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Misconceptions

10 Widely Repeated Facts The World Debunked Ages Ago

Morris M.


About 10 years ago, something unexpected happened. Learning became cool. Across the fledgling Internet, site after site began to sprout up crammed full of facts. Not just any facts. Amazing, mind-blowing, incredible, awesome facts you couldn’t believe the world didn’t know. Some of those sites were wonderful (if we do say so ourselves). Some sourced their work responsibly. Plenty more just reprinted any old urban legend and called it “learning,” but the truth is out there for anyone who wants to find it.

10There’s Nothing Racist About Picnics

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Photo credit: Francois Lemoyne

The Amazing Fact
Do you love picnics? Then you should be ashamed of yourself. Picnic is short for “pick a n—r” and originally described the crowds that gathered for lynchings.

The Truth
A good rule of thumb for word facts is if it sounds too racist to be true, it probably is. Another is if French already uses a similar word in an identical context, then that’s probably a much-likelier origin.

Piquenique” dates back to 1692, at least a good century and a half before lynchings began commonly taking place in the Southern states (which didn’t exist yet). It made the jump to English around 1750, becoming a word used to denote social gatherings that may or may not be held outdoors. Even then, it wasn’t used in America. By the time Alabama was admitted to the union, picnic had already arrived at its modern meaning 20 years beforehand. Since lynching wouldn’t become widespread until after the Civil War, the likelihood of the word being even remotely connected to racism is effectively zero.



9Stalin Didn’t Kill More People Than Hitler

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Photo credit: US Signal Corps

The Amazing Fact
Hitler was the undoubted great villain of the 20th century. But did you know Stalin actually killed more people? The Soviet dictator murdered an incredible 23–60 million, compared to Hitler’s 20 million.

The Truth
If 60 million sounds like an exaggeration, that’s because it probably is. The entire population of the Soviet Union was around 160 million when Stalin came to power. Combine that loss with the lowest estimate of another 18 million killed when Germany invaded, and Stalin would have had almost no one left to govern.

The discrepancy comes from estimates made during the Cold War about the number of prisoners dying in the gulags. Since the Soviets didn’t want their death tolls exposed, analysts in the West had to make educated guesses. In doing so, they greatly inflated the number. When the Soviet archives were opened and finally studied, they showed that no more than one million died in Stalin’s camps. That’s still a terrible number but nowhere near what we expected.

According to historian Timothy Snyder, the real number of people deliberately killed by Stalin is between six and nine million—a figure that includes the mass famines of the early 1930s. By contrast, Germany under Hitler killed 11–12 million noncombatants.

On the subject of the war . . . 

8Churchill Didn’t Sacrifice Coventry

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Photo credit: Capt Horton

The Amazing Fact
On November 14, 1940, the city of Coventry was flattened by the Luftwaffe. Nearly 600 people died, all thanks to Winston Churchill. The UK had intercepted a message detailing the city’s fate, but the portly prime minister chose to keep quiet rather than let the Germans know their encryption had been broken.

The Truth
There’s no direct evidence that Churchill ever allowed Coventry to be bombed. The conspiracy surfaced after people began to question why such a destructive raid couldn’t be stopped once the Nazi codes had been cracked. But cracking codes isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. On a bad day, you could know what you were doing and still mess up. At Bletchley Park, November 14 was a really bad day.

In historian Michael Smith’s 2001 book Station X, British World War II code-crackers admitted that they’d screwed up. They knew a big attack was coming, but everyone assumed the target was London. They even managed to decode the German code word for Coventry (“Korn”) but assumed it was a radar station. The people of Coventry weren’t warned because no one knew the attack was coming. By the time the first bombs dropped, it was already too late.



7Gloomy Sunday Won’t Make You Kill Yourself

The Amazing Fact
Composed by Hungarian pianist Rezso Seress in 1933, Gloomy Sunday is the deadliest song in history. Hundreds who listened to it committed suicide, including Seress and the woman he wrote it about. When it hit the USA later in the decade, people kept dying, leading many countries to ban it altogether.

The Truth
If you were alive in the mid-1930s, there was something far more likely to push you into suicide than a gloomy song. This was the height of the Great Depression. In 1937 and 1938, the USA experienced its highest-ever rate of suicides, with 40,000 dying in those two years alone. It just so happened that this was when “Gloomy Sunday” was at the height of its popularity. Saying the song caused the suicides is kind of like saying the suicide spike we saw during the Great Recession was due to Lady Gaga entering the charts.

Scientifically, there’s also no evidence that music triggers suicides. While TV shows and media reports are known to influence suicidal behavior, a 2010 study found no direct link with music.

6President Taft Didn’t Get Stuck In The Bathtub

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The Amazing Fact
Taft was the fattest president in US history. He was so fat that when he sat in the White House bathtub, he got stuck. Six aides had to pull him out.

The Truth
Sadly, real life doesn’t operate on the same logic as “yo momma” jokes. Taft was undoubtedly weighty, and he had his own specially built bathtub to accommodate his enormous frame. But the tale of him becoming stuck fast and needing a group of men to come and pull him out is an urban legend.

There’s no way Taft could ever have gotten stuck in his custom tub, which he used starting months before he entered the White House. The thing could comfortably fit four men. You could bathe a hippo in there. Additionally, we have no firsthand accounts of the bathtub incident. The closest we get is a couple of White House staff autobiographies filled with gossip.

What’s more likely is that the bathtub story was simple muckraking. We know Taft’s super-tub got his weight a lot of attention, most of it negative. We know he was involved in breaking up the Bathtub Trust, a crooked cartel of porcelain manufacturers. It’s not too hard to imagine some satirist working those things into the urban legend we know today.

5‘Saved By The Bell’ Has No Connection With Premature Burial

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Photo credit: Johann Taberger

The Amazing Fact
The common phrase “saved by the bell” is more gruesome than you think. People used to have bells installed on their coffins in case of premature burial. If you woke up buried, you would frantically ring until someone came to save you, hence the phrase.

The Truth
Though “safety coffins” with bells did exist, they have nothing to do with the phrase.

“Saved by the bell” comes from the same place as the phrases “throw your hat into the ring,” “on the ropes,” “roll with the punches,” and “out for the count.” If you’re struggling to see the connection with death here, that’s because they’re all lifted directly from boxing. The bell refers to the one rung at the end of a round. The expression comes from fighters who were being counted out only to be saved when the bell interrupted their count.

On a similar note, consider the phrase “dead ringer.” While plenty of websites also connect that phrase with the practice of putting bells on coffins, it actually comes from a slang term used in 19th-century horse racing.



4Christianity Didn’t Rip Off Pagan Religions

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Photo credit: Guillaume Blanchard

The Amazing Fact
He was born of a virgin, announced by an angel and attended by three shepherds. He was baptized at 30, was called a “fisher of men,” had 12 disciples, and raised the dead. Finally, he was crucified and resurrected three days later. His name was Horus, an Egyptian god who predates Jesus. So much for the Holy Word, right?

The Truth
The claim that Christianity directly ripped off either the Horus or Mithras myths has been everywhere since Zeitgeist included it as part of their insane paranoia-fest of a documentary. Prior to that, it featured in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The reason you’ve never heard it repeated in a more respectable forum is because it’s utter nonsense.

Pretty much everything people attribute to Horus online is vehemently denied by real Egyptologists. No Egyptian accounts say Horus was born of a virgin, had 12 disciples, or was ever referred to as a “fisher of men.” Nor did he ever raise the dead. Though he did die and get resurrected, this happened while he was still a child.

This school of “making stuff up” also affects the legend of the Roman god Mithras, who Dan Brown claimed died and resurrected in three days against all evidence to the contrary.

3Most ‘Crazy Laws’ Are Utter Bunkum

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The Amazing Fact
Politicians pass the silliest laws. Did you know it’s illegal for women to wear pants in Tucson? Or that Californians have to get a hunting license before setting mousetraps? Or that it’s legal to kill a Welshman in Chester, England?

The Truth
Most crazy laws you’ve ever read about online are complete and utter bunkum. The vast majority are either simply made up or an example of statutes being willfully misinterpreted for humorous effect.

For example, our California mousetrapping law above comes from a deliberate misreading of a bill passed in 2002. SB 1645 placed new restrictions on people who trap mammals for money (like the exterminator who deals with the skunk in your basement) but specifically exempted homeowners who want to get rid of mice or rats.

In other cases, the crazy law is so old and arcane it’s been superseded a hundred times over. In 1403, the future King Henry V ordered all Welshmen to be violently driven out of Chester under pain of death. Luckily for modern Chester’s Welsh residents, murder laws mean the old order is effectively annulled, even if it was technically never rescinded. Same with Tucson’s 19th-century law about women dressing as men (and vice versa).

Just because somebody once long ago passed a specific law that seems strange to our modern eyes, that doesn’t mean that law continues to apply until the state goes to the very costly expense of removing it. Mississippi technically still had slavery on the books until 2013, but that didn’t mean residents could get away with actually opening up a plantation.

2Saying ‘Hip Hip Hooray’ Isn’t Anti-Semitic

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The Amazing Fact
Have you ever used the cheer “hip hip hooray!” before? That makes you an accidental anti-Semite. “Hip” comes from the Latin Hieroslyma est perdita or “Jerusalem is fallen.” It was originally used as a war cry when Germans were hunting Jews during the Hep Hep Riots of 1819.

The Truth
There’s a ton of disagreement about where the phrase comes from. The only thing most authorities agree on is that it had nothing to do with racism.

The authoritative QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins says there’s not the slightest proof for either the Latin story or the phrase originating with the 1819 riots. According to the authors, it was already in use by the late 18th century, so it predated the anti-Jewish pogroms by a minimum of 20 years. Others have dated the phrase to 1818 and pointed out the likelihood of the rioters all being keen students of Latin as effectively zero.

The “Hep! Hep!” cry given during the riots was most likely related to the traditional herdsman’s cry, indicating that the rioters thought the Jews were no better than animals. The phrase “hip hip hooray!” probably came about as a drinking cheer. A book on Cambridge University rituals published in 1827 records “hip hip hurrah!” being used during toasts in the early 1820s. To believe the phrase mutated this quickly from an anti-Semitic chant requires more blind faith than we’re willing to give.

1Nikola Tesla Didn’t Invent The 20th Century

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Photo credit: Napoleon Sarony

The Amazing Fact
He invented alternating current (AC), radar, and radio transmission. His work single-handedly ushered in a second industrial revolution. His name was Nikola Tesla, and today, his contributions to science are almost forgotten.

The Truth
There’s no doubt Tesla was a mega-genius with a planet-sized brain. There’s also no doubt that history screwed him over. But his legend has grown so vast on the Internet that people are crediting him with stuff he wasn’t solely responsible for.

Take AC, the current that powers most of the world and the biggest thing Tesla today gets credit for. Although Tesla was well ahead of Thomas Edison (who was still messing around with DC), they weren’t the only two experimenting with electricity. Galileo Ferraris was making nearly the exact same breakthroughs as Tesla at the exact same time, as happens surprisingly often with new inventions. Charles Bradley, Friedrich Haselwander, William Stanley, and Elihu Thomson were also pushing AC forward into a viable system.

Same deal with radar. Heinrich Hertz, Guglielmo Marconi, and Christian Hulsmeyer were all there before Tesla, and even Tesla’s undoubted genius needed men like Robert Watson Watt to come after him and refine the system. Radio transmission, too, wasn’t solely down to this one eccentric genius. It’s fitting that we laud Tesla’s work today, but saying he was responsible for all the 20th century’s major innovations ignores the contribution of dozens of other unsung scientific heroes.

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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