by BD Mitchell
One hundred facts that are interesting but ultimately useless.
A Catalogue of Useless Facts
- introduction -
Whether I'm at work or out with friends, I have a reputation as the person who knows things. Not useful things, mind you; not once has it been profitable to know the reason why dogs have wet noses, or the meaning of the linguistic term "glottal stop", or the difference between a bug and an insect. If anything, all the aimless wandering on Wikipedia keeps me from finishing my other writing projects.
But there is a purpose to this eclectic mishmash of trivia, and it ties into my own major philosophy: stuff is interesting. The world is often rough and depressing, but if I can find one neat little factoid, everything seems a little less meaningless.
And this brings us to the point of this blog. Lately, it feels like my various newsfeeds are full to bursting with anger and bickering. As a generally positive person, I wanted to counteract this in some way -- only I'm not so adept with inspirational quotes or pithy wisdom. What I can offer, though, are useless facts.
Over the past few months, instead of filing these accidental info-bits in some dusty corner of my brain, I've been taking notes. Before long, I had enough for a solid month of trivia. I collected a few more and thought instead I'd do a "Factoid Friday" every week for a year. But I'm a curious person by nature, and can't help but stumble on new things. Maybe I'm eating lunch one day, I suddenly wonder where ketchup comes from, and bam! I learn something new!
So here come the facts. They may be short, or they may be long. They may cover language, biology, history, mythology, or any number of other subjects. Many of you may know some of these, and some of you may know many of these. But hopefully, at least once between now and the time my collection runs dry, you'll be inspired to say, "Huh! That's actually kind of interesting!"
The Dollar Sign
- currency / history / symbology -
The modern dollar sign ("$") derives from the North American peso (a.k.a. "Spanish dollar" or "piece of eight") which was often abbreviated as "Ps". Over time, the "p" and "s" were written with more and more overlap, until the dollar sign was finally recognized as a single distinct symbol.
- biology / history -
The exact timing of the domestication of the modern chicken (Gallus domesticus) is unknown, though tame chicken populations were already established in China by the 5th century BCE -- or seven to eight thousand years ago.
The wild ancestor of the chicken can be traced to several species of junglefowl -- primarily the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) -- which still exist today in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The junglefowl is currently under threat of extinction due to crossbreeding with domestic chickens.
- history -
The most likely ancestor of the modern "fortune cookie" is the Japanese tradition of "o-mikuji". In Japanese temples, a visitor would leave a coin as an offering and choose a random -- and not necessarily positive -- fortune in the form of a small strip of paper ("o-mikuji", or "sacred lot"). These fortunes could also be inserted into folded rice-crackers called "tsujiura senbei".
In the 1890s, Japanese immigrants introduced fortune cookies to California customers under the name of "fortune tea cakes". These became popular features of local Chinese restaurants, but were still mainly associated with Japanese culture until World War II. When many Japanese-Americans were relocated to internment camps, manufacture of fortune cookies was largely adopted by Chinese-Americans.
Following the invention of a specialized automated machine in the 1970s, the fortune cookie became viable for mass production, leading to its international presence today.
- linguistics -
The main English dictionary-accepted plural of "octopus" is "octopuses". The common alternative of "octopi" is a hypercorrection based on the assumption that "octopus" is a Latin word, and should therefore follow Latin grammar forms. However, since "octopus" is actually of Greek origin, the technically accurate form would be "octopodes".
- biology -
Leafcutter ants (genus Atta and genus Acromyrmex) practice the second-most complex system of agriculture on the planet -- surpassed only by humans.
The ants have a symbiotic relationship with certain species of fungus. The colony cultivates, cleans, and shelters an underground fungus "garden". Leaf matter collected from the surrounding jungle serves as fertilizer for the crop, and bacterial secretions from the ants protect the fungus from microbes and infections. The ants can even sense if the garden reacts negatively to a toxic fertilizer or an impending pathogen and will adjust their care regimen accordingly.
In return, the fungus produces clusters of nutrient-rich growths which are then harvested and eaten by the ants, particularly the ant larvae.
- history / symbology / technology -
The Bluetooth logo is a "bind rune" (a fusion of two or more runic letters) representing the equivalents of the letters "h" and "b". These are the initials of Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson, a 10th-century Danish king who is the technology's namesake. As one of King Harald's achievements was unifying the countries of Denmark and Norway, the developer of Bluetooth protocols felt he would make an apt emblem for a system that unifies computers, mobile devices, and other technology.
- linguistics -
A "portmanteau" is a word formed by the fusion of two other words to create a new, blended meaning. For example, "brunch" is a meal between "breakfast" and "lunch", a "spork" is a utensil that resembles both a "spoon" and a "fork", and "smog" is thick "smoke" that behaves like "fog".
A portmanteau is similar but distinct from a "compound word". While portmanteaus combine word fragments, compounds are formed from complete and unbroken words (i.e. "sleepwalk", "mockingbird", or "doghouse").
A portmanteau is also distinct from a "contraction", which functions more like an abbreviation of two words that frequently appear together (i.e. "do" and "not" becomes "don't", or "shall" and "not" becomes "shan't").
- biology -
Bubble algae (Valonia ventricosa) are thought to be the largest single-cell organisms on Earth. Mainly appearing in tropical waters, the spherical multinucleate cells can reach up to 5 centimeters (nearly 2 inches) in diameter -- larger than a regulation ping pong ball.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
- history / literature -
The "Scarlet Pimpernel" novels are considered to be the literary ancestor of many modern superhero tropes. Created by British author Emma Orczy in 1905, the stories follow Sir Percy Blakeney, a seemingly prissy and harmless English aristocrat during the age of the Frence Revolution. In secret, however, Sir Percy adopts the guise of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a brilliant escape artist and master swordsman who rescues men sentenced to death by the French government. His heroic persona is named after his calling card and symbol, a small reddish flower known as a "pimpernel" (Anagallis arvensis).
Many of the Scarlet Pimpernel's attributes -- a signature weapon, a playboy alter ego, a theatrical hero identity -- were influences in later crime-fighting characters like Zorro, the Shadow, and Batman.