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Monday, February 23, 2009

More Fleas Than You Can Shake A Stick At

Almost every weekend I drive to Crystal Springs. On the way down, I pass a sign for a flea market. Being the complete nerd that I am, I decided that I needed to know why these sales are known as flea markets. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, the term is a direct translation from the French marché aux puces, market of fleas. Brewer's says that the term was coined in the 1920's because the piles of used goods available at such sales are evidently a breeding ground for fleas. I was hoping for something a bit more picturesque!

There's a related term that I ran across while investigating flea markets. I bet you haven't heard of a flea pit! It is an idiom used to describe movie theatres. The expression came into use in the 1930's. People started saying it because, you guessed it, cinemas were hotbeds of flea activities. Just think of the carpets, cloth covered seats, etc... I'm so glad I didn't know that before I spent 3 1/2 hours watching the Oscars the other night! The Australians took it a step further and came up with the phrase fleas and itche(r)s during the 1950's. Picture this: boy asks girl, "Want to go see The Seven Year Itch at the fleas and itches?" Would you have agreed?

Here's one last flea-y tidbit for your entomological edification.
Aristophanes, in the Clouds (423 BC), says that Socrates and Chaerephon tried to measure how many times its own length a flea jumped. They took the size of a flea's foot in wax, then calculated the length of its body. They then measured the distance of a flea's jump from the hand of Socrates to Chaerephon and the problem was resolved by simple multiplication (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 404.)
I have so many new questions after reading that blurb! According to Britannica Concise Encyclopedia online, the "adult flea is .04-.4 inches long." How in the world did they take a wax imprint of a miniscule little flea foot? They can also jump up to 200 times their own body lengths. That means that a flea could jump 80 feet. Eighty feet! I wonder how long Socrates and Chaerephon spent doing this.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 15th edition. Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.
Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable. London: Cassell. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from

Brewer's Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Phrase and Fable. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from

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