Most of us have had it pounded into our heads by dedicated English teachers that our adverbs should end with “ly.” We should “study diligently” instead of “study diligent,” and heaven help the child who tries to “talk correct.” But it turns out, this “ly” bias has not always been the case. For example, in the Old Testament, King Darius is “exceeding glad” that Daniel wasn’t eaten by lions. When Daniel Defoe was wanted to describe the weather on Robinson Crusoe’s island, he did so by saying it was “excessive hot” and the sea was “dreadful high.” It wasn’t until the 18th century when diehard grammar enthusiasts began insisting on an “ly” in order to distinguish between adverbs and adjectives. And yet some flat adverbs have stuck with is. We sleep tight, rather than tightly. Time goes fast, rather than fastly. And, of course, we all work very hard at work, rather than working hardly.
Rocks don’t seem very fast, what with their lack of mobility and all. But they simply don’t let that stop them. The largest rocks on earth—our tectonic plates—move at cruising speeds reaching 2 inches per year. And falling rocks can really pick up speed, of course, as they accelerate at a rate of 32.174 ft/s2. In contrast, it has been much more difficult to calculate the speed of the mysterious sailing stones in Death Valley National Park. These rocks, ranging from pebbles to slabs weighing hundreds of pounds, are found scattered around the parched, dirt surface of the Racetrack Playa with what appear to be skid marks behind them, tracing a path hundreds of feet long and not always in a straight line. While these tracks have been observed for at least a hundred years, the rocks’ movement only occurs every few years, and it has never actually been observed by humans. Until 2013. In December of that year, some researchers used time lapse photography and GPS tracking, and were able to document the movement of 60 different stones. It turns out that, under certain winter conditions, a sheet of ice just millimeters thick that forms on the ground, providing a low-friction surface across which stones can slide when blown by the wind—moving up to 200 meters in a month.
Humans aren’t the only species that delights in delivering unexpected little surprises to the ones they love. Anyone with a cat is probably well aware of this fact. Dropping its prey for you to find later on your doorstep is an act of generosity—like delivering a furry fruitcake for you to nibble on. But such generosity is not limited to domesticated animals. A 2007 study showed that rats who had been helped by other rats were likely to “pay it forward” when they saw another rat in need. The males of some species of spider woo their mates by offering delectable treats wrapped in silk. (Although some male spiders can be a real Grinch, and trick the female by wrapping up something completely inedible, like seeds, prey that he has already eaten, or a fruitcake.) Vampire bats are known to share blood with the less fortunate who were unable to find prey during their feeding hours. But perhaps the sweetest gift of all is the gift of cyanide, which the male, six-spot burnet moth gives to his mate. Sure, cyanide is poisonous, but the female knows just how to transform it into a substance that keeps unwanted visitors at a distance. Like fruitcake.
All over the world, you find different traditions for holiday giving. Many countries, including the United States, hang stockings by the fireplace for Santa Clause to fill on Christmas Eve. In Germany, St. Nicholas leaves small toys and candy in children’s shoes on his saint day in early December, as does the good witch la Befana on January 6 for children in Italy. But perhaps the most unusual tradition comes from the Catalonia region in Spain. There children are given treats on Christmas Even by Tió de Nadal—the Christmas Log. Beginning on December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), children give the Christmas Log a cozy place to live, “feeding” it a little food from their dinner each night, and even giving it a blanket to keep warm. On Christmas Eve, the children are sent into another room to pray for the tio to deliver lots of presents, and while they are doing so, the adults quickly hide candy and other treats under the log’s blanket. When the children return, they command the log to poop. They sing songs while hitting it with a stick in order to help it do so, and after each song, an adult reaches under the blanket to reveal another goodie that the log has produced. It gives one reason to be grateful that America has decided to stick with stockings.
Sure, large stretches of Russia are essentially a frozen wasteland for half of the year, but that’s no reason not to have fun. In fact, starting in the 17th century, the Russians developed a unique winter pastime. Called the Russian Mountain, it involved a scaffolding (sometimes up to 200 feet tall) built to support a wooden ramp, which would then be covered with ice to create an instant, high-adrenaline sledding hill. The Russian Mountains were so popular that Catherine the Great not only demanded to have one built at her private residence, but it also required that it be available for her use during the summer as well. That presented a bit of a problem. But after some thought, her enterprising engineers came up with a modified version that, instead of relying on ice, used wheels to send its toboggans careening along a sloping track. Enterprising businessmen began to copy this new thrill ride—which one might describe as involving rolling and coasting—all across Europe and eventually across the Atlantic, where innovations like the circular track and the “lift hill” were perfected. Ironically, when the new, American-style roller coasters began to pop up in Russia a hundred years later, they were known as “American Mountains.”