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How Far Can You Drive on Empty?

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Gas lines are currently stretched across New Jersey and other states hit by Hurricane Sandy. If you're struggling to find a place to fill up, you might be asking yourself this very question, which we originally posted last year.

It’s a question that plagues every driver: Just how far can you drive with your car’s “fuel empty” light illuminated? The detailed answer depends on all sorts of variables like the age and model of your car, how much weight you’re carrying, and what kind of driving you’re doing.

The more fun answer is “Find out the hard way!” Justin Davis runs a site called TankOnEmpty.com that lets drivers record just how far they’ve driven certain types of cars after their empty lights came on. You can poke around and see how your car has fared. The results are a little less than scientific, though. Even for a car with a large number of data points, the estimates aren’t super-precise. The Honda Civic, for example, has 248 entries and an average range of 44.38 miles after the light comes on, but the standard deviation of the data is almost 24 miles.

Of course, the major question in play asks when the car’s fuel light comes on in the first place. Sure, driving conditions and number of passengers will affect your car’s range after the light comes on, but if you can pinpoint how much gas is left in the tank when the warning appears, you can at least ballpark what sort of range you’ve got left.

Click and Clack of Car Talk fame have estimated that most cars’ “empty” lights come on once the gas level dips below an eighth of a tank or so, but they have also advocated driving until the light comes on, then immediately stopping to fill all the way up, and then comparing how much fuel your car took with the tank’s capacity published in your owner’s manual. Once you repeat this process a few times, you should have a pretty good estimate of how much gas is left.

If you’re a bit more daring, you can always try the tactic consumer reporter John Stossel employed for a 2008 piece for ABC’s 20/20. Stossel got behind the wheel of his minivan and drove until he ran out of gas. He ended up making it 65 miles after his gas dial claimed the car was empty, including 40 miles after his van’s computerized estimate of its remaining fuel range hit zero.

What about you? Have you ever pushed the limits of your car’s tank, like Cosmo Kramer did on that Seinfeld episode?

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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