Would I find Vaudeville on a map? –P.C., Montreal

Not unless you’re a really bad speller–although bad spelling is probably what gave us vaudeville in the first place. According to the leading theory, vaudeville derives from vau-de-Vire (valley of Vire), in Calvados, Normandy. Vau-de-Vire was the home of Olivier Basselin, a 15th-century minstrel and writer of satirical songs. A Basselin tune, and later any light popular song, became known as a chanson du vau-de-Vire, “song of the valley of Vire,” shortened to vau-de-Vire. By the mid-16th century, possibly because such tunes had become popular in Paris, the term had been corrupted to vaux de ville or voix de ville, meaning “voice of [the] city.” This has a cool ring to it until you realize that the voice of the city eventually sounded a lot like Milton Berle. By the 18th century, vaudeville had entered English as a term for comic ballad, for comic stage performance, and finally, in the U.S., for variety theater in general.

You asked about maps. My assistant Bibliophage informs me that the U.S. Geological Survey placename database (geonames.usgs.gov) “has 23 places or features with Podunk in the name, but not a single Vaudeville. But they concern themselves only with U.S. place names. My geographical dictionary has no Vaudeville, but there’s a Vaud (Swiss canton), Vaudreuil (county and village in Quebec and village in Wisconsin), and the above-mentioned French valley, vau-de-Vire.”


In your column about the Fifth Third Bank, you committed one of my pet peeves, namely, incorrectly using the phrase “begging the question” as a synonym for suggesting a question: “When we contacted Fifth Third Bank, we learned that [it] was formed in 1906 from the merger of the Fifth National Bank and the Third National Bank. This naturally begged other questions…” AUGH! No, it didn’t beg other questions. It suggested other questions. Begging the question means that the truth of the conclusion is assumed by the premises. Just because every other damn-ignorant newspaper and magazine columnist uses the phrase incorrectly is no excuse for Cecil to follow suit. –From the Straight Dope Message Board

Since we’re getting persnickety, let me point out that one doesn’t commit pet peeves; one commits errors that peeve others. In fact there’s a whole raft of things you can do to annoy others. On the subject of begging the question, it occurred to me to say “invite” or “demand” lest I hear from persons such as yourself. But “beg” had the element of puppy-dog enthusiasm I was after. I was using these words in a manner congruent with their plain meaning, and while they also happen to be the term for a certain logical fallacy, I figured that no one would misunderstand my intent. And no one has. I recognize, however, that people need an outlet for their hostility, and better this than mailbox bombs. So, has your stress been reduced? Good. Now piss off.


Cece? Buddy? I’m pretty sure the galaxy is larger than 90 light-years across. Almost positive, in fact. I’d stake one of my coworker’s lives on it.

–Dave Galanter, Owosso, Michigan

Ninety light-years, a hundred thousand light-years, what’s the difference? It’s not like I messed up anybody’s travel plans. Still, misstating the size of the galaxy by a factor of a thousand, as I did in the Straight Dope archive column to which Dave refers (“If I hadn’t killed 52 flies as a child, how many descendants would they have had by now?”), is a little more slop in the numbers than this column cares to tolerate. I should have said the Milky Way is 25 to 30 kiloparsecs across (80,000 to 100,000 light-years, or 160,000 light-years if you want to include everything out to the Magellanic Clouds). My conclusion remains the same: If you don’t kill those flies now, the universe is going to get mighty crowded later.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.