STRANGE BUT TRUE
Q. This year marks the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. His plays and poetry have enriched the English language, with some of his characters even lending their names to singular descriptive words. There are of course those Romeos in our midst (after the passionate lover in “Romeo and Juliet”), but who are the Portias, the Prosperos, Timons and Dogberrys?
A. Portia, the heroine of “The Merchant of Venice,” is a rich heiress who disguises herself as a lawyer to save another’s life, says Anu Garg in his A.Word.A.Day website. Hence “Portia” represents a female lawyer, as in Mike Madrid’s 2013 “Divas, Dames & Daredevils:” “Listen sister ... law isn't the only subject I’ve mastered ... I may be a Portia, but my middle name’s Dempsey!” And if you're familiar with “The Tempest,” Prospero is the deposed Duke of Milan and a magician, so his name suggests someone who can influence others’ behavior or perception without their being aware of it.
Timon, the misanthropic hero of “Timon of Athens,” gives his name to one who hates mankind. Finally, calling someone “Dogberry,” the blundering constable in “Much Ado About Nothing,” means you consider him an incompetent, pompous official, as in Jack Beatty's “Age of Betrayal” (2007): “The mayor of Bangor, Maine vetoed a time-altering resolution passed by its city council ... for which Railway Age lampooned him in an editorial that began ‘A Dogberry who holds the office of mayor.’”
Q. How many bananas does it take to get you drunk?
A. Depends on who grows them and how they're processed, says Amy Stewart in “The Drunken Botanist.”
Most of us have only eaten the one kind of banana carried by supermarkets, but actually hundreds of cultivars exist, including the so-called beer bananas of Uganda and Rwanda.
“Farmers prefer to grow beer bananas... because they can process the fruit into a highly profitable beer that, while short-lived, does not perish as quickly as the bananas themselves do. Transformed into beer, the bananas are easier to get to market,” Steward said.
Processing involves piling ripe, unpeeled bananas into a pit or basket and having people tread on them to extract the juice. Then the juice is left to ferment for a few days until “the cloudy, sweet and sour beer is ready to drink. It can be bottled and stored for two or three days at most.”
Q. Leading causes of death in the developed world are heart disease (No. 1) and cancer (No. 2). What's No. 3?
A. It’s not diabetes, strokes or car accidents but rather “iatrogenic deaths caused by medical bungling, adverse drug reactions or hospital-acquired infections,” says New Scientist magazine. For all modern medicine’s success at alleviating suffering and death, it actually causes plenty of both. Many medical interventions turn out to have unintended negative consequences, such as cancer-treating chemotherapy weakening the patient’s immune system and bringing on a deadly infection. Chemotherapy at times can also render a cancer simply more aggressive. Or consider the humble pain killer taken to make bouts of the flu more bearable, which may actually be turning the infected people into more efficient virus spreaders, bringing on “up to 2,000 extra flu deaths in the U.S. alone each year.”
None of this suggests that chemotherapy or pain killers do more harm than good overall. And their effects might even help lead to better and better medicines. “Yet it does highlight the need to think broadly about iatrogenic deaths.”
According to the most widely cited figure (dating back to 2000), 225,000 people die this way in the U.S. each year. Still, “we won't know if we're fulfilling the most basic tenet of medicine — to do no harm — until we start counting more carefully.”
Send questions to brothers Bill Sones and Rich Sones at email@example.com.