QI: A selection #13

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

The study of flags is called vexillology. The Latin word for flag is vexillum – a vexillarius came to mean a standard-bearer.

Woodrow Wilson had his golf balls painted black so he could still play when it snowed.

Napoleon’s most humiliating defeat came at the hands of rabbits. In 1807, he was in high spirits having signed the Peace of Tilsit, a landmark treaty between France, Russia and Prussia. To celebrate, he suggested that the imperial court should enjoy an afternoon’s rabbit shooting. The party arrived, the shoot commenced, and the gamekeepers released the quarry. But the rabbits were tame, not wild, and thought they were about to be fed rather than killed. Rather than fleeing for their life, they mistook Napoleon for the keeper bringing them food. Napoleon was left with no other option but to run, beating the starving animals off with his bare hands. According to contemporary accounts of the fiasco, the emperor of France sped off in his coach, comprehensively beaten and covered in shame.

The Nazis made a point of looking after their rabbits really well, in order to demotivate their prisoners. They kept angora rabbits in a programme which provided warm fur to line the jackets of Luftwaffe pilots. The rabbits lived a life of luxury in the same complexes as concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau – both as a showpiece to visiting dignitaries, and as a constant reminder to prisoners of how little their lives were valued. In Buchenwald, where tens of thousands of human beings starved to death while living in terrible cramped conditions, rabbits enjoyed scientifically prepared meals and lived in their own luxurious hutches.

An astrologer once tried to sue Nasa for “upsetting the balance of the universe”. The Nasa Deep Impact probe impacted with comet Tempel 1 in 2005, creating a crater. As a result, a Russian astrologer filed a lawsuit claiming that Nasa’s landing had ruined the natural balance of forces in the universe and deformed her predictions.

The first mobile phone call took place on April 3 1973, when Motorola’s Martin Cooper called up their rival company to let them know he’d got there first. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first SMS (Short Message Service), or text message, was sent – it said “Merry Christmas”). The first mobiles had to be charged for 10 hours to give 30 minutes of battery life. A survey in 2007 found that 4.5 million mobiles are lost or damaged each year – 885,000 of them flushed down lavatories. Because gold is used as an efficient (i.e. non-tarnishable) electrical contact, a ton of mobile phones contains more gold than a ton of ore from a gold mine.

Many important things have happened in pubs down the years. Sir Thomas More was tried in a pub in Staines in 1535. Karl Marx drafted the Communist Manifesto and held lectures in a room above the Red Lion on Great Windmill Street, London. The George and Dragon in Yarm was the site of the 1820 meeting at which the decision was made to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Britain’s first railway. The Eagle in Cambridge was where Francis Crick stood up and announced that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” having finally cracked the structure of DNA in 1953. And in 2001, QI was founded over several pints of Hook Norton bitter in the Falkland Arms, Great Tew, Oxon.

The Hungarian word “goulash” actually means “cowboy”: the traditional dish is gulyásleves or “cowboy’s soup”. The Hungarian word for the stew that everybody outside Hungary refers to as goulash is pörkölt or paprikás.

Before Italy’s unification in 1861, Italian was primarily a written language based, due to authors like Aretino and Dante, on Tuscany’s dialect. Only after unification was it the national spoken language. It was not until the advent of broadcasting that standard Italian was heard in almost every home. To this day, in parts of Italy local dialect is spoken in preference to standard Italian (the famous Neapolitan songs ’O Sole Mio and Turna a Surriento are written in dialect).

Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) wrote 42 books, including works on the history of Poland, a translation of Homer’s “Iliad” into modern Italian and a five-volume science-fiction novel which predicted the motor car, the aeroplane, television and more. But his masterpiece is his 12-volume memoir, The Story of My Life. Running to 3,600 pages, the book is written in French, because Casanova thought it more sophisticated than his native Italian. Not published in full until 1960, it records each significant moment in Casanova’s life up until the summer of 1774 (when he was 49); at which point, the narrative stops in mid-sentence. The memoir was written when Casanova was in his sixties: a washed-up, impotent, pox-riddled librarian in an obscure Bohemian castle. Bored out of his mind, he began to write as “the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief”.

Part of the M6 toll road is built from copies of pulped Mills and Boon novels. 2.5 million books were shredded into a paste and then added to a mixture of asphalt and Tarmac to prevent it cracking. The British Library’s collection of Mills & Boon novels was once stored in “The Arched Room” at the British Museum, but when the library moved to its new site they were replaced with clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing that once formed part of the library of King Ashurbanipal, a sixth-century King of Assyria.

In German, to have a hangover is einen kater haben, “to have a tom-cat” or katzenjammer, meaning “the wailing of cats”. To Norwegians, it’s jeg har tommermen, “I have carpenters” (in my head, presumably) and for the French it’s avoir la gueule de bois, “to have a wooden throat”. The Italians, who don’t like getting drunk, opt for the bland postumi di sbornia, “the effects after drinking” The idea of drinking again the next morning, called in full “a hair of the dog that bit you” (a reference to a supposed remedy for rabid dog bite), really just postpones the hangover.

The word “bankruptcy” comes from the Italian banca rotta which literally means “broken bench”, although there is little evidence that the wooden moneylenders’ benches were ever actually broken to graphically display their unfitness for business. Strictly speaking, under UK law only individuals can be declared bankrupt. Businesses become insolvent and go into administration. Today you are usually discharged from your bankruptcy after a year but it will cost a minimum of £525 to go bankrupt. Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney and Oscar Wilde all went bankrupt.

In 1979, a Danish comedian, Jacob Haugaard, started a party called the “Union of Consciously Work-Shy Elements”, promising good weather, the wind at your back on all cycle paths and better furniture in Ikea. The joke paled when he won a seat in the Folketing, Denmark’s parliament. In his four years in office he managed to issue Nutella in army rations, give out bread for ducks in parks and build a bathroom in a park in Århus, where he’d started the party.

Perhaps the most famous 300 of all were the Spartan soldiers under Leonidas, who held Xerxes’s 100,000-strong Persian army for three days at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, delaying their invasion of Greece. In fact, there were only 298. One of the men was sent off to deliver a message, and the other had to sit out the fight because he had an eye infection. He did manage to redeem himself later on by dying in another battle, but the messenger committed suicide from the shame of not fighting.

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