Using this list as our primary reference point, here are 20 commonly believed misconceptions. Cuz it’s Friday. And why not learn something new before you drink the weekend away. How many of these did you already know?
1. VIKING HELMETS DIDN’T HAVE HORNS. There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets. In fact, the image of Vikings wearing horned helmets stems from the scenography of an 1876 production of the Der Ring des Nibelungen opera cycle by Richard Wagner.
2. PASTA ISN’T FROM CHINA. There is a legend that Marco Polo imported pasta from China which originated with the Macaroni Journal, published by an association of food industries with the goal of promoting the use of pasta in the United States. Marco Polo describes a food similar to “lagana” in his Travels, but he uses a term with which he was already familiar. Durum wheat, and thus pasta as it is known today, was introduced by Arabs from Libya, during their conquest of Sicily in the late 7th century, according to the newsletter of the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, thus predating Marco Polo’s travels to China by about six centuries.
3. SALEM WITCHES WEREN’T BURNED. The accused at the Salem witch trials were not burned at the stake; they either died in prison or were hanged.
4. NAPOLEON WASN’T SHORT. Napoleon Bonaparte was not short; rather he was slightly taller than the average Frenchman of his time. After his death in 1821, the French emperor’s height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet, which is 5 feet 7 inches (1.69 m). Some believe that he was nicknamed le Petit Caporal (The Little Corporal) as a term of affection. Napoléon was often accompanied by his imperial guard, who were selected for their height – some suggest that this could have contributed to a perception that he was relatively short.
5. COKE DIDN’T BRAND SANTA CLAUS. The popular image of Santa Claus was not created by The Coca-Cola Company as an advertising gimmick; by the time Coca-Cola began using Santa Claus’s image in the 1930s, Santa Claus had already taken his modern form in popular culture, having already seen extensive use in other companies’ advertisements and other mass media.
6. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS DIDN’T CAUSE PANIC. There was no widespread outbreak of panic across the United States in response to Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Only a very small share of the radio audience was even listening to it, and isolated reports of scattered incidents and increased call volume to emergency services were played up the next day by newspapers, eager to discredit radio as a competitor for advertising. Both Welles and CBS, which had initially reacted apologetically, later came to realize that the myth benefited them and actively embraced it in their later years.
7. FORTUNE COOKIES AREN’T CHINESE. OR AMERICAN. Fortune cookies, despite being associated with Chinese cuisine in the United States, were in fact invented and brought to the U.S. by the Japanese. The cookies are extremely rare in China, where they are actually seen as symbols of American cuisine.
8. CRAP ISN’T FROM THOMAS CRAPPER. The word “crap” did not originate as a back-formation of British plumber Thomas Crapper’s surname, nor does his name originate from the word “crap,” although the surname may have helped popularize the word. The surname “Crapper” is a variant of “Cropper,” which originally referred to someone who harvested crops. The word “crap” ultimately comes from Medieval Latin crappa, meaning “chaff.”
9. 420 ISN’T A POLICE CODE. “420” did not originate as the Los Angeles police or penal code for marijuana use. Police Code 420 means “juvenile disturbance,” and California Penal Code section 420 prohibits the obstruction of access to public land. The use of “420” started in 1971 at San Rafael High School, where it indicated the time, 4:20 pm, when a group of students would go to smoke under the statue of Louis Pasteur.
10. THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA ISN’T VISIBLE FROM THE MOON. It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from the Moon. This is false. None of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing any specific human-made object from the Moon, and even Earth-orbiting astronauts can barely see it. City lights, however, are easily visible on the night side of Earth from orbit. Shuttle astronaut Jay Apt has been quoted as saying that “the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles (290 km) up.” ISS commander Chris Hadfield attempted to find it from space, but said that it was “hard as it’s narrow and dun-colored.”
11. BULLS DON’T CARE ABOUT RED. Bulls are not enraged by the color red, used in capes by professional matadors. Cattle are dichromats, so red does not stand out as a bright color. It is not the color of the cape, but the perceived threat by the matador that incites it to charge.
12. DOGS DO SWEAT. Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not sweat by salivating. Dogs actually do have sweat glands and not only on their tongues. They sweat, mainly through the footpads. However, dogs do primarily regulate their body temperature through panting.
13. SUNFLOWERS DON’T FOLLOW THE SUN. Flowering sunflowers do not track the Sun across the sky. The heads point in a fixed direction (East) all day long. However, in an earlier development stage, before the appearance of flower heads, the buds do track the sun and the fixed alignment of the mature flowers is a result of this heliotropism.
14. SUGAR DOESN’T MAKE KIDS HYPER. Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children. Double-blind trials have shown no difference in behavior between children given sugar-full or sugar-free diets, even in studies specifically looking at children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or those considered sensitive to sugar.
15. THE 10% OF OUR BRAINS MYTH. People do not use only ten percent of their brains. While it is true that a small minority of neurons in the brain are actively firing at any one time, the inactive neurons are important too. This misconception has been commonplace in American culture at least as far back as the start of the 20th century, and was attributed to William James, who apparently used the expression metaphorically.
16. THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT WASN’T NECESSARILY AN APPLE. The forbidden fruit mentioned in the Book of Genesis is commonly assumed to be an apple, and is widely depicted as such in Western art. However, the Bible does not identify what type of fruit it is. The original Hebrew texts mention only tree and fruit. Early Latin translations use the word mali, which can be taken to mean both “evil” and “apple.” German and French artists commonly depict the fruit as an apple from the 12th century onwards, and John Milton’s Areopagitica from 1644 explicitly mentions the fruit as an apple. Jewish scholars have suggested that the fruit could have been a grape, a fig, wheat, an apricot or an etrog.
17. EDISON DIDN’T INVENT THE LIGHT BULB. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. He did, however, develop the first practical light bulb in 1880 (employing a carbonized bamboo filament), shortly prior to Joseph Swan, who invented an even more efficient bulb in 1881 (which used a cellulose filament).
18. FORD DIDN’T INVENT THE CAR. OR THE ASSEMBLY LINE. Henry Ford did not invent either the automobile or the assembly line. He did improve the assembly line process substantially, sometimes through his own engineering but more often through sponsoring the work of his employees. Karl Benz (co-founder of Mercedes-Benz) is credited with the invention of the first modern automobile, and the assembly line has existed throughout history.
19. THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA WASN’T DESTROYED IN 641. The Library of Alexandria was not destroyed by the Muslim Army during the capture of the city in 641. A common misconception alleged that Caliph Umar ordered the destruction based on the reasoning “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them” (or its variation). This story did not appear in writing until hundreds of years after the alleged incident (most famously in the work of Bar Hebraeus in the 13th century) and contemporary accounts of the Arab invasion do not include any account of the library’s destruction. Modern consensus suggests the library had likely already been destroyed centuries before this incident. (It is instead believed that the Library of Caesarea, a key repository of Christian literature, was the library destroyed near this time.)
20. EDELWEISS ISN’T AUSTRIA’S NATIONAL ANTHEM. “Edelweiss” is not the national anthem of Austria, but is in fact an original composition created for the musical The Sound of Music. The actual Austrian national anthem is “Land der Berge, Land am Strome.”
(Special kudos to Editor Kyle Muntz for bringing the list to our attention)