A number of my karate cronies and I got into an argument recently about a question I’m sure has been bandied about men’s locker rooms for years. Does sex the evening before an athletic competition decrease one’s performance on the field (or in our case, in the ring)? I say this is an old wives’ tale–i.e., wives tell it to avoid yet another round of boring sex. Please vindicate me. My health depends on it. –Tim P., College Park, Maryland

Depends on what kind of sex you have in mind. If we’re talking a trapeze, roller skates, and a quart bottle of Mazola, I guess I wouldn’t feel too confident about facing off against Bruce Lee at dawn. Routine sex is another matter. The common view among sports medics is that sex is about as taxing as a 40-yard dash and requires about the same recovery time.

Admittedly little serious research has been done on the subject. But in surveys and interviews with both professional and amateur athletes, Mirkin and Hoffman (1978) found that few refrained from sex before competing. On the contrary, some athletes claimed they’d turned in their best performances shortly after a session in the sack. There were a few dissenters, of course, and nobody is saying you can throw all caution to the winds. As the late Casey Stengel once said, “It isn’t sex that wrecks these guys, it’s staying up all night looking for it.”

Ever since I first experienced it, I’ve been wondering about the expression “head over heels in love.” Most people understand this to mean being flipped out with passion. But if that’s so, shouldn’t it be “heels over head”? “Head over heels” is the way most of us spend at least two-thirds of our lives. The British say “head over ears,” which makes just as little sense. Any insights into the origin and meaning of these idiotic idioms would be appreciated. –Daniel Zellman, Chicago

Idiotic is right. “Head over heels” is a corruption of “heels over head,” which dates back to the 14th century. The British “head over ears,” meanwhile, is a corruption of “over head and ears,” in over one’s head, deeply. The corrupted versions started appearing in the 18th and 19th centuries and have now largely supplanted the originals. But don’t despair. Years ago one often heard the equally nonsensical expression “cheap at half the price.” Amazingly enough, years of ridicule by word mavens has largely succeeded in stamping out this barbarism in favor of the more sensible “cheap at twice the price”–a welcome if wholly unexpected victory. Maybe “head over heels” will meet the same fate.


Re the four or five English words ending in -dous [November 9 and March 8], you forgot at least a dozen more, as the enclosed xerox from Walker’s Rhyming Dictionary (1936) clearly indicates. The words are vanadous, molybdous, mucidous, multifidous, nefandous, frondous, decapodous, lagopodous, tylopodous, steganopodous, heteropodous, gasteropodous, isopodous, and ligniperdous. –Hugh T. Richards, department of physics, University of Wisconsin at Madison

…amphipodous, apodous, blizzardous, gastropodous, hybridous, iodous, nodous, octapodous, palladous, paludous, pudendous, rhodous, sauropodous, schizopodous, solipedous, splendidous, tetrapodous, voudous … –Philip M. Cohen, White Plains, New York

Fine, guys. But don’t expect to get invited to any parties at my house.

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