Why Do Canadians Drink Milk in Bags?

Matthew Santoro Vlogs via YouTube
Matthew Santoro Vlogs via YouTube

Take a walk through any Ontario-area grocery store and you'll see something a little unusual: shoppers hefting an item into their cart that looks like a plastic package of diapers, weighs roughly nine pounds, and requires some minor effort to enjoy.

It’s a large, tasty bag of milk.

fw_gadget via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Actually, it’s three medium-sized bladders of milk, packaged together in one large sack. At home, the milk is placed in a pitcher and one corner of the polyethylene plastic is snipped off with scissors for pouring. (Some Canadians snip a second, smaller hole to let air out.) Because it’s not fully sealed, the milk needs to be enjoyed relatively quickly.

For dairy enthusiasts used to the convenience of a resealable container, all of this might seem unnecessary—yet at least 75 percent of all milk sold in Ontario comes in this unique delivery system. The bags of milk can also be found in Quebec and the Maritimes. 

Why? Thank the metric system.

By the late 1960s, glass bottles were still being used for milk, but officials knew they were causing a considerable amount of waste and expense: The heavy bottles were a pain to transport and broke easily. A few years later, Canada was busy converting to the metric system, requiring liquids to be sold in liters. Manufacturing plants producing plastic jugs or cartons (which had debuted around 1915) found that their machines would have to be dramatically altered to allow their containers to be re-sized to meet the new requirements. But the process for injecting milk into plastic bags, which were introduced by DuPont in the late 1960s [PDF], needed only minor tweaks. The bags also produced less packaging waste, since they require less plastic to hold the same amount of milk. Suddenly, pouring milk into giant, floppy sacks seemed like the most obvious thing in the world.

Andrea Vall via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

By the early 1980s, the metric system was fully adopted in Canada; in 1978, 4-liter packages of milk became the norm in Ontario [PDF]. Buying bagged became habitual for shoppers, who realized that some of the perceived drawbacks were actually beneficial. Sure, the milk could lose its freshness quickly, but because the packaging was broken up into three bags, there was always a new one to open; unused bags could be stored horizontally in refrigerators in spots where a tall jug wouldn’t fit.

While the unusual packaging confuses even Canadians in other parts of the country, it’s slowly been gaining support in other parts of the world. UK-based Sainsbury’s rolled out two-pint bags around 2010, offering a free pitcher as an incentive for people to make the switch and cut down on waste. Some schools, like Golden Hills Elementary near Omaha, Nebraska, let kids sip from tiny, Capri Sun-esque milk pouches. You can also find them in South Africa, Hungary, and China, which also happens to traffic in bagged beer.

Not planning on traveling outside the country? Try hitting up a Kwik Trip or Kwik Star convenience store, where locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa sell bagged milk by the half-gallon. Though they caution first-timers might need to get used to the pouring technique—there’s apparently a learning curve—they promise customers “will grow to appreciate” the lactose customs of other parts of the world.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

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

What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?

iStock/matejmo
iStock/matejmo

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

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