‘Professor Know-It-All’ knew it all for 32 years at Chronicle

| December 31, 2020 | 0 Comments

Last month was the final installment of William Bentley’s “Professor Know-It-All” column. Bentley has been answering queries regarding word and phrase etymology for Larchmont Chronicle readers for 32 years.

Bentley first pitched the idea to Jane Gilman, founder and former publisher of the Chronicle, because he thought the paper needed something lighthearted and fun. The two were attending a Larchmont Boulevard Association board cocktail party after the Larchmont Family Fair and began discussing what the column should be called. Someone nearby joked that Bentley thought he “knew everything,” which gave them the idea for “Mr. Know-It-All,” which quickly morphed into “Professor Know-It-All.”

Thus began Bentley’s first column, appearing on page 16 of the first section in the February 1988 issue.

To solicit queries based on word and phrase history, Bentley wrote his first column on three questions he himself was curious about.

1) Why are there 18 holes in golf? Answer: 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 the color blue was believed to repel evil spirits and boys were considered more valuable than girl babies. Later on, pink was chosen for girls to show how much “happier and healthier” they were than boys.

3) Why is clear (or frosted) tape called “Scotch” tape? According to Bentley, it was originally supposed to be masking tape for painting cars, but it was too expensive. When 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, Bentley asked readers to mail in their “burning questions” in care of the Chronicle.

In 1988, by the end of the first year, the column had found a comfortable home in the back of the second section, where it stayed until the final column last month.

At an average of four queries per month, Bentley has answered approximately 1,520 questions over the past 32 years.

The most complex question he’s answered was reprised in the July 2014 issue. It related to 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 a 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.

A screenwriter, Bentley said he needed to bid us adieu because he is working on a project with Quentin Tarantino for Netflix and a series that’s on the California Gold Rush.

You can send your own thanks and good wishes to him at willbent@prodigy.net.

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