not know. Then you get a few characters like the guy in the journal American Speech who speculates that it comes from dixi, Latin for "I have said [it]." This is allegedly emblematic of the take-no-guff attitude characteristic of the antebellum south. Forgive me if I decline to take sides in the matter.

Ever since I was a young boy I've wanted to become an absinthe drinker. Why can't I find it at my corner liquor store? --A.C. Murphy, Atlanta

Because in much of the world it's illegal, cretin. Absinthe is an incredibly potent (136 proof) beverage that accounted for 30 percent of the alcohol consumed in France prior to World War I. Temperance advocates claimed, apparently incorrectly, that wormwood, one of the principal flavorings in absinthe, caused madness. (People did get pretty nutso from the stuff, but that was probably because of the high alcohol content.) After a long campaign the antiabsinthe lobby succeeded in getting the stuff banned in France, Switzerland, Belgium, and many other countries. The nearest you can get today is the wormwoodless concoction Pernod, generically known as anis or anisette. Greek ouzo is also in the ballpark.

FROM THE TEEMING MILLIONS

I am a senior electrical engineering student at Northwestern University. Regarding the number of snowflakes that have fallen since the dawn of time, I have no problem with Josef Prall's point that there have been 10(28) to 10(30), as opposed to your estimate of a googol (10(100)). However, I feel compelled to point out that difference between the two amounts is not 10(72). Obviously neither Prall nor you learned manipulation of exponents correctly in high school. 10(3) (or 1,000) minus 10(2) (100) doesn't equal 10(1) (10), it equals 9 times 10(2), or 900. Likewise, 10(100) minus 10(28) isn't 10(72), it's 10(28)(10(72) - 1) or 10(28)(10(71) x 9.999 . . .) or 9.999 . . . x 10(99). Get it straight. --Janet M. Kim, Evanston, Illinois

I hate senior electrical engineering students. Whatever his other moral and intellectual deficiencies, I think it is reasonably clear from his letter that Josef Prall knows 10(100) minus 10(28) doesn't equal 10(72). He was using--certainly I was using--the expression "a difference of 10(so-and-so)" as a shorthand way of saying "a difference of so-and-so orders of magnitude." This may seem a bit careless, but in today's fast-paced world, every microsecond counts. You'll understand when you're older, assuming you can keep from antagonizing your elders long enough to get older.

AND NOW THE NEWS YOU'VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR

More of the Straight Dope (Ballantine, $7.95), my latest literary masterpiece, will be available in bookstores in late June or early July. Reserve your copy today.

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

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