WTF Fun Fact 13190 – Victorian Pteridomania

Victorians had a lot of fun quirks, especially when it came to nature and collecting. For example, in 1829, “fern fever,” also called Pteridomania, gripped amateur botanists around Europe and the U.S.

What set off “fern mania”?

The craze for ferns (yes, the plants) came about in part as a result of an invention by a British surgeon. Nathaniel Bagshaw Warn invented the Wardian case. It was a mini greenhouse that could keep plants alive in England despite the dreary weather. Exotic specimens were being collected all over the world. Thanks to the case, they could now be brought back and put on display in greenhouses and in homes with grimmer weather.

According to Atlas Obscura (cited below): “His invention allowed botanist George Loddiges to build the world’s largest hothouse in East London, which included a fern nursery.”

What was Pteridomania?

Ferns were associated with fairies and other mythical creatures, so it wasn’t hard to get people interested in them. But Loddiges needed visitors to keep his hothouse operating. So he spread the (unsubstantiated) word that spending time around ferns could increase intelligence and virility, and improve mood. That was enough to get people interested in not only visiting his fern collection but to start mini collections of their own.

Amateur botany transcended classes, and everyone from aristocrats to miners started collecting ferns as a hobby. When the Victorians weren’t collecting ferns they were reading about them. Roughly 300 books on ferns were published during this time. 

According to Atlas Obscura, things eventually got out of hand.

“Since the fern was not easy to cultivate, even with Wardian cases at hand, prices soon skyrocketed. After all, there were only 40 types of ferns in the English countryside, and collectors needed more. A non-British specimen could cost up to the Victorian equivalent of 1,000 pounds. Professional fern hunters wrote accounts of scouring the West Indies, Panama and Honduras for a never-seen-before fern. If you could not afford to sponsor a scientific expedition to South America or Asia, there was always the notorious underworld to turn to: crimewaves of fern-stealing plagued the countryside for decades.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “How the Victorian Fern-Hunting Craze Led To Adventure, Romance, and Crime” — Atlas Obscura

WTF Fun Fact 13187 – Writing the Oxford English Dictionary

It’s no surprise that writing the first comprehensive dictionary (complete with linguistic and historical details) took many years. But writing the Oxford English Dictionary took many decades. To give you some perspective, it took the writers five years just to reach the word “ant.”

The history of writing the Oxford English Dictionary

The OED (as it’s abbreviated) project took a long time to get going. It all started in 1857 when members of the Philological Society of London decided that no current English dictionaries were acceptable and that they should spearhead the ultimate version. It wasn’t until 1879 that, according to the OED website (cited below) “the Society made an agreement with the Oxford University Press and James A. H. Murray to begin work on a New English Dictionary (as the Oxford English Dictionary was then known).”

The goal was to produce a 4-volume dictionary of roughly 6,400 words with every English word recorded from 1150 AD to the present. The writers estimated that the project would take 10 years.

However, after five years, the writers had just reached the word “ant” near the middle of the A section. There was a long way to go!

This was partly due to the level of detail necessary to trace the origins of words as well as their evolution. And since language never stops evolving, some work had to be redone during the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. To this day it remains a “living document,” updated frequently.

The first part (or fascicle) of the OED was planned for an 1884 publication, but that didn’t quite work out. It would take an extra 30 years.

The dictionary required teamwork

As the team of writers grew larger, the work moved more quickly.

Murray directed a growing team and the last fascicle was published in April of 1928. Sadly, Murray did not live long enough to see the completion of the original OED since he died in 1915.

The final version of the OED was far larger than planned. It stretched to 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes (instead of the planned six). It continues to be updated to this day.  WTF fun facts

Source: “History of the OED” — Oxford English Dictionary

WTF Fun Fact 13180 – Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the fear of long words. And someone clearly had a sense of humor when they created it to be one of the longest words in the English dictionary.

What is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia?

Well, for starters, the tongue-twister isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychological Association’s DSM 5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used to make diagnoses) as an actual phobia. It’s more of a curiosity and an excuse to show off your language skills.

One can also refer to the fear of long words as “sesquipedalophobia.”

But before you think it’s ridiculous, note that psychologists do categorize hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia as a social phobia.

According to the DSM-5, criteria for social phobias require a patient to have the following:

  • a fear or anxiety about social situations where a person may be examined, like meeting new people or having a conversation
  • the fear or anxiety is disproportionate to the social situation
  • the fear or anxiety is persistent, and the social situation is excessively avoided
  • the fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinical distress

What causes such a unique phobia?

According to Healthline (cited below), social phobias like this can be associated with a negative event that was scary or traumatic at the time, a family history of phobias or other mental health issues, a person’s environment (especially if they see someone else develop a similar phobia), and changes in brain function. It’s certainly not something to make light of or ignore.

However, people may not seek treatment for fear of stigma, even from doctors. They’re more likely to take jobs or lead lifestyles that don’t require them to use long words. And there’s no official “limit” of word length that qualifies someone for this phobia.

The good news is that there are treatments and coping mechanisms one can explore with a professional to help someone afflicted with hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, whether it’s helping them manage anxiety symptoms or overcome their fear altogether with training.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “What is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia?” — Healthline

WTF Fun Fact 13178 – The FBI and “Louie Louie”

Did you know there’s a connection between the FBI and the song “Louie Louie”? The FBI launched a criminal investigation into the Kingsmen’s song back in the mid-1960s to determine whether the lyrics were obscene. In fact, that investigation lasted two years!

The strange story of the FBI and “Louie Louie”

A letter from a concerned parent in 1964 asking to “stamp out this menace” of obscenity in music is one of many interesting pieces of the available-but-redacted FBI document on the song.

Of course, if you listen to the song, you’re likely to not understand any of the lyrics at all. They’re muddled at best and nonsensical even if you can make them out. But like so many musical conspiracy theorists, a handful of people thought they heard pornographic lyrics if they slowed the record down. The lyrics the complainants came up with said a lot more about the complainers than the artists!

For the record, here are the actual lyrics to “Louie Louie”:

Louie, Louie,
me gotta go.
Louie, Louie,
me gotta go

A fine little girl, she wait for me;
me catch a ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone;
I never think I’ll make it home

Three nights and days we sailed the sea;
me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there;
I smell the rose, in her hair.

Louie, Louie,
me gotta go.
Louie, Louie,
me gotta go

A fine little girl, she wait for me;
me catch a ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone;
I never think I’ll make it home

Three nights and days we sailed the sea;
me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there;
I smell the rose, in her hair.

Nothing obscene there!

Closing the investigation

The FBI never contacted singer Jack Ely during the two years of the FBI investigation. In fact, they closed the case saying: “, the man who sang the words of the song in the first place. At the end of the two years, the FBI didn’t even exonerate “Louie Louie,” they simply said that “the lyrics of the song on this record was not definitely determined by this Laboratory examination, it was not possible to determine whether this recording is obscene.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “The FBI Investigated the Song ‘Louie Louie’ for Two Years” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13176 – A Mortician’s Job Title

The funeral industry has a number of job titles. But what was once known as an “undertaker” wasn’t getting enough interest back in the late 19th century. That’s when the industry decided to change its name to “mortician.” A mortician’s job title was the result of a PR campaign and a magazine plea.

The term mortician was invented as part of a PR campaign by the funeral industry, which felt it was more customer-friendly than “undertaker.” The term was chosen after a call for ideas in Embalmer’s Monthly.

A PR boost for a mortician’s job

According to Mental Floss (cited below), the more customer-friendly “mortician” came after a plea for new ideas on renaming the undertaker’s position in the 1895 edition of the trade magazine The Embalmers’ Monthly. If you’re missing that particular issue, Mental Floss can fill in the blanks.

It appears that the job title of mortician was believed to be “more customer-friendly than undertaker, which originally referred to the contractor who undertakes all the funeral arrangements, but had become tarnished by its centuries-old association with, well, death.”

But there was more to a mortician’s job than just a name change. As embalming became more widespread, those who had the skill wanted to distinguish themselves from “the undertakers of the past…”

Mental Floss notes that “Embalmers’ Monthly put out a call for suggestions. The next month they declared mortician the winner: It elegantly combined the Latin root for death, mort-, with physician, referencing embalming’s scientific, high-status connection with the medical profession. Of course, everyone except the morticians hated it.”

Grammarians hated the fact that it was an unattested word in Latin (one made up from pieces of the language and never used in the ancient world). The Chicago Tribune even banned the use of the word. And yet, today, we use it without thinking.

Eventually, people simply forgot it was a made-up word.  WTF fun facts

Source: “How Morticians Reinvented Their Job Title” — Mental Floss

WTF Fun Fact 13168 – The Dot Over the i

We’ll be honest, we’ve never actually wondered what the dot over the i or j (in lowercase, of course) was called. But if you’ve been curious, kudos to you for noticing the small things! And to answer your question, it’s called a “tittle.”

Why do we have marks over letters and characters?

Many languages have what we call diacritic marks over a character in order to change its sound or meaning. But English only has two letters with a diacritic – lowercase i and j. They’re always there and don’t change anything about the sound or meaning of the letter (in English, at least).

According to “The small distinguishing mark you see over a lowercase i and a lowercase j is called a tittle—an interesting name that looks like a portmanteau (combination) of tiny and little, and refers to a small point or stroke in writing and printing. Generally, a diacritic dot such as a tittle is also referred to as a glyph, a mark that adds meaning to the written letter. However, in regards to i and j, the removal of the mark is still likely to be read as I or J; as such, these are not true examples of a glyph.”

Why is the dot over the i and j called a tittle?

Who comes up with these things anyway?

Well, tittle comes from the Latin word “titulus.” A titulus is an inscription or heading. The word appeared for the first time in the 11th century as monks were copying manuscripts from the ancient world. Back in that day, handwriting was very different, and letters could easily get confused or blend together. As you may have guessed, i and j posed particular problem. That’s why copiers needed to come up with a diacritic to distinguish them from other letters.

It wasn’t until the 1400s when the printing press and typefaces were invented that the diacritical mark turned into just a small dot above each letter.

In other words, they’re simply a relic of a time when everything was handwritten.  WTF fun facts

Source: “What’s The Name For The Dot Over “i” And “j”?” —

WTF Fun Fact 13166 – Most Misspelled Word

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the most commonly misspelled word is “publicly.”

The most misspelled word

Publicly may be the most commonly misspelled word because it violates a spelling rule in English. Words that end in “ic” get “ally” added to the end (like magic and magically). But public only gets an “ly.” This causes people to often misspell it as “publically.”

It seems like an unlikely word to misspell – or at least misspell most often. But other sources have other words that they believe are the most misspelled.

Other commonly misspelled words

Misspelling words can be hazardous to your success. According to CNBC, “According to one survey, 43% of hiring managers automatically chuck a candidate’s resume if it has spelling errors. Another showed that 79% of recruiters and human resource managers said spelling and grammatical mistakes were the biggest ‘deal breakers’ in job hunting.”

They also gathered grammar experts to alert us to some of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language. These include:

  • Accommodate (it’s hard to remember that there are two sets of double letters — “cc” and “mm”)
  • Acknowledgment
  • Acquire (people often forget the “c”)
  • Apparent
  • Calendar (really? c’mon, folks!)
  • Colleague
  • Conscientious
  • Consensus
  • Entrepreneur
  • Experience (people often assume it ends in “ance”)
  • Indispensable
  • Liaison
  • License
  • Occurred
  • Recommend
  • Successful
  • Until (seriously?)

Clearly, folks missed a lot of spelling classes in elementary school!

Depending on which source you’re asking, there may be a whole different list of “most commonly misspelled words.”

We all have some easy words we misspell by transposing letters or forgetting a vowel. Maybe we’ve become too reliant on spell checkers (or simply don’t care to get it right). But one thing is for sure, most of us could use a refresher of our 3rd-grade spelling class.  WTF fun facts

Source: “These are the 32 most commonly misspelled words, say grammar experts. How many can you get right?” — CNBC

WTF Fun Fact 13158 – Baby Puffins

Baby puffins are called pufflings. How adorable is that?

A stranger fact about baby puffins

Ok, now that you know pufflings exist, did you know that on Iceland’s Westman Islands (aka Vestmannaeyjar), puffling season means throwing the animals off cliffs? We promise it’s not what it sounds like.

People do it to save their lives.

According to NPR:

“The chicks of Atlantic puffins, or pufflings, hatch in burrows on high sea cliffs. When they’re ready to fledge, they fly from their colony and spend several years at sea until they return to land to breed, according to Audubon Project Puffin. Pufflings have historically found the ocean by following the light of the moon… Now, city lights lead the birds astray.”

Now, some of the residents of Vestmannaeyjar “spend a few weeks in August and September collecting wayward pufflings that have crashed into town after mistaking human lights for the moon. Releasing the fledglings at the cliffs the following day sets them on the correct path.”

So they don’t chuck them off cliffs (although some may toss them less gently than need be) – they just lead them back to where they belong (or have a better chance of surviving). It’s amazing how light pollution can disrupt an ecosystem!

Puffling lives

Since a pair of puffins mates for life but only raise one egg per season, the loss of a whole generation could be devastating to their populations.

You could even get a chance to help save the pufflings if there’s a colony around you. Their seasons will depend on food supplies and light conditions.

If you decide to go on Puffin Patrol, it’s best to search for them at night with a flashlight in places where they might find food. It sounds like a great reason to go on vacation from August through September!  WTF fun facts

Source: “Puffin Chicks” — Audobon Project

WTF Fun Fact 13157 – First Use of the Word Unfriend

In the Appeal of Injured Innocence, the word “unfriend” was coined in 1659 by Church of England clergyman Thomas Fuller.

What’s the context around the first use of the word unfriend?

Did you think “unfriend” was a word before Facebook? We did, and we were wrong.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first citation of the word “unfriend” (AND “muggle”!) was in a 13th-century epic Middle English poem Brut by Layamon. There are two uses of the word in the poem.

Of course, it’s a little hard to read English from this time, but it may be easier to say it out loud: “We sollen … slean houre onfrendes and King Learwenden after Brenne.” And “Wend to oure onfreondes and drif heom of blonde.”

Ok, that might seem like cheating. But unfriend was a word used throughout the Middle ages to denote one who is not a friend (but not quite an enemy).

Unfriend becomes a verb

Unfriending someone seems very Facebook-specific, but the word was also used for a very long before the 21st century (though still not as a verb). We have Shakespeare to thank for using ‘unfriended’ to refer to someone who has lost their friends. For example, in Twelfth Night, he wrote “Being skilless in these parts; which to a stranger, / Unguided and unfriended, often prove / Rough and unhospitable.”

In King Lear: “Sir, will you, with those infirmities she owes—. / Unfriended, new adopted to our hate.”

It was used as a verb in the 17th century when, in 1658, Church of England clergyman Thomas Fuller wrote to Peter Heylin, who had criticized Fuller’s The Church History of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year 1648,

“I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually un-friended by this difference which hath happened betwixt us. And now, as duellers, when they are both out of breath, may stand still and parley, before they have a second pass, let us in cold blood exchange a word, and, mean time, let us depose, at least, suspend, our animosities.
[…] I conceive our time, pains, and parts may be better expended to God’s glory, and the Church’s good, than in these needless contentions. Why should Peter fall out with Thomas, both being disciples to the same Lord and Master? […]
Who knoweth but that God, in his providence, permitted, yea, ordered, this difference to happen betwixt us, not only to occasion a reconciliation, but to consolidate a mutual friendship betwixt us during our lives, and that the survivor (in God’s pleasure only to appoint) may make favourable and respectful mention of him who goeth first to his grave?”

But as Interesting Literature (cited below) points out, Facebook still doesn’t take the cake for the first to use the word for social media purposes. “But even in social media circles, ‘unfriend’ predates Facebook, with which it is not most closely associated.

“Its origin, or at least its first recorded use, was on Usenet in 2003: ‘I have been “unfriended” by somebody in the LJ world today.”

 WTF fun facts

Source: “The Curious Origin of the Word’ Unfriend'” — Interesting Literature