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Ask Uncle John Anything: When Tongue Met Metal Pole

November 27, 2018

Uncle John knows pretty much everything—and if he doesn’t, he heads his massive research library, or puts one of his many associates on the case. So go ahead: In the comments below, ask Uncle John anything. We may just answer it in the future. 

Can you really get your tongue stuck to a frozen pole?

The famous movie scene

It’s one of the most famous scenes in one of the most popular holiday movies of all time. In A Christmas Story, the 1983 big-screen retelling of the embellished Midwestern Christmas recollections of humorist Jean Shepherd, a kid named Flick (Scott Schwartz), best friend of main character Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) has no choice but to accept a winter-time, schoolyard “triple dog dare” and places his tongue against a metal pole in the freezing cold. Flick doesn’t really think his tongue will become terribly stuck to that pole (he took the dare in the first place, after all), but it of course does. He’s conspicuously absent in class, and the school has to call in the fire department to (painfully) pry poor Flick loose. Happy holidays!

The right conditions

But like a lot of things in A Christmas Story, a tongue getting stuck to a pole sounds like a nostalgic exaggeration. But the fact of the matter is that it is extremely possible (if not probable) to attach a tongue to a frozen metal pole, if the conditions are ripe. In fact, it can happen instantly, the moment tongue meets metal.

How could it happen?

Your mouth is full of moisture, of course, and a lot of that wetness resides on the tongue. The metal is so cold that it can pull the heat energy out of the saliva. (That’s called conductivity.) And because the metal is at a temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit — the freezing point of water, in other words — the water content of the saliva (most of the saliva is water) becomes frozen. The frozen saliva becomes a sticky solid, trapping everything in its path, primarily the tongue and the metal pole. Taste buds on the tongue, which are textured, also grip onto the metal, which further holds everything painfully together. That unique, combined grittiness and wetness of the tongue makes for one of the few places on the body that can get frozen to metal. The hands, for example, aren’t naturally wet, so they wouldn’t get stuck, in other words.

Triple dog dare you

So never take a dare — even if it is a triple dog dare — and place your tongue onto a metal pole. But still, you probably don’t need the fire department or an EMT to save you. A little warm water poured on the tongue at the point of contact should instantly relieve the situation. But still, a pole isn’t sanitary, and neither is your tongue. (Just don’t pull — you could actually rip off some of your tongue.)

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