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The Straight Dope 

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I recently celebrated my 30th birthday, and am in the initial stages of what I hope will be a serious and long-lasting relationship. My dilemma is this: I've never been told the story of "the birds and the bees." I've traveled around the world and am not an inexperienced person, but this missing piece of information may be the reason I haven't, up till now, been truly successful in love. Please give me the straight dope on the origin of the phrase "the birds and the bees" and the details of the act(s) as it (or they) relate to man. --M. Harris, Washington, D.C.

Don't feel bad. Nobody explained it to me, either, and I must say I made quite an impression that first night with the honey and feathers. But now I'm hip. The significance of the birds and bees isn't what they do, it's simply that they do it, "it," naturally, being a tussle in the tumbleweeds, or wherever it is that the lower orders engage in sex. As such it's the perfect euphemism for a culture so prudish that even publishers of girlie magazines used to airbrush out the pubic hair.

Where exactly "the birds and the bees" originated nobody knows, but word sleuths William and Mary Morris hint that it may have been inspired by words like these from the poet Samuel Coleridge: "All nature seems at work ... The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing ... and I the while, the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing." Making honey, pairing ... yes, we can definitely tell what Sam had on his mind.

The Morrises offer the theory that schools in years past taught about sex by "telling how birds do it and how bees do it and trusting that the youngsters would get the message by indirection." Right. Luckily for the perpetuation of the species, there's always been Louie in the school yard to explain how things really worked.

How come the U.S. is practically the only country in the world where household electricity is 110 volts instead of 220 volts? --Mark, Berkeley, California

The penalty of leadership, champ. While inventors in many countries contributed to electric-power technology, the U.S. was way out front in putting that technology to practical use. In the early days, lower voltages were the most practical for electric lights--higher voltages burned out the bulbs. So the hundreds of power plants built in the U.S. prior to 1900 adopted 110 volts (or 115 or 120 volts) as their de facto standard.

Trouble was, power transmission at higher voltages was more efficient--you didn't have to use so much copper in the wires. By the time most European countries got around to making big-time investments in electricity, the engineers had figured out how to make 220-volt bulbs that wouldn't burn out so fast. So, starting in Germany around the turn of the century, they adopted the 220-volt (or 230- or 240-volt) standard. But the U.S. stayed with 110 volts (today it's officially 120 volts) because we had such a big installed base of 110-volt equipment.

But don't worry that we're stuck with a technological dinosaur. Fact is, every American home with standard three-wire electrical service (which is to say, nearly every American home) gets 240 volts. The three wires that come in from the street are 120 volts positive, zero volts (neutral), and 120 volts negative. (I know, this is alternating current, not DC, so we can't really say "120 volts positive," but don't bother me with details.)

Take the neutral and either of the other wires (the usual practice) and you've got 120 volts. But tap into your plus-120 and minus-120 and you'll get a 240-volt jolt, handy for energy-hungry appliances like air conditioners or electric stoves and clothes dryers. The telltale sign in the fuse box is a special double-width circuit breaker that straddles the plus-120 and minus-120 bus bars. Not the most vital fact in the world, but at least next time you're poking around in there when the lights blow you'll have some idea what you're looking at.

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

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