238In this blogposting…
Now get on with it…
Viral Lies sound as if they can be caught through coughs and sneezes, that they’re dangerous to health, even that they are lethal to whole populations - like avian flu or mad cow disease.
They’re not, though. Viral Lies are an unexpected - and by no means unpleasant - result of the computer age. They exist because of the unparalleled ease with which computer-users can pass any information they like from one to another to another to another - or even from one to several dozen others.
Viral Lies, then, are about as pernicious as a drink of water. They pose as much of a threat to your physical wellbeing as a light summer breeze. Because all they are is lies and the ‘virus’ in question is of the computer variety; or at least, it behaves as if it is. Viral lies spread from computer to computer because internet and email users allow them to. In fact - and unlike real, damaging software viruses - internet surfers actually want viral lies to spread.
They work like this. Someone sends you an email they have received which contains a fascinating fact of which they and you were previously unaware. Perhaps the email says something like this:
‘Giving someone the ‘cold shoulder’ dates from mediaeval times, when most of the people in a village ate together in the communal hut round a big table. Anyone who was being ostracised would have to sit nearest the door, and thus feel the draught over one of their shoulders. They were thus literally being given the ‘cold shoulder’’. I bet you didn’t know that!'
You, too, find this piece of trivia interesting and send it to everyone on your email address list, who in turn forward it to all their contacts. And so it spreads - over immense distances and very quickly indeed.
Of course, the reason you were unaware of this explanation for ‘cold shoulder’ is that it’s not true. There is no evidence at all that ‘most of the people in a village ate together in the communal hut round a big table’. And, in any case, it wouldn’t just be the person sitting near the door who would feel a draught.
No. Some mischievous prankster - some philological mountebank - has made it all up, probably just to find out how gullible people are. It is a Viral Lie.
Viral Lies like this are as old as the computer age itself and started in an interestingly academic way.
At the University of Berkeley in California in the mid-90s, three eminent Professors cooked up the idea in order to exercise the minds of their students and to prove certain theories they had.
The Professor of English wanted to give his students something interesting and fun to do. So he asked them to dream up explanations for everyday words and phrases like sleep tight, dead ringer, upper crust and honeymoon. Some of his students excelled themselves by also concocting unlikely reasons for four-poster beds and bridal bouquets.
The Professor of Computing - a skill still in its infancy - wanted to test the effectiveness of the internet and the World Wide Web, also still mere novelties at the time. So the English students’ spurious explanations were constructed into an email and dispatched to the Professor’s sister-in-law, with the instruction to send them to everyone on her email address list.
The Professor of Psychology wanted to find out how quickly the email circulated round the world and made its way back to the University. This, he believed, would show him just how gullible people are; that, as he believed, people are prepared to believe almost anything, depending on how the information is delivered. After all, we are far more likely to believe an unlikely-sounding story if we hear it from the BBC rather than from, say, the Daily Mail.
The original email took precisely four days to be passed from contact to worldwide contact and eventually back to Berkeley (from a teacher in Japan).
Amazingly, though, that original email is still in circulation - almost 16 years later. The list of ludicrous explanations, with some minor additions and alterations, is still being passed round the world.
In my 10 or so years at the BBC, I received it at least 20 times. And I’ve received it 5 times since I retired!
It’s a masterful piece of work. The explanations sound plausible and the ‘interesting facts’ are certainly attention-grabbing….
Did you know that, although you can lead a cow upstairs, you can’t lead it downstairs?
Yes, you can.
Did you know that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon?
No, it isn’t. It’s only 20ft wide. No man-made objects are visible from the Moon.
Did you know that there’s more caffeine in tea than in coffee?
No, there isn’t.
These are classic Viral Lies, passed round the world until they achieve the status of undeniable truths, the internet equivalent of Urban Myths. But that original 16-year old email - which I last received less than a month ago - is still the best.
Here is the first paragraph…
In the 1500s they used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and then once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery.......if you had to do this to survive you were "Piss Poor". But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn't even afford to buy a pot...........they "didn't have a pot to piss in" and were the lowest of the low.
Human urine was indeed used in tanneries. In many parts of the world, it still is. But there is no evidence at all that the poor ever sold their collective urine to tanneries. After all, why would a tannery buy a commodity so freely available?
Piss-poor is simply a colourful, if perhaps vulgar, alliterative metaphor. As such, it describes grinding poverty particularly well.
It is also used to describe shoddy workmanship or any object unfit for purpose. As such, it has no link at all to 16th-century urine.
In fact, its first known use was not in the 1500s but in 1946.
Not to have a pot to piss in is an even better metaphorical description of real poverty. But that’s all it is - a metaphor which, in fact, needs no explanation. It dates from about 1905.
Let’s finally look at the next part of that Viral Lies email…
Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June. However, since they were starting to smell . .. . brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.
The first sentence is pure garbage. In the 1500s, ‘most people’ did not get married in June. Nor did they take their ‘yearly bath’ in May - they tended not to bathe at all.
Interestingly, the custom of brides carrying bouquets goes back much, much further than the 1500s and is, of course, unrelated to cleanliness. The ancient Greeks and Romans had the custom, which serves no other purpose than being splendidly decorative and uplifting, as flowers almost always are.
In later posts, I hope to set the record straight on a few more of the concocted and utterly spurious fabrications contained in the original Champion of Viral Lies.
In the meantime, watch QI on television, which thrives on debunking these modern mischievous misconceptions.
The next AGM will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 29 December at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle - handy for the sales and lots of scrummy coffee-shops.
It would be wonderfully seasonal and Dickensian and cosy to see some old friends there.
A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
...please remember to feed the birds while the weather is cold and wintery.
In fact, you could make a habit of it and feed them all the time.
(My brother tells me that the mysterious and pretty birds I’ve recently seen at my garden’s peanut feeder are bramblings, which migrate to these parts at this time of year - more fools them.)
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