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Why are “Ghost,” “Ghastly,” and “Ghoul” Spelled with “gh”?

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"Gh" is a strange way for an English word to start. There are only a handful of commonly used words that begin with this spelling. Beyond the spirit cluster of ghost, ghastly, and ghoul, we have borrowed words like ghetto, gherkin, and ghee, some place names like Ghana and Ghent, and that’s about it.

“Ghoul” was borrowed into English in the 1700s from the Arabic ghul, but at first without the "h," as “goul” or “goule.” It was later lured over to the ‘gh’ group by its semantic similarity to “ghost.”

But how did ghost get its "gh"? Compared to the other "gh" words, “ghost” is both a lot more frequent and a lot older, going all the way back to Old English gást. Until the 1500s, over a few centuries of language change, it was spelled gast, gæst, gost, goste, goost, and goist. “Ghastly” from the related, Middle English gastliche, also came in "h"-free spellings until the 1500s. 

We can trace the introduction of the "h" in ghost and ghastly back to William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England. He had established his first press in Bruges, and he brought some Flemish typesetters back with him when he returned to set up business in Westminster. David Crystal writes, in his history of English spelling, that “in Bruges they would have been used to reading manuscripts in Flemish spelling. So if a word reminded them of its Flemish counterpart, why not spell it that way? The boss wouldn’t mind, as long as the words were intelligible. He had more to worry about than spelling.”

The typesetters also used "gh" in their spellings of “goose,” “goat,” and “girl,” but those spellings never caught on. For some reason, only “ghost” and “ghastly” kept the "h." Maybe because the words looked spookier that way. Indeed, a story about the ghost of a “ghoos ghoot gherle” sounds downright terrifying. Thank ghoodness those spellings have ghone.

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Big Questions
How Do Hummingbirds Sleep?
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How do hummingbirds sleep?

Anusha Shankar:

Ooh this is an exciting question—I’ve spent the past five years thinking about just this!

Look at these infrared images from a crowdfunded project we did in the summer of 2017: The bird on the left is generating heat, keeping itself warm, while the one on the right is in torpor. It has allowed its body temperature to become the same as the air temperature and has stopped "thermoregulating," or maintaining a high body temperature.

Hummingbirds find a nice and sheltered place at night, and they latch onto a branch with their tiny feet, and then they go to sleep. Some of them ... use a strategy called torpor, where they can lower the amount of energy they use by about 85 percent. They do this by basically shutting down a bunch of their bodily functions—they allow their body to get cold as the night gets colder. You and I spend a lot of energy keeping our bodies warm so everything functions normally. Hummingbirds in torpor give up this "normal" function, and become more like lizards, in that they can get ‘cold-blooded’ in torpor.

Torpor is a tricky state to be in, because they can’t respond to outside stimuli for 20 to 30 minutes, until they warm their bodies back up. They take that risk just to have enough energy in their tiny bodies to make it to the next morning.

I recently wrote a blog post for National Geographic to talk a bit more about hummingbird sleep (includes videos!).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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