Why Are Cats Afraid of Cucumbers?

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Thanks to the internet, felines around the globe seem to have found a new—and unlikely—foe: the seemingly harmless garden cucumber. You’ve likely seen viral video compilations of pet owners surprising their cats with the fruit (yes, a cucumber is technically a fruit), which include footage of frightened kitties jumping, running, or clawing at the mysterious green objects before them.

Are cats and cucumbers really mortal enemies? Did an early feline ancestor eat a bad salad, or find that cucumbers made terrible scratching posts? “No, I don’t think that cats are inherently afraid of cucumbers,” 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.

Cats are creatures of habit, and Delgado thinks the cats in those videos—who were often ambushed from behind while bent forward eating—were simply caught off-guard while engaging in a familiar activity.

“Their eyes face forward, much like ours do,” Delgado explains. “That’s a very common structure for a face in a predator—you’re looking forward, and you’re not as worried about seeing behind you. Personally, I think that a lot of people were inadvertently startling their cats when they were already distracted. They were putting a strange object behind the cat while it was eating, the cat can’t see the object, they’re focused [on their food], and then they turn around” and see a cucumber.

The cats’ fright could be likened to how we sometimes jump or scream after we turn around and see someone standing behind us. But even though we typically laugh these moments off once the adrenaline dies down, it’s not cool to subject your cat to the same unsettling experience—especially when it’s eating.

“You want cats to feel safe when they eat,” Delgado says. “If cats don’t eat, they can become sick quite fast, and develop what’s called fatty liver disease.”

Plus, “stress can have really serious health effects on cats,” Delgado adds. “There’s been research showing that something as trivial as changing their routine can cause cats to exhibit what we call sickness behaviors: vomiting, not using their litter box, diarrhea, changes in appetite. Cats are sensitive.”

This doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce new items (say, a couch in the spot where your cat typically likes to sleep) to your household. But when you do, let Fluffy check out these unfamiliar objects on his or her own terms.

“A lot of the time people try to show a cat that something they’re afraid of isn’t scary,” Delgado says. “They’re going to inadvertently make the cat more afraid, because they’re forcing it to interact with something they’re fearful of.”

As time passes, the object will start smelling familiar, and your favorite feline will gradually relax. In the meantime, though, save the cucumbers for your salad, and keep them far away from your kitty’s food dish.

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

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Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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