Most dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other references endeavor to tell us what we don’t know, such as the meaning of the word “oxymoron” or what the serpent in last night’s dream might symbolize. Most, but not all. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s an often-ignored genre of reference books designed to tell us exactly the opposite: that what we know is wrong.
Typically, these books have words like “misinformation” or “myth information” in their titles, and here at the Anachronist Reference Library, we have two such books in our collection: The Dictionary of Misinformation, by Tom Burnam, and Myth Information by J. Allen Varasdi.
“This was not to be another book of odd facts and little known truths,” writes Burnam in the preface to his dictionary. “Quite the contrary, this was to be a book of odd (or not so odd) non-facts, of only too well-known untruths.”
So what constitutes an “odd non-fact” or “well-known untruth”? It seems whatever non-fact or untruth Mr. Burnam could get his pen on was fair game. The book runs the gamut of subject matter and touches on everything from Shakespeare quotes (“Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him well”) and the Battle of Bunker Hill, to forks and onanism.
Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him well. – The correct quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is “Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”
Battle of Bunker Hill – The battle was not fought on Bunker (or Bunker’s) Hill. The original battle report contained an error that was never corrected. The battle took place on Breed’s Hill.
Forks – There is a belief that forks were unknown until quite recently. This is not so. There is a reference to a “silvir forke” in the Oxford English Dictionary that dates back to 1463.
Onanism – This term is commonly used as if it meant masturbation, But … the word, which derives its name from the biblical character of Onan, actually means coitus interuptus.
Here’s a a typical entry (so you get the flavor and tone):
Quicklime and corpses. No matter the number of crime stories, whether fiction or purported fact, that involve the destruction of corpses by burial in quicklime, the fact is that quicklime simply does not “eat” human or animal bodies. As a matter of fact, it is more likely than not to act as a preservative. It seems more than likely that there have been murderers convicted because of quicklime rather than in spite if it.
Varasdi’s Myth Information largely takes the same tack and, indeed, both books share many of the same entries (except for this one on quicklime and corpses). Where the books differ, though, is their front matter. Whereas Burnam’s is brief and to the point, Varasdi’s gets downright philosophical about the how books like these not only help us correct our misconceptions, but prompt us “to begin to question the truth in our beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes.”
Misbelieving is not just an individual act. In fact, it is usually the result of the collective, common mentality that we call society. Misconceptions are shared and reinforced by others, particularly through the highly influential and pervasive media, especially television and movies. But the media alone cannot be blamed, since misbeliefs have existed all through history. […] Hopefully, by recognizing the fallacy in our ideas about the world, we may also begin to question the truth in our beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes.
It seems to me that the word truth in that last sentence should be in quotes (i.e., “truth”), but, there you have it: Varasdi dropping science in his introduction before dropping science in the book itself. Damn.
In closing, if you’ve ever wondered if Buffalo, New York, was named after the large plains-dwelling mammal or something else, whether “eye for an eye” really legitimizes retaliatory violence, or if “midgets and dwarves are the same thing,” then you ought to dig into to one of these not-so-run of the mill references. You just might be surprised by what you don’t know.