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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Which City Could Have Become the 51st State?

July 11, 2016

NY Token Watch | UncommonGoods

It would make sense that the novel idea of slicing off the Big Apple from the rest of the state would come from a novelist.

In the 1960s, New York City was suffering as crime rates climbed and the mighty metropolis lurched toward bankruptcy. While long-standing politicians offered few new ideas on how to wake the City That Never Sleeps from its fatal slumber, the unlikely duo of novelist Norman Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin seized the opportunity to shake up the status quo during the 1969 Democratic Mayoral Primary election–by running for Mayor and City Council president, respectively.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Do Poetry and Planets Have in Common?

June 29, 2016


Here’s a secret weapon word for serious Scrabble competitors: syzygy. The shortest word to incorporate three y’s, it’s also a term shared by poetry and astronomy. For poets, the phenomenon takes two forms: phonetic syzygy (similar to alliteration but including sounds within words), and metrical syzygy (the repetition of rhythms in the meter of the poem). For astronomers, syzygy is shorthand for the straight-line alignment of celestial bodies in the same system—a line-up of Jupiter and Mars, for example. But to understand why poetry and astronomy share this weird word, we need to look at its etymological root. It enters English via Latin (suzugia) from the Greek syzygos, meaning yoked or paired. From there, it was broadly applied to describe linked things in literature, astronomy, and other fields. Lest you think that applications of the term are rare and unrelated across these fields, you’re witnessing an example every time you look up at the full moon. And what could be more poetic than that?

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Did Ancient Cultures Have the Blues? 

June 27, 2016


Blueberries, a cloudless sky, and grandma’s hair…there’s blue all around us. But would you be aware of it if you didn’t know the word for it? This perceptual question was explored by language historian Lazarus Geiger who looked for the progression of color words in ancient languages like Greek, Chinese, and Hebrew. He found that the earliest color-related words in each culture were black and white (or dark and light). Next came red, then yellow and green. But blue was the last common color word to appear in every ancient language. The Egyptians were the first on the blue bandwagon and, not coincidentally, also the first to produce blue dye.

But the question remains: Is the ability to actually see a color dependent on having a word for it? An anthropological experiment with the Himba people of Namibia sheds some light on this dilemma. Himba participants in the study had great difficulty spotting a blue square in a palette of green squares, but no problem finding a subtly different shade of green in the same context. The Himba have many words to describe green things, but no word for blue.

Is it easy seeing green? Find out here.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Does it Mean to Mutter a Mondegreen?

June 21, 2016

26653_customkidsartWe’ve all done it—you hear a song that might not be enunciated in the King’s English, and before you know it, Jimmy Hendrix is singing “excuse me while I kiss this guy.” This odd phenomenon of auditory processing has a quirky name: a mondegreen. Surely, it’s named for Professor Charles Mondegreen who first discovered the scientific basis for such misunderstandings. No? Then it must be a strange Esperanto mash-up that translates to “green world.” Wrong again. It turns out that the term mondegreen itself is a mondegreen. You heard that right. It originates from a misheard bit of a ballad. As a child, American writer Sylvia Wright enjoyed hearing her mother read from Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. One of her favorites was a Scottish ballad concerning the death of an Earl: “They hae slain the Earl Amurray, and laid him on the green.” To Wright’s imaginative young ears, the line “laid him on the green” became “Lady Mondegreen,” and the Earl’s accidental companion in death became the official mascot of misunderstood lyrics.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: When Did Chocolate Become Hot?

June 20, 2016

A-Maze-ing Chocolate Server | UncommonGoods
Centuries before scientists began dissecting chocolate in the lab (It fights belly fat! It helps your attention span! It aids workouts!), a certain form of it was considered the pinnacle of health food: hot–okay, warm–chocolate.

In southern Mexico between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, people of the Olmec civilization ground nibs from the cacao plant into a paste, mixed it with water, then poured the substance back and forth between two jugs to achieve froth. Olmecs believed the substance contained mystic properties, hence it was saved for VIPs to consume during sacred ceremonies.

From the Olmecs, the drink spread to the Mayans and then to the Aztecs, whose leader—Montezuma II—was, perhaps, its most famous historical fan. The emperor was known to guzzle goblets of the stuff–and share only with soldiers so they could reap the concoction’s strengthening benefits. After Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs (who added sugar–unknown to the Aztecs–to the brew), he brought the chocolate sensation to Spain, where it soon spread throughout Europe.

Back in the Americas during the Revolutionary War, medics administered hot chocolate to wounded soldiers due to its perceived health benefits. (Benjamin Franklin even recommended the satisfying sip as a cure for smallpox in his 1761 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac.

All this to say, science may be pretty sweet — but our chocolate instincts are even sweeter.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Why is That Candy Bar Ticking?

June 16, 2016


18982_HellPaperweightIn the thick of World War II, both the Axis and Allies were willing to try anything to turn the tides of that terrible conflict—including death by chocolate. And we’re not talking over-the-top dessert decadence here; we’re talking about a bona fide killer candy bar. The Nazis actually attempted to assassinate Sir Winston Churchill by means of an exploding chocolate bar. Hitler’s bomb-makers coated explosive devices with a thin disguise of dark chocolate and wrapped them in luxurious black and gold paper. Labeled “Peters Chocolate,” the deadly desserts were to be slipped into the dining room used by Churchill’s War Cabinet, in hopes that the British leader would take a bite that would be his last. Fortunately for Churchill, MI5 agents headed off the plot, and the public was warned to steer clear of the tempting treats. Still, this spy story makes Wonka’s perilous chocolate factory look like a carefree trip on the Good Ship Lollipop.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Why Do Ladies Love Cool James?

June 15, 2016

Science has finally confirmed the reason ladies love the rather literally named LL Cool J—at least if humans are anything like birds, specifically nightingales. Research suggests that the quality of a male nightingale’s song lets females know how good a father he’ll be.

Bird and Nest Copper Garden Stake | UncommonGoodsThe study, published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, found that the better the male nightingale was at singing, the more often he fed his offspring, which is especially important because the males play a big role in raising their young. Because all nightingales are pretty talented singers, it’s essential that the ladies are real critics of nocturnal ditties. They listen not just for the quality of their potential mate’s chirp but also for the complexity of his crooning—scientists found that it’s flight-of-fancy variations such as “buzz,” “whistle,” and “trill” that really earn him bonus points.

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