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What's the Difference between Churches, Chapels, and Cathedrals?

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For every world religion, there is a place to worship. For Christianity, there are a confusing variety of names for these places, which are frequently—but incorrectly—used interchangeably. Church, chapel, and cathedral are the trio of terms most commonly used to denote a religious space, but how are they different? As with most questions on the nature of language, it depends not whom you ask, but when you ask.

Chronologically speaking, the words “church” and “chapel” emerged into widespread use at about the same time, dating back to approximately the thirteenth century. Church evolved from a motley collection of sources: the Old English cirice, West Germanic kirika, Middle Dutch kerke, and from the Greek kyriake. Chapel has a more straightforward derivation, from the Old French chapele, which in turn had roots in the Medieval Latin cappella, literally meaning “little cape,” honoring the story of St. Martin of Tours’ holy garment. Of the two, “church” is the broader term, referring both to the worship space in an architectural sense as well as the congregation as a collective group of people meeting within the church building. Though the word’s original connotations were of a building designated for holy worship, church services now often take place in secular locations, and former church buildings are frequently converted into private homes, bookstores, and bars.

Chapels are commonly smaller spaces, usually a room within the church or a larger, non-faith-based institution like an airport, hospital, or university, and they are not necessarily consecrated ground. Even chapels of considerable size or with their own freestanding grounds differ from the traditional Christian church in welcoming nondenominational or interfaith worship. Perhaps the loosest definition of “chapel” refers to those peculiar Las Vegas wedding locations for hasty, and occasionally poorly thought out, marriages—a far cry from most established religion.

Unlike both churches and chapels, which originated in the general Christian tradition but are not specific to any particular incarnation of it, cathedrals fulfill a specific role within the Catholic faith. Named for the bishop’s throne, the cathedra—and despite its implications of stained glass and grandeur—a “cathedral” is simply the designated principal church within a diocese. Naturally, where the bishop goes, lofty arches and flying buttresses often follow, but those are just a side effect. If the bishop’s seat moves elsewhere, so too does the designation of “cathedral.” Such was the case with Crotia’s Church of the Holy Cross, once billed as “the smallest cathedral in the world”—in the absence of a bishop, the Croatian Tourist Board is pushing the definition just a bit.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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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What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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