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The Straight Dope 

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How did the myth that cats sometimes steal people's breath when they sleep get started? --Rick Weaver, North Bay, California

Cecil isn't entirely sure it's a myth, and neither are some cat writers, as we shall see. You can certainly understand why cats give some folks the creeps. They do, after all, prowl around at night when everyone else is asleep, they do have those weird shining eyes and that inscrutable stare, and they do move like, well, cats.

To many people, "cats may still presage evil, particularly if they are black; they may still, as has been widely held throughout the world, cause the death of a child by creeping upon it and sucking its breath," one of my cat books notes. Furthermore, "Lilith, the dark goddess of Hebrew mythology, changed herself into a vampire cat, El-Broosha, and in that form sucked the blood of her favorite prey, the newborn infant." The authors describe such beliefs as "without factual substantiation."

Well, maybe they are, and maybe they're not. It is interesting to note that some cat-care experts warn against allowing a cat into a room with a newborn baby. "Cats like warm spots to sleep," one writer says. "Attracted by body heat, they may curl up alongside a baby, but this habit must be discouraged as there is a danger that the cat might unwittingly suffocate the child."

Cecil is willing to concede this fear may be exaggerated. Another source of the fear, however, may be crib death, also known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, whose cause is not well understood.

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

In a recent column [April 6] you stated (correctly) that in Italian surnames del, della, and the like are not an indication of noble lineage. You erred, however, when you said plurals such as degli and dei do indicate nobility. In Italian there are seven definite articles: the singular il, lo, la, and l' and the plural i, gli and le. When an article follows the preposition di (of), the two words combine to create del, dello, della, dell', dei, degli, or delle. All mean "of the."

Dei and degli simply indicate the plural. The name dei Corsi means "of the highways," just as del Corso means "of the highway." Use of dei, degli, etc., in no way implies that one family was nobler than another. --David Bowie, Greenbelt, Maryland

As so often happens in this wicked world, Cecil has been misunderstood. I did not mean to suggest that use of the plural necessarily meant nobility, only that it sometimes did, especially when used with a proper name (e.g., degli Alberti). You can see why. If you were to introduce yourself rather grandly as David of the Bowies (and by the way, Dave, what's a rock legend such as yourself doing in Greenbelt, Maryland?), people would definitely get the idea that you considered yourself one of the swells. For similar reasons the would-be big bananas of the Italian Renaissance referred to themselves in the plural; thus Lorenzo de' (short for dei) Medici, Lorenzo of the Medici. In short, a plural could well mean you're descended from the quality, especially if your family came from central or northern Italy. But it's just as likely you're an ordinary shlub. Another of Cecil's correspondents points out that Thomas della Fave, the name of the guy who originally wanted to know if he came from nobility, translates as "Thomas of the Beans." What's more, it's misspelled--it should properly be delle Fave. One more reason to think twice before putting on airs.

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

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