Strange but true! This old cliché has appeared at the header of countless emails, facebook posts, and image macros where we learn that parrots name their children, or we can’t talk while inhaling through our nose, or Spongebob is 26 years old and an organ donor or some other vaguely amusing bit of trivia.
We’ve seen it so often that most of us don’t even bother to check on the “facts” presented and just accept it as true that there’s a hidden reference to Kafka in each episode of Friends or whatever.
Through this process, urban legends and rumors sneakily jump the gap between popular fiction and established fact. Here’s ten popular examples that you can leap on and quash immediately, establishing yourself as a joyless, antagonistic pedant.
GREAT WALL OF FILTHY, FILTHY LIES
See that huge wall there in the picture to the left? The Great Wall of China is often cited as the only man-made structure visible from space without magnification or image intensification, but in reality the wall is practically invisible at any altitude above 80 miles and then only under perfectly clear conditions.
As for it being the only human-built object visible from space, astronauts claim that it’s easy enough to distinguish cities from the surrounding countryside and the larger freeways and interchanges, and it’s been claimed (without much more authority than the Great Wall claims) that Romania’s massive Palace of Parliament can be made out within the confines of Bucharest.
PHYSICS GENIUS WAS NOT ACTUALLY BAD AT MATH
During the brief period in American history when physicists were celebrities, a curious rumor got started—that Albert Einstein, godlike conqueror of the atom, had failed math in high school. What a fun, relatable fact about an otherwise inaccessibly brilliant man!
Unfortunately, someone pointed this out to the man himself, who stated for the record that he had done perfectly well in math throughout his academic career. A possible source of confusion would be the fact that Einstein did fail his entrance exam to the Federal Polytechnic Institute the first time he took it, but considering he was two years younger than any other student a few snags were inevitable.
THE HISTORY OF CUSSES
People have some weird ideas about the etymology of curse words. The f-bomb has variously been explained as an acronym for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” punishing illegal sex-havers, “Fornication Under Consent of the King” for licensed fornicators, or even as a corruption of the phrase “pluck yew” (supposedly a term for firing a longbow at someone) when in reality it’s just a corruption of the ancient German “ficken.”
Those explanations seem outlandish on their face, but much more pernicious is the idea that the word crap is a back-formation of British toilet builder (not inventor) Thomas Crapper, which sounds fairly legit until you find out that the first usage of “crap” in England was during the Middle Ages as a derivation of the Dutch krappen (to pluck out and separate) and the Old French crappe (rejected waste) and actually wasn’t used to refer to feces until the middle of the nineteenth century. Freakin’ weird!
LONG GONE DADDY
The claim that the daddy long-legs is the most venomous spider in the world (but is harmless to humans because its fangs aren’t long enough or are funny-shaped or whatever) is problematic right from the beginning, if only because the name “daddy long-legs” can refer to three different bugs, one of which being only roughly related to the spider and another not being a spider at all.
The true spider, Pholcus phalangioides, is indeed venomous, but tests show that the venom’s effect on insects was fairly weak and that if it were to bite a human (which it was indeed capable of doing) it would just cause a mild burning sensation.
The other types of daddy long-legs are the arachnid Opiliones genus (none of whom have venom glands) and the crane fly (again, not even an arachnid let alone a spider). It’s hard to see where this myth got started—it’s not like anyone needed greater incentive to avoid these creepy little boogers.
WAKE THAT GUY UP BEFORE HE KILLS YOU
Sleepwalking is a fascinating and much-studied phenomenon that can result in activities as benign as frying up some eggs or as dangerous as committing homicide or poaching some eggs (tricky).
While there are still a number of conflicting theories regarding sleepwalkers, it is generally agreed on that waking a walker won’t be that harmful for them—they’ll be briefly disoriented but not hurt, and it should prevent them doing anything dangerous with eggs.
DUCK QUACKS ECHO LIKE ANYTHING ELSE
Most people don’t spend a lot of time listening to ducks as these animals tend to only talk about how they would like some bread or that we should reconsider our choices in life insurance.
As a result, the claim that duck quacks don’t echo was never really subjected to any research or even casual experience since the sorts of spaces with good echoing qualities (cathedrals, houses of government, sewers) are not commonly frequented by ducks.
After BBC Radio repeated the claim in 2003, the University of Salford at Manchester’s acoustic physics department got interested enough to place a conveniently donated duck in their special reverberation chamber for their children’s education website “The Science of Sound,” recording a frankly disturbing echoing duck quack.
A LITTLE PIECE OF HOMELAND
One of a number of popular misconceptions represented in classic season 6 Simpsons episode “Bart vs. Australia” is the idea that an embassy is legally a piece of its home territory surrounded by the host country.
In reality, the land is never owned by the embassy’s government, but diplomatic agreements typically prevent the host country’s laws and police forces from entering the embassy grounds and enforcing local regulations. Other mistakes in this episode: toilets and drains don’t flush the opposite direction due to Coriolis forces and Australians actually almost never drink Foster’s.
THE CLAUS THAT REFRESHES
Santa Claus has changed a lot over the years, evolving from a kindly Turkish bishop to an omnipotent and omniscient super-elf that no force on earth can prevent from breaking into your house.
Santa Claus is also apparently fond of Coca-Cola, as an extremely wide-spread and popular ad campaign launched in the 30s can attest to. The campaign was so successful, in fact, that a lot of people are convinced that it established Santa Claus’ current image: roly-poly, rosy-cheeked, and a severe diabetes risk if he was really drinking that much Coke.
As it turns out, the Santa of today is basically the Santa of late nineteenth-century England and had already appeared in a number of similar ads by other companies. Mark that as one fewer way that the Coca-Cola company controls everything you think and feel.
MERRY CHRISTMAS! HERE’S A REPLACEMENT CAT
Poinsettias may be the most festive and well-loved non-alcoholic Mexican import, but ever since it was introduced to American homes in 1825 nervous parents and pet owners have fretted over the plants rumored toxicity—supposedly cats in particular are attracted to the colorful leaves and will happily nibble themselves into an early grave.
As it happens, many of the members of the poinsettia’s genus are indeed dangerous, and the sap of the poinsettia itself can cause mild skin irritation, but if cats or toddlers eat the leaves they are likely to see no side effects worse than diarrhea and vomiting, which most cats and toddlers are busy doing anyway.
A poison control center report determined that a fifty-pound child would have to eat around 500 poinsettia leaves to suffer any serious ill effects, at which point you should be less concerned over the effects of the toxin and more worried about how he just ate an entire garden’s worth of decorative plants—and some decorative plants can still be deadly.
Next: Barely Believable But Totally True Facts
I AM NOT A JELLY DONUT, I AM A HUMAN BEING
JFK’s famous speech to the citizens of West Berlin is known today less for its diplomatic significance and more for a minor and understandable grammatical error: when Kennedy emphasized his solidarity with West Germans by stating “Ich bin ein Berliner” he added an “ein” unnecessarily, which if interpreted very technically and literally would make his statement “I am a jelly doughnut popularly referred to as a Berliner, not an actual human citizen of the city of Berlin.”
As it turned out, absolutely nobody in Germany interpreted his statement in that manner—nobody knows the difficulties of speaking grammatically perfect German better than Germans, who drop excess pronouns and articles all the time during common conversation in the assumption that they are talking to someone who can understand from the context that nobody is claiming to be a pastry. T
he legend stems from the 1983 novel “The Berlin Game,” where the author claimed German political cartoonists had a field day with the statement, not knowing or caring that in Berlin itself the do-nutty treat is typically just called a “Berlin Pfannkuche” or pancake, which is another reason why context is important in Germany.