A home without books is a body without soul. –Marcus Tullius Cicero
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Some stuff, you just don’t easily come across on Wikipedia and other electronic sites. This was brought home to me by an old (1928) book I happened upon recently titled NUGGETS OF KNOWLEDGE, by George W. Stimpson. This treasure trove of trivia does indeed contain nuggets of knowledge, some of which rarely seem to have found their way from printed page to Internet content. No trivia buff should be content knowing that (s)he might have been deprived of such priceless gems as the following:
Why did Samuel Clemens adopt the name Mark Twain?
Many admirers of Mark Twain are aware that he selected that pen name in 1863 (while working for a Nevada newspaper) because he had been a Mississippi River pilot and knew the name meant two fathoms. But NUGGETS OF KNOWLEDGE tells the story behind the story:
“The name was first used by an old Mississippi River pilot named Isaiah Sellers, who used to write items for the New Orleans Picayune, in which he told of his adventures in a quaintly egotistical tone. The paragraphs usually began , “My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans,” signed Mark Twain, which, in the parlance of pilots, is a leads-man call meaning two fathoms – twelve feet. Samuel Clemens, then a cub pilot, wrote a burlesque on Captain Sellers’ articles and published it in a rival paper under the signature Sergeant Fathom. Sellers never wrote another article. In 1863 Clemens was working for the [Territorial] Enterprise, published in Virginia City, Nevada. He wanted a good pen name.. While trying to think of one, he received news of the death of Isaiah Sellers. This suggested to him Mark Twain, the name once used by Sellers.”
So there you have it. The only problem with that story is that Isaiah Sellers did not die until March 6, 1864. Well, that’s life on the Mississippi. Hey, I didn’t say NUGGETS OF KNOWLEDGE was flawless.
Why are most people right-handed?
“For two thousand years or more philosophers and scientists have discussed the question of how man acquired his decided preference for the right hand. Historical records and ancient pictorial writings prove that right-handedness is of great antiquity. It is a characteristic of all peoples, no matter how isolated. One theory holds that right-handedness is fundamentally psychological. The most widely accepted theory, however, regards right-handedness as a product of primitive warfare. Primitive man was continually called upon to defend himself and his family against his fellows. In these encounters he would instinctively protect the vulnerable region around the heart by interposing his left arm, either with or without a shield, using the right hand to strike the assailant. The inevitable result was that the right arm became more developed and agile. The words meaning left-handed are synonymous in nearly all languages with indirection, insincerity, and even treachery.”
Needless to add, mistermuse is right-handed.
Are there real mermaids?
“Mermaids are mythical beings of the sea supposed to have the form of a woman above the waist and that of a fish below. There is a slight physical basis for the myth. Certain marine animals resemble human beings when seen at a distance. When Henry Hudson was on a voyage between Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla in 1608, he reported that one morning in June two of his sailors saw a mermaid who came close to the side of the vessel and gazed at them intently. Her face and breasts were those of a woman, but below she was a fish as big as a halibut and colored like a speckled mackerel. It is probable that they saw a seal, an animal then little known to Europeans.”
Having myself sailed many times between Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla, I can confirm at least the top half of what said sailors saw. Such a creature does indeed inhabit those waters, but her bottom doesn’t look as big as a hali’s butt, and all I can say about the rest is holy mackerel!
There is much more where the above came from, but time is limited, so let me close with a sampling of other questions from the book. If any whet your appetite, answers are available at a reasonable price:
Do rocks grow?
Do monkeys make bridges?
Do snakes go blind during dog days?
Where are the South Seas?
Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?
OK, that last one isn’t in the book, but you can bet your life I didn’t make it up.