How Do Fire Eaters Eat Fire?

iStock/AlexD75
iStock/AlexD75

Very carefully. No, I'm not being a smart aleck; fire eaters, from fakirs to sideshow performers, have very few secrets about their craft. Urban legend has it that fire eaters use "cold flames" that aren't hot enough to burn the skin or coat their mouths with fireproofing chemicals, but any flame from any source is hot enough to burn the mouth (how many times have you burned the roof of your mouth on something as innocent as piece of pizza?) and applying flame-retarding chemicals to the mouth can pose health risks. The tricks of the trade are precision, practice and the knowledge of one simple law—heat travels upward.

[A quick disclaimer: I am not a fire eater, and this is not a fire-eating lesson. I am a writer, and this is an explanation of how professional fire eaters do what they do. You should not use this article to practice fire-eating at home, and if you do, you cannot blame me or mentalfloss.com when your spouse/significant other/roommate/landlord/legal guardian asks you how you burned the place down. Now then"¦]

Eat Up

Fire eaters don't literally eat fire. They place flames in their mouth and extinguish them. It's like snuffing out a candle with your hand, but more impressive. During their performance, the fire eater has to remember two things: one, fire and hot air move upward, and two, don't inhale.

A fire-eater starts by taking a wide stance to keep her* balance and tilting her head back while holding the torch above.

As she lowers the torch towards her mouth, the fire eater takes a deep breath and begins to exhale slow and steady. This slow exhalation keeps the heat away from the fire eater's face as she moves the torch closer to her face and places it in her mouth. With her tongue stuck out wide and flat, the fire eater places the wick of the torch (which should be cool to the touch—fire eaters often use Kevlar thread for their wicks) onto it and partially closes her lips around the torch in an "O" shape.

So far, so good. Now the fire eater has to extinguish the flame, and quick. There are two ways to do this. The fire eater can completely close her lips all the way around the torch, cutting off oxygen and killing the flame, or she can put the flame out with a quick exhaling breath. The second method is preferable for performances where the torch has been lit for a while and may be too hot to touch with the lips.

That's fire eating in a nutshell (though fire eaters have a number of other tricks in their repertoires, like vapor tricks, multiple torch eats and fancy extinguishes). It seems pretty basic, but to do it right and make it look good for a crowd, fire eaters learn the method and then spend years practicing. If this sounds like the kind of thing you want to make a career or a hobby out of, the Coney Island Sideshow School offers classes in the art of fire eating.

* I'm going with the feminine pronoun because 1. most of the fire eaters I've seen in my day have been women and 2. I don't feel like writing he/she every time.

This question was asked by reader Katie Sue. If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

There’s no one explanation for how Halloween costumes originated. Much like the holiday itself, the practice of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from around the world.

Many historians suspect that the tradition has some basis in the Celtic festival of Samhain (also called Calan Gaeaf in Wales). Celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain marks the official start of winter—known to the Celts as the “dark season.” During Samhain, “the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That wasn’t a comfort to the ancient Celts, who believed their deities were prone to playing tricks on human worshippers. Many festival participants disguised themselves as animals or beasts, hoping to hide from malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.

Move forward a few centuries and the modern-day practice of dressing up and trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming and guising.” Mummers would dress up in costumes, often woven from straw, and perform plays and songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought that tradition to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

Halloween costumes didn’t experience their true heyday until the mid-1900s, though. For that, you can thank New York City entrepreneurs Ben and Nat Cooper, who started a company producing pop culture-themed costumes at a low cost. Ben Cooper, Inc., found a niche in helping kids become the characters they admired from television and comic books, often purchasing merchandising rights before said characters ever became popular. Due in no small part to the Cooper family’s innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible and even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of that, about half a billion will go to costuming pets). You have to wonder what the ancient Celts would have thought about today’s Halloween costumes.

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

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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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