QI: A selection #3

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:


In classical times, memory was taught as one of the five elements of rhetoric. Being able to recite long poems or speeches required a system based on an imaginary multi-roomed building in which a speaker “placed” various objects. By assigning each place and object a meaning, the speaker could use them as memory aids (each room could be a verse, the objects in it the beginning of each line) and mentally move through the building in sequence. The same building could then be used to memorise different pieces of work.


Dave Farrow is in Guinness World Records for memorising the order of 52 decks of cards shuffled together randomly – that is, 2,704 cards. Rather than use words to remember, he creates pictures in his head; so to remember that an anti-neutrino is a subatomic particle, rather like the Ancient Greeks, he pictures an ant with a newt on its back driving an atomic submarine.


The common feeling of having a word on the tip of your tongue is known in the Cheyenne language as “losing it on my tongue”, in Korean as “sparkling on the end of my tongue” and in Japanese as “lost in my throat”. The technical term for it is presque vu (“almost seen” in French).


The sin of gluttony is more complex than it looks. Overeating is but one of six possible routes to wrongdoing at table. According to St Thomas Aquinas, equally frowned upon was eating too soon (Praepropere), eating too eagerly (Aredenter), eating too expensively (Laute) and – a blow to all devotees of nouvelle cuisine – eating too eagerly (Studiose). The word glutton comes from the Latin gluttire, to swallow or gulp.


The first recorded vending machine dispensed a four-drachma shot of holy water and was the brainchild of Heron of Alexandria, a 1st-century mathematician and engineer. Seventeen centuries later, the first vending machines arrived in London dispensing postcards. During the Second World War, vending machines were used in US factories so that workers could work longer shifts by skipping a full meal break. Airport vending machines in the Fifties sold insurance policies covering death in the event of a plane crash. Today, Japan has one vending machine for every 23 people – selling everything from beer to iPods and potted plants to knickers.


The original meaning of ventriloquism was to “speak through the stomach” – from the Latin venter (stomach) and loqui (speak). Also called gastromancy, it was used for divination rather than entertainment. Spirits were sucked up the gastromancer’s bottom and then spoke through their host’s stomach. It wasn’t until the 16th century that ventriloquism lost its occult associations. The modern “puppet on the knee” vaudeville act did not arrive until the turn of the 20th century when The Great Lester (1878-1956) formed a partnership with a hand-carved dummy called Frank Byron Jr. The hardest letters are “b”, “p” and “m”. They are often replaced with “v”, “t”, “d” and “n” spoken quickly. According to the late Ken Campbell, the hardest phrase of all is: “Who dared to put wet fruitbat turd in our dead mummy’s bed? Was that you, Verity?”


The 200,000 Yazidi, or Yezidi, are a Kurdish religious sect scattered over Iraq, Syria and Turkey who believe they are not descended from Adam, but were created separately from the rest of mankind. They worship peacocks, refuse to war anything blue and believe it is a sin to eat lettuce. If that sounds seductive, bear in mind you have to be born a Yezidi: no-one can convert to the faith.


The origins of the colour yellow’s connection with cowardice and deceit are unclear but date back at least as far as the Middle Ages, when Judas was depicted wearing yellow, and the houses of traitors in France were daubed with yellow paint. The yellow Star of David used by the Nazis was originally a medieval badge designed to mark out Jews as the people that betrayed Jesus. However the first use of ‘yellow’ as an adjective meaning cowardly was American – the circus impresario P T Barnum used it in his autobiography in 1856. In Britain, for several centuries, ‘yellow-bellied’ simply meant someone who lived in the Fens. The famous yellow taxis in New York were set up as a franchise from the Yellow Cab Company in Chicago, founded in 1915 by a Slovakian immigrant, John D. Hertz (1879-1961). Hertz chose yellow for his cabs because he’d read a survey that said it was the easiest to colour to see on a crowded street. He also started the Hertz Drive-Ur-Self Corporation, now the worlds largest car rental business, which also uses yellow as its corporate livery.


Our ”eight hours a night’ approach to sleep is only as old as the invention of electric light. In pre-industrial Europe it was normal for people to sleep and wake, sleep and wake, throughout the night. The two periods of night sleep were called first sleep (or dead sleep) and second sleep (or morning sleep) in medieval England. The periods of wakefulness between sleeps were valued as a time of quiet, or a time to eat, make love, pray, think over the dreams of the first sleep, or for poets to write. So, if you regularly wake in the night, this is probably your natural rhythm reasserting itself, rather than a sleep disorder.


If you would like to get paid for staying in bed, then Nasa could be your new employer. It is offering $17,000 to people to stay in bed for 90 days with their body tilted slightly downward (head down, feet up). The experiment is designed to investigate the changes in the body experienced in microgravity, and to improve our understanding of the physical effects of space travel.


The word yawn comes from an Old English word gionian meaning ”to gape”. Yawning and stretching at the same time is called pandiculation (from the Latin pandiculor, to stretch oneself). The main reason people yawn is to control brain temperature: yawning cools off your brain, much like a fan cools the inside of a computer. The average yawn lasts about six seconds. Your heart rate can rise as much as 30 per cent during a yawn. Fifty-five per cent of people will yawn within five minutes of seeing someone else yawn (chimps do this too) and blind people yawn more after hearing a recording of people yawning. Even reading about yawning will make you yawn. One suggested reason for yawning is that it keeps your brain alert, which is why Olympic athletes often yawn before a race and paratroopers yawn in the moments before they leap from an aircraft.


The Twelve Steps were first published in the book Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. More than 200 self-help organisations now employ 12-step principles, from Narcotics Anonymous to Clutterers and Workaholics Anonymous. Tokyo means “Eastern capital”, but before 1868 it was called Edo, meaning “estuary”, as it was little more than a fishing village. Edo’s inhabitants believed that earthquakes were caused by a giant underground catfish. In 1923, many Tokyo residents claimed that the catfish in their ponds had behaved in an agitated way shortly before a massive earthquake stuck. Osaka University researchers have studied catfish to predict seismic activity, but the results have proved inconclusive.


If you liked this, check out:

QI: A selection #1 and QI: A selection #2


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