What is the origin of “tit for tat”? What is tat? And where can I get some in order to get the former? –PK, Baltimore

You’re a stitch, PK. “Tit for tat” is a corruption of “tip for tap,” blow for blow, which first turned up in the 15th century. (That’s “tip” as in foul tip, a light or glancing shot.) Can’t help with your search for the “former,” as you put it. But let me know if you’re in the market for boobs.


You state that Cleopatra “was no more black than Shirley Temple” [August 30]. You cannot possibly know that for a fact. The proof is in your very next sentence, “No one knows what her hair, eye, and skin color were.” A truer statement would be that Cleopatra was probably no more white than Vanessa Williams. We must remember the American definition of a black person is someone with any discernable amount of African ancestry. If I were to make a sculpture of Vanessa Williams or Harry Belafonte or Johnny Mathis (all considered “black”) their features would appear to be Caucasian. I hope you get my point.

What you forget is that the Macedonian conquerors of ancient Egypt did not bring their wives with them. Mostly they took wives and/or concubines from among the native population of Egypt. Though male-oriented sexist historians do not acknowledge them, Cleopatra would have been descended from these wives and concubines as well as from the Macedonians. Therefore she could not possibly have been as white as Shirley Temple.

Your problem is that your mind is imprisoned in the lifelong indoctrination you have received from white racist historians, and you are afraid of any ideas that challenge their distorted view of history. –R.A. Mwongozi, Oakland, California

The genealogy of the Ptolemys (Cleopatra’s family) is pretty well established. Virtually all her ancestors, both male and female, were Macedonian or Greek. We know a lot about the wives because often they were their husbands’ sisters–royal incest was commonplace. The big question is who her grandmother was, her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, having been illegitimate. Some historians believe the grandmother was a Syrian concubine, but that hasn’t been proven. Cleopatra’s mother is thought to have been Ptolemy XII’s sister Cleopatra V (our Cleopatra was actually the seventh in her family by that name). But that’s not absolutely certain either. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that any of her relatives were Egyptian. Even if they were, it’s quite a leap to assume that ancient Egypt was a black African culture. Drop this pathetic argument and spare yourself further embarrassment.

Are you putting us on, Cecil, or do I have to point out a faux pas? Shirley Temple was black! Got married and changed her name to Shirley Temple Black!!! –Jim Schroeder, Berkeley, California

That does it. From now on I’m putting all the witticisms in this column in italics.


As a farmer, I resent being called an idiot [September 6]. The reason we are against daylight saving time is that our crops can’t stand the extra hour of sun in the dry part of the year. They burn up and wilt. –J. Bass, Dallas, Texas

You are making a joke, aren’t you, J.?

You didn’t know how close to the truth you were when you attributed the farmer’s schedule to the cows in your column about daylight saving time. It’s true clock time doesn’t mean much to a farmer or his cows. The problem arises when the milk cans, filled from the bulging udders of cows ready to give milk at the same point in “God’s time” each day, end up sitting on the station platform while the trains (running on Man’s time, which has been set back an hour) obstinately refuse to show up to carry the precious fluid to you waiting city dwellers with your dry Cheerios. Get with the program, Uncle Cecil. –Terry Stibal, Mount Vernon, Illinois

You think the farmers have ever heard of, say, a refrigerator? I was kidding when I said farmers were idiots, but now I’m starting to wonder.

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