Weekly Wrap Volume 61

This is a weekly wrap of our Daily Knowledge Newsletter. You can get that newsletter for free here.

blackmailWhy We Call Certain Types of Threats “Blackmail”, and The Origin of the Lesser Known “Buttockmail”

“Blackmail” has its roots in the early 16th century, first used by English farmers living on the England/Scotland border. It derives from the Middle English word “male” which itself is thought to derive from the Old English word “mal”. In Old English “Mal” is described as thus: “lawsuit, terms, bargaining, agreement”. Over time, the word “Mal” became “Male” which in Middle English roughly translated to either “Rent” or “Tribute”. As such, the rent paid by a farmer living on the Scottish border was known as “Silver Rent/Mail” because it was normally paid in silver. This gave rise to “White Money”… (more)

witch-broomstickThe Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks

We’ve heard this one. To get high, of course! But seriously, it’s thought the idea of witches flying around on broomsticks came from the practice of concocting “witches flying ointment” (read  hallucinogens) and then using a broomstick to administer the drug to certain sensitive regions, thereby bypassing some of the negative side effects these hallucinogens cause when taken orally. Until quite recently, rye was the primary grain from which bread was made. Susceptible to a disease known as ergot, caused by the fungus, Claviceps purpurea, rye was so commonly infected with it that until the 1850s, people thought the purple ergot that… (more)

VultureWhy Don’t Vultures Get Sick When Eating Dead Things?

As an animal that is synonymous with death and disease, the vulture understandably has a poor reputation in many cultures across the globe, despite, ironically enough, being a huge boon to humans in terms of being able to reduce instances of death and disease. While it’s important to note that many animals eat carrion, vultures are fairly unique in that they’re able to eat carrion that has succumbed to the effects of decay and disease, a feat few stomachs in the animal kingdom can match. As an idea of just how ridiculously hardy vultures are, experiments have shown that they are all but immune to botulism and that they can happily chow down on the flesh of an animal coated in Bacillus anthracis which is better… (more)

Jean-Leon_Gerome_Pollice_VersoThe Truth About Gladiators and the Thumbs Up

There are few hand gestures out there as well known or ubiquitous as the humble thumbs up. But why is this seemingly innocuous gesture so widespread; how did it come to mean “everything is okay” in so many cultures and where did it come from? The commonly told origin is that it came from the Romans and their gladiatorial games: thumbs up meant live and thumbs down meant die. This is unequivocally false. While it is true that in the days of gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum and the earlier (and significantly larger) Circus Maximus, the audience could decide the fate of a fallen gladiator with a simple hand gesture, this isn’t typically depicted accurately and has little to do with… (more)

bad-apple-340x226Why One Bad Apple Spoils a Bunch

This isn’t just a popular metaphor, it’s actually true. One bad apple will absolutely quickly spoil an entire box of apples. The obvious way this can happen is simply if one of the apples is infested with some fungi or critters that reproduce and spread throughout all the apples in a box, ruining them as they go. The less obvious, but perhaps even more common, way this can happen has to do with a hydrocarbon chemical known as ethylene. Ethylene is a hormone produced and released into the air by most plants, including from the fruit of certain plants, such as apples, bananas, pears, etc. So what does this have to do with one “bad” apple? The “bad” apple is usually one… (more)

Bonus Quick Facts:

  • All clownfish are born male. If the female of a group dies, the dominant male will then begin to gain weight and will become the female of the group. After he becomes a she, she selects a breeding partner from the available males, which is almost always the largest male available.
  • Whoopi Goldberg chose the first part of her stage name from often being called “like a whoopee cushion” due to her fondness for frequent flatulence when performing. As she stated in a Q&A with the New York Times, “Here’s the thing. When you’re performing on stage, you never really have time to go into the bathroom and close the door. So if you get a little gassy, you’ve got to let it go. So people used to say to me, ‘You are like a whoopee cushion.’ And that’s where the name came from. ” The second part of her stage name, Goldberg, was suggested by her mother as she felt using a Jewish last name would help Whoopi in Hollywood.
  • The character of Guinan on Star Trek the Next Generation (played by Whoopi Goldberg) was named after famed early 20th century performer and nightclub owner Texas Guinan who died of dysentery in 1933 at the age of 49. The character Guinan is of the race El-Aurians. “El-Aurians” derives from the Latin “Auris,” meaning “ear.” This is in reference to Guinan’s character being a good listener and why Soran from Star Trek Generations, who was also of that race, said they were a “race of listeners.”
  • German Chocolate Cake isn’t German and had nothing to do with the country. It owes its name to American Sam German, who developed a type of dark baking chocolate for the American Baker’s Chocolate Company in 1852.  Over a century later, a woman by the name of George Clay got her recipe for a cake using “German’s Chocolate” published in the Dallas Morning Star on June 3, 1957, under the name “German’s Chocolate Cake.”  General Foods, who now owned the German’s Chocolate brand, heavily promoted this recipe. It became a national hit, but  not as “German’s Chocolate Cake,” as it was originally listed. Instead, it soon was called “German Chocolate Cake,” helping give rise to the myth that it was invented in Germany.
  • The title “Dalai Lama” was first given to the third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, by Altan Khan. In order to help secure his rule in Mongolia, Altan Khan agreed to let Sonam Gyatso convert Mongolia to Buddhism. Gyatso then proclaimed that Altan Khan was in fact the reincarnated of the great Khublai Khan, former ruler of China and Mongolia and grandson of Ghengis Khan, helping legitimize Altan Khan’s rule. The fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso, the only to be born outside of Tibet to date, was the great grandson of Altan Khan. As for the title, “Dalai Lama,” it literally means “The Ocean Lama,” with the “lama” part coming from the Tibetan “blama,” which means “guru / mentor / teacher / wise-one.” More figuratively, “Dalai Lama” could be interpreted as “Ocean of Wisdom.”
  • At the encouragement of the U.S. State Department, Detroit, Michigan mayor Coleman Young awarded Saddam Hussein the symbolic key to the city of Detroit in 1980. This followed a string of events in which Reverend Jacob Yasso of the Chaldean Sacred Heart in Detroit publicly congratulated Saddam on his rise to power, resulting in Hussein donating $250,000 to Yasso’s church (and later $200,000 more).  A year after this first donation, Yasso was invited as a guest of honor to Iraq and given “the key to Detroit” to give to Saddam on behalf of the mayor.  The State Department, in this instance, was using the age-old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” with regards to Saddam who at the time was waging a war against Iran, hence the United States’ desire to buddy up to the Iraqi leader.
  • In June of 1999 while out for his customary 4-mile walk, Stephen King was struck by a light blue 1985 Dodge Caravan being driven by 42 year old Bryan Smith who previously had “a dozen vehicle-related offences,” according to King. In this one, Smith claims he’d been distracted by his dog who had been trying to get at some meat in a cooler in the back seat.  About a year and a half later, Smith was found dead in his home. A friend of his, John Thompson stated that after the ensuing legal issues, “Bryan had nothing left. He said to me, ‘I’d hate to go through another winter dragging my way up and down the highway in the snow.’” As for King, he was lucky to be alive. One of the paramedic’s who responded to the scene stated, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and when I saw the way [King was] lying in the ditch, plus the extent of the impact injuries, I didn’t think [he’d] make it to the hospital.” King suffered, among other things, a acetabular cup fracture of the right hip, shattered leg and knee, laceration to the scalp, chipped spine (in eight places), and collapsed lung. Shortly before Smith’s suicide, King also bought the damaging Dodge for $1,500. His plans for the automobile were to “take a sledgehammer and beat it!”

Other Interesting Stuff:

halloweenThe Origins of Halloween and Trick or Treating

The majority of the traditions commonly associated with Halloween today are borrowed or adapted from two different festivals: The Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in), meaning “summer’s end” and the Catholic Hallowmas… The practice of wearing costumes or masks during this sort of end of Autumn celebration probably comes from a Celtic New Year’s Samhain tradition. During Samhain, young men impersonated evil spirits by dressing up in white costumes with blackened faces or masks. It was believed that during the… (more)

halloween-candy-340x226Has Anyone Ever Actually Poisoned Or Put Razor Blades or Needles in Halloween Candy?

Remember your mom sorting through your Halloween candy as a kid, looking for signs of ‘tainted’ candy laced with poison, needles or razor blades?  It turns out, unless she was just using it as an excuse to steal the good candy before you got it, she was wasting her time.  You are more likely to get attacked by a samurai sword wielding bear while trick or treating than be poisoned by a stranger.  Further, it’s more likely that your Halloween candy will be poisoned or otherwise tampered with by one of your parents or family members, than a stranger.  Think about that while your mom is “checking out” your candy before letting you eat it. 😉 So why all the worry?… (more)

candy-pumpkins-340x340How Candy Pumpkins and Halloween Helped Change Daylight Saving Time

Before 1966, Daylight Saving Time in the United States was set via a patchwork of state and local laws, often causing conflict and confusion. While there are some exceptions — states can choose not to participate in Daylight Saving Time at all (and Arizona and Hawaii do just that) — the Uniform Time Act, passed by Congress in 1966, standardized Daylight Saving Time across the nation. As set forth by the Uniform Time Act, Daylight Saving Time began on the last Sunday in April and ended on the last Sunday in October. But the Act… (more)

difference-betweenThe Difference Between… [Food Edition]

The Difference Between Fruits and Vegetables: Would you believe that beans, corn, bell peppers, peas, eggplant, pumpkins, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes are all fruits? That’s because, botanically speaking, fruits are the part of flowering plants that contain the seeds and are the means by which such plants disseminate those seeds. So what about vegetables? Botanically speaking… (more)

This Week’s Podcast Episodes:

Quote of the Week:

  • “Friendship is like peeing on yourself: everyone can see it, but only you get the warm feeling that it brings.”  -Robert Block
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