Labor Day Weekend means that many of us will be gathering with friends and/or family for cookouts and other get-togethers. And at some point during these gatherings an awkward moment of silence will interrupt the camaraderie and conversation. To counter these awkward moments I offer below a miscellany of otherwise useless information that you should feel free to quote in order to counter these unsettling moments and keep the festivities flowing.
One word of caution, however: using too many of these factoids at any one function will undoubtedly result in you being asked to remove yourself from the gathering. Trust me; I know this from personal experience.
• The fabric denim, which became famous in the American West, was invented in Nimes, France. Thus, the fabric was known as “de Nimes,” meaning “of Nimes” and in America (and eventually the world) this was simply combined into the word we all know: denim.
• In 1626, Peter Minuit purchased the borough of Manhattan from the local Native American population for the equivalent of $24 worth of goods. The name of the borough is believed to derived from the local Native American’s expression meaning, “where we were cheated.”
• The term “white elephant” comes to us from Siam where albino elephants were believed to hold the soul of an ancient god. Since they were considered sacred, they were worshipped and draped with all manner of precious fabric and jewels. Since owning and keeping one of these rare animals was extremely expensive and since they were never put to any type of work, they came to symbolize a costly drain on and owner’s wallet. Today, we often use the synonym “pleasure boat.”
• Isaac Singer created the original lease-to-own program in America in the 1880s. Singer’s sewing machine was suffering from slow sales, largely due to it costing $125 at a time when the average American’s annual income was just $500. But Singer was convinced that his product was a good investment for American families and could save them considerable cost if he could just get it into American homes. Thus, he created the first lease-to-own program and American’s were soon lining up to bring one his sewing machines home.
• The custom of a rooster being on top of weather vanes began in the 9th century. While we tend to think of weather vanes being located on the top of barns, they were – at one time – common on church steeples and the Pope at the time decreed that all weather vanes on churches should incorporate a rooster to symbolize Peter’s denial of Christ.
• Have you ever wondered where the term “Dixie,” as referring to the American South, came from? If you are like most people you probably believe that it derives from the Mason-Dixon line, but long before the Mason-Dixon line was drawn the south was being called Dixie.
In the early 1800s, a New Orleans bank was printing $10 bills with the French word for ten, “dix,’ printed on them. Americans, of course, quickly started mispronouncing the French word, and the mispronunciation stuck. Eventually the entire American South was referred to as Dixie.
• We are all familiar with the product known as Graham Crackers, which, today, are available in a variety of flavors, from an assortment of manufacturers. And it comes as no surprise that these crackers bear the last name of their inventor. What is surprising, however, is why they were invented.
In the 1800s, a minister named Graham became alarmed by the amount of red meat Americans were consuming. Obviously, well ahead of his time, Minister Graham took his concerns a step further than we are familiar with in today’s concerns about the consumption of red meat: he blamed meat consumption for everything from sexual promiscuity to alcoholism.
So he invented a cracker that he promoted as a substitute for red meat that could be consumed with a vegetarian diet. And though the cracker remains on our store shelves today, Minister Graham’s diet plan for Americans died with him.
• If you have ever wondered why the keyboard you type on is arranged in such a peculiar fashion, it may surprise you to learn that the QWERTY (for the first 6 letter keys from the left on the top row) was specifically intended to slow typists down.
The earliest typewriters had the letter keys arranged in alphabetical order, but as typists became accustomed to the keyboard they typed so fast that the keys frequently jammed.
• I am sure that you have wondered where the legendary rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd got their name. Well, the answer is that several of the band members were expelled from high school gym class because of their long hair. So when they formed their band they decided to immortalize the gym teacher that expelled them: Leonard Skinner.
• The addictive ingredient in tobacco, nicotine, derives its name from Jean Nicot, the French ambassador who shipped tobacco from Portugal to France in 1560.
• The original name for IBM (a shortened form of International Business Machines) was Computing Tabulating Recording Company. The company’s initial products were meat scales and punch clocks. The name was changed to IBM in 1924.
Additionally, the company’s nickname, “Big Blue,” comes from its reputation as being the “bluest” of the blue chip companies on the stock market.