This morning when I ordered hot tea from the restaurant next door, I got a styrofoam cup of steaming hot water and a tea bag. Soaking the bag in the water, I noticed the usual brownish white foam floating up to the top of the cup. What is this foamy stuff–preservative from the bag, or is it just happy to see me? Also, after pouring the foamy stuff out, I noticed the cup had pits and craters in it. What happened? Am I drinking melted styrofoam? –Steve Holmquist, Chicago

Cecil always loves the thought of looming environmental disaster, so he hustled out to study this deadly phenomenon firsthand. First I got a jumbo pack of 51 styrofoam cups, so as to do the job with the thoroughness it deserves. I also bought a lemon, a common tea additive, partly to give a splash of color to the lab (we’re into nouvelle research), but also to test the corrosive effect of the juice. I know you didn’t mention lemon in your letter, but the Teeming Millions over the years have shown a genius for omitting crucial details. Sure enough, experiments indicated that while tea and hot water alone wouldn’t do anything, tea, hot water, and lemon–for that matter, hot water and lemon alone–caused deep cratering. In one case the pits were so deep the cup began to leak.

Convinced of the reality of the styrofoam menace, I made a few inquiries. Turns out you’re not the first person to notice the effect. In 1979 a doctor by the name of Michael Phillips wrote an alarmed letter about it to the New England Journal of Medicine. It seems polystyrene (styrofoam to you) is softened by limonene, an “alicyclic terpene” that forms the principal constituent of lemon oil. Dr. Phillips cited some early research suggesting that polystyrene is–you probably saw this coming–carcinogenic.

The styrofoam cup industry, fearing that the jig was up, promptly counterattacked. They pointed to studies by the National Cancer Institute and others indicating that polystyrene and its chemical components were harmless, at least from the standpoint of causing tumors. They even dug up some tests showing that lemon tea drinkers really didn’t swallow any dissolved styrofoam–supposedly it just stuck to the side of the cup or something. Suspiciously, however, nobody mentioned anything about a “brownish white foam,” leading me to think the researchers just weren’t patronizing the right restaurants. My advice: chuck the styrofoam cups and stick to Mason jars. They’re fun, they’re funky, and you’ll avoid getting your tonsils lined with plastic.

I’m having trouble understanding the anatomy of popular songs. At some point people seem to have abandoned the old terms “verse” and “refrain” or at least added a bunch of new terms, such as “release,” “bridge,” and “tag.” I’ve asked what these mean, but nobody seems to know for sure. Can you straighten me out? –Winfield Smith, Chicago

Winfield, you have a beautiful soul, but you’re about as hip as a jug of molasses. For starters, a “release” is the same thing as a “bridge.” Both terms are as old as Adam’s grandmother. A bridge is the contrasting part that comes between the second and third verses of many songs. For example, in the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” the bridge is the part that starts, “Life is very short, and there’s no ti-i-i-i-ime . . .” A “tag” is generally something stuck onto the end of a song, or, in the world of advertising, the end of a commercial.

A few other terms while we’re on the subject: the “hook” is the part of the song you remember afterward, or at least the part that calls the tune to mind when you hear it. A hook can be almost anything, e.g, a “riff,” some catchy instrumental tunelet, such as the bass line in the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Your observation to the contrary notwithstanding, “verse” and “refrain,” the latter also known as the “chorus,” are still in wide use. The refrain is the part that repeats after every verse, often to the point of nausea, e.g., “I know I read this somewhere,” heard with numbing regularity here at the Straight Dope. Not that I’m complaining–Lord knows I love the way the Teeming Millions make the language moan–but maybe it’s time to give this one a rest.

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