What Makes #2 Pencils So Special?

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iStock

Most of us pick up pencils—and lose them—without giving them a second thought. Pencils are a bit more interesting than you might, think, though. Here are a few not-so-frequently asked questions about everyone's second-favorite writing implements, including the story of a time when pencil sharpeners were illegal.

WHAT MAKES #2 PENCILS SO SPECIAL?

When it comes to pencils, #2s are actually the absolute middle of the road. While we number our various grades of pencils in the U.S., the rest of the world uses a system of numbers and letters to describe how hard and how black a pencil's lead is. An American #2 pencil (roughly) corresponds to an HB pencil on the rest of the world's scale. The lead is not too dark and not too light, and it's not too hard or too soft.

Pencils numbered higher than 2 have harder leads and are often used by engineers, architects, and draftsmen because of their harder points. The underlying logic here is that the harder point gives the user greater control of the lead. You'll find softer leads in pencils numbered below 2, which are popular with artists because they can help create a wider spectrum of tones than one would achieve by sticking solely to a #2 pencil.

ACK! I USED A #3 PENCIL ON THE SAT! IS MY LIFE OVER?

A student takes a test with a pencil
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No ... but you're probably destined for a life of hard labor rather than college. No, not really. It's hard to get a straight answer on this question, but there are quite a few reports from people online who messed up by using the wrong grade of pencil and still did just fine on their SATs. The general consensus seems to be that the SAT's scanners will read a #3 pencil's mark just the same as it would read one from a #2 pencil. Some people do feel, however, that the harder lead in a #3 pencil makes erasing tougher and ups the chances that a stray smudge or incompletely erased mark will be read by the scanner and end up hurting your score. So it's probably best to err on the safe side and double-check your pencil type before heading into the exam.

IF THE REST OF THE WORLD USES A SYSTEM OF NUMBERS AND LETTERS TO GRADE PENCILS, WHY DO WE USE JUST NUMBERS?

Thank Henry David Thoreau and his old man. When graphite was discovered in New Hampshire during the 1820s, John Thoreau and his brother-in-law Charles Dunbar built their own pencil factory. The only problem was that New Hampshire graphite was pretty crummy; it smeared and made for pretty poor pencils.

Enter a young Henry David Thoreau. Before he wrote about civil disobedience and spent his time at Walden Pond, he worked at the family pencil company. Thoreau perfected a process of using clay as a binder to make the soft, loose graphite hard and suitable for pencils. Suddenly the New England graphite could be used to make a pencil that didn't leave giant smears, and the Thoreaus' business took off. By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered one through four.

IF THE CENTER OF THE PENCIL HAS BEEN MADE OF GRAPHITE FOR SO LONG, WHY DO WE CALL IT "LEAD"?

Photo of the tip of a pencil
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Blame shoddy 16th century chemistry for this one. When a giant graphite deposit was found in England during the 16th century, it eventually found a use as a writing implement. However, early chemists weren't exactly sure what the useful gray substance actually was. They assumed it was some sort of lead, and the term "pencil lead" came into use—even though there wasn't any lead involved.

WHY ARE PENCILS PAINTED YELLOW?

According to most stories, our pencils are yellow as a result of a clever marketing gimmick. In 1889, the Hardtmuth company of Austria introduced a new line of fancy pencils at the World's Fair in Paris. The pencils were named Koh-i-Noor after a famed Indian diamond, and they contained the world's finest graphite from the Far East. They were also painted yellow, which was unusual at the time.

Some historians claim that the Austrian company painted their pencils yellow as a subtle nod to the yellow on the flag of Austria-Hungary. Others claim the yellow was an even subtler nod to the Far Eastern graphite in the pencils; the color yellow is associated with royalty in China. In either case, the new yellow pencils were a hit, and soon other companies began painting their own wares yellow in an attempt to swipe some of Hardtmuth's business.

DOES THE LITTLE METAL BAND THAT HOLDS THE ERASER ON THE PENCIL HAVE A NAME?

A pencil eraser
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It sure does. It's called a ferrule, a combination of the Latin words viriola ("small bracelet") and ferrum ("iron").

HAVE PENCIL ERASERS GIVEN US ANY COMMON WORDS?

You bet. According to records from the 18th century, the elastic substance from tropical plants got its name thanks to its common use of being rubbed over pencil marks to erase them. Since using this substance as an eraser required a lot of rubbing, people began calling it rubber. Another name for rubber from the same era that didn't catch on quite as well was lead-eater

WHEN WAS IT ILLEGAL TO OWN A PENCIL SHARPENER?

If you owned a pencil sharpener in early 20th century England, you had a hot little piece of contraband. At the time, the supply of the red cedar that had historically been used in pencils was getting perilously low, so the government briefly outlawed pencil sharpeners in order to limit waste from overzealous sharpening. Eventually the mechanical pencil and the discovery of incense-cedar's usefulness in making pencils solved this problem, and pencil sharpeners became street legal once again. Phew!

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

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iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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