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The Straight Dope 

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Can you tell me the meaning of "Ollie, Ollie oxen go free"? I've been playing hide-and-seek for years and don't know what I've been saying. --Carolyn Henning, North Aurora, Illinois

Aren't we getting a little old for this, Carolyn? Then again, I don't know that having parties to watch Twin Peaks is a dramatic step upward in maturity. There are dozens of variations of the refrain you mention. Cecil seems to recall saying "Ollie, ollie ocean, free, free, free." Word sleuths William and Mary Morris offer "Olly, Olly Octen Free" and "Olly, olly, all in free," the last being pretty close to what is undoubtedly the original expression, "All the outs in free." You'll recall you're supposed to say it when "It" has found one of the hiders to let the others know the game is over and they can show themselves. Other versions include "All the rest home free," "Alley, alley in," "Allee-ins, not playing," "All the ends stop play," and so on. British kids, compensating for the loss of empire with superior playground rhetoric, have "All hands ahoy," "All in, all in, wherever you are, / The monkey's in the motor car," and the mysterious "All in, all in, spuggy in the tin." And people say Orientals are inscrutable.

Why are magazines dated anywhere from a week to a month later than the time they actually appear? Newspapers don't presume to print August 1 on a paper that hits the streets July 31. --W.J. O'Neill, Los Angeles

It's all a ploy. What you see on newsmagazine covers (at least) is not the publication date but what is sometimes called the "off-sales" date--that is, the date on which dealers are supposed to pull the magazine from the stands. It's the equivalent of the "fresh-until" date on milk. The feeling is that if people see a cover date a few days in the future, they figure they're getting the latest poop, even though the magazine may actually have been sitting on the rack for a while.

For the most part it's a harmless illusion, but some magazines do look a little silly in retrospect. A prime example is the December 12, 1941, issue of United States News, predecessor of U.S. News & World Report. You'd think word of that little hoo-ha at Pearl Harbor on December 7 might have filtered in to USN by December 12, but no; one cover headline begins noncommitally, "If War Comes in Pacific . . ."

Don't think newspapers are somehow above all this. The evening edition of many dailies bears the next day's date, and of course you can get Sunday papers Saturday morning. Newspapers simply benefit from the fact that they're lining birdcage bottoms within hours of publication, so nobody notices if their headlines (and datelines) are occasionally overtaken by events.

Having seen Chinese restaurants with banners proclaiming "NO MSG," I gather monosodium glutamate is bad for you. So how come you can't pick up a can or package of chicken soup or a TV dinner that doesn't contain MSG (or hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which contains MSG)? What does MSG do for manufacturers that makes it worth using? More important, what does it do to us? --Murdoch Matthew, Jersey City, New Jersey

MSG is a flavor enhancer that accentuates "meatiness." It's a component of the proteins found in many foods, but critics say in its purified form it can be a potent neurotoxin, causing nerve cells literally to excite themselves to death. An alleged example of this is "Chinese restaurant syndrome." A half hour after eating MSG-laden soup, once a staple of budget Chinese cuisine, some people say they experience headaches, tightness of the chest, and a burning sensation. Researchers have had difficulty reproducing this in the lab, but the feds got so many complaints from the field they've issued tougher label requirements for MSG in meat and poultry and are thinking of doing the same for other foods. MSG may also be harmful to babies, which is why it was yanked out of baby food 20 years ago. But MSG makers and some scientists hotly deny that MSG poses a threat to the average adult. If you want to avoid it, watch out for the term "natural flavoring" on ingredients labels. Until the rules are changed, that could be a camouflage for MSG.

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

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