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Your questioned answered.

It might be Valentine's Day, but there's no love lost between some of this column's readers.

Mr J McHugh from Gosforth wrote in to take Ronnie Robson and Neil Willis to task over a couple of answers. We asked where the phrase "to let the cat out of the bag" came from. Ronnie, from Gateshead, and Neil, from Cramlington, both suggested it went back to the custom of selling live piglets in a sack or a "poke".

Apparently some dodgy traders would try to sneak a stray cat or dog into the sack so an unwary buyer could be duped into paying more.

But Mr McHugh has other ideas. He wrote: "Letting the cat out of the bag originated in the Royal Navy when flogging was a form of punishment. The `cat' in question was, in fact, the Cat o' Nine Tails, a type of whip.

"This instrument was made new for each flogging and kept in a bag. it was taken out of the bag to inflict punishment."

Sounds convincing to me. But it doesn't really reflect the meaning of the phrase, which is to unintentionally reveal a secret. Any other suggestions?

MICHAEL Young from Grainger Park also took issue with an answer given last week as we tried to track down the origin of the phrase Catch 22.

He wrote: "The answers your correspondents gave to the question about Catch 22 were interesting but not precise enough.

"On Pages 53-54 of the 1967 Corgi edition of Joseph Heller's book, it is set out very clearly.

"The gist is that airmen had to be crazy to keep flying bombing missions once they had passed the regulation number. But if they applied to be relieved of duty because they were insane, it was a sign that they were sane, as no one in their right mind would want to fly any more missions than he had to.

"Are you with me?"

Just about, Michael.

"Catch 22 also said that you've got to do what your commanding officer says (see p88). So even if the air force said you could go home after 40 missions, if your commanding officer says fly more and you refuse, he can shoot you."

All well and good Michael, but it still doesn't explain how the phrase was dreamed up.

WE asked why some people get "plum" jobs. Jane Kelly from Consett wrote: "In the 1600s, plum was slang for pounds 1,000. This use was then applied to some political jobs thought by the man in the street to involve little work for a lot of money. From there the word entered wider use for an easy, choice job."

WE'RE pleased none of you seem to have got the wrong end of the stick in replying to another question. You were challenged to find out where that phrase came from.

Maggie, from Denton Burn, said she it referred to a walking stick. "If the user," she wrote, "held it upside down, it wouldn't help him very much."

Malcolm from Cullercoats thought otherwise. He wrote: "As far as I'm aware, it originated in the 1400s as `worse end of the staff'. It changed to the current wording in the 1800s.

"An even older origin is said to have come from the Roman use of communal toilets, where people sat side by side. Personal cleansing was done with the aid of communal sponges mounted on sticks. If you picked up the wrong end, then you got the sponge!"

WE'RE still looking for why something warms the cockles of our hearts. And thanks to Jimmy Lackenby from Gateshead and Neil Willis from Cramlington, here are a few more teasers:

Which current footballer has the longest name? Apart from Alan Shearer, who was the last Newcastle United player to net a Premiership hat-trick?

There are only three national flags that do not contain the colours red, white and blue. Can you name them?
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 14, 2005
Words:654
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