In other words: You say 'don,' I say 'underpants'

Q. What's a shoecabbage? A food? An item of wearing apparel? ­N. Webster

 A. Try neither. A language-lover's term it is. A shoecabbage is a word in another language with the same or a similar sound as a word in English but with a different meaning, says Teresa Dowlatshahi, 20-year shoecabbage collector and coiner of the term.

Eavesdrop on a group of Estonians saying "sink" over and over, and you know they're talking ham.

In Czech, the soundalike for "boss" means barefoot. Scots: "eye" = yes. Korean: "pea" = rain or a broom. German: "lime" = glue. Potawatomi: "knock" = arm. Albanian: "pots" = pelican. Bemba: "coffee" = a spitting cobra. Rotuman: "lay" = a whale's tooth.

Proper names aren't immune from the fun either. In Turkish, "Don" means frost or underpants. Persian: "Pete" = a kerosene can. Arapaho: "Beth" = bellybutton. Tatar: "Jim" = bird seed.

And, oh yeah, adds Dowlatshahi, "In English, a shoe is a covering for a foot, while in French shoe (spelled: chou) means cabbage."

Q. Science today knows even the mightiest slugger can hit a baseball only so far. How far is that? Get out the tape measure. ­J. DiMaggio

 A. Though many balls are hit 400 feet, this is a long home run, says Yale's Robert K. Adair in The Physics of Baseball. To hit an 85-mph fastball this far to center under standard conditions (sea level, etc) requires batspeed about 76 mph; 450 feet requires 86 mph. "We estimate 450 feet is about the maximum under normal conditions in Old New York."

But baseball is played under other conditions and in other places. A very fast pitch of 95 mph adds 5 more feet, to 455. If the ball is pulled down the line, this adds 15 feet, to 470. Add 10 more feet for a 100-degree day due to hot air being thinner, plus 10 feet more due to a hot ball's extra "rabbit." This puts the homer at 490 feet.

Next kick in a 10-mph tailwind, and add 40 feet, to 530. Bring on the thinner air of Atlanta– lightning on the horizon and barometer falling– and add 10 feet, to 540; make that 570 feet in mile-high Denver. Finally, have someone set the winding machine at the ball factory a bit too high and....

"So," Adair says, "if someone tells me a ball was hit 550 feet anywhere but Denver, I won't believe it– but I won't bet the farm against it. If the ball is hit in Denver, it might nearly reach Kansas, or even Oz."

Q. What if some nation's military harnessed control of lightning, much like the Greek skygod Zeus firing off thunderbolts? A new ultimate weapon? ­D. Rumsfeld

A. It's probably on every general's wish list but far from anybody's drawing board– yet. For one thing, if all energy of a single flash could be harnessed, it would run a household lightbulb little more than a year, says University of Florida's Martin A. Uman in All About Lightning.

While a cloud-to-ground flash may unloose 100 million to a billion volts, only 10s of coulombs of charge are involved, figuring to 1-10 billion watt-seconds. And most of this energy is lost as thunder, heat, light, radio waves.

Still, worldwide there are some 100 such lightning occurrences every second. What if numbers of these could be amassed simultaneously? Imagine constructing a 1,000-foot tower in a region of moderate thunderstorm activity, with maybe 10 hits per year.

"It would take 100,000 such towers, each collecting all the energy (ignoring the losses) from 10 strokes per year, to equal the 100 million watts generated by a typical small power station!"

This is impractical, and no better way of intercepting lightning has been proposed. For sure, several nations have studied the feasibility of directing lightning at specific targets. "Maybe this will one day work," Uman says, "but in view of the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weaponry, lightning will probably be at most a psychological weapon."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.