Tuesday, January 27

The Debunker: Does the Word "Gringo" Come from Songs of the Mexican-American War?

by Ken Jennings

In January, we stand at the frontier of a new year. Obviously, there's no better month to remember that other mythic uncharted territory, the American frontier of the Old West! In the Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor famously says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But that attitude has led to a lot of frontier lore that's just plain loco. We've asked Jeopardy gunfighter Ken Jennings to separate fact from legend--and print only the facts. Let's see if he can clean up this town.

The Debunker: Does the Word "Gringo" Come from Songs of the Mexican-American War?

Etymology rule of thumb: as well-known stories about word origins become more and more "fun" and improbable, the likelihood that they are true approaches zero. Take the word gringo, a scornful Spanish slang word for anglo types. According to an oft-told story, gringo dates back to the Mexican-American War, when American soldiers were frequently overheard singing marching songs like "Green Grow the Rushes" and "Green Grow the Lilacs." Gringo is actually a corruption of the words "green grow," this theory would have you believe.

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Tuesday, January 20

The Debunker: Did Jesse James's Gang Rob from the Rich and Give to the Poor?

by Ken Jennings

In January, we stand at the frontier of a new year. Obviously, there's no better month to remember that other mythic uncharted territory, the American frontier of the Old West! In the Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor famously says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But that attitude has led to a lot of frontier lore that's just plain loco. We've asked Jeopardy gunfighter Ken Jennings to separate fact from legend--and print only the facts. Let's see if he can clean up this town.

The Debunker: Did Jesse James's Gang Rob from the Rich and Give to the Poor?

In 1882, the famed outlaw Jesse James was shot in the back by one of his gang members, Robert Ford (Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, if you saw the movie). The shooting was immortalized in the folk song "Jesse James," which takes a strongly pro-Jesse/anti-Ford stance. Robert Ford is dismissed as a "dirty little coward," while Jesse James is lauded because "he stole from the rich and he gave to the poor." "He'd never see a man suffer pain," insists the star-struck balladeer. "He'd never rob a mother or child." The song, covered by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen, has cemented in the public mind the notion that Jesse James was a colorful do-gooder. Sure, maybe he was an outlaw, but the noble Robin Hood kind! A likable rascal!

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Monday, January 12

The Debunker: Did Cowboys Wear Ten-Gallon Hats?

by Ken Jennings

In January, we stand at the frontier of a new year. Obviously, there's no better month to remember that other mythic uncharted territory, the American frontier of the Old West! In the Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor famously says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But that attitude has led to a lot of frontier lore that's just plain loco. We've asked Jeopardy gunfighter Ken Jennings to separate fact from legend--and print only the facts. Let's see if he can clean up this town.

The Debunker: Did Cowboys Wear Ten-Gallon Hats?

Real talk: no hat can hold ten gallons, not even Pharrell's. Your average Stetson has a maximum carrying capacity of three quarts, just 7.5% of what's advertised. Not sure why you'd want to carry liquid in your hat, cowpokes, but "let the buyer beware" is all I'm saying.

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Tuesday, January 06

The Debunker: Was There a Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?

by Ken Jennings

In January, we stand at the frontier of a new year. Obviously, there's no better month to remember that other mythic uncharted territory, the American frontier of the Old West! In the Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor famously says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But that attitude has led to a lot of frontier lore that's just plain loco. We've asked Jeopardy gunfighter Ken Jennings to separate fact from legend--and print only the facts. Let's see if he can clean up this town.

The Debunker: Was There a Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?

If Westerns were accurate, they'd be the most sedate movie and TV genre ever. They'd make Errol Morris documentaries look like Errol Flynn movies. They'd make BBC costume dramas look like Sons of Anarchy. That's because, despite what Hollywood would have you believe, violence was uncommon in the "Wild" West. Six-shooters were too inaccurate and ammo too expensive for precision dueling at high noon. Most frontier towns were safe, quiet places where visitors had to surrender firearms to the sheriff upon arrival. Don't tell the NRA.

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Tuesday, December 23

The Debunker: Did Someone Else Write the Works of Shakespeare?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did Someone Else Write the Works of Shakespeare?

It was Francis Bacon! Or Christopher Marlowe. Or could it have been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford? With all the hype that alternate theories of Shakespeare authorship have received lately (including Anonymous, a big budget movie by Independence Day director and Shakespeare skeptic Roland Emmerich) you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is an actual academic controversy. Could someone else have written the plays of Shakespeare? It would certainly be big news if the most celebrated writer in the history of the language--of any language maybe--were revealed as a fraud.

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Tuesday, December 16

The Debunker: Does the Gulf Stream Keep Britain Warm?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Does the Gulf Stream Keep Britain Warm?

Travel due west from the United Kingdom, and what's the first U.S. state you'd hit? Virginia? Massachusetts? Maine, maybe? A quick look at a world map will probably surprise many: the whole of the British Isles lies to the north of the northernmost point in the contiguous 48 states. Due west from London, you'd reach the New World at the subarctic forest of southern Labrador, Canada. The only state you could hit traveling west from anywhere in the U.K. is actually Alaska! In short, Britain is a lot farther north than a lot of people think.

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Tuesday, December 09

The Debunker: Did Ye Olde British People Really Say "Ye Olde"?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did Ye Olde British People Really Say "Ye Olde"?

Does anything convey an air of enforced jollity better than the phrase "Ye Olde" appended to a pub, renaissance fair, candle shoppe, ice cream shoppe--hell, any kind of "shoppe"? The word "ye" is all over the Bible and Shakespeare and Thor comics, so surely this old-timey language must have some historical cred, right?

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Tuesday, December 02

The Debunker: Did the Druids Build Stonehenge?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did the Druids Build Stonehenge?

"Hundreds of years before the dawn of history a lived strange race of people: the Druids! No one knows who they were or what they were doing, but their legacy remains hewn into the living rock... of Stonehenge!" So begins Stonehenge, the epic rock saga brought to the stage with disastrous results in the classic 1984 rockumentary (if you will) This Is Spinal Tap.

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Tuesday, November 25

The Debunker: Can Owls Turn Their Heads All the Way Around?

by Ken Jennings

In November, we set our clocks an hour forward and officially say good-bye to an hour of daylight every evening. From now until spring, we're going to be spending most of our non-working hours in the dark: commuting home from the office when it's dark, making dinner when it's dark, meeting friends when it's dark, getting the kids to and from a million stupid activities in the dark. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is going to brighten this gloomy month with the light of knowledge, debunking some long-held myths about other nocturnal urban wanderers: the birds and critters you might see on a streetlit November night.

The Debunker: Can Owls Turn Their Heads All the Way Around?

One of the secrets of owls' lethal hunting skills is their amazing eyesight. Unlike most birds, owls have two front-facing eyes, which give them binocular vision. In other words, they're one of the few birds that could actually enjoy a 3-D movie (assuming they gave a hoot and could find a pair of the special glasses to fit them). But there are trade-offs involved: bird eyes are fixed into their sockets by a tiny ring of bone, so owls must move their whole heads any time they need to look around. In popular belief, they can swivel their heads all the way around. You know, like R2-D2, or Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

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Tuesday, November 18

The Debunker: Do Cats Use Their Whiskers for Balance?

by Ken Jennings

In November, we set our clocks an hour forward and officially say good-bye to an hour of daylight every evening. From now until spring, we're going to be spending most of our non-working hours in the dark: commuting home from the office when it's dark, making dinner when it's dark, meeting friends when it's dark, getting the kids to and from a million stupid activities in the dark. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is going to brighten this gloomy month with the light of knowledge, debunking some long-held myths about other nocturnal urban wanderers: the birds and critters you might see on a streetlit November night.

The Debunker: Do Cats Use Their Whiskers for Balance?

No Brooklyn hipster bartender has ever been more protective of his showy whiskers than cat fanciers are for those of their little darlings. Whiskers are sensory organs and must not be trimmed, they insist. Sometimes they're so emphatic as to claim that cats need their whiskers to balance, and wouldn't even be able to walk in a straight line without them.

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