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Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

How Do British Royals Get Their Titles?

Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

The simple answer: You’re born with it, or Her Majesty gives it to you.

The noble titles of duke, duchess, earl, countess, and so on are relics of the peerage system, a hierarchy that conferred power to people in ye olde British political and landowning order. Members of the peerage system, called Peers, were the monarch’s vassals: They swore loyalty to the king or queen in exchange for money or land. In feudal times, these titles—and the jobs that came with them—were passed down to male heirs and their spouses.

Here’s how the system works:

At the top, of course, sits the king or queen. There are some special naming rules for the head of state. If a king sits on the throne, his wife is called the queen consort. However, if the queen is running the show—as is true at the present moment—her husband has no automatic right to a title. Prince Philip was a Prince of Greece, but renounced his title before marrying Elizabeth, so when Elizabeth became queen in 1952, he was properly referred to as the Duke of Edinburgh. Despite constant press references to him as “Prince Philip,” that title only became official in 1957, when Elizabeth II conferred “the style and titular dignity of a prince” on her husband. The sovereign is considered the “fount of honour” and has the exclusive right of conferring titles. All ranks must first meet his or her approval.

The highest peerage titles are duke and duchess. Traditionally, the duke was the sovereign ruler of a duchy or dukedom (a large swath of land) and the title is frequently, but not always, given to a member of the royal family. (That’s why you see royals flaunting territorial titles such as the “Duke of Cornwall” or “Duchess of Cambridge.”) Currently there are 30 dukes, and those titles will be passed down to their male heirs.

It’s expected that Queen Elizabeth II will give Prince Harry the title of Duke of Sussex after his wedding. And while Harry will remain a prince, his soon-to-be wife, Meghan Markle, will not inherit the title of princess—she will simply become a duchess. (If Harry isn't named a duke, Markle will likely be called "Princess Henry of Wales"—using Harry's real name—but never Princess Meghan.)

The step below duke is marquess or marchioness. The title was traditionally given to a duke-like noble who oversaw a Welsh or Scottish march, or border territory. Like a duke, a marquess held responsibility over a large mass of land. Unlike a duke, however, a marquess had the extra responsibility of defending this frontier from invaders. There are about 34 marquess positions, and the titles are generally inherited by the first-born son.

Under that is earl and countess. Originally, an earl was a do-it-all governor-judge-cop-taxman. He could be the administrator of a shire, province, or county. He might also be responsible for collecting taxes and fines and playing the part of judge or sheriff. He was often entitled to receive every “third penny”—that is, one third!—of all judicial revenues. The title is hereditary, though it's not unheard of for the reigning monarch to give a former prime minister an earldom.

One step below that is viscount and viscountess. Back in feudal days, the viscount was exactly what it sounds like: a “vice count,” a deputy or lieutenant who served the earl. The title is often given to the children of earls, however the rank may overlap with other titles: A handful of dukes and earls pull double-duty as viscounts. The title has also been awarded to outgoing Speakers at the House of Commons.

The lowest rank in the traditional peerage system is that of baron and baroness. The baron acted as the sovereign's "tenant-in-chief" and possessed a number of fiefs—basically a subdivision of a county. A baron’s rank, as well as his land, was usually passed down to an heir. (From 1876 to 2009, prominent lawyers and judges were eligible for the title of baron to create the equivalent of a Supreme Court, but that practice was repealed when a real Supreme Court began.) Today, there are more than 400 baronies.

Nowadays, it’s easy to wave off these fancy titles as antiquated symbols of a dead political system. But the truth is, hereditary peers still hold significant political power in England. For centuries, peers (all male until 1958)—called “Lords”—occupied the upper house of British Parliament: the aptly titled “House of Lords.” In 1999, a bill weakened their power considerably. Yet 92 hereditary peers still sit in the House of Lords, drafting and reviewing legislation.

If you’re not a noble, you still have a chance at earning one of their titles without having to go through the trouble of a royal wedding. In 1958, legislation introduced a new rung in the peerage ladder: life Peer. Heredity has nothing to do with these titles. This distinction, which is nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the Crown, has been awarded to prominent doctors, professors, veterans, business owners, and farmers. And while you can’t pass your title down to your children, the position does land you a comfy seat in the House of Lords. So get cracking on building that resume!

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

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