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Has a U.S. River Run Backwards Before?

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The ongoing drought conditions wreaking havoc across large swaths of the country have driven the water in Lake Michigan an inch below its previous record low, and aren’t stopping. Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that, if this continues and the lake water drops below the level of the Chicago River, the river could reverse course and begin flowing back towards its source. (Thankfully, there’s a series of locks separating the two, which will help prevent the less-than-clean river from flowing into the lake and the city’s source of drinking water.) Has an American river ever done an about-face like this before?

Right Back Where it Started From

Oh yeah. In fact, the Chicago has done it before. If the river does reverse course, it won’t be running backwards so much as running forwards again. 

When Europeans first settled in the Chicago area, the river drained into Lake Michigan, which was fine—except that settlers used the river to dump waste, and used the lake for drinking water. As the city grew, there were numerous outbreaks of typhoid and cholera because of contaminated drinking water, and something had to be done. 

In the late 1800s, the city decided to solve their problem with an ambitious engineering feat: They would reverse the flow of the river and send it away from the lake and towards the Mississippi River. The so-called “Chicago Diversion” worked: It not only diverted contaminated water away from the city’s drinking water, but also connected the Great Lakes and Mississippi River water systems and opened up the possibility of commercial travel and trade between them. 

It hasn't been just barges and haulers that could cross from one system to the other, though. Invasive Asian carp, introduced decades ago to southern fish farms as pond cleaners, have gradually made their way north, threatening native species and altering food webs as they go. With the fish nearing the Great Lakes, the idea of un-reversing (re-reversing?) the Chicago River has been kicked around, but now it looks like the river could take care of the problem itself. 

All Shook Up

The most famous of American Rivers, the mighty Mississippi, also might have gone backwards more than once. In 1811 and 1812, three earthquakes—the most powerful to ever hit the eastern U.S.—struck what was then a sparsely populated area of the Louisiana Territory. 

Eyewitness accounts from the quake read like Michael Bay scripts: The ground rippled and quivered; chasms opened up and swallowed livestock and wagons; sand and dirt exploded from the ground like volcanic eruptions and blotted out the sun; the Mississippi shook with such violence that the water ran backwards and boats were dragged upstream. 

One boatman, wanting to get away from the trees falling over on the river banks, put his boat out into the middle of the river and soon found, he claimed, that “the current changed, and the boat hurried up, for about the space of a minute, with the velocity of the swiftest horse,” fast enough that he had to hold on to his hat to keep it on his head. 

Gradually, the man said, the river returned to its normal course. Exactly how long that took is unclear, and various firsthand accounts have the river going backwards for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Whether the river even reversed itself at all is questionable, and the United States Geological Survey says that ground uplifts and waves moving upstream may have just created the illusion that the water was moving backwards. 

What’s more certain is that the Mississippi reversed course for about 24 hours when Hurricane Isaac struck last year, and when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

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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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