Determining Fact from Fiction

Editor’s Note: As we head through election season and fact checkers revel at the opportunity to keep our candidates honest, we reprint this column which originally appeared in June of 2008 where Steve Grutzmacher did a little investigating of his own into an email he received to determine what was true and what was false.

I received another one of those emails over the weekend. If you have email I’m sure you know what I mean. This particular missive from the ether was entitled, “HOW CAN YOU LIVE WITHOUT KNOWING THESE THINGS?” and, as you have no doubt guessed, it contained a list of some 20-odd items all purporting to be little known bits of trivia/history/fact. And, as you have no doubt also guessed, I knew immediately that several of these items were completely untrue. In case anyone else out there received this email and is currently battling the temptation to pass it along to family and friends, let me set the record straight.

At the end of the email in question was the following item: “In Scotland, a new game was invented. It was entitled ‘Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden’…and thus the word GOLF entered the English language.”

“Hah!” I say. And a second “Hah!”

Despite wide ranging assertions to the contrary showing up, no doubt, in emails and cocktail parties across the country, there is no word that originated from an acronym and became accepted as part of our language prior to the 20th century. (Note: One of the earliest words that originated from an acronym and is now an accepted part of speech is the word posh, which stood for “port out, starboard home” – the preferred berthing arrangement for ships crossing the English channel to and from France, the sunny side of the ship.).

The word golf first appeared in written form in 1425. Keeping in mind that the modern game of golf was invented in Scotland (in 1525 with the construction of St. Andrews), the most likely origin of our modern word is the Scottish word goulf (sometimes spelled gowf, among other variations) which meant “to strike or cuff,” i.e. to strike the ball.

The same email adds another peculiar item: “If a statue in the park of a person on a horse has both front legs in the air, the person died in battle. If the horse has one front leg in the air, the person died as a result of wounds received in battle. If the horse has all four legs on the ground, the person died of natural causes.”

Triple “Hah!” I say. And even a quadruple “Hah!”

There is absolutely no basis for this assertion whatsoever; unless you want to take into account the statistical odds that this is correct at least some of the time.

Washington, D.C. has more equestrian statues than any other city in the country, yet the email’s assertions are only correct in 10 of over 30 statues. In other words, Washington, D.C.’s equestrian statues fit the “died by” theorem 33 percent of the time. Not so remarkably, the odds of a statue fitting the pattern outlined in the email are exactly 1 in 3, or 33 percent. Anyone out there surprised?

And then there is the item that asserts, “At one point in time, Coca-Cola was actually green in color.” This isn’t even worth a “Hah!” – it’s simply stupid.

Coca-Cola has always had its distinctive caramel color. In the early days, when Coca-Cola was made in small batches in the backroom by a moonlighting chemist, the brown coloration was important in masking impurities in the liquid – something that, in our day and age, is no longer a concern, thankfully.

The most likely explanation for this bit of stupidity is that Coca-Cola has, at various times, been bottled in green glass (even I remember those days).

Lastly, the email in question contained the following tidbit: “Each king in a deck of playing cards represents a great king from history: Spades, King David; Hearts, Charlemagne; Clubs, Alexander the Great; and Diamonds, Julius Caesar.” Remarkably, folks, this is…actually true! But if you really want to impress people with completely useless information here’s the rest of the story.

The designation for the kings listed above is for the Parisian Pattern of cards. The other prevalent pattern of cards in the western world (and the pattern that is the ancestor of the Anglo-American cards) is the Rouennais. In this pattern, Alexander is the model for the Hearts and Charlemagne is the model for the clubs.

What about the queens? There is some debate about the actual identities of the ladies but a convincing argument has been put forth that states the queens in the Rouennais pattern are as follows: Hearts is Ragnel; Spades is Pallas; Diamonds is Argeia; and Clubs is Judith.

Unlike their male counterparts, the queens are somewhat obscure. So, for clarification sake, Ragnel was the wife of Gawain, a knight of Arthur’s Round Table; Pallas was a warrior goddess (also known as Athena to the Greeks and Minerva to the Romans); Judith was the slayer of General Holofernes in the Apocrypha; and Argeia was a legendary warrior princess from Argos.

And just for completeness sake, before I head off to bed this Sunday night, the Jacks are as follows: Hearts is Aulus Hirtius, a comrade of Julius Caesar; Spades is Hector, the prince of Troy; Diamonds is Ogier, a loyal knight in the service of Charlemagne; and Clubs is Judas Maccabee who led the Jewish revolt against the Syrians.

So there you have it, folks. And if you managed to read this entire column you have just discovered the second reason (the first reason being that I haven’t consumed alcohol in 15 years) why I am seldom (if ever) invited to cocktail parties.