31 years later, Professor still knows it all

| January 31, 2019 | 0 Comments
PROFESSOR KNOW-IT-ALL, also known as Bill Bentley, as he first appeared in the Larchmont Chronicle in 1988.

This month’s February 2019 Larchmont Chronicle heralds the 31st year of William Bentley (a.k.a. Professor Know-It-All) regaling readers with fun word and phrase etymology based on questions readers pose to him. 

Jane Gilman, founder and former publisher at the Chronicle remembers Bentley pitching her the idea for a column because he thought the paper needed something a little bit more lighthearted. 

Bentley, a screenwriter, says that he remembers that he and Gilman were at a Larchmont Boulevard Association board cocktail party after the Larchmont Family Fair. He and she were discussing, if he did write a column for the paper, what would it be called. Bentley said someone else joked that Bentley thought he “knew everything,” so make the title about that. “Mr. Know-It-All” quickly morphed into “Professor Know-It-All,” and Bentley’s column answering questions on the history behind words and word phrases was born. 

First column

The first column appeared on p. 16 of the first section in the February 1988 issue. Since no one had had a chance to mail in any questions (this was a few years before email), the professor kicked off the column with three queries he himself was curious about: 

1) Why are there 18 holes in golf? That’s where a quart of malt liquor ran out when the committee to standardize the game of golf was measuring the course. 

2) Why do we color code boy babies blue and girl babies pink? Bentley’s answer was that boys were considered more valuable than girl babies, and the color blue was believed to repel evil spirits. Later on, pink was chosen for girls to show how much “happier and healthier” they were than boys. 

3) Why is tape called “Scotch” tape? According to Bentley, it was originally supposed to be masking tape for painting cars, but it was too expensive. When the 3M Company tried to make it more affordable by moving the adhesive to only the edges, the result was a “fiasco,” said Bentley. Angry automakers called the company “Scotch,” or cheap. Even though 3M changed the tape back, the name stuck. 

At the end of that first column, the professor declared, “don’t spend another night pondering the imponderable,” and he asked readers to mail in their “burning questions” in care of the Larchmont Chronicle

Since then, Bentley has been answering an average of four queries each month, which he says comes out to 1,488 questions over the past 31 years. 

Although the column was published in Section One of the paper in 1988, by the end of the first year, it had found a comfortable home in the back of the second section, where it can be found today. 

What’s in a query?

When asked about questions he’s received over the years, Bentley says some readers have sent him science questions, and he reminds them that he deals with the origins of words and phrases. If he gets repeat questions, he emails them back directly with the original answer and the issue it appeared in. 

So far, says Bentley, he has never been stumped when asked a question. He’s developed a resourceful research library over the years, and he always traces the question back to the oldest source he can find, to ensure the most accurate (and interesting) answer. 

The most interesting and complex question he’s had — so interesting that Gilman reprised it in the July 2014 issue of the Chronicle — was the history behind the term “charley horse” for a knotted muscle. The answer is a “knotty” twist of the amorous habits of England’s King Charles II, which led to the term for women’s breasts (at the time, “charleys”), the shifting of the definition to include “milk,” and the appearance of old horses (with knotted muscles, etc.) used to pull milk wagons. 

Read Professor Know-It-All’s column every month on the second-to-last page of Section Two.

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