Why Are Legal Pads Yellow?

istock.com/st_lux
istock.com/st_lux

The legal pad got its start with Thomas Holley in 1888. Holley was 24 and working at a paper mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Every day, he and his co-workers threw out a lot of scrap pieces, called sortings, left over from cutting paper into the right sized sheets. He knew there had to be a use for them and eventually hit on the idea of cutting the sortings to the same size and binding them into small notepads. Since the paper was essentially trash to the mill, they could sell the pads at low prices.

The first few batches of pads sold so well that Holley quit his job at the mill and started his own company—Ampad, or the American Pad and Paper Company—to collect scraps from the local mills and manufacture and sell his pads. His company still exists, and they still manufacture notepads in a variety of sizes and shapes. And colors.

The pads that Holley made probably weren't yellow, and that isn't the only color they come in today. The only thing that technically sets the legal pad apart from every other notepad is the 1.25-inch, left-side "down lines," or margins. According to a historical deep-dive on legal pads in a 2005 issue of Legal Affairs magazine, Holley added these lines "in the early 1900s at the request of a local judge who was looking for space to comment on his own notes."

Still, when most people think legal pad, they think of the classic yellow paper and blue lines. The true origin of the yellow hue is actually a mystery. As far as we know, Holley's pads were white pads, and dyeing them yellow would have upped his cost and ruined his business plan.

There are a few competing hypotheses about how the pads came to be yellow later on, but none can be verified and no one seems to know when the pads first came out in color. One origin story suggests that yellow contrasted well against black ink without glare, making text easier to read. Or, that from a psychological perspective, "yellow is an excellent color for stimulating mental activity," so writing on yellow notepads could boost your creativity or clarity.

Another possibility is that Holley or his successors eventually decided to dye the paper to hide the fact that the pads were made from scraps of varying age and quality, and yellow was the cheapest or most readily available dye at the time.

This story was updated and republished in 2019.

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Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

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

Can Soap Get Dirty?

iStock/vintagerobot
iStock/vintagerobot

When you see lovely little bars of lemon-thyme or lavender hand soaps on the rim of a sink, you know they are there to make you feel as fresh as a gardenia-scented daisy. We all know washing our hands is important, but, like washcloths and towels, can the bars of hand soap we use to clean ourselves become dirty as well?

Soaps are simply mixtures of sodium or potassium salts derived from fatty acids and alkali solutions during a process called saponification. Each soap molecule is made of a long, non-polar, hydrophobic (repelled by water) hydrocarbon chain (the "tail") capped by a polar, hydrophilic (water-soluble) "salt" head. Because soap molecules have both polar and non-polar properties, they're great emulsifiers, which means they can disperse one liquid into another.

When you wash your dirty hands with soap and water, the tails of the soap molecules are repelled by water and attracted to oils, which attract dirt. The tails cluster together and form structures called micelles, trapping the dirt and oils. The micelles are negatively charged and soluble in water, so they repel each other and remain dispersed in water—and can easily be washed away.

So, yes, soap does indeed get dirty. That's sort of how it gets your hands clean: by latching onto grease, dirt and oil more strongly than your skin does. Of course, when you're using soap, you're washing all those loose, dirt-trapping, dirty soap molecules away, but a bar of soap sitting on the bathroom counter or liquid soap in a bottle can also be contaminated with microorganisms.

This doesn't seem to be much of a problem, though. In the few studies that have been done on the matter, test subjects were given bars of soap laden with E. coli and other bacteria and instructed to wash up. None of the studies found any evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to the subjects' hands. (It should be noted that two of these studies were conducted by Procter & Gamble and the Dial Corp., though no contradictory evidence has been found.)

Dirty soap can't clean itself, though. A contaminated bar of soap gets cleaned via the same mechanical action that helps clean you up when you wash your hands: good ol' fashioned scrubbing. The friction from rubbing your hands against the soap, as well as the flushing action of running water, removes any harmful microorganisms from both your hands and the soap and sends them down the drain.

This story was updated in 2019.

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