The Pedant's Return: Why the Things You Think Are Wrong Are Right

The Pedant's Return: Why the Things You Think Are Wrong Are Right

by Andrea Barham
In The Pedant’s Revolt you learned that you were wrong about everything you thought was right. Now the Pedant returns—with a twist. The Pedant’s Return is an addictive collection of outlandish assertions that are so absurd…they must be true. Prepare to discover that you’re wrong about, well, even the things you think are


In The Pedant’s Revolt you learned that you were wrong about everything you thought was right. Now the Pedant returns—with a twist. The Pedant’s Return is an addictive collection of outlandish assertions that are so absurd…they must be true. Prepare to discover that you’re wrong about, well, even the things you think are wrong.

Apple seeds are poisonous? An electric eel can actually electrocute you? The “S” in Harry S. Truman doesn’t stand for anything? Everyone knows those are old wives’ tales…or are they? Luckily the Pedant has returned to rescue you from your ignorance and to explain to you why:

•Eating too many carrots can turn you orange
•Bone china contains actual bones
•Men have a higher pain threshold than women
•Charles Darwin married his first cousin
•A beer shortage caused the Pilgrims’ early landing at Plymouth
•Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had a genital piercing
•A citizen’s arrest is legal

From the entertainment industry to the Bible, food and drink to medical matters, royalty to birds and insects, The Pedant’s Return sets the record straight about everything you thought you knew. Prepare to be fascinated—and flabbergasted—at just how wrong you’ve been all along!

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“Imminently browsable ... should provide the trivially inclined with lots of fun.”—Publishers Weekly

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Random House Publishing Group
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Chapter One

Art and Literature

The tradesman's son who, in 1578, left school at the age of fourteen and who married at eighteen (after getting a local girl pregnant) is nowadays regarded as the greatest dramatist of all time. Therefore, as Andrew Dickson writing in The Rough Guide to Shakespeare says, "It can be a surprise to learn how much Shakespeare depended on sources and allegories for his plays and poems." John Michell, author of Who Wrote Shakespeare?, tells us that Shakespearean scholars have always admitted that "Shakespeare borrowed freely from contemporary as well as ancient authors." Said contemporaries of the up-and-coming playwright also noticed this tendency to borrow. One such was Ben Jonson, whom the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as the "second most important English dramatist" of the time. Jonson authored an epigram called On Poet-Ape that tells of a fellow writer who "would pick and glean, / Buy the reversion of old plays, now grown / To a little wealth, and credit on the scene." Jonson goes on to complain that this unnamed offender "takes up all, makes each man's wit his own, / And told of this, he slights it," adding that "he marks not whose 'twas first, and aftertimes / May judge it to be his." According to Michell, Shakespeare was most probably the subject of Jonson's epigram.

Fellow dramatist Robert Greene also harbored a grudge, calling Shakespeare "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers." And well he might, since Michell discloses that A Winter's Tale was based on one of Robert Greene's own works, a 1588 prose narrative entitled Pandosto: The Triumph of Time.

Neither was Shakespeare picky about which sources he drew upon. Dickson reveals that the Bard plundered "sensationalist romances to serious tomes such as Holinshed's Chronicles and Plutarch's Lives." Hamlet, Dickson tells us, was an earlier play dubbed the "ur-Hamlet," and King Lear was based on The Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters. Arthur Brooke's long narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet gave rise to . . . you can probably guess that one.
Shakespeare penned just under forty plays, but few have original plots. Love's Labour's Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor (the only play set wholly in Shakespeare's England), and The Tempest may be original works, but even The Tempest is thought to have been based on a 1609 shipwreck report. It is clear, therefore, that Shakespeare was not an originator of story lines: He was a dramatist. He used established tales to showcase his insightful characterization and sparkling dialogue. It is likely that he probably didn't care who said it first, just who said it best. As twentieth-century poet, critic, and playwright T. S. Eliot confided, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
Ben Jonson, in a more gracious moment, said of Shakespeare that "he was not of an age, but for all time!" but not everyone had such positive views on the writer's talent. Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw, who didn't hold Shakespeare in quite such high regard as he held himself, suggested that the Bard was "for an afternoon, but not for all time."

My own personal views on the matter are that it's much ado about nothing, but all's well that ends well.


Literary icon virginia woolf is famed for being an innovative writer and an early feminist. Quentin Bell, Woolf's nephew and biographer, reveals a surprising fact about her writing habits in his celebrated book Virginia Woolf: "She had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand to her work." Virginia was said to have explained this working arrangement in various ways, but Bell claims that "her principal motive was the fact that Vanessa [Virginia's sister and Bell's mother], like many painters, stood to work." Bell explains that Virginia felt her artistic efforts would appear less worthy when compared to those of her sister "unless she set matters on a footing of equality." This is the reason, Bell reveals, that "for many years she stood at this strange desk, and, in a quite unnecessary way, tired herself."

Julia Briggs, writing in Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, confirms this reading of the author's unusual actions, describing Virginia's relationship with her older sister as "passionate and possessive: She adored and imitated her." Briggs explains that when Vanessa began to paint professionally, Virginia took to "writing standing at a high desk, as if working at an easel." Briggs adds that imitating Vanessa proved the existence of "a barely suppressed rivalry."

It is strange to imagine the revered feminist writer striving so hard to appear as impressive as her older sister. The arresting image surely gives us further insight into her unique character. As for the fate of Virginia's three-foot-six-inch writing desk, Professor Hermione Lee informs us in Virginia Woolf that it was inherited by Bell and "had its legs chopped down."

Another "Wolf" who stood while writing was novelist Thomas Wolfe. Standing at a height of six foot six, Wolfe eschewed the discomfort of desk-writing, and worked on top of his fridge. Diane Ackerman, writing in A Natural History of the Senses, adds that Ernest Hemingway (due to a back injury) and Lewis Carroll also worked in a standing position. Evidently, Ms. Woolf was not alone in employing such an unusual authorial habit.


Ian Fleming, the famed author of the decidedly adult james Bond novels, also penned the delightful children's story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was first published as three separate tales in 1964 and 1965. The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English describes how the eponymous car was "restored from dilapidation by Commander Caractacus Pott." The car, along with the Commander, his wife Mimsie, an their twins then becomes "embroiled with smugglers." The 1968 film version, written by Roald Dahl, follows a different plot, as widower Caractacus Potts, his two children, and a new character called Truly Scrumptious all fall prey to pirates, while Potts's grandfather and children are kidnapped and then rescued by Potts and Truly.

On consideration, perhaps it's not so strange that Fleming should have penned this children's adventure: Both the Bond novels and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feature high adventure and gadget cars. The cars in the Bond films are high-tech, while the counterpart in the children's tale is magical.
Interestingly, it seems that the subject of the story, which was written for Fleming's young son, Caspar, was modeled on a real car. In The Convertible, Ken Vose reveals that the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car was based on an actual vehicle built in 1920 by Count Louis Zborowski, the millionaire racing-driver son of a Polish aristocrat. Zborowski designed and built three aeroengined cars known as "Chitty Bang Bang" in Higham Park in Kent. Vose goes on to explain that the original car was "powered by a German Maybach Zeppelin engine" and was famed for winning races speeding along at almost 120 mph. In 1921, a twelve-year-old Fleming is said to have visited the Brooklands motor-racing circuit in Surrey and watched the car race. The Count was tragically killed in the Italian Grand Prix when he crashed into a tree in October 1924. Chitty I (a second model had been built in 1921) was later bought by the sons of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and after being temporarily exhibited at Brooklands the car was eventually broken up for parts.

There are further connections between the Bond novels and the magical car. Desmond Llewelyn, famed for his role as Q in the Bond films, also appears in the film version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Coggins, the junk dealer who sells Chitty to Caractacus Potts. Gert Frobe, who plays the villain in Goldfinger, features as Baron Bomburst in the children's film.


Thomas hardy, author of great nineteenth-century novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, was very fond of his native "Wessex." In The Life of Thomas Hardy, English lecturer Paul Turner reveals that "Hardy wanted to rest with his family in . . . Stinsford Church" in Dorset. Hardy requested to be buried with his first wife, Emma. Theirs had been a strained relationship, and presumably Hardy felt he could make a final, lasting commitment to Emma once he was dead.

According to Turner, however, "the Establishment" had other ideas. "Hardy must have a public burial in Westminster Abbey." After much soul-searching, the result was a rather unsavory compromise of burying the renowned writer in two places. Turner describes how, after Hardy died, his heart was "excised, wrapped in a towel, and kept, as the parlor maid recalled, 'in my biscuit-tin' until the 'heart-burial at Stinsford.' " James Gibson, writing in Thomas Hardy: A Literary Life, explains that "the rest of him was cremated and buried in the Abbey."

There is a fanciful adjunct to the story: namely, that before the "heart-burial," Hardy's heart was believed to have been liberated from the biscuit tin by a cat, which had it for tea. The heart was then allegedly replaced with a pig's heart. The story lacks credibility, however, because the facts vary from telling to telling. Sometimes the culprit is Hardy's cat, other times Hardy's sister's cat, and occasionally the perpetrator is a dog. But the main reason it's unlikely to be true owes much to the testimony of a Dr. Edward Mann, speaking in a 1967 interview with Terry Coleman (coauthor of Providence & Mr. Hardy). Dr. Mann explained that although he had overheard the Bishop of Sherborne recounting a version of this very after-dinner story, he knew it to be false because he was the doctor who had removed Hardy's heart, and it was he who had sealed the tin.


Ernest vincent wright's 1939 novel gadsby: a story of over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E" is about a small town of the title name and the projects it undertakes. In the introduction (which does contain the letter e), Wright explains that he ensured this feat was achieved without error by typing "with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down." Wright comments that "people, as a rule, will not stop to realize what a task such an attempt actually is," adding that as he wrote, "a whole army of little Es gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon." They weren't.
Here is a short excerpt: "Just why a woman thinks that a grain of dust in a totally inconspicuous spot is such a catastrophic abnormality is hard to say; but if you simply broach a thought that a grain of it might lurk in back of a piano, or up back of an oil painting, a flood of soap-suds will instantly burst forth; and any man who can find any of his things for four days is a clairvoyant, or a magician!" Gadsby continues in this e-less, if at times convoluted, style. You can read the rest at

A similarly lipogrammatic (omitting a specific letter) work is French novelist Georges Perec's 1969 tale, La Disparition, which was also written without the letter e.


The "word" in question was "dord." in the story of webster's Third, Herbert Charles Morton explains that "it was recorded in Webster's Second in 1934 on page 771," where it remained undetected for five years. This less than satisfactory position was rectified when, as Morton reveals, "the lack of an etymology for dord . . . was noted by an editor" and was not "caught and corrected until 1940."

The "ghost word" managed to become included in Webster's Dictionary when an editor, who was collating scientific abbreviations, noted down the scientific abbreviation for density, which can be represented as an uppercase or lowercase d, i.e., D or d. The editor was collecting abbreviations because, unlike in the first edition, it had been decided that they should appear at the back of the dictionary in a separate section rather than be included in the main alphabet. In Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language, Kate Burridge reveals that "somehow this abbreviation got detached and came to be included in the main alphabet," appearing to be a synonym for density. Morton explains that on the note the "or" should have been marked to be set in italics to indicate that the letters were abbreviations. But instead, "D or d" was marked to be set in boldface in the manner of a word entry. Morton quotes Philip Babcock Gove, editor in chief of the third edition, commenting that "as soon as someone else entered the pronunciation . . . dord was given a slap on the back that sent breath into its being."

Patrick Hanks's contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Computational Linguistics confirms that the "ghost word" was "a misreading of the abbreviation 'D or d' . . . which does indeed mean 'density.' "
Burridge reveals that since "dord" made it into Webster's Dictionary, it also made it "into others." She also adds that "some (probably the embarrassed editors) have claimed that the ghost word was included to deliberately trap any would-be plagiarists." In the words of Kate Burridge--a likely story!

Chapter Two

That's Entertainment

Silent-screen star charlie chaplin made his name in the film industry of the 1920s, and was famed for his tramp character with the distinctive walk, who made his debut in the 1914 film Kid Auto Races in Venice. The Moviegoer's Companion (edited by Rhiannon Guy) describes how by 1915 Chaplin's growing fame had begun to spawn Chaplin look-alike competitions, although the aim was to imitate the "Little Tramp" persona rather than Chaplin himself. According to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton, writing in Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, promising newcomer Bob Hope "took first prize in a Chaplin contest in Cleveland" in 1915. In his autobiography Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes, Hope reveals how he used to parade about in Chaplin-style makeup in his youth, and was once rewarded for his efforts: "I was persuaded into entering a [look-alike] contest at Luna Park. . . . The result was the number-one prize--a new cooking stove for Mom."

Comedian Lou Costello also had a similar start to his career in the early 1920s, when he too won "a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest," according to Meredith Arms Bzdak and Douglas Petersen, writing in Public Sculpture in New Jersey.

Personality Comedians as Genre author Wes D. Gehring says that Chaplin entered one such contest "as a lark," but Milton confirms that in the San Francisco theater where it was held, Chaplin "failed to even make the finals." How upsetting!

Despite his lack of success in the competition, Milton records that Chaplin took the defeat in good heart, commenting to a reporter, "I am tempted to give lessons in the Chaplin walk . . . out of pity as well as in the desire to see the thing done correctly."

Meet the Author

Andrea Barham is the author of The Pedant’s Revolt, and is a technical writer in the U.K. While she is a big fan of the world, she feels that there should be less wrongness and more rightness in it. Painfully aware of her inability to correct the bigger issues such as war, poverty, and global warming, she is concentrating on smaller issues more suited to her skills, which consist of “looking stuff up.” By correcting common misconceptions such as the belief that your heart stops when you sneeze, she is hoping to create a domino effect and that eventually all wrongs will be righted, though she is not holding her breath (which, incidentally, you cannot die from). The Pedant’s Return is her sixth book.

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