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Misconceptions |

10 Phony Myths and Urban Legends That Just Won’t Die

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

There are a lot of fake facts flying around out there. Now more than ever, it’s easier to lie to people in large numbers and have phony posts, statements, and claims go viral. Never before have we all had such a large audience at our fingertips, right? And some people don’t exactly use it for good or honest purposes.

Some choose to do bad by doling out false “facts” and making up wild and baseless claims that go unchecked before they are re-shared and spread around the World Wide Web by thousands or millions of other people. In most cases, the spread of lies like that is very concerning. When it comes to politics, government, elections, social issues, and all types of related areas, the fight for truth over “fake news” is a daunting one. But our purpose today is quite a bit lighter and more fun than that. Instead of focusing on the unsettling, we’re going to take a look at the wacky!

That’s right—in this list, we’ll dive into ten misconceptions society often gets wrong. Thankfully, these misconceptions aren’t life-or-death phony facts that have been misinterpreted to some grave end. Instead, they are funny, quirky, or just plain weird. Below are ten shockingly common “facts” that society has gotten completely wrong. And we’ll correct the record for you so that you can start spreading the truth to others!

Related: Top 10 Myths You Still Believe About Your Favorite Treats

10 What Is the “AR” in AR-15?

The AR-15: The World’s Most Controversial Gun

The AR-15 was developed in the late 1950s as a scaled-down version of the AR-10 semi-automatic rifle, invented and perfected earlier in that decade. Both rifles were developed by the ArmaLite company with the hope that they could convince the American military to replace all their long rifles with ArmaLite products. Sadly for the brand, that didn’t happen, and they were rejected in favor of the M14 carbine rifle.

After that disappointment, ArmaLite sold its patent and trademarks for both the AR-10 and AR-15 rifle models to the Colt Manufacturing Company. Colt then got to work tinkering with the rifle. Notably, they removed the selective fire features on the AR-15 from the original design by ArmaLite. And by 1977, when the patents for the gun’s uniqueness expired, other companies swept in to start making their own semi-automatic rifles.

Colt retained all the trademarks and branding to the term “AR-15,” though, and to this day, they are the only manufacturer who can label their arms as such. So there’s one (minor) misconception: while “AR-15” has become a catch-all phrase for powerful semi-automatic rifles, not all of them are technically AR-15 models. If they’re not made by Colt, they are knock-offs that should be known under a different name.

That’s not the big misconception we are covering here, though. The big one is this: The “AR” in AR-15 does not stand for either “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.” Both of those terms have come into major use in modern America—especially “assault rifle”—following decades of tragic mass shootings with AR-15 models and similar weapons. But thinking the “AR” means “assault rifle” is flat-out incorrect.

The “AR” very simply stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” just as it was designated when that company first developed the guns in the 1950s. So, why the confusion? Well, likely a few things, but most notable is that the weapon was included in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. That led the average person to connect its use with “assault” on life, and well, the perspective on the initials went on incorrectly from there.[1]

9 Nova? No Problem!

Chevy Nova: GM’s Best Small Car

The Chevy Nova was a popular small car manufactured by Chevrolet through the 1960s and 1970s and then again for a brief period in the late 1980s. It was a very popular model in many parts of the world—including Mexico and Latin America. That’s notable because there is a persistent myth that the car’s name, Nova, was hampering sales in Spanish-speaking countries. After all, “no va” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.

So you would assume that it’d only be natural for Spanish speakers to see a car called that and avoid buying it for fear that it would break down on them all the time. Right? Wrong! Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the Nova actually sold very well in both Mexico and Latin America. Locals in those areas wanted a small car that they could drive around crowded towns and through tiny, narrow, and historic city streets.

The Chevy Nova fit the bill perfectly, and it was reliable enough to start up and run as it should. That is, the “doesn’t go” concern didn’t actually hold any truth! So, the actual usage of the Nova proved that it was as reliable as any other car manufactured, being put out by a big automaker. In terms of market saturation, the Nova actually did better in Mexico and some Latin American countries than it did in the United States and other non-Spanish-speaking nations! So much for the worries over the funky translation!

Speaking of that translation, it turns out that things weren’t lost on the Mexican people when “Nova” hit the scene. For one, the Spanish word “nova” is used as a word that is distinct and different from “no va.” Nova references an astronomical event. Second, “Nova” was also the name of a very popular gasoline brand that sold all over Mexico at the time.

Thus, if consumers were going to be tripped up by the “no va” confusion, they would have already balked at buying that gasoline. But they didn’t worry about the gas, and they didn’t worry about the car they were putting it in, either. Now, we can put that Chevy Nova myth to bed once and for all![2]

8 Nuclear Twinkies

The Rise And Fall Of Twinkies | Rise And Fall

We’ve all heard the claim that Twinkies can survive a nuclear holocaust. And obviously, we (should) all know that the claim is bogus. A nuclear winter would be a completely devastating event, both in the localized area where the bomb went off and for the rest of the world with all kinds of environmental fallout. So you’d be wise not to take any Twinkie claims literally regarding things like nuclear annihilation and the supposed survival of those highly processed snack cake treats.

Still, there’s a reason Twinkies are singled out with this phony myth. They seem to be made of more preservatives and lab-created ingredients than out of real, actual food. So Twinkies are an easy target for persistent nuclear hate. And especially in a post-Cold War world where nuclear armament was at the top of many American minds! But let’s correct the record on these Twinkies once and for all, shall we?

Officially, Twinkies have a shelf life of about 45 days. From the point of production to the point of, well, your stomach, you’ve got about six weeks to eat a Twinkie before you really shouldn’t anymore. Furthermore, stores are under strict orders to only stock Twinkies for between 7 and 10 days before replacing them with new products.

They are made with sorbic acid as their only (!) added preservative, so they don’t have the ability to just sit on a shelf forever and not deteriorate. If they don’t get sold in about a week, they get removed and replaced for fear of becoming stale. Thus, the common claim that they remain edible for decades is false. And the myth that they will supposedly survive a nuclear explosion is extremely false. And yet it persists.[3]

7 Don’t Blame the Turkey!

Does the tryptophan in turkey make you drowsy? Bytesize Science debunks a Thanksgiving myth

It’s a tale as old as time: You eat a bunch of turkey as part of a Thanksgiving dinner, and then you quickly doze off to sleep on the couch while watching a football game or listening to your crazy uncle rant about politics. For ages now, the supposed culprit in this scenario has been the turkey. And more specifically, it is said to be the tryptophan in the turkey.

See, turkey has both tryptophan and serotonin in its meat, and when you eat it, you put those substances in your body. In turn, each of those things works to help you relax. And since you are more relaxed after consuming the Thanksgiving dish, well, you’re predisposed to fall asleep. Turkey, tryptophan, Thanksgiving night slumber—a legendary trio that is as much of an American tradition as apple pie and baseball. Or is it?

While it’s true that turkey contains both tryptophan and serotonin, and each of those chemicals can help you fall asleep, the amount in turkey means the bird shouldn’t be blamed for your drowsiness. In fact, there is more tryptophan in chicken than there is in turkey! The Thanksgiving bird provides anywhere from 250 to about 310 milligrams of the amino acid tryptophan in a 3-ounce serving, while the average 3-ounce offering of chicken rates about a third higher than that. But we don’t blame chicken for making us fall asleep, do we?

Other foods like fish, nuts, and beans also contain tryptophan. But again, they aren’t blamed for making us sleepy—just the turkey. So what gives? What is really going on is not the tryptophan in the food at Thanksgiving but the amount of food you consume on that holiday. If you are like most of us, you go over the top with the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the cranberry sauce, the butter, and all the rest, in addition to the white (or dark) meat on your plate.

After eating such a large quantity, your body quite literally has to shut itself down to digest the food and make sense of the feast you just stuffed into your face. That’s why you get sleepy on Thanksgiving. It has nothing to do with the turkey itself![4]

6 Peanut Butter Problems

The Crazy History of Peanuts and Peanut Butter

George Washington Carver was quite well-known during his day for being a thinker, a tinkerer, and a guy who tried to figure out better ways to solve problems related to agricultural production, crop rotation, farming, and much more. However, there is one persistent thing that the common man erroneously believes Mr. Carver did: invent peanut butter. Unfortunately for GW Carver’s legacy, while there is a lot for him to be proud of, inventing peanut butter is not among his list of accomplishments.

Yet the myth persists that he was supposedly the first ever person to mash peanuts down into a paste and make a tasty and filling butter out of the results. In reality, peanut butter was used by both the Incas and the Aztecs for centuries before Carver was ever born. When European explorers got to the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, they documented both Incan and Aztec people having their own ways of mashing up peanuts and making a paste that could be used for food.

It’s unknown how long that was going on before the Spaniards and others showed up, but obviously, it predated Carver’s existence by some 400 or so years. Not only that but the first official peanut butter-related patent wasn’t filed by Carver, either! It was filed by a man named John Harvey Kellogg in 1895. So, if anybody is to be credited with “inventing” peanut butter (besides the Incas and the Aztecs), that honor should go to Kellogg.

Now, we’re not saying that Carver didn’t achieve quite a bit with peanuts in his life. He very famously compiled a list of hundreds of uses for peanuts, as well as for soybeans, sweet potatoes, pecans, and more. In turn, he was a pioneer in developing theories about crop rotation to produce better and more sustainable farming results. So he deserves a lot of credit for the intellectual achievements of his life. It’s just that, well, peanut butter wasn’t one of them![5]

5 Animation Advances

The story of EL APOSTOL: The World’s first animated movie, and Argentina’s lost masterpiece

Everybody knows that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first animated film released at feature length and sent out into the world. It was a pioneering move by the execs, animators, and movie producers at Walt Disney Studios. When it was released in 1937, it took the moviegoing public by storm and set off a wave of animation that is still surging strongly today. Right?

Well, no, not exactly! While Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have been the first animated feature-length film to be released in the United States to a mass audience, it’s actually not the first animated feature ever made. That pioneering distinction actually belongs to a movie called El Apóstol.

Made in Argentina and released there in 1917— 20 years before Walt Disney’s crew dropped Snow White on the world—El Apóstol was a silent film that pioneered the use of cutout animation. So why doesn’t it get credit for actually being the first animated flick to grace the silver screen? There are a couple reasons for that.

For one, the cutout animation it chose to use differed from Disney’s celluloid animation. And after Disney pioneered celluloid through Snow White in 1937, that style stuck. So the groundbreaking technology that El Apóstol used at the time was relegated to second-hand stuff when Snow White and her dwarves arrived in theaters.

Plus, El Apóstol was only shown in a limited number of theaters around Buenos Aires through 1917 and then mostly forgotten. It didn’t have the reach that Disney did, nor the staying power that came for Snow White at the end of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, El Apóstol no longer exists. It was originally made by a man named Quirino Cristiani. He was a true pioneer in the world of animation on screen and brought to life a series of characters and new ways of filmmaking through many of his works.

However, because he created things so long ago, and media storage back then wasn’t what it is today, nearly all his work has disappeared or been destroyed. One or two later short films of Cristiani’s still survive, so we can get a sense of his style. But El Apóstol is presumably gone forever, and it doesn’t appear anyone will ever be able to see it again.[6]

4 Snow, Snow, Snow…

An Infinite Number of Words for Snow

As one persistent myth goes, there are supposedly many Eskimo words for “snow” and its variants. According to legend, Eskimo peoples in the farthest northern reaches of North America—specifically those who speak Eskaleut languages, including the Yupik and Inuit varieties—are said to have more words for snow than any other language. They can supposedly describe in great detail the various specific characteristics of one snowfall relative to another or one snowpack as different from a second.

But as it turns out, that’s completely false. And it’s not even entirely clear where that myth first came from! A German anthropologist and linguist named Franz Boas was one of the first Westerners to document the Yupik and Inuit languages regarding things like root words and synonyms. While working on this project in the early 20th century, he realized that the Eskimos had a lot of synonyms for snow and related weather phenomena. So he started to document them.

However, he was very clear in noting that these weren’t unique words. Instead, they often had the same root word and various variants that could be used differently in unique sentences. Furthermore, he noted that other languages, like English, have a lot of words for snow, too. Take “blizzard,” “snowfall,” “avalanche,” “snowstorm,” “flurries,” “snowflake,” and a million other snow-related words. We, too, have variety.

Well, that got lost in translation somewhere, and a persistent myth through the 20th century held that Eskimos somehow have hundreds of unique words to describe very specific aspects of snow and snowstorms. What it really comes down to, though, is this. The Inuit and Yupik language groups add suffixes to words in a way somewhat similar to German or Hawaiian.

In English, though we might use compound words to create a new word or even full sentences to describe a new concept, the Inuit and Yupik languages can make nearly any number of “new” words by combining suffixes and attaching them to a root word. Thus, the “snow” they describe can technically be as different and new as they want it to be—even if it’s the same root word the whole time, merely loaded up with different suffixes to be “unique.”

Nevertheless, the myth persisted. In fact, it endured for so long and throughout so much of the 20th century that linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum eventually got fed up with it nearly five decades after Boas’s death. In 1989, Pullum called out previous academics and cultural anthropologists over their shoddy fieldwork regarding snow with a paper titled “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.”

In it, he tried to correct the record about how the Yupik and Inuit group languages only really have four words for snow, as first identified by Boas in 1911: “aput” (for snow on the ground), “qana” (for falling snow), “piqsirpoq” (for drifting snow), and “qimuqsuq” (for a snow drift). Sadly, the myth continues to persist. But hopefully, it won’t after today![7]

3 All Day, I Dream about… Myths?

The adidas story

When Adidas was founded in 1949, the company was immediately named after its founder, Adolf “Adi” Dassler. To get the company’s name, Dassler simply combined the three letters of his nickname “Adi,” which everyone close to him called him, with the first three letters of his last name. Simple, straightforward, and unique. And so, Adidas was born!

The company did its thing for the next three decades or so. During that time, they watched as soccer became the world’s game, and they moved fast to capture the soccer gear market in many countries around the globe. By the late 1970s, Adidas’s brand power had significantly risen, and it was one of several notable sports gear companies that were making major waves worldwide.

Then, as Adidas tapped into markets on every corner of the earth, people started asking the question, “What does Adidas stand for, anyway?” Looking at it as an acronym, jokes started popping up that it stood for “All Day I Dream about Soccer” or “All Day I Dream about Sports.” There was even an adult-themed NSFW acronym thrown into the mix: “All Day I Dream about Sex.”

However, the company really didn’t care for that last one, but they had a little fun with the first two. They low-key promoted those phony “backronyms” as possible name sources throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s. None of that is true, though. The real story is more simple than that. (Isn’t it always?) Adi Dassler simply thought it would be fun and meaningful to name his company after himself.

When he died in 1978, he had watched his company rise to become a global brand, so that must have been cool to see his name gracing all kinds of products and marketing materials used worldwide. He just had no idea that people would muck up the moniker choice by coming up with incorrect acronyms for why Adidas was supposedly named that way![8]

2 It’s Gringo to Me!

Why Do Americans Get Called Gringo By Hispanics?

There are many theories about how the word “gringo” originated in Mexico and among other Spanish speakers in North and South America. One holds it came about during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. Another theory claims it actually took hold during Venezuela’s war for independence two decades before that. A third asserts it was from the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s. And a fourth theory argues “gringo” first grew in popularity during the period of the expansion of the Wild West in the United States.

However, some people even specifically trace it back to a corruption of the lyrics of the Irish folk song “Green Grow the Lilacs” or perhaps the English folk song “Green Grow the Rushes, O.” But all those theories are wrong—every single one! In reality, historians and linguists have been able to pare down the word “gringo,” meaning foreigner or outsider, as coming from a corruption of the Spanish word “girego.” That word means “Greek,” and its use was part of an idiom in Spanish-speaking cultures similar to “it’s Greek to me” in English.

As you may know (and perhaps you’ve used it before in your own life!), saying “it’s Greek to me” signifies something foreign, unintelligible, or otherwise impossible to understand—like the complicated Greek language for English speakers. Well, in the 19th century, Spanish speakers had a very similar idiom where undecipherable things were considered to be “griego” to them. Along the way, “griego” came to be pronounced more typically as “gringo.” Then, by the late 1840s, “gringo” was the term that became common parlance for a foreigner.

The first-ever documentation of that word as we know it today actually came from John Audobon himself. Writing in his Western Journal of 1849-1850, Audubon reported how he and his party were shouted at for being “gringoes” as they passed through the town of Cerro Gordo in what is now the Mexican state of Veracruz.

With that, “gringo” was documented, and forever after, it’s come to mean a (usually white) foreigner as seen from the perspective of a Mexican or other Latin American local.[9]

1 Glum over Gum

Singapore’s Chewing Gum Ban – Explained

On January 3, 1992, Singapore banned the import, manufacture, and sale of chewing gum. They had long been sick of gum getting stuck on subway doors and other public places where it was a health hazard and an unseemly litter problem. Singaporean officials very much wanted a clean and tidy society, and chewing gum was getting in the way of that goal.

So they straight-up banned the import of the stuff and made it illegal to make or sell it. Specifically, the chewing gum ban encompassed all substances produced from the “gum base of vegetable or synthetic origin,” which included “bubble gum or dental chewing gum.” But that ban does NOT include corporal punishment for actually chewing the stuff!

A common misconception is that chewing gum in Singapore nowadays is punishable by caning or other styles of corporal punishment. While it is true that corporal punishment is still used in Singapore for a variety of offenses, the act of chewing illegal gum is not one of them. Should you be caught chewing gum in public in Singapore today, you will merely be hit with a fine for your indecent act.

So rest easy that you will not be caned over having the sticky stuff. By the way, you are allowed to chew gum privately in Southeast Asian nations. The ban they put in place in ’92 really seeks to crack down on the manufacture and mass sale of the stuff instead of personal consumption. So, fear not, travelers! You won’t be beaten or caned in Singapore if you mindlessly pop a stick of Doublemint in your mouth.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen