But Seriously: Why Do We Drive on Parkways and Park on Driveways?

istock
istock

“Hey! How come we drive on parkways and park on driveways? Huh? Huh? Amiright?!”

Good grief. This rusty one-liner’s gotten plenty of mileage, but few realize that the question is actually answerable.

The words “drive” and “park” existed long before automobiles. Remember, whenever you write or speak, you’re voting with your vocabulary. Languages evolve over time and a given term’s meaning is subject to dramatically change based on the whim of its users.

Back in the 1800s, for example, “parking” meant planting trees, flowers, and other bits of vegetation. A “parking place,” therefore, had nothing to do with stationary vehicles. Instead, it was a location specifically designed to encourage diverse, extensive plant growth for non-agricultural purposes.

Yet, many were soon commandeered for an entirely different objective. Historian Kirk Savagewrites, “By the turn of the century, such parking areas were sometimes used to hold horse-drawn carriages on special occasions...When automobiles started to overrun cities in the early twentieth century, parking areas were given over to car storage and the word began to refer to the cars themselves rather than the trees and grass they were replacing.”

During this transitional period, America’s parkways also began taking shape. Metropolitan reformers—who feared the health costs of industrial growth—started establishing wooded parks within cities nationwide, hoping their trees would make urban air more breathable. As automobiles rose in popularity, special car-friendly routes were carved through such parks. Unimaginatively, these were named “parkways”.

So parkways have nothing to do with the actual parking of vehicles. But what about “driveways”? Well, that particular word’s been around since at least 1884 and has essentially meant the same thing ever since—namely, a path that connects somebody’s private property to a public road. However, while lengthy driveways were once the norm (and, hence, enabled more driving), today’s average specimen is little more than a dinky personal parking station.

What Causes Red Tides?

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Every once in a while, the ocean turns the color of blood and scores of dead fish rise to the surface. The phenomenon might look like a biblical plague, but the source is far more mundane. It's just algae.

Red tides occur when there’s a sudden population boom among specific kinds of algae, which in enormous quantities become visible to the naked eye. They occur all over the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit behind red tides washing onto coastlines from Texas to Florida is usually a type of microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It produces toxic chemicals that can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and eye irritation to disorientation, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It's often fatal for fish, shellfish, turtles, and other wildlife.

The water appears red because of the particular depth at which the algae live. Light waves don’t penetrate seawater evenly, and certain wavelengths travel farther than others. The algae that cause red tides grow at depths that absorb green and blue frequencies of light and reflect red ones.

Not all algal blooms are red; some are blue, green, brown, or even purple. Nor do all algae harm humans or animals. Why and how certain species of algae multiply like crazy and wipe out entire swaths of marine life is still a scientific mystery.

The worst red tide on record occurred in 1946, when a mass of algae stretching for 150 miles along the Florida coastline killed more than 50 million fish, along with hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles. Tourists shied away from the beaches as the bodies of dead sea creatures washed ashore. Smaller incidents are more common, but just as costly. In the past decade alone, fishing and tourism industries in the United States have had an estimated $1 billion in losses due to red tides—and the cost is expected to rise.

Editor's note: This story, which originally ran in 2015, was updated in August 2018.

Why Do So Many Diners Look Like Train Cars?

iStock
iStock

No matter how many fine dining options you may have in your area, there’s something about sitting down in a diner that can’t be matched. Their menus are models of American comfort food, from meatloaf to patty melts. The coffee cups are bottomless. There’s usually a toothpick dispensary at the register.

Many diners across the country have one additional identifying trait: They’re shaped like a train car, a sleek and narrow compartment that looks like it belongs on a set of tracks. When and why did this style choice become synonymous with diners?

In a piece for Atlas Obscura, Anne Ewbank shed some light on the practice. The early 20th century saw a rise in entrepreneurs who were interested in meeting the need for casual dining establishments for people hurrying to or from work. Their ambitions had evolved from the lunch wagons of the late 1800s, which provided shelter from weather by putting up awnings or letting people sit inside on stools.

City ordinances, however, made such operations a little tricky: Many food wagons needed to be permanent fixtures in order to avoid the narrow operating hours mandated by communities. Rather than hire a contractor or lease an existing commercial space, people opted to order prefabricated, mobile carts that could be shipped to their location by rail or towed by truck. These dining cars became known as “diners.”

Like the pop-up locations of today, the diners could appear virtually overnight. Most were delivered in one piece; others were modular, requiring minimal assembly, and could offer a greater variety of styles and seating capacities. For small business owners, their affordability and convenience made it possible to strike out on their own. Some manufacturers even offered to repair fixtures by having the diner shipped back to the factory.

The look became so intertwined with fast-dining that some owners recycled old train cars to capture the aesthetic. Today, even diners built from scratch often mimic the narrow, elongated shape so familiar to patrons—a design now borne out of choice rather than necessity. It's a curious bit of history, and one worth pondering the next time you grab a toothpick.

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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