Wednesday, May 14

 

Thursday, November 14

The Debunker: What Did Pilgrims' Hats Really Look Like?

by Ken Jennings

If the Plymouth Pilgrims could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, talks turkey about the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: Did Pilgrims Wear Those Big Hats with the Buckles?

Most of us probably only have the sketchiest ideas as to what spiritual convictions led the Mayflower pilgrims to the New World. (Um, religious freedom? Or something?) But we’re sure of one thing: they all dressed really boringly. Black and white from head to toe, with big buckles on their hats, right? And belts. And shoes. Pilgrims were all about the buckles. Maybe they left England so they could worship their buckle-god, Bucklorr.

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Tuesday, November 05

The Debunker: Where Did the Mayflower Land?

by Ken Jennings

When the Plymouth pilgrims sat down to their historic harvest feast in the fall of 1621, they had managed to survive a very tough first year in the New World, with the help of their Wampanoag neighbors. If they could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is here to talk turkey about all the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: Did the Mayflower Land at Plymouth Rock?

As American symbols go, Plymouth Rock is such a potent one—right up there with the Liberty Bell and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—that tourists are inevitably disappointed when they visit it today at Massachusetts’s Pilgrim Memorial State Park. It’s just a lump of granite—and a surprisingly small one, since about two-thirds of the rock has been chipped off over the years. In the late 19th century, the date “1620” was carved in its surface, to vouch for its bona fide Plymouth Rock-ness. But did the pilgrims really land at Plymouth Rock? We’ll never be sure, but the historical evidence is so flaky that it seems very, very unlikely.

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Tuesday, October 08

The Debunker: Who Was the First Black Major League Ballplayer?

by Ken Jennings

To true American sports fans, October means only one thing: Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.

The Debunker: Was Jackie Robinson the First African-American in the Major Leagues?

It’s hard to overstate Jackie Robinson’s achievement—and grace under pressure—when he made his major league debut during the 1947 season. Yes, Robinson broke a well-established “color barrier” in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year honors while putting up with racial abuse from opponents and teammates alike. He was the only black player in baseball at the time the Dodgers called him up, and that was no accident: despite the talent obviously available in the Negro Leagues, the major league teams (and players, and fans) had a deeply engrained “whites only” view of the game. But often Robinson’s achievement is inadvertently embellished, to claim he was the first African American player ever to play in the majors. And that’s not true.

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Tuesday, September 24

The Debunker: Were Gladiators Condemned With A "Thumbs Down"?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Were Gladiators Sentenced to Death with a “Thumbs Down”?

Do you like… movies about gladiators? A staple of the genre is the scene in which the crowd renders its verdict on the combat. If it’s thumbs-up, the bronzed, gleaming, sinewy muscleman lives to fight another day. Thumbs down, and he’s dog meat. In 1872, the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme immortalized the scene in his painting Pollice Verso (“The Turned Thumb”, shown below) which cemented in the public’s mind the idea that thumbs-down = doom.

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Tuesday, September 17

The Debunker: What Went On in a Roman Vomitorium?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Ancient Romans Vomit in a Vomitorium?

In the popular imagination, the Romans were so debauched and hedonistic that they set aside a special room just for tossing one’s cookies at a banquet. I guess you’d be chowing down on grapes at a banquet when you’d start to notice you were feeling a little full, so you’d head out to the vomitorium, enjoy a refreshing Technicolor yawn, and then come back to the table for a second helping. We’re supposed to believe, I guess, that this was a common upper-class architectural feature, like listings for Roman houses were all “3 bd/2 bth/1 vm.” Uh, no. Let me clarify: Romans did vomit sometimes. And they did build buildings with vomitoria. But nobody ever vomited in a vomitorium. Not on purpose, anyway.

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Tuesday, September 10

The Debunker: What Were the Christians Doing in Rome's Catacombs?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Christians Hide from Persecution in Rome’s Catacombs?

In last week’s Debunker, we learned that Emperor Nero did not, in fact, fiddle while Rome burned. He did, however, seek to deflect responsibility for the fire by blaming it on a brand-new Roman religious cult: the Christians. In the years following the fire, Nero became the first great persecutor of the new faith, ordering many of its followers crucified, fed to dogs, or even (according to Tacitus) burned at Nero’s palace "to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." Yikes.

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Tuesday, September 03

The Debunker: What Was Nero Doing While Rome Burned?

by Ken Jennings

It's now September, which means we've entered that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is clearly the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth month), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth month) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month yada). This confusion is all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Let's stick it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by having Ken Jennings debunk four bits of persistent historical malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Nero Fiddle While Rome Burned?

The fifth emperor of Rome was, even by the low, low standards of Roman politics, a realis opus frustrum: a real piece of work. Lots of Roman emperors wallowed in luxury while neglecting their people, but Nero was also a cruel tyrant who ordered scores of executions - including those of his own mother and brother! But he was not an inventor or a time traveler, as the common myth about how he "fiddled while Rome burned" implies. The violin and its cousins, you see, weren't invented until the 11th century.

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Tuesday, July 30

The Debunker: Did Louis XIV say “L’État, c’est moi”?

by Ken Jennings

The indisputable highlight of July is one day of patriotic fireworks, parades, and red-white-and-blue flags waving in national fervor. I’m speaking, of course, of July 14—Bastille Day, the most important holiday in France. So crank “La Marseillaise” and allow quiz show champ Ken Jennings to help you out with his formidable! knowledge of all things French.

French Myth #4: King Louis XIV said, “L’État, c’est moi.”

Louis XIV ruled France for over 72 years, so long that he was succeeded on the throne not by his son or his grandson, but by his great-grandson. It was the longest reign in the history of any major European throne, and it took place at the height of belief in the “divine right of kings,” to rule as solely and autocratically as they chose. So it comes as no surprise that his famous historical catchphrase would be “L’État, c’est moi”—literally, “I am the State.”

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Tuesday, July 23

The Debunker: Was Joan of Arc from France?

by Ken Jennings

The indisputable highlight of July is one day of patriotic fireworks, parades, and red-white-and-blue flags waving in national fervor. I’m speaking, of course, of July 14—Bastille Day, the most important holiday in France. So crank “La Marseillaise” and allow quiz show champ Ken Jennings to help you out with his formidable! knowledge of all things French.

French Myth #3: Joan of Arc was from France.

Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who helped lead resistance to the English in the Hundred Years’ War, is today the patron saint of France and a bona fide national heroine, depicted in countless statues, stamps, and oil paintings. She and Napoleon were France’s only representative time-travelers in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, if that lets you know what a big deal she is. But depending on where (literally) you draw the line, Joan wasn’t from France at all—the Gallic equivalent of finding out that Abraham Lincoln was a secret Canadian.

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