What Makes #2 Pencils So Special?

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Most of us pick up pencils—and lose them—without giving them a second thought. Pencils are a bit more interesting than you might, think, though. Here are a few not-so-frequently asked questions about everyone's second-favorite writing implements, including the story of a time when pencil sharpeners were illegal.

WHAT MAKES #2 PENCILS SO SPECIAL?

When it comes to pencils, #2s are actually the absolute middle of the road. While we number our various grades of pencils in the U.S., the rest of the world uses a system of numbers and letters to describe how hard and how black a pencil's lead is. An American #2 pencil (roughly) corresponds to an HB pencil on the rest of the world's scale. The lead is not too dark and not too light, and it's not too hard or too soft.

Pencils numbered higher than 2 have harder leads and are often used by engineers, architects, and draftsmen because of their harder points. The underlying logic here is that the harder point gives the user greater control of the lead. You'll find softer leads in pencils numbered below 2, which are popular with artists because they can help create a wider spectrum of tones than one would achieve by sticking solely to a #2 pencil.

ACK! I USED A #3 PENCIL ON THE SAT! IS MY LIFE OVER?

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No ... but you're probably destined for a life of hard labor rather than college. No, not really. It's hard to get a straight answer on this question, but there are quite a few reports from people online who messed up by using the wrong grade of pencil and still did just fine on their SATs. The general consensus seems to be that the SAT's scanners will read a #3 pencil's mark just the same as it would read one from a #2 pencil. Some people do feel, however, that the harder lead in a #3 pencil makes erasing tougher and ups the chances that a stray smudge or incompletely erased mark will be read by the scanner and end up hurting your score. So it's probably best to err on the safe side and double-check your pencil type before heading into the exam.

IF THE REST OF THE WORLD USES A SYSTEM OF NUMBERS AND LETTERS TO GRADE PENCILS, WHY DO WE USE JUST NUMBERS?

Thank Henry David Thoreau and his old man. When graphite was discovered in New Hampshire during the 1820s, John Thoreau and his brother-in-law Charles Dunbar built their own pencil factory. The only problem was that New Hampshire graphite was pretty crummy; it smeared and made for pretty poor pencils.

Enter a young Henry David Thoreau. Before he wrote about civil disobedience and spent his time at Walden Pond, he worked at the family pencil company. Thoreau perfected a process of using clay as a binder to make the soft, loose graphite hard and suitable for pencils. Suddenly the New England graphite could be used to make a pencil that didn't leave giant smears, and the Thoreaus' business took off. By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered one through four.

IF THE CENTER OF THE PENCIL HAS BEEN MADE OF GRAPHITE FOR SO LONG, WHY DO WE CALL IT "LEAD"?

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Blame shoddy 16th century chemistry for this one. When a giant graphite deposit was found in England during the 16th century, it eventually found a use as a writing implement. However, early chemists weren't exactly sure what the useful gray substance actually was. They assumed it was some sort of lead, and the term "pencil lead" came into use—even though there wasn't any lead involved.

WHY ARE PENCILS PAINTED YELLOW?

According to most stories, our pencils are yellow as a result of a clever marketing gimmick. In 1889, the Hardtmuth company of Austria introduced a new line of fancy pencils at the World's Fair in Paris. The pencils were named Koh-i-Noor after a famed Indian diamond, and they contained the world's finest graphite from the Far East. They were also painted yellow, which was unusual at the time.

Some historians claim that the Austrian company painted their pencils yellow as a subtle nod to the yellow on the flag of Austria-Hungary. Others claim the yellow was an even subtler nod to the Far Eastern graphite in the pencils; the color yellow is associated with royalty in China. In either case, the new yellow pencils were a hit, and soon other companies began painting their own wares yellow in an attempt to swipe some of Hardtmuth's business.

DOES THE LITTLE METAL BAND THAT HOLDS THE ERASER ON THE PENCIL HAVE A NAME?

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It sure does. It's called a ferrule, a combination of the Latin words viriola ("small bracelet") and ferrum ("iron").

HAVE PENCIL ERASERS GIVEN US ANY COMMON WORDS?

You bet. According to records from the 18th century, the elastic substance from tropical plants got its name thanks to its common use of being rubbed over pencil marks to erase them. Since using this substance as an eraser required a lot of rubbing, people began calling it rubber. Another name for rubber from the same era that didn't catch on quite as well was lead-eater

WHEN WAS IT ILLEGAL TO OWN A PENCIL SHARPENER?

If you owned a pencil sharpener in early 20th century England, you had a hot little piece of contraband. At the time, the supply of the red cedar that had historically been used in pencils was getting perilously low, so the government briefly outlawed pencil sharpeners in order to limit waste from overzealous sharpening. Eventually the mechanical pencil and the discovery of incense-cedar's usefulness in making pencils solved this problem, and pencil sharpeners became street legal once again. Phew!

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

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Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

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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