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The Straight Dope 

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What's the name of that black stuff athletes smear on their faces to deflect the sun? Does it work? --Rita J., Kansas City, Missouri

It's called "eye black." It's supposed to reduce glare and has the added advantage of making you look pretty fierce or pretty weird, depending on the cast of mind of the beholder, and in any case like someone not to be trifled with. Three bucks at a sporting goods store will get you a three-quarter-ounce tube of the stuff containing such substances as petrolatum, talc, mineral oil, etc, as well as "black iron oxide," presumably the blackening ingredient. If that's too complicated or expensive you can try lampblack (the carbon residue left by smoke from candles and such) or burnt cork, which is made by (1) getting a cork and (2) burning it.

Does eye black work? It's debatable. Most soccer players don't use it and God knows what it's supposed to do for football linemen. But it does seem to reduce the glint off your cheeks in bright sunlight, obviously a matter of some consequence if you're a baseball outfielder, and word from the physics department is that in one respect it's better than sunglasses, in that it doesn't slow down your reaction time. Fact is, the brain processes darker images more slowly than bright ones. Proof: swing a golf ball back and forth in front of you from a string. If you cover one eye with a filter, the ball, which was formerly moving in a straight line, will appear to swing in an oval. Why? The filtered eye sees things later than the unfiltered eye. When the unfiltered eye sees the motion stop, the filtered eye sees it still moving. The brain interprets this as the ball moving at an angle, i.e., in an oval. The delay is very slight, but it's still something to think about next time you're called upon to field a screaming line drive.


As you can imagine, over the years I have been asked many times to discuss and explain my song "American Pie" [May 14]. I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of bringing about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur.

This brings me to my point. Casey Kasem never spoke to me and none of the references he confirms my making were made by me. You will find many "interpretations" of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn't this fun?

Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence. --Don McLean, Castine, Maine


I always enjoy your column and especially enjoyed the one about the definition of "merkin" [May 21]. But I was surprised you didn't consult the wonderful book you brought to my attention several years ago, Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words. In addition to concise versions of the information in your column [i.e., a merkin is either the female genitalia or, mystifyingly, a pubic wig], Mrs. Byrne gives a definition that is entirely different: "a mop for swabbing cannons." Any idea how the mop came to be called that? --Tom Herr, Baltimore

Not meaning any disrespect, Tom, but your question suggests you have had limited acquaintance with either (1) the female genitalia, or (2) a mop (the old string kind). Time for a little research.

You blew it, pal. That purselike thing worn on the front of a Scotch kilt, usually covered with fur, is called a sporran, not a merkin. Check it out. --Gary Nordell, Los Angeles

I was merely passing along an off-the-wall interpretation from the Internet, and thought I was doing Scotch manhood a favor. Not while the Teeming Millions are on the job, however. "Nay, lassie, this large furrrrah thing is nae a merkin/codpiece/conspicuous phallic symbol. It's a purrrrse."

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


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