Ask Mr. Know It All

Q. What are “The Canterbury Tales”?

R.L.M., Warrensburg, Mo.

A. In the early 1380s, Geoffrey Chaucer began writing the tales, about a group of pilgrims traveling to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England. The tales are written as a story-telling contest among the travelers, and each one is written in the vernacular of the speaker. The characters and their stories paint a picture of English society at the time. Chaucer died in 1400, before he was able to complete the tales.

You can find the full text of “The Canterbury Tales” online through Project Gutenberg:

Q. In the 1980s, I’m sure there was a TV show called “United States.” My husband — a TV fanatic — says there was never such a show. We have a bet on this (a hot dog and soda). Who wins?

G.D., Swampscott, Mass.

A. You do! The show aired for only seven weeks, starting March 11, 1980. “M.A.S.H.” co-creator Larry Gelbart was the executive producer of the half-hour comedy-drama about modern-day marriage. It starred Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver. Out of 105 shows that season, it ranked 102. Enjoy your hot dog.

Q. How tall was Goliath, the giant that David slew with a slingshot?

B.K., Portland, Maine

A. The Philistine giant was big. According to the Bible (I Samuel 17:4), he was six cubits and a span. A cubit is determined by the distance from the elbow to the end of the middle finger, which would be anywhere between 17 to 22 inches. The distance of a span is the length between the thumb and the little finger when extended, or about 9 inches. So Goliath stood anywhere from 9 feet, 3 inches to 11 feet, 9 inches. Some modern interpretations suggest Goliath was just more than 6 feet, which was still considered “giant” in those days.


On the TV series “The Big Bang Theory,” Penny is the only main character whose surname has yet to be revealed. Kaley Cuoco plays the aspiring actress.

Q. How long has cotton candy been around?

E.C., Schenectady, N.Y.

A. Cotton candy has been popular for more than 100 years, thanks to candy makers William Morrison and John C. Wharton of Nashville, Tenn. In 1897, they devised an electric machine in which sugar was poured onto a heated spinning plate. The sugar was pushed through tiny holes by centrifugal force, creating what they called Fairy Floss. They unveiled their sugary delight at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. They reported nearly 70,000 sales at 25 cents per box — a lot of money in those days (more than $450,000 today). The term “cotton candy” began to be used around 1920.

Q. Did comedienne Phyllis Diller have a husband named Fang? How old is she?

L.T., Eau Claire, Wis.

A. Born Phyllis Ava Driver in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917, Diller was a late bloomer in the entertainment world. On March 7, 1955, at the urging of her husband, she booked herself for two weeks at San Francisco’s Purple Onion, a popular comedy club. She slithered around the piano and made fun of current celebrities, high fashion and her life. Her two-week booking turned into 89 weeks. She was well on her way to stardom.

Fang was the name of the imaginary husband she created in the 60s when she began appearing on TV. Diller died Aug. 20, 2012, at age 95.

Q. What was Dr. Frankenstein’s first name?

H.K.U., Fresno, Calif.

A. The famous character in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel was named Victor.

Q. I attended a Yale alumni reunion where the song “Bulldog” (a Yale fight song) was played. I asked if anyone knew who wrote it. None of the grads did, but I bet you do.

F.M.D., Cape May, N.J.

A. While a student there, Cole Porter (class of 1913) penned the song in 1911.

Q. I’ve heard of bananas Foster many times but have no idea what it is. Can you tell me? Who is or what is the Foster in the name?

K.S., San Angelo, Texas

A. In the 1950s, New Orleans was the major port of entry for bananas into the United States. Owen Brennan, owner of Brennan’s in the French Quarter, challenged his chef Paul Blange to come up with a new creation using bananas in an effort to promote the imported fruit. In 1951, Blange created bananas Foster, using bananas and rum, which was ignited and served over vanilla ice cream. The dessert was named for Richard Foster, the chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission, which worked to clean up the French Quarter.

Q. How long has racquetball been around?

W.J.S., Danbury, Conn.

A. Racquetball is not very old. In 1950, Joseph Sobek designed the game at a YMCA in Greenwich, Conn. Paddle rackets, as he called it, was a combination of rules used in squash and handball. Sobek was the first person inducted into the Racquetball Hall of Fame.

Q. I saw the initials S.F. on an international license plate. What do the initials mean?

J.Z., Lexington, Kan.

A. The license plate is from Finland. S.F. stands for Suomi Finland, the names of the country in its official languages, Finnish and Swedish.

Q. Is it true that Lauren Bacall gave her husband, Humphrey Bogart, a whistle just before he died and that he was buried with it?

M.R., Kissimmee, Fla.

A. Your facts are close, but you don’t win a cigar. Humphrey Bogart was cremated, and his ashes are interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park. In his urn, Bacall included a gold whistle charm he had given her, with the inscription, “If you need anything, just whistle.” The line is from their first film together, “To Have and Have Not.”

Q. What is the origin of the phrase “Don’t count your chickens until they are hatched”?

J.W.D., Independence, Kan.

A. The phrase is from one of Aesop’s fables from the sixth century B.C. In the story “The Milkmaid and Her Pail,” a young milkmaid says, “The milk in this pail will provide me with cream, which I will make into butter, which I will sell in the market and buy a dozen eggs, which will hatch into chickens, which will lay more eggs, and soon I shall have a large poultry yard.” She then drops the pail, spilling the milk. Her mother says, “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.”


Jean Stapleton was offered a role in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971), but she turned it down to work on the pilot of “All in the Family.”

Q. Who was the piano player in the movie “Casablanca”? I read it was Elliot Carpenter, but when my husband and I rented the classic film, his name was not in the credits. Who goofed?

E.J., Newport News, Va.

A. No one goofed. Dooley Wilson played Sam, the piano player at Rick’s Cafe Americain. Wilson was an excellent singer, but not an accomplished pianist. Elliot Carpenter’s playing was dubbed onto the soundtrack.

Q. How many presidents of the United States are buried at Arlington National Cemetery? How many people are buried there?

G.T.L., Bedford, Ill.

A. There are two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery: William Howard Taft and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. More than 300,000 people are buried at the cemetery.

Send questions to Mr. Know-It-All at or c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

2013 Gary Clothier

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