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Matthew Santoro Vlogs via YouTube
Matthew Santoro Vlogs via YouTube

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.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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