The Straight Dope 

Is it true that Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII, had a sixth finger and three breasts? --Anonymous, Chicago

Ooh, you're so nasty, A.--ordinarily a quality we prize in this department, but in this case disproportionate to the facts. Annie did have some physical defects that her many detractors interpreted as signs of the devil, but she was hardly the sideshow freak that some (e.g., The Book of Lists) have made her out to be. She had a double nail and a bulge of flesh on the little finger of her right hand that was apparently the beginnings of a sixth digit, and she also had a strawberry-size mole on the front of her neck. Conceivably the latter was a vestigial nipple, a benign congenital defect occurring in about one percent of the population. Other than that she presented a reasonably attractive appearance, which is more than can be said of some of Henry VIII's other wives. In any case I'd say a little generosity is in order--who knows what they'll be saying about you after you're beheaded?

Why do men and women's shirts button on different sides? --Laury Hutt, Baltimore

I thought everybody knew this, but then again you're from Baltimore, the city from another dimension. Buttoning left over right--the man's way--is supposedly easiest for right-handed people. According to legend, women button right over left because in medieval times they were dressed by their right-handed maids. Don't buy it? Can't say as I blame you, but the alternative explanation is no improvement: men had to keep their right hand tucked into their coats so as to be ready for cold-weather swordplay, whereas women always breastfed with the left breast (hey, that's what it says here) and protected their babies by covering them with the right side of the dress or coat.

I've heard the fabric we know as denim originated in a French town called Neise but pronounced Nen, hence "de Nen," or denim. True? --George Manaras, Baltimore

No, but you're in the ballpark, which is about all we can hope for these days. Denim was originally known as serge de Nimes, pronounced "neem," Nimes being the French town where the stuff was first made.

As a lad I went to the same repressive boarding school that made George Bush what he is today. As a student I believed, as did we all, that the school authorities were mixing potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, into our food to control our sexual appetites. (The food itself controlled our regular appetites.) Is this true? Was it legal? Would it have had any lasting effect on me? I shudder to think what happened to poor George. --John Daniel, Santa Barbara, California

Losing a little pressure in the fuel injection, are we, Jake? Well, don't blame saltpeter. More commonly employed as an ingredient in gunpowder, potassium nitrate (KNO3) has no therapeutic value as an anaphrodisiac, contrary to legend.

Interestingly, however, potassium nitrite (and other nitrites) can cause relaxation of involuntary muscle fiber, presumably including the organ you're thinking of. Furthermore, saltpeter can be gotten to act as a nitrite by means of a complicated regimen I won't describe here. Indeed, its muscle-relaxing properties once made it popular as a treatment for asthma attacks. So maybe, just once, some desperate headmaster faced with a case of raging hormones... naah. Truth is, potassium nitrate also has an alarmingly depressive effect on the heart. Too strong a dose and not only would you not be able to get it up, chances are you wouldn't be able to get up, period. All in all, there's still no substitute for the cold shower.

The drinking straw: who, when, and why? --K&L, Chicago

Marvin Chester Smith, Washington, D.C., 1886. Patent granted 1/3/1888. Motive: unknown. Best guess: greed. (OK, Mr. Neuharth, can I have the job with USA Today now?) Originals handmade from waxed manila paper; process successfully mechanized in 1905. Real question: who invented the bendable drinking straw? Answer: I dunno, but I'll find out. Stay tuned.

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

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