Below the Beltway

Immaculate misconceptions: A catalogue of mythed opportunities

Below the Beltway
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 5, 2010

Napoleon was not short. Though his height is accurately reported as 5-foot-2, that was using an old French measurement. In modern numbers, it equals almost 5-foot-7, normal height for an 18th-century European man.

Vikings did not wear horned helmets. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. Different types of taste buds are not clustered in groups on the tongue: They are more or less evenly distributed. The Immaculate Conception is not about the birth of Jesus but about the conception of Mary. Too much sugar does not make children hyperactive. George Washington did not have wooden teeth. They were made of gold, lead, donkey teeth, human teeth and hippo horns. Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet, nor Thomas Edison the light bulb.

Did you know these things?

Me, neither. I just learned them from the excellent Wikipedia page on "common misconceptions." The page busts a lot of myths, but it misses a bunch, too -- little-known truths I will be revealing here for the first time.

Those electronic signature pads at checkout counters are actually just electronic Etch A Sketches. They are not connected to anything -- but there to give an illusion of bookkeeping so everyone feels protected.

The sugar-pill placebo effect isn't an example of mind over matter. It turns out that sugar is just very good for your health.

"Bazooka Joe" comics are not juvenile humor and never were. Over the years, they have been secretly written by a series of brilliant satirists -- including Groucho Marx, René Magritte, Woody Allen and Garry Trudeau --in a long-running, highly sophisticated sendup of bad humor. As such, they are actually the highest form of humor. So are "your mom" quips.

The use of tobacco does not cause cancer. The use of tobacco leads to the use of breath mints. Breath mints cause cancer.

Men are not actually attracted to women with large breasts. They are attracted to women with back problems.

It turns out that Admiral Farragut never said, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" He said, "Bring me my brown pants!"

Bernoulli's Principle does not explain how a plane can fly. It is, in fact, a bit of pseudoscience, a meaningless invention to distract people from the disturbing knowledge that though airplanes fly, no one knows how. It's like acupuncture or the Drinking Duck.

George Washington Carver did not invent 300 uses for the peanut. He invented 299. It turned out that peanuts did not, as he'd thought, make good intrauterine devices.

Taller people don't make more money than shorter people. It's just that people who lie about their height also lie about their income.

The Mandarin characters in the menus of Chinese restaurants do not correspond to the English name ofthe dish; they reveal the actual ingredients, whichmight upset an American diner. Example: The ideograph for "Shrimp in Lobster Sauce" actually says "warts in yak snot."

Tinfoil hats can, in fact, deflect certain types of alien mind-control rays. Tinfoil diapers, however, are completely useless against alien anal probes.

"Below the Beltway" is not, in fact, a "humor column." It is seldom, if ever, funny. It is part of a 10-year experiment -- so far, breathtakingly successful -- to prove that newspaper editors wouldn't know funny if it bit them in the butt.

Rachel Manteuffel contributed to this column.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.


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