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Misconceptions

10 Well-Known Mistakes That Weren’t Actually Mistakes

Morris M.


Everyone loves a good howler. Whether it’s Obama claiming to have visited 57 states or George W. Bush routinely mangling the English language, we all get a kick out of dumb mistakes. Yet not all mistakes are created equal. In fact, some of the most famous blunders in history weren’t even blunders at all.

10Alanis Morissette’s Song ‘Ironic’ Really Is Ironic

The Mistake:

The word “irony” has a lot of definitions, but none of them are synonymous with “bad luck.” So when ’90s pop diva Alanis Morissette released a song called “Ironic” that featured non-ironic-but-unfortunate lyrics like “it’s a black fly in your Chardonnay,” the world duly mocked her for it. An entire cottage industry has now grown up online of videos correcting the song’s lyrics to make them truly ironic.

The Reality:

You know what really would fit the definition of “ironic”? A song specifically about irony that incorrectly identified irony. Taken as a whole, “Ironic” is probably the most ironic song to have ever been made. Incredibly, that might not be a mistake. According to irony-tracking website isitironic.com, Alanis herself supposedly claimed “The irony of ‘Ironic’ is that it’s not an ironic song at all.” In other words, this may be less a linguistic goof than a clever in-joke that’s been misinterpreted.

Even if you think this is giving Alanis too much credit, it doesn’t make the song any less ironic. In fact, it probably adds a whole layer of dramatic irony to the situation. Whether by accident or design, the most mistitled song in history really is exactly what it claims to be.


9The Spinach Miscalculation Never Happened

The Mistake:

In 1890, a group of German scientists decided to analyze the iron content of spinach. Unfortunately, when they published their research, they misplaced a decimal point, giving the impression that spinach contained 10 times as much iron as it really did. The screwup led to people associating spinach with strength, which in turn led to the creation of Popeye.

The Reality:

This story first appeared in the Christmas issue of the highly respectable British Medical Journal in 1981 and is now one of the Internet’s favorite typo-based tales. Seems legit—until you realize the Christmas issue is when the BMJ classically publishes its joke articles.

The whole story of the German professors and their influence on the creation of Popeye was intended as a lighthearted spoof. There’s no record of any German scientists misplacing a decimal point or of it having any effect on popular culture. When Popeye first chows down on spinach in 1932, he even explicitly states that he’s eating it for the vitamin A content rather than its iron. How does it feel to be successfully trolled by a bunch of stuffy British professors, Internet?

8Cinderella’s Slipper Was Never Meant To Be Fur

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The Mistake:

In 1697, some forgotten academic was preparing an English translation of Charles Perrault’s book of fairy tales. While working on the story of Cinderella, they mistook the original “fur” slipper (pantoufle de vair) for a glass one (pantoufle de verre). The idea of a glass slipper stuck, and a storytelling icon was accidentally born.

The Reality:

The tale of this “fur” vs. “glass” slipup has appeared everywhere from Internet trivia sites to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Where it never appears is in Perrault’s original work. According to Snopes, Perrault’s Cinderella specifically uses pantoufle de verre instead of vair, meaning he always intended the slippers to be made of glass. The Snopes page also states it is impossible Perrault could have misunderstood an oral version of the story, as European versions of the tale didn’t include a slipper prior to his telling. More than that, vair was a medieval term no longer in use at the time.

Glass also makes sense. From a storytelling perspective, it’s a symbol of pure virginity; something Cinderella is obviously meant to embody. Glass being broken underfoot is part of many cultures’ wedding celebrations, which gives the symbol added resonance. Finally, Perrault also made up a huge amount of other details for his version of the tale; far too many to all be the result of one screwy mistranslation.



7Thomas Piketty Didn’t Mess Up His Sums

The Mistake:

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the blockbuster economics book of our times. It got its author nominated for the Legion D’Honneur and earned him the nickname “the new Karl Marx.” According to the Financial Times, it’s also riddled with basic mistakes. In an article shared widely across the Web, the paper accused Piketty of messing up his data.

The Reality:

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for disagreeing with Capital, but misinterpreting data is not one of them. Less than a fortnight after the FT published its accusations, Paul Krugman finished his own analysis and concluded that there was nothing wrong with Piketty’s sums. The supposed mistakes were really basic data adjustments—the kind every single scientist and economist applies to their findings on a regular basis.

At the same time, the FT had linked two sets of incompatible data to “disprove” Piketty’s conclusions. In short, they were the ones making the mistake. Other economists agreed, although they were less willing to endorse Picketty outright.

6Hashtag Screwups Are Usually Nonsense

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The Mistake:

Everyone likes a good hashtag screwup. There’s nothing funnier than hearing you’ve been invited to #Susanalbumparty or watching some idiot misread the latest trending topic and get confused. Thank God for Twitter.

The Reality:

God has nothing to do with it. Usually, Twitter hashtag screwups occur because people want them to occur.

Take Chester Literary Festival’s widely reported #CLitFest debacle. This still shows up on lists of “best Twitter fails.” Yet it never happened. In reality, a Guardian reader duped the paper into thinking it was a real hashtag, and they ran an article that got picked up by everyone else. The process was less a mistake than someone thinking up a funny “screwup” and working backward from there.

This sort of thing happens all the time. When Margaret Thatcher died, #nowthatchersdead started trending, hilariously making some think Cher had popped her clogs. Only they didn’t really. In a characteristically angry article, writer Stuart Heritage claimed people pretended to misunderstand the hashtag for laughs, and the media stupidly reported it as fact. Even the infamous #Susanalbumparty Tweet may have been a deliberate attempt to net some PR, although not everyone agrees.

That being said, there occasionally are genuine Twitter mistakes. Just ask the makers of the Aurora dress.

5Moses Really Was Meant To Have Horns

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The Mistake:

The Vulgate is St. Jerome’s complete retranslation of the Bible from ancient Hebrew to Latin. In one bizarre section, it describes Moses returning from Mount Sinai with a pair of horns on his head. Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word keren (meaning “to radiate light”), resulting in a trend in European art of depicting Moses and other Jews with goat horns.

The Reality:

The trouble with this story is that it paints Jerome as an uneducated dimwit who just scribbled in a totally out-of-context word and moved on. But in real life, Jerome agonized over his translation, even consulting Jewish scholars of his day. So why did he give Moses horns? The simple answer is he was being faithful to the text.

In ancient Hebrew, horns were a widely used metaphor for power. Alexander the Great and Atilla the Hun were both described as “wearing horns.” Because there were no negative connotations, a writer could describe someone having horns as we might describe an authority figure “radiating power.” Just as modern readers would know we didn’t mean they were literally radioactive, ancient readers would have understood the horns were meant to be seen as a symbol of Moses’s God-given authority.



4Mitt Romney Never Paraphrased The KKK

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Photo credit: Matthew Reichbach

The Mistake:

One of the worst howlers of the last election came when Romney started using the unofficial slogan “keep America America.” During a campaign speech in Iowa, Romney accidentally changed it to “keep America American,” a small slip that nonetheless made it identical to a slogan once used by the Ku Klux Klan.

The idea of right-wing Romney accidentally channelling the KKK was too good to resist, and the news media leapt upon the story. For days, Romney was torn apart in the press, with commenters mocking him for failing to do his research. Even now, there are still people who believe he really used a racist slogan before a crowd of people.

The Reality:

In reality, he never even came close. When the Washington Post checked videos of the event, they found that Romney clearly said exactly what he meant to say. Instead, the incident had been misreported by a handful of people and blown up out of all proportion by the anti-Romney crowd. Sure, what he did say might not have been particularly inspiring, but it sure as heck wasn’t racist.

3The Mistranslated Pepsi Slogan Would Have Been Impossible

Pepsi And Frito Announce Plans To Cut Sodium, Sugar, And Fat From Products

The Mistake:

In the 1960s, Pepsi was looking for a catchy slogan. They hit upon “come alive with Pepsi!” Sadly for Pepsi, this was mistranslated in China into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” The result was a crash in sales in the region and a very red-faced marketing team.

The Reality:

We should mention that Pepsi have never explicitly denied this tale, so it may well have some basis in fact. But there’s so much wrong with this story that it seems safe just to call it bunkum.

For one thing, Pepsi’s slogan wasn’t “come alive with Pepsi,” but “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation!” As Snopes has pointed out, that’s a lot harder to mistranslate as a reference to the walking dead. Secondly, there is no record anywhere of a major sales slump for Pepsi occurring in Asia during the time the slogan was supposedly in use.

And now we get to the major hurdle: In the 1960s, you couldn’t get Pepsi in China for love or money. After the Communist Party takeover in 1949, Western products and advertising were banned. Coca Cola didn’t return to the market until three decades later, with Pepsi locked out until 1982. The idea that the debacle could have happened in the 1980s without attracting serious newspaper attention is laughable, so it seems best to assume it’s simply a myth.

2Penisland.net Wasn’t A Hilarious Mistake

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The Mistake:

In the early days of the Internet, naive businesses occasionally created URLs without thinking about how their names would read as one word. The most infamous of these was probably Pen Island, which accidentally registered the titter-inducing domain name Penisland.net.

The Reality:

You know what sort of person would look at the word “penisland” and not immediately see the comedic potential? A nonexistent one. The whole domain was specifically created to attract visitors and make them laugh at the gigantic innuendos on display. On the homepage alone, the site boasts “we specialize in wood” and assures visitors they can supply them with “long and thin” white pens or “thick dark” black ones. The FAQ section, meanwhile, confidently declares “we can handle your wood.”

Like the hashtag non-fails above, the majority of cheeky URL names seem to have been chosen deliberately. The Big Bus Tycoons website Bigbustycoons.com is clearly a gag site, while genuine fishing and tackle store Masterbaitonline.com has the gleeful tagline “we are stiff competition.” Rule of thumb: If a URL mistake seems too good to be true, it’s probably deliberate.

1Neil Armstrong Didn’t Fluff His Lines (Probably)

The Mistake:

The most famous quote in human history is also the most infamous. When Neil Armstrong said “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he was meant to be saying “One small step for a man.” Luckily, he slipped up while changing our species’ destiny, so everyone just kind of rolled with it.

The Reality:

Or did he? Although it sure sounds like history’s greatest first completely flubbed his lines, not everyone is convinced. For 30 years, Armstrong maintained that he included the indefinite article while speaking, only changing his mind after extensively listening to the recording in 1999. But in 2006, a man called Peter Shann Ford might have proved that Armstrong was right all along.

By running the recording through a software tool designed to help disabled people communicate via nerve impulses, Ford found evidence that something was said between “for” and “man.” A 35-millisecond bump of sound existed that would have been too quick for human ears to hear—likely the missing “a.”

Now, we should point out that not everyone agrees with Ford’s assessment. Plenty have accused him of revisionism. But there’s at least one small chance that we’ve spent the last 45 years giving Armstrong grief for a “mistake” he didn’t even make.

Morris M.

Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students' lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.

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