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The Straight Dope 

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Your tireless research into etymology is to be applauded. The word I want you to trace for me is "honky"--where does it come from and how long has it been in use? --David Jaggard, Paris, France

PS: I love your books. The only thing wrong with living in France is that I can't get your column or barbecue potato chips.

I like a man who's got his priorities straight. Honky comes from bohunk and hunky, derogatory terms for Bohemian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants that came into use around the turn of the century. According to Robert Hendrickson, author of the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, black workers in Chicago meat-packing plants picked up the term from white workers and began applying it indiscriminately to all Caucasians. Probably thought they all looked alike.

How can there be interstate highways in Hawaii? And why isn't a family-size pizza the size of a family? --Greg Ross, Incurable Smartypants, Greenbelt, Maryland

You're so immature, Greg. Back in the late 1950s Hawaiian officials had the same thought you did (about the interstates, I mean; let's forget the pizzas), but they didn't think it was so funny. In fact they were quite concerned that some literal-minded bureaucrat was going to say they weren't eligible for federal interstate highway money merely because there was this thing called an ocean separating them from the rest of the country.

They were probably right to worry. Early federal highway legislation said the interstate system "shall be designated within the continental United States," thereby excluding islands. But Hawaiians pointed out that one of the purposes of the interstate system was to strengthen national defense, and that Hawaii (specifically, the island of Oahu) was crammed with military installations that needed to be connected by good roads.

Congress evidently saw the wisdom of this and dealt with the matter in the Hawaii Omnibus Act of 1960, which took care of various postadmission loose ends. Right after a section dealing with the Opium Poppy Control Act and shortly before a passage headed Purchases of Typewriters, they stuck in some language deleting the continental U.S. requirement and authorizing $12 million for Hawaiian roads. Three routes with a total of 48 miles were subsequently approved and built, with the result that Hawaii now has more miles of interstate than Delaware (40.6). Meanwhile, Alaska, despite its unquestionable location on the mainland, has no miles of interstate at all and has to struggle along with dogsleds and snowshoes. One more illustration of Jimmy Carter's dictum that life just ain't fair.

I'm looking at the road map. The main interstate route down the Atlantic coast is 95. In the New York City area there are spurs off it numbered 495, 295, and 895. Near Washington, D.C., it intersects with the beltway, route 495. The bypass around Philadelphia is 295. This has got to be a pattern, right? --Eddie, Hoboken, New Jersey

Boy, Sherlock Holmes had nothing on you. Let me run through the whole numbering system, which was devised by the American Association of State Highway Officials (and I'll bet that's an acronym you don't hear pronounced too often). Even-numbered routes run mostly east-west, odd ones mostly north-south. Major routes have one- or two-digit numbers, and the really important routes, which form a more or less evenly spaced grid across the country, end in 5 or 0. The lowest route numbers are in the west and south to avoid local duplication of the older U.S. Route numbers, which are lowest in the northeast and midwest.

Now, getting down to your question: three-digit numbers are reserved for adjuncts to the major routes. Circumferential roads and beltways have the main route number with an even-numbered prefix; radial and spur routes have an odd-number prefix (usually). Simple. Just don't ever ask me to explain zip codes.

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

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