Surely that’s not true

Some years ago, in Toronto, I was part of a conversation in which an ‘intellectual’ lady snapped at her meticulous husband with Emerson’s words *Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I felt she was hard on the poor man so I pointed out that Emerson had said “Foolish consistency…”: which was rather different. Now I was not popular, and I haven’t spoken to the woman since.

I find that truths which turn out to be not so rather fascinating, so let me give you a few examples. Then perhaps you can add some others in your contributions. It will make a break from our serious debates.

The guillotine was not named after its inventor. It was used in Italy for years beforehand, and was introduced to France by a Dr Louis. It was at one stage called a louison. Dr Guillotin persuaded the National Assembly to use it to replace the existing cruel methods of execution.

A miniature, as we all know, is a very small painting. Or do we? In fact the Latin word refers to painting with red lead. Normally once used for illuminated manuscripts it can, etymologically, be of any size.

The minutes of a meeting are not a record related to time but to size. The record customarily used small handwriting.

When Hamlet wished Ophelia to a nunnery he was far from preserving her virtue. In the slang of those days a nunnery was a brothel.

Brides do not walk down the aisle but the nave. The aisles go down the sides.

The human body renews itself every seven years. While bodies are always changing, seven is a fiction. The number seven seems to be significant in our minds.

Galileo never dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate gravity. Or at least he failed to mention it. The story only appeared years later.

Another questionable story concerns Lady Godiva, who happens to be an ancestor of mine. Her bareback ride is not recorded until over 100 years later.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, as many Americans think. For example the British Sir Joseph Swan developed and demonstrated a carbon-filament bulb about a year before Edison’s success.

Now it’s your turn to contribute…

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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20 Responses to Surely that’s not true

  1. G.D says:

    Mother used to tell us children it we went outside with wet hair we’d catch a cold. And we believed it!

  2. galerimo says:

    A pleasant change it is too, Quentin.

    I can make three offerings here and forgive me if they are well known to you already.

    Far from being a worth attribute, the use of “Tory” to describe an M.P in fact derives from the Irish “toraidhe” which means ‘outlaw, highwayman’. The word was used of Irish peasants dispossessed by English settlers and living as robbers, and extended to other marauders especially in the Scottish Highlands. It was then adopted c. 1679 as an abusive nickname for supporters of the Catholic James II.

    And another common misunderstanding concerns the apple that Eve offered to Adam. If you were to open a children’s book about Adam and Eve and read about their sin, chances are that it would say Adam and Eve ate an “apple.” In fact there is no mention of an apple in Genesis.

    The confusion may be due to the similarity of the two words in the Vulgate translation of the Bible, The word evil in the tree’s name in Latin is “mali” (Genesis 2:17). The word apple in other places is “mala” (Proverbs 25:11) or “malum” (Song of Solomon 2:3).

    And finally, Popeye’s obsession with spinach, which the cartoon character eats in vast quantities to boost his strength was based on the error in recording the iron content

    In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other green vegetables. When writing up his findings in a new notebook, he misplaced a decimal point, making the iron content in spinach ten times more generous than in reality.

    While Mr von Wolf actually found out that there are just 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100g serving of spinach, the accepted number became 35 milligrams thanks to his mistake. Other research shows the error was made when scientists used contaminated vessels in their analysis.

    So that’s your lot for original conservative estimates!

  3. tim says:

    It shall go hard but I shall find some well-established myths to pillory relating to ‘global warming’.Meanwhile
    “Malo, I would rather be
    Malo, in an apple tree
    Malo,than a bad boy
    Malo, in adversity”

    (subject to correction by John Nolan)

  4. John Nolan says:

    A few common myths:

    1. Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’ (qu’ils mangent de la brioche).
    2. ‘Captain Pugwash’ featured characters called Master Bates, Seaman Stains and Roger the Cabin Boy. I believe the late John Ryan successfully sued The Guardian over this one.
    3. British generals in the Second World War were better than their counterparts in the First.
    4. Medieval thinkers held that the earth was flat.
    5. Late medieval plate armour was so heavy that a knight had to be craned onto his horse.
    6. The pre-Reformation Catholic Church forbade vernacular translations of the bible.
    7. King John did not sign Magna Carta. This results from a confusion of ‘sign’ with ‘sign manual’.
    8. A sentence must contain a verb. No, it only needs a subject and a predicate.
    9. JFK said ‘I am a doughnut’. The primary meaning of ‘Berliner’ is someone from Berlin.
    10. At the 1936 Olympics Hitler refused to shake hands with Jesse Owens on account of his race.

    In the event of anyone actually believing any of the above, I can supply chapter and verse.

  5. Geordie says:

    JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner”. He should have said, “Ich bin Berliner”. Therein lies the “doughnut” story. “Ein berliner “, I think means a type of doughnut.

    • John Nolan says:

      Sorry, Geordie, it’s an urban myth. Kennedy was speaking figuratively, and so was correct in including the indefinite article. A Berliner is indeed a jam doughnut, but is not referred to as such in Berlin and its environs.

      ‘Ich bin Berliner’ would mean that the President actually came from, or resided in, Berlin.

  6. Nektarios says:

    Surely that is not true – Unless a man is born again, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.

    Surely that is not true, that the Gospel is God’s last word to mankind.

    Surely that is not true, that we are living in a post-Christian world – if we were the world would have ended and we would all be in eternity?

    Surely that is not true, that mankind is totally fallen creature.

    Surely that is not true, that all our intellectual faculties are fallen too and operate only on the linear level unless one is born again.

    Surely that is not true, this world will end not by man, but when God wills it.

    Surely that is not true, genealogy is the study of something we know little or nothing about and nothing we had anything to do with.

    Surely that is not true, that all mankind is one.

    Surely that is not true, the Church is one?

    • ignatius says:

      Surely that is not true, that mankind is totally fallen creature.

      yes, that’s right, mankind is not a totally fallen creature, terribly wounded by sin he nonetheless struggles on, sometimes bravely, made in the image of God…he tries to love even though his heart is maimed how can he do other.?… Glad its finally dawned on you
      Nektarios.

      • Nektarios says:

        Ignatius

        Then it is clear, you believe that which is clearly not true. I could go into all your argument, but we have covered this ground so many times over the years.
        If Mankind was not totally fallen, Mankind would have been able to recover itself. It is also clear Man by himself is unable to recover himself.
        Also, if man could recover himself not being totally fallen, there would have been no reason for a Divine intervention and revelation from God, and Christ would not have come.

        From Adam till now, mankind in the flesh will die.
        Mankind, in the flesh by his own efforts cannot get the victory over death and cannot return to heaven.

        It is also clear, you do not follow the pattern as laid down by Christ and the Apostles – so following your own and others view of themselves, believe that which is surely not true.

  7. Peter Foster says:

    It is often said that bees are vital to the survival of mankind; whereas the staple food crops, wheat, rice, maize and sorghum, are pollinated by wind carried pollen.
    Nevertheless long live the bees!

  8. Alan says:

    The Earth’s gravity is not a product of its spin.

    Not a common misconception perhaps but I was amazed by the idea when it came up recently in conversation and, after asking around, I learned that it was not an isolated view.

  9. Alasdair says:

    “America is the Land Of The Free”.
    Surely that’s not true! Most land in the USA is privately owned. That means it’s private and you better not set foot. Those wishing to hike and explore may only do so in areas set aside for the purpose.
    In Europe on the other hand (UK included of course) you can pretty much walk where you like, privately-owned land or not, without raising eyebrows, provided you’re not disrupting the owner’s legitimate business, causing damage or walking over the lawn and through the flowerbed. This is true even in the former iron-curtain countries – Poland, Slovakia, and Montenegro from my personal experience.

  10. Geordie says:

    “Money is the root of all evil” is generally accepted, when it should be “The love of money is the root of all evil”.
    “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means the opposite of the above.

  11. John Nolan says:

    It’s interesting to see how myths persist, and why historians wring their hands, knowing that all their research is in vain. The popular British conception of the Great War (1914 -1918) owes more to myth than reality, as does the average American’s view of the so-called War of Independence.

    Even Catholics buy into the Protestant myth regarding the Inquisition, which was sedulously promoted via the printing press, and has long been discredited by those like Henry Kamen who have actually taken the trouble to trawl the records.

    So what? I hear you say. But the easily provable fact that Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, is responsible not only for the transmission of classical knowledge but also for the encouragement of research into natural science (Islam reverted to obscuranticism centuries ago) is unknown to the vast majority of the people, and no amount of evidence will overcome their ingrained prejudice.

    Myths can be harmless, but can also be dangerous when used by unscrupulous people to advance their agendas.

    • Alan says:

      John,

      Would you say that Christianity and the Catholic Church deserve credit for encouraging research into the natural sciences over and above any alternative belief/non-belief more generally? There is the contrast with Islam of the time but, other things being equal, I was wondering what wider comparison could be made. Would the motivation or means to investigate the natural world not have been there perhaps?

      • John Nolan says:

        What were the alternative beliefs/non-beliefs in medieval Europe, which was the seed-bed of scientific progress?

      • Alan says:

        John,

        I wasn’t thinking of only medieval Europe. The wider comparison I was imagining wasn’t necessarily of that particular time or place. Christianity and the Catholic Church compare favourably to Islam in your particular example. Do you think they deserve special mention as a positive force for encouraging scientific enquiry and discovery more generally?

  12. Alasdair says:

    The widely believed existence of a total conflict between Christianity and Scientific Truth is one of the most damaging myths. Quite the opposite is true – as John Nolan tells us above. “Their ingrained prejudice” is not accidental, it has been engineered and is maintained by forces hostile to the church.

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