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Got one of those summer colds? Feeling feverish? Well, Collected Wisdom has got some 600-year-old medical advice for you. Sort of.

THE QUESTION

Christine Overall of Kingston and her mother, Dorothy Overall, want to know if there's any validity to the old saying "Feed a cold and starve a fever."

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THE ANSWER

The meaning of phrases changes over time, writes Tom Priestly, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. This saying goes back more than 600 years to Chaucer, he writes, and its original meaning has disappeared. In The Canterbury Tales, the phrase is "Fede a cold and starb ob feber," translated as "Feed a cold and die of fever" – that is, "If you feed a cold, you will catch a fever and die."

Over time, he says, "the saying changed in its form and in its meaning. By the 19th century nobody could agree on what it meant. Some were interpreting it as, 'If you feed a cold you will have to cope with a fever' and others as, 'If you feed a cold you will stop a fever from developing.' Since medicine has progressed over time also, we should forget the saying and listen to the medical specialists."

THE QUESTION

Why do birch trees have their unusual form of bark – white and paper-like? asked Andrei Grushman of Ottawa a while ago. Does it give them a competitive advantage?

THE ANSWER

"There are a number of different species of birch trees, not all with white bark," writes Carla Hagstrom of the Gerstein Science Information Centre at the University of Toronto.

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"However, we're talking about why (some) birch trees have white bark," she writes, "and there is a wonderful study, 'Reducing Solar Heat Gain During Winter: The Role of White Bark in Northern Deciduous Trees,' by Tim J. Karels and Rudy Boonstra, in which the title says it all. Light-coloured bark minimizes the thawing and refreezing of cambium (a layer of tissue between the bark and the wood), thereby reducing the risk of sunscald injury."

FURTHER NOTICE

Last week we said that, if the Titanic were built today, it would cost about $400-million (U.S.). However, Tony Richardson of Kingston takes issue with this figure. He says $400-million would indeed be about the right cost for a new ocean liner today, but the original question asked what it would cost to build the Titanic using the original drawings.

"Titanic was assembled with countless thousands of hot rivets to secure the plates and frames," he writes, "a huge expenditure of manpower. The quadruple-expansion main engines were built using massive castings for which no patterns exist today. The boilers and much of the marine hardware involved would be nearly impossible to reproduce. My own guess would be that a true replica to the original drawings would run well over $1-billion at today's labour rates. The result would also fail to get registration for safety reasons!"

HELP WANTED

  • Why are horses euthanized when they break a leg? asks Jason Goveas of Ottawa. We don't do this to other animals such as cats and dogs.
  • And here's one for you mystery fans from Michael R. Conrad of Vancouver. There are identical twins, John and Joe. One of them commits a murder in front of witnesses. The police arrest John who protests, “It wasn't me, it was my twin brother, Joe,” When questioned, Joe says, “It wasn't me, it was my twin brother, John.” What are the police and legal system to do?

Send answers and questions to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Please include your name, location and a daytime phone number.

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