How Long Does Something Have to Be In the Ground Before It's Considered a Fossil?

iStock
iStock

Jelle Zijlstra:

The other answers here say that to be a fossil, something has to be mineralized in some way. The other answers are wrong.

At least, they don’t agree with common definitions in dictionaries and in paleontology. Usually, any remains or traces of an organism preserved in the ground are counted as fossils. People are less likely to use the term fossil for remains from the last 10,000 years (the Holocene, our geological period), but that is obviously arbitrary.

Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of fossil:

Something preserved in the ground, especially in petrified form in rock, and recognizable as the remains of a living organism of a former geological period, or as preserving an impression or trace of such an organism.

Especially in petrified form, not always in petrified form. They also say that “the term fossil is usually reserved for remains older than 10,000 years."

My textbook on paleobotany (Taylor et al., 2009, Paleobotany, Academic Press) doesn’t give a definition of the word fossil, but it does provide a nice catalog of the various kinds of plant fossils. Those include petrified wood, but they also include compression fossils, which are the result of the original plant material being compressed. No mineralization necessary. Pollen grains are a very common kind of plant fossil, and they are usually preserved unmineralized. Amber can isolate organic material sufficiently that it is preserved virtually unchanged.

Most paleontologists don’t discuss the definition of fossil, because it’s not terribly controversial. In one of my own papers I used the word for remains of the fossil rodent Cordimus hooijeri that are only a few hundred years old and not noticeably mineralized. Nobody called me out on it.

I did find one paper that explicitly discusses definitions: "A New Species of Fossil Ptinus from Fossil Wood Rat Nests in California and Arizona" (Coleoptera, Ptinidae), with a postscript on the definition of a fossil. This was in the context of beetles from woodrat middens, which were preserved as mostly unchanged exoskeletons. The author settled on “A specimen, a replacement of a specimen, or the work or evidence of a specimen that lived in the past and was naturally preserved rather than buried by man.” Again, no reference to mineralization. He discussed using the term fossil only for remains that are more than 10,000 years old; subfossil for remains before recorded history; and nonfossil for remains from recorded history. But that seemed arbitrary and unworkable; recorded history started at different times in different places.

Fossils are the remains of organisms of the past, regardless of their mode of preservation. Where exactly you draw the line between “organisms of the past” and “organisms of the present that just happen to be dead” is arbitrary and it usually doesn’t matter. If you need a definition (for example, if you’re making a list of fossil and nonfossil species), you come up with a reasonable if arbitrary definition. If you don’t need a precise definition, you don’t.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
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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