The Weekender, September 25, 2020


Before I talk about cucumbers, a quick note: I won’t be sending an email Monday, in observance of Yom Kippur. 

A few weeks ago, I started working on a Now I Know about the origins of the phrase “cool as a cucumber.” It might be very interesting — but I realized something that stood in my way. Simply put, I don’t really understand lyrical poetry from the 1700s.

If someone says you’re “cool as a cucumber,” it means that you’re remaining calm under pressure. It’s a good thing. But obviously, cucumbers don’t have a wide emotional range, so the origins of the phrase can’t really have to do with stressful situations or the like. There’s a science-y explanation, though. Cucumbers are mostly water and their skins are rather strong. As a result, if you were to get a cucumber nice and cold — say, because it was growing outside overnight, or because you stored it in your fridge — the insides of the cucumber would remain colder than the ambient temperature for longer even if the ambient temperature increased. In other words, the insides of cucumbers tend to remain cool even when it gets warm outside.

There are stories out there which suggest that this was known for hundreds of years but only demonstrated, in a controlled experimental environment, a few decades ago. Those stories have questionable sources so I’ll not link to them, but it doesn’t matter for my purposes today. I think we can all agree that we could rather easily run an experiment to see if cucumbers remained colder for longer than, say, loaves of bread or apples or whatever it is that Swedish Fish are made of. All we’d need is to look up the origins of the “cool as a cucumber” phrase and we’d have our fact nailed down. 

(Whether that makes for a good story is another question. As I was writing the original story here, I also paused for a while to think about that problem; I never really reached a conclusion because of the issue I’m about to share.)

So, the origins of the phrase? It’s most likely a poem from 1732 (via this site), below:

My passion is as mustard strong;
I sit all sober sad;
Drunk as a piper all day long,
Or like a March-hare mad.
Round as a hoop the bumpers flow;
I drink, yet can’t forget her;
For, though as drunk as David’s sow,
I love her still the better.
Pert as a pear-monger I’d be,
If Molly were but kind;
Cool as a cucumber could see
The rest of womankind.

I’ve read that a dozen times and it only kind of makes sense to me. More importantly, there’s nothing in that poem that even hints at why the author decided to coin the phrase “cool as a cucumber.” If I didn’t know better — and I don’t know better! — I’d have guessed that it was for alliteration, to pair with “pert as a pear-monger.” 

One of two things is true. Either there’s no story here or I simply don’t understand that poem well enough to see the story. But either way, I didn’t write about it (until right now, but you get the point).

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: Rosh Hashanah (well, the day after); no email sent.

Tuesday: The Final Frontier of Telemarketing. Adventures in marriage, and telemarketing — from space.

Wednesday: The Original Scapegoat — A Yom Kippur story. A few readers wrote in to note that the original scapegoat probably didn’t just run off into the wilderness; most scholars believe it went off the side of a mountain. So I guess it didn’t really “escape.” Sorry, Michael Scott.

Thursday: The Luxury Apartments You Can’t Live In — The skyscraper slum in Venezuela. (This was a re-run; I used a different title originally; the old title is still on that link.) 

And some other things you should check out:

1) Class Action Park, a documentary on HBO Max, about 90 minutes long. Here’s a review from, but long-time readers of Now I Know already know about the waterpark that this doc is about. In January of 2017, I wrote about New Jersey’s shockingly dangerous water slide, and I featured this quote: “The ride runs through a perfect circle. Early-roller coaster engineers toyed with this design, with disastrous results. The high g-forces that are exerted when entering and exiting the inversion of a perfect circular loop are enough to break a person’s neck.” That waterslide was at Action Park, and while it was the most notorious aspect of the attraction, there’s a lot more. A lot more.

2) “The Pirates of the Highway” (Narratively, 18 minutes, April 2020). The subhead: “On America’s interstates, brazen bands of thieves steal 18-wheelers filled with computers, cell phones, even toilet paper. And select law enforcement teams are tasked with tracking them down.” This made me think of the criminally-underrated (pun not intended) movie My Blue Heaven. Anyway, here’s a pull-quote:

As they would later find out, their prize haul was $30,000 worth of Green Giant canned corn, headed from a food processing facility in Montgomery, Minnesota, to a food pantry in Little Rock, Arkansas. The 40,000 cans of corn weighed many thousands of pounds. Would they have gone through with the theft had they known what the trailer contained? Surprisingly enough, yes. A trailer full of canned corn isn’t a bust of a heist. Cheap food disappears easily into mom-and-pop shops, swap meets, and over the internet, and it is virtually untraceable once it’s gone.

3) “Inside Cameo, the celebrity shoutout app hungry for fame” (Wired, 18 minutes, September 2020). I will never understand why a gift-giver would pay $20 to a celebrity to say hi to someone they’ve never met and don’t have any actual interest in meeting. And yet, there’s a booming business around that.

4) “A Neighbor Asked for a Tomato. This is Where the Story Gets Weird.” (Washington Post, 4 minutes, September 2020.) A fourth item this week as a bonus, for a few reasons: (a) the story is behind a paywall and (b) there’s no great lesson or learning from the story. But the plot twist at the end is amazing.

Have a great weekend!