Straight Dope Tells All

He's been fighting a one-man war for 25 years… and it doesn't look good for his cause. The "he" is Cecil Adams, reclusive, mysterious mental guru and author of a weekly newspaper column known as The Straight Dope. With a by-line of "Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 (It's taking longer than we thought)", you know this isn't "Ask Marilyn". Very little is known about Cecil Adams except that he is touted as "the world's smartest human being… because he said so and he would never lie." Only his editors know what Cecil is really like, although when asked, reportedly their eyes glaze over, their bodies become rigid, and they start to spit. Perhaps they are struggling to express their joy. There are strong rumors that Cecil is actually Ed Zotti, the tireless editor of The Straight Dope who makes the publicity rounds for Cecil (who is too busy and too disheveled to look upon) to talk shows and radio programs. I suppose one could ask the world's smartest human being if this rumor is true but Cecil ain't talkin'!

The way the "Straight Dope" column works is that hordes of people send in questions and Cecil picks one or two to answer each week. Sure, you may have stumbled across a column of this format before, but nothing this daring. It is claimed that there is no question that Cecil can't, or won't, answer, although some take longer to answer than others. For instance, it took nearly three years (and a corporate restructuring company) to find out how they print the "M"'s on M&M's. For example, in his latest book, "The Straight Dope Tells All", Cecil tackles such life and death topics as castor oil as an instrument of torture (it's not pretty), plastic ion laundry balls, human cannonballs, sword swallowing techniques, sex in space (NASA won't say if it's been tried), the Goofy/Pluto controversy, ice cream headaches, the effectiveness of speed reading, the other 56/100 of Ivory soap, cigarettellos (class B cigarettes), unlawful uses of Pine Sol, the recipe for Alice B. Toklas brownies, and the ever-important and oh-so-timely effect of cow flatulence on the ozone layer. And this is just a smidgen of the fascinating information contained in this one book. He has written three others, each as entertaining and illuminating as this latest tome.

As you might have guessed, such topics are not usually answered in a "Ben Steinish" drollery. No, the scrawlings of Cecil are the ravings of a madman! For a sample of his writing, you can find a number of past columns on AOL or on Don't have internet access? Never fear! Read on for this official extended quote:

Q: I want some facts! I'm in my mid-sixties and partially bald. Yet I can barely keep ahead of trimming the hair growing in my nose and ears. What gives?

A: This problem, which is common among men as they age, is a manifestation of the law of conservation of hair. When you were young the manly fluid filled your whole being, but as you got older a lot of it boiled off. By now it doesn't even reach the bottom of the old brainpan. The sad result is that the hair grows in your nose and ears rather than on top of your head. The plus side is that you can now watch Pocahontas with the grandkids without thinking, "Woah, nice rack."

Cecil then goes on for two pages outlining the actual medical research on ear and nose hair. Sadly, it appears that neither of these are topics that have budding young scientists chomping at the bit (would YOU want to be known as "The Nose Hair Specialist"?) very little is known. The entire book is filled with such thoughtful insight into the questions that may have crossed your mind but you never knew where to find the answer. It's good reading, and besides, as Fat Albert once said, "You might just learn something."

"The Straight Dope Tells All" by Cecil Adams
Edited and with an introduction by Ed Zotti
Illustrated by Slug Signorino
Ballentine books

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 1998.