What Do Rabbits and Eggs Have To Do With Easter?

If, like me, you have ever wondered what things as disparate as bunnies and eggs have to do with the resurrection of Jesus in Christianity, then check out Vox’s quick but comprehensive explanation of these unusual symbols.

First, the iconic Easter Bunny.

The first historical references we have to an Easter Bunny date to the 16th-century German tale. According to this legend, a mysterious creature named Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, visited children while they slept and rewarded them for their good behavior (similar to Santa). The children made nests for the hare, which would then lay colored eggs in them.

The tale was then brought to America by Germany immigrants in the 18th century. In the United States, the hare became a rabbit and grew in prominence as books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Easter Bunny That Overslept (1957) were published. In 1971, ABC aired a television special called Here Comes Peter Cottontail based on a 1957 book.

The history of why, exactly, German Protestants came to associate Easter with a magical hare is somewhat murky.

One theory is that hares were traditionally associated with new life, due to their high fertility rate. Some have theorized that there is a connection between hares and the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre —€” the goddess from whose name “Easter” may be derived, according to one source.

Eggs, meanwhile, have a more complex and ancient origin. Continue reading

Why Do We Call Turkey, “Turkey”?

Of course, by “we” I mean English-speakers, and there are several theories, all of which seem plausible. From The Atlantic

The linguist Mario Pei theorized that more than five centuries ago, Turks from the commercial hub of Constantinople (which the Ottomans conquered in the mid-15th century) sold wild fowl from Guinea in West Africa to European markets, leading the English to refer to the bird as “turkey coc” or “turkey coq” (coq being French for “rooster”), and eventually “turkey” for short. When British settlers arrived in Massachusetts, they applied the same terms to the wild fowl they spotted in the New World, even though the birds were a different species than their African counterparts. The etymology expert Mark Forsyth, meanwhile, claims that Turkish traders brought guinea fowl to England from Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, and that Spanish conquistadors then introduced American fowl to Europe, where they were conflated with the “turkeys” from Madagascar. Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, argues that Europeans imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia (which was sometimes mixed up with India) via the Mamluk Turks, and then confused the birds with North American fowl shipped across the Atlantic by the Portuguese.

It gets more interesting: the Turks called the turkey “hindi” because they thought it origined from India. The French had also called the bird “poulet d’Inde” (literally “chicken from India”), which has since been abbreviated to dinde, and similar terms exist in languages ranging from Polish to Hebrew to Catalan. The Dutch called it kalkoen, which means “hen from Calicut”, a major Indian city at the time. The Indians, for their part, called turkey “piru” or “peru” in some dialects, the latter being how the Portuguese refer to turkey. Malaysians call turkey “ayam blander” (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians opt for “moan barang” (“French chicken”).

Whatever its etymology, most people would call it delicious (although — not to put a damper on Thanksgiving — the modern turkey has unappetizingly deviated much from its original stock).

Coca-Cola Anniversary

On this day in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, American pharmacist John Pemberton first began selling his newly-invented carbonated beverage, Coca-Cola, which he patented as a medicine and claimed was a “valuable brain tonic” that would cure headaches, relieve exhaustion and calm nerves. 

Launched amid growing concern about depression, alcoholism, and anxiety, it was marketed as “delicious, refreshing, pure joy, exhilarating,” and “invigorating” and was particularly targeted towards war veterans, “highly-strung” women, and “all those whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration (weakness).”

A Confederate veteran of the U.S. Civil War, Pemberton became addicted to the morphine that was used on wounded soldiers and began working on opium-free painkillers that would serve as an alternative. He began experimenting with coca and coca wines, eventually creating “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca”, his own version of Vin Mariani (an alcoholic coca-based French tonic) that also contained kola nut (a caffeine-rich fruit) and damiana (a chamomile-like shrub).

When Atlanta and Fulton County enacted temperance legislation, Pemberton was forced to produce a non-alcoholic alternative to this product, turning to fellow pharmacist Willis Venable to test and formulate the perfect concoction. With his assistance, and after much trial and error, Pemberton worked out a formula after accidentally blending the base syrup of his existing coca drink with carbonated water (the latter then considered to have medicinal properties).

He then turned to marketer Frank Mason Robinson to come up with a name; Robinson opted for “Coca-Cola” because it captured the two main ingredients (coca and kola nut) while offering a catchy, alliterative sound (which was popular among other medicines of the time). Robinson also hand-wrote the name in the recognizable Spencerian script that remains iconic to this day.

Funny enough, the controversy over its cocaine content would later prompt The Coca-Cola Company to state that the name was “meaningless but fanciful.”

Soon after Coca-Cola hit the market, Pemberton fell ill and became nearly bankrupt, with his morphine addiction worsening. He began selling the rights to some of his Atlanta business partners, but suspected that his formula would “some day…be a national drink” and attempted to retain some share of the ownership to leave to his son. However, two years later Pemberton and his son would sell the remaining portion of the patent to tycoon Asa Candler, who would ultimately make Coca-Cola the global brand it is today.

Did the Ancient Romans Have Designated Vomit Rooms?

There is a common misconception that the Ancient Romans created rooms called vomitoria for the sole purpose of vomiting food, which they would do regularly as part of a decadent binge and purge cycle.

In actuality, such a gluttonous practice was never common in Rome, and although vomitoria did exist, they were not used for actual vomiting. Rather, the vomitorium was an entranceway through which crowds entered and exited a stadium.

Behold the decadent vomitorium.

The world vomitorium comes from the Latin verb vomitum, which means “to spew forth” — thus a vomitorium was designed to rapidly spew forth a large number of people. Given the loose application of the word, and the widespread stereotype of Rome as a center of moral decay and debauchery, it’s an understand misconception

Was Napoleon Bonaparte Short?

Popular culture is full of references to the famous French emperor being short. Heck, his name is even used to describe a presumed psychological phenomenon in which men of short stature compensate for their size by being more aggressive and domineering. (How insecure to you have to be to conquer all of Europe just to make up for your height?)

But contrary to popular belief, Napoleon Bonaparte was not short — in fact, he was actually slightly taller than the average French male of his time.

After his death in 1821, the French emperor’s height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet, which translates to 5 feet 7 inches in the English equivalent. Many people didn’t take into account the distinction, since there wasn’t a standardized international system of measurements yet. (Sure enough, it would be the French that would come up with a universal metric system in 1799.)

Other factors contributed to this widespread belief. It didn’t help that the rival English had an obvious bias against Napoleon, and thus caricatured him as short in comparison to their own mighty toops. He was often seen in the company of his Imperial Guard, who were themselves even taller than average, as such elite troops tended to be. His nickname of “Le Petit Caporal” or “The Little Corporal” is also cited as evidence that he was short, but is now believed to have simply been a term of affection by his troops.

Although Napoleon’s actual height still seems unremarkable by modern standards, the average male at his time was shorter than men nowadays. The audacious emperor had many reasons for changing the face of Europe — compensating for a diminutive stature was certainly not one of them.

A Brief Bio of the Pirate Who Made the Eyepatch Vogue

As we all know, one of the most iconic features of a pirate is the eyepatch. This ubiquitous attribute is allegedly inspired by the Arab pirate Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, an 18-century pirate who wore it after losing an eye during a battle. He is considered to be one of the most ruthless, fearless, and successful pirates in the Persian Gulf, if not the world.

Rahmah was born in 1760 in Qurain (modern day Kuwait) and began life as a mere horse dealer. Aspiring for greater and more daring things, he used the money he saved to buy his first ship and then set out with ten companions to begin a career of buccaneering. He was so successful that he quickly acquired a new craft: a 300-ton boat manned by 350 men. He would later have as many as 2,000 followers, many of whom were African slaves. His most prominent flagship was the Al-Manowar, which he derived from the British expression “man-of-war” to describe large and powerful warships.

Rahmah become a major political force in the region, forming alliances with many regional rulers and opposing the powerful Al-Khalifa family that ruled the strategic island of Bahrain. He formed an alliance with the first Saudi dynasty when it conquered Bahrain, thereafter founding the fort of Dammam on Saudi soil in 1809. But after the Saudis were expelled, the opportunistic Rahmah allied himself with the rulers of Muscat in 1816, joining them in their own failed invasion of Bahrain.

He died on his ship, Al-Ghatroushah, in 1826 during a sea battle against the vengeful Al-Khalifa. As the battle was being lost and his ship was being boarded, Rahmah, with his eight-year-old son by his side, lit the gunpowder kegs onboard, killing all of his men and the enemy raiders, preferring to die by his own hand than by the hands of Al-Khalifa.

Ching Shih: The Most Powerful Pirate You’ve Never Heard Of

One of the most powerful pirates in history was a woman by the name of Ching Shih, meaning “widow of Zheng”. Known also as Cheng I Sao, she practically controlled much of the China Sea in the early 19th century.

Little is known about her early life, not even her birth name and date of birth. She was a Cantonese prostitute who worked in a small brothel but was eventually captured by pirates. In 1801, she married Zheng Yi, a notorious and powerful Cantonese pirate; when he died in 1807, Ching Shih immediately began maneuvering her way into his leadership position, using cunning, charm, and connections to consolidate power and build loyal coalition of captains — not an easy feat for anyone, especially a woman at that time.

At the height of her power, she commanded the “Red Flag Fleet”, which comprised over 300 vessels manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates — though some estimates place her fleet at 1,800 ships with a crew of about 80,000, which included women and even children. Her forces dominated many coastal villages, in some cases even imposing levies and taxes on settlements.

She challenged all of the major empires of the area, including the Qing, the British, and the Portuguese. Unable to defeat her, they offered an amnesty to all pirates in 1810, which Ching Shih accepted. She ended her career that year, kept her loot, and opened a gambling house. She died in 1844, at the age of 69, thus having the distinction of being one of the few pirate captains to retire and live out their lives peacefully.

Pirate Democracy

This fun fact was so intriguing I just had to devote a post to it.

Unique for their time, many pirate crews in the Caribbean actually operated as limited democracies. In fact, pirates were some of the first people to instate a system of checks and balances similar to the one used in the United States, and many reportedly had racially diverse crews.

For example, it was common among some pirate communities to elect the captain and the quartermaster (second-in-command). They in turn appointed the ship’s other officers, similar to the way the executive branch selects cabinet positions. The captain of a pirate ship based his authority on trust rather than brute force or tradition. In many instances, particularly during battle, the quartermaster usually had the real power on the ship.

Many groups of pirates shared in whatever they seized, and pirates injured in battle might even be given special compensation similar to medical or disability insurance. Pirates often placed a portion of their loot into a central fund that was used to compensate the injuries sustained by the crew, based on contractual terms agreed upon and written down by the pirates.


An-arrghchy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization, by Peter Leeson. 

Hydrarchy: Sailors, Pirates, and the Maritime State, by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.

To Do Justice LinksTo Sailors: Villains of all nations, Atlantic pirates in the golden age, by Marcus Rediker.

Our Crazy English Language

The following has been making the rounds on Tumblr, and I wish I could determine the source to give due credit. It’s been shared so many times that it’s essentially a part of the web now.

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm goes off by going on. English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.