135 Amazing Facts for People Who Like Amazing Facts

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Store these away for future trivia nights.

1. Mister Rogers always mentioned out loud that he was feeding his fish because a young blind viewer once asked him to do so. She wanted to know the fish were OK.

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2. Boring, Oregon and Dull, Scotland have been sister cities since 2012. In 2017, they added Bland Shire, Australia to their "League of Extraordinary Communities."

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3. Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt once sneaked out of a White House event, commandeered an airplane, and went on a joyride to Baltimore.

Amelia Earhart
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4. If you have the feeling you’ve experienced an event before in real life, call it déjà vu. If you feel like you’ve previously experienced an event in a dream instead, there’s a different term for it: déjà rêvé.

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5. During Prohibition, moonshiners would wear "cow shoes." The fancy footwear left hoofprints instead of footprints, helping distillers and smugglers evade police.

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6. Since founding the Imagination Library in 1995, Dolly Parton has donated 100 million books to children.

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7. The 100 folds in a chef's toque are said to represent 100 ways to cook an egg.

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8. In curling, good sportsmanship and politeness are essential. Congratulating opponents and abstaining from trash talk are part of what's known as the "Spirit of Curling."

Throwing curling stone across the ice.
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9. In 1974, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis published a paper titled "The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of 'Writer's Block.'" It contained a total of zero words.

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10. Guinness estimates that 93,000 liters of beer are lost in facial hair each year in the UK alone.

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11. George Washington served an eggnog-like drink to visitors at Mount Vernon. His recipe included rye whiskey, rum, and sherry.

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12. Some cats are allergic to humans.

13. Queen Elizabeth II is a trained mechanic.

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14. Volvo gave away the 1962 patent for their revolutionary three-point seat belt for free, in order to save lives.

Volvo logo
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15. Tsundoku is the act of acquiring books and not reading them.

16. Ravens in captivity can learn to talk better than parrots.

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17. Bela Lugosi was buried in full Dracula costume—cape and all.

18. Central Park's lampposts contain a set of four numbers that can help you navigate. The first two tell you the nearest street, and the next two tell you whether you're closer to the east or west side of the park (even numbers signal east, odd signals west).

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19. A teacher wrote of a young Roald Dahl on his school report card: "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended."

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20. The only Blockbuster store in the world that is still operating is in Bend, Oregon.

21. Blood donors in Sweden receive a thank you text when their blood is used.

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22. Kea parrots warble together when they're in a good mood, making them the first known non-mammal species to communicate with infectious laughter.

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23. Long before rap battles, there was "flyting": the exchange of witty, insulting verses. The verbal throwdowns were popular in England and Scotland from the 5th to 16th centuries.

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24. Melbourne gave some of its trees email addresses so residents could report problems. Instead, the trees received love letters.

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25. An estimated 1 million dogs in the U.S. have been named primary beneficiary in their owners' wills.

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26. At Petrified Forest National Park, visitors sometimes break the rules (and the law) by taking rocks home with them. According to rangers, they often end up returning the stolen goods in the mail—along with an apology note.

Petrified Forest National Park
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27. The Russians showed up 12 days late to the 1908 Olympics in London because they were using the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar.

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28. Maya Angelou was the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

Maya Angelou
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29. In Japan, letting a sumo wrestler make your baby cry is considered good luck.

Sumo wrestlers making babies cry (for luck!)
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30. J.K. Simmons has been the voice of the Yellow Peanut M&M since the late 1990s.

J.K. Simmons
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31. Count von Count's love of numbers isn't just a quirky character trait—in traditional vampire folklore, the bloodsuckers have arithmomania, a compulsion to count.

Count von Count
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32. In Great Britain and Japan, black cats are perceived as auspicious. In the English Midlands, new brides are given black cats to bless their marriage, and the Japanese believe that black cats are good luck—particularly for single women.

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33. Portland was named by a coin flip. Had the coin landed the other way, the city would be Boston, Oregon.

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34. During World War I, a Canadian soldier made a black bear his pet and named her Winnipeg. “Winnie” was later a resident of the London Zoological Gardens where she was an adored attraction, especially to a boy named Christopher Robin, son of author A.A. Milne. The boy even named his teddy bear after her.

Christopher Robin Milne
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35. Sleep literally cleans your brain. During slumber, more cerebrospinal fluid flushes through the brain to wash away harmful proteins and toxins that build up during the day.

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36. Neil Armstrong's astronaut application arrived a week past the deadline. A friend slipped the tardy form in with the others.

37. Due to the restaurant's reputation for staying open in extreme weather, the so-called “Waffle House Index” is informally used by FEMA to gauge storm severity.

Waffle House
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38. The first sales pitch for the Nerf ball was “Nerf: You can’t hurt babies or old people!”

Nerf
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39. The manchineel tree is nicknamed the "Tree of Death" for good reason: Touching it can leave chemical burns on your skin, its fruit is toxic, and its bark—when burned—can cause blindness.

Manchineel Tree, Mustique
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40. If drivers adhere to the 45 mph speed limit on a stretch of Route 66 in New Mexico, the road's rumble strips will play a rendition of "America the Beautiful."

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41. Russian cosmonauts used to pack a shotgun in case they landed in Siberia and had to fend off bears.

Siberia
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42. Space has a distinct smell: a bouquet of diesel fumes, gunpowder, and barbecue. The aroma is mostly produced by dying stars.

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43. Before settling on the Seven Dwarfs we know today, Disney considered Chesty, Tubby, Burpy, Deafy, Hickey, Wheezy, and Awful.

Seven Dwarfs
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44. The annual number of worldwide shark bites is 10 times less than the number of people bitten by other people in New York.

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45. In 1997 a Louisville woman left actor Charles Bronson all of her money in a handwritten will—a total of about $300,000. She'd never met him; she was just a fan.

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46. Carly Simon's dad is the Simon of Simon and Schuster. He co-founded the company.

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47. Ben & Jerry learned how to make ice cream by taking a $5 correspondence course offered by Penn State. (They decided to split one course.)

Ben & Jerry
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48. After an online vote in 2011, Toyota announced that the official plural of Prius was Prii.

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49. At the 1905 wedding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, President Teddy Roosevelt gave away the bride.

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50. Tootsie Rolls were added to soldiers' rations in World War II for their durability in all weather conditions.

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51. When Canada's Northwest Territories considered renaming itself in the 1990s, one name that gained support was "Bob."

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52. After OutKast sang "Shake it like a Polaroid picture," Polaroid released a statement: "Shaking or waving can actually damage the image."

Polaroid
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53. Marie Curie remains the only person to earn Nobel prizes in two different sciences.

Marie Curie
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54. The Starry Night depicts Vincent van Gogh's view from the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum.

Starry Night
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55. The ampersand symbol is formed from the letters in et—the Latin word for "and."

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56. Army ants that misinterpret the scent trails left by other ants will sometimes break from the crowd and march in circles. If enough ants join, they can form massive "death spirals."

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57. A solar eclipse helped end a six-year war in 585 BCE. When the sky suddenly darkened during a battle between the Lydians and the Medes in modern Turkey, soldiers took it as a sign to cease fighting.

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58. Wendy's founder Dave Thomas dropped out of high school but earned his GED in 1993. His GED class voted him Most Likely to Succeed.

Dave Thomas
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59. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826—exactly 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

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60. Dogs are capable of understanding up to 250 words and gestures. The average dog is as intelligent as a two-year-old child.

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61. Bubbles keep your bath water warmer longer.

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62. Scientists have found evidence of take-out restaurants in the remains of Pompeii.

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63. Fried chicken was brought to America by Scottish immigrants.

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64. Peter Durand patented the tin can in 1810. Ezra Warner patented a can opener in 1858. In between, people used chisels and hammers.

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65. There are 71 streets in Atlanta with "Peachtree" in their name.

Peachtree Street
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66. Goats have rectangular pupils.

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67. The bend in a flamingo's leg isn't a knee—it's an ankle.

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68. In 1946, Boston owner Walter Brown chose the nickname Celtics over Whirlwinds, Olympians, and Unicorns.

Kyrie Irving
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69. After It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown aired, Charles Schulz was overwhelmed with candy shipments sent from kids who were concerned for Charlie, who got rocks instead of treats in his Halloween sack.

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70. One of the world's largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons—a U.S. Navy base near Seattle—is partially defended by trained dolphins.

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71. It's illegal for supermarkets in France to waste food. Supermarkets must either compost it or donate unsold or nearly expired goods to charity.

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72. Fredric Baur invented the Pringles can. When he passed away in 2008, his ashes were buried in one.

Pringles
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73. A new baby can cost new parents 750 hours of sleep in the first year.

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74. In 1965, a Senate subcommittee predicted that by 2000, Americans would only be working 20 hours a week with seven weeks vacation.

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75. For one day in 1998, Topeka, Kansas, renamed itself "ToPikachu" to mark Pokemon's U.S. debut.

Pikachu
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76. Truman Capote said he was the only person who'd met John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Sirhan Sirhan.

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77. Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for voting in the 1872 election. She never paid the fine.

Susan B. Anthony
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78. Canned pumpkin isn't actually pumpkin. Even purees that advertise as "100 percent pumpkin" are actually made of a range of different winter squashes.

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79. When Gene Wilder accepted the role of Willy Wonka, he had one condition: In his first appearance, Wilder wanted Wonka to limp toward the crowd with a cane in hand before falling into a perfect somersault and jumping back up. The reason? “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

Willy Wonka
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80. Dr. Seuss said he expected to spend "a week or so" writing The Cat in the Hat. It actually took a year and a half.

Dr. Seuss / Hollywood Walk of Fame
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81. The Reese in Reese's Peanut Butter Cups is Harry Burnett Reese, a former Hershey employee who created his famous candy in the 1920s.

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82. The plural of cul-de-sac is culs-de-sac.

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83. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt was allergic to moon dust.

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84. At the Gettysburg reunion in 1913, two men purchased a hatchet, walked to the site where their regiments had fought, and buried it.

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85. "Bloodcurdling" isn't just an expression: Research shows that watching horror movies can increase a certain clotting protein in our bloodstreams.

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86. An episode of Peppa Pig was pulled from Australian television for teaching children not to fear spiders.

Peppa Pig
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87. A group of pugs is called a grumble.

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88. Before he wrote Goosebumps, R.L. Stine wrote the jokes for Bazooka Joe wrappers.

R.L. Stine
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89. In 1998, the U.S. Army tried developing a telepathic ray gun "where words could be transmitted to be heard like the spoken word, except that it could only be heard within a person’s head."

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90. In 1967, the Nigerian Civil War ground to a halt for two days because both sides wanted to watch Pelé play in an exhibition soccer match.

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91. Winston Churchill's mother was born in Brooklyn.

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92. Jim Cummings is the voice of Winnie the Pooh. He calls sick kids in hospitals and chats with them in character.

Jim Cummings
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93. Before Google launched Gmail, "G-Mail" was the name of a free email service offered by Garfield's website.

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94. Before the Nazis invaded Paris, H.A. and Margret Rey fled on bicycles. They were carrying the manuscript for Curious George.

Curious George
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95. In colonial America, lobster wasn't exactly a delicacy. It was so cheap and plentiful it was often served to prisoners.

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96. Crayola means "oily chalk." The name combines craie (French for "chalk") and ola (short for "oleaginous," or "oily").

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97. Truman Show Delusion is a mental condition marked by a patient's belief that he or she is the star of an imaginary reality show.

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98. Cookie Monster is not changing his name. In a 2012 episode he said, "We've got to stop this Veggie Monster rumor before me reputation ruined."

Cookie Monster and Elmo
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99. Google's founders were willing to sell to Excite for under $1 million in 1999—but Excite turned them down.

Excite@Home
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100. The medical term for ice cream headaches is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.

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101. Although Dr. James Naismith invented basketball, he’s the only Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach with a losing record.

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102. Wisconsin is the Badger State because the area's lead miners used to spend winters in tunnels burrowed into hills. Like badgers.

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103. In 1999, the U.S. government paid the Zapruder family $16 million for the film of JFK's assassination.

JFK in Dallas
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104. Before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was wrestling champion of his county. He fought in nearly 300 matches and lost only one.

Young Lincoln
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105. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? The world may never know. But on average, a Licking Machine made at Purdue needed 364.

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106. Barcelona is home to hundreds of playgrounds for seniors. The spaces are meant to promote fitness and combat loneliness in elderly citizens.

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107. In Switzerland, it's illegal to own only one guinea pig.

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108. After leaving office, Ronald Reagan was offered the role of Hill Valley's mayor in Back to the Future III.

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109. Foreign Accent Syndrome is a rare side effect of brain trauma. Patients speak their native language in a foreign accent.

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110. Queen Elizabeth II has had over 30 corgis in her lifetime.

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111. Relative to their bodies, Chihuahuas have the biggest brain in the dog world.

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112. The "mystery" flavor of Dum Dums is a combination of the end of one batch of candy and the beginning of another.

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113. A banana is a berry.

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114. In 1971, a Dallas man named Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine. The 26-year-old was inspired by the Slurpee machine at 7-Eleven.

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115. In 2016, a rogue bloodhound named Ludvine joined a half-marathon in Alabama. She ran the entire 13.1 miles and finished in 7th place.

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116. The Library of Congress regularly receives requests for books that don't exist. The most common is the President's Book of Secrets, from the 2007 movie, National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

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117. In 2014, Tinder made its first match on the continent of Antarctica. Not surprisingly, both parties involved were research scientists.

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118. When times get tough, elephants will comfort each other by stroking loved ones with their trunks and emitting small chirps.

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119. A double rainbow occurs when sunlight is reflected twice inside a raindrop. If you look closely, you can see that the colors of the secondary rainbow appear in reverse order.

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120. There's a Nikola Tesla statue in Palo Alto that provides free Wi-Fi.

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121. The Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships are held in Finland. One winner (not pictured) said he prepared for the event by "mainly drinking."

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122. In the '50s, Marilyn Monroe promised nightclub owner Charlie Morrison she'd be in the front row every night if he booked Ella Fitzgerald. He agreed, and she was true to her word. "After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again," Fitzgerald said. "She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it."

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123. Frank Sinatra has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for film, one for music, and one for television.

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124. One April day in 1930, the BBC reported, "There is no news." Instead they played piano music.

There is no news
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125. Continental plates drift as fast as fingernails grow.

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126. Elvis Presley's manager sold "I Hate Elvis" badges as a way to make money off of people who weren't buying his merchandise.

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127. LEGO has a temperature-controlled underground vault in Denmark with nearly every set they've ever made.

Lego
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128. A reindeer's eyes change color through the seasons. They’re gold during the summer and blue in the winter.

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129. An avocado never ripens on the tree, so farmers can use trees as storage and keep avocados fresh for up to seven months.

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130. At the Humane Society of Missouri, kid volunteers comfort anxious shelter dogs by reading to them.

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131. In The Empire Strikes Back, an extra can be seen running with what appears to be an ice cream maker. The character became legendary among fans, and was eventually given a name (Willrow Hood) and a backstory.

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132. Salvador Dali avoided paying restaurant tabs by using checks. He would draw on the back as the waiter watched, knowing no one would ever cash the art.

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133. China owns all of the pandas in the world. They rent them out for about $1 million a year.

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134. In season two of The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross created a monochromatic landscape for a viewer who was worried that his color blindness would prevent him from being able to paint.

Bob Ross
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135. Bones found at Seymour Island indicate that at one time, 37 to 40 million years ago, penguins stood at a formidable 6 feet tall and weighed 250 pounds.

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Fact-Checking 13 Plot Points in All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare Biopic

Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

After being the face of Shakespeare film adaptations to a whole generation in films like Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996), and Love's Labour's Lost (2000), Kenneth Branagh has stepped into the shoes of the Bard himself. The British actor plays William Shakespeare in the new movie All Is True, which the five-time Oscar nominee also directed.

The film, which began rolling out in U.S. theaters on May 10, functions as a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare in Love. Call this one Shakespeare in Retirement. It depicts the Bard in the final few years of his life, which historians believe he mostly spent in Stratford-upon-Avon. Before his death in 1616, Shakespeare reunited with the wife and children he’d spent so much time away from while working in London.

All Is True takes its name from an alternate title used during Shakespeare’s lifetime for his play Henry VIII. The film frequently winks at its title, exploring the role of truth—or lack thereof—in the life of Branagh’s Will.

Spotty historical records leave many details about Shakespeare’s life in the realm of uncertainty, so filmmakers depicting the playwright must make use of broad artistic license to fill in the blanks. Mental Floss spoke with Harvard University professor and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare author Stephen Greenblatt to fact-check All Is True. It turns out that the film’s depiction of Shakespeare is a mix of truth, presumed truth, and pure imagination.

1. Partially true: Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon after the Globe burned down.

All Is True opens with the striking image of Will’s silhouette in front of a massive, crackling fire that destroys his prized playhouse. A title card tells viewers that at a performance of Shakespeare’s Life of Henry VIII (a.k.a. All Is True) at the Globe on June 29, 1613, during Act 1 Scene 4, a prop cannon misfired, starting the blaze. The next title card states, “The Globe Theatre burnt entirely to the ground. William Shakespeare never wrote another play.”

A prop cannon likely did misfire, and the resulting fire did destroy the Globe; while there were fortunately no deaths or serious injuries as a result, the fire delivered a serious financial blow to Shakespeare and other shareholders in the King's Men, the company of actors who performed at the Globe. But "never wrote another play" is a stretch. “The movie suggests he rode out of London, as it were, in the wake of the fire,” Greenblatt says. “But actually, it’s widely thought that he retired to Stratford before but he continued to write for the theater.”

The Tempest, for example, was likely the last play Shakespeare wrote solo, without a collaborator, and some scholars theorize he wrote it at home in Stratford-upon-Avon, not in London. Academics are divided as to which play was the final play Shakespeare ever wrote, but the general consensus is that it was either Henry VIII or The Two Noble Kinsmen, both collaborations with John Fletcher, which were possibly written during return trips to London.

2. True: Shakespeare’s daughter was accused of adultery.

Left to right: Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney, Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Clara Ducz- mal as Elizabeth Hall, Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall
Left to right: Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney, Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Clara Duczmal as Elizabeth Hall, and Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The film depicts a man named John Lane accusing Shakespeare’s eldest child, Susanna Hall, of adultery. That really happened, and the real-life Susanna Hall sued Lane in 1613 for slanderously saying that she had cheated on her husband with local man Ralph Smith.

As for whether Susanna Hall really did have an extramarital relationship with these men, that’s not known for sure, and the film leaves this somewhat up to viewer interpretation. But her real-life slander case did succeed in getting Lane excommunicated.

3. Likely true: Shakespeare had no schooling beyond age 14.

When a fanboy approaches Will with some eager questions, he says, “They say you left school at 14.” The line may be a bit misleading: Shakespeare did not quit school as a student would today if he "left school" at age 14. But it is true that boys in Shakespeare’s time completed grammar school at around age 14. They then could begin apprenticeships. Shakespeare’s schooling would have been intense, though: He would have been in lessons from 6 a.m. to as late at 6 p.m. six days a week, 12 months a year (getting an extra hour to sleep in only during the winter, when school started at 7 a.m. in the dark and cold months).

As Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World, “the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation and rhetorical variation, all backed up by the threat of violence.”

No surviving records confirm that Shakespeare attended the school in Stratford-upon-Avon, but most scholars safely assume that he did. The grammar school there was free and accessible to all boys in the area, the exception being the children of the very poor, since they had to begin working at a young age.

Regarding the fanboy moment in the film, Greenblatt says, “The implication of that moment was precisely to remind us that [Shakespeare] didn’t go to university, as far as we know. I’m sure he didn’t. He would have bragged about it at some point" (as many of his contemporaries did).

4. Likely true: Susanna Hall was literate, while Shakespeare’s wife and younger daughter were not.

While boys received a formal education in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, girls did not. The film depicts Susanna as skillful at reading, unlike Will’s younger daughter, Judith, or his wife, Anne.

This is likely true: Greenblatt says that “the general sense is that Susanna was literate and that Judith and Anne were not,” though this is another area of Shakespeare’s family history that scholars cannot know for certain.

“This is a trickier matter than it looks,” Greenblatt says, “because lots of people in this period, including Shakespeare’s father, clearly knew how to read, but didn’t know how to write. This would be particularly the case for many women but not exclusively women in the period—that writing is a different skill from reading and that quite a few people were able to read.”

5. True: Shortly after his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in 'All Is True'
Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

When Will insists that he did mourn Hamnet, his only son, who died in 1596 at age 11, Anne bites back, “You mourn him now. At the time you wrote Merry Wives of Windsor.”

It’s a gut-punch from Anne not just because Merry Wives (featuring the ever-entertaining character Falstaff) is a raucous comedy but also because it was, in the most cynical view, a cash grab. Shakespeare likely wrote Merry Wives after the Falstaff-featuring Henry IV Part 1 but before moving onto the grimmer Henry IV Part 2, “to tap an unexpected new market phenomenon,” scholars Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson wrote in British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue regarding the "humours comedy," which debuted to immediate popularity in May 1597.

There is another way to interpret this: Both parts of Henry IV deal with a troubled father-son relationship, and the conclusion of Part 2 depicts a son taking up the mantle of his deceased father. Perhaps Prince Hal and King Henry hit too close to home for Will (who in this film hopes his son will follow in his poetic footsteps), and a lighthearted comedy is what he needed.

6. Very unlikely: The Earl of Southampton visited Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was one of Shakespeare’s patrons, and Shakespeare included a lengthy dedication to Southampton in his poem The Rape of Lucrece. Despite that affiliation, the idea that Southampton (played by Ian McKellen, yet another acclaimed Shakespearean actor) would have visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford is just “a piece of imagination,” according to Greenblatt. He points out that “it’s difficult to imagine any longer the social abyss” between an earl and someone like Shakespeare but explains, “The difference in social class is so extreme that the idea that the Earl would trot by on his horse to visit Shakespeare at his house is wildly unlikely.”

It is more likely that fellow playwright Ben Jonson would have visited Shakespeare, as he does later in the film.

7. Uncertain: Shakespeare’s sonnets were published “illegally and without [his] consent”

This is what Will reminds the Earl of Southampton of in the film. Regarding that term illegally, it’s worth first noting that though copyright law as we know it did not exist in 16th century England, “there definitely were legal controls over publication,” Greenblatt says.

“This is a notoriously complicated matter—the publication of the sonnets,” he explains. “It is still very much open to question. It’s not a settled matter as to whether Shakespeare did or did not have anything to do with the publication of those sonnets.”

8. Uncertain: Shakespeare wrote some of his sonnets for and about the Earl of Southampton.

Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley in 'All is True'
Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley in All is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

One juicy debate about Shakespeare that endures is the question of who (if anyone) is the subject of his sonnets. Some speculate that his poems that describe a fair youth refer to the Earl of Southampton.

The film imagines a slightly more complicated—and perhaps more believable—situation than the idea that Southampton and Shakespeare had a fling: Will harbors feelings for Southampton, unrequited by the Earl, who reminds Will, “As a man, it is not your place to love me.”

“There is no way of achieving any certainty,” Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World regarding whether the sonnets were written as love tokens for anyone in particular. “After generations of feverish research, no one has been able to offer more than guesses, careful or wild.”

9. True: 3000 attendees could fit into the Globe for one performance.

In an elaborate, impressive clapback directed at Thomas Lucy, a local politician who repeatedly insults Will, the celebrated playwright cites his many responsibilities in London, then says he somehow “found time to write down the pretty thoughts you mentioned.”

It’s true that Shakespeare was both a businessman and poet. His status as a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) was actually unprecedented: “No other English literary playwright had ever held such a position,” Oxford professor Bart van Es wrote in Shakespeare in Company, adding that becoming part owner of the Globe, “the most impressive venue in London … placed him in a category entirely of his own.”

Among the accomplishments Will lists for Lucy is filling the Globe with “3000 paying customers per afternoon.”

“That is the upper end of the size of those public theaters, as far as we now know from archaeological evidence,” Greenblatt says. “Three thousand is at the high end, but yes. Whether they actually got 3000 people every afternoon is another question.”

Meanwhile, the reconstruction of the Globe that opened in London in 1997 has a capacity of about half that. Its dimensions are the same as the Globe of Shakespeare’s day but modern fire codes don’t allow playgoers to be packed in quite so tightly.

10. True: Shakespeare wrote Thomas Quiney out of his will.

The film depicts the retired playwright adding his son-in-law-to-be, Thomas Quiney, to his will in anticipation of Quiney's marriage to Will's youngest daughter, Judith. A couple of months later, Shakespeare amends his will again after it’s revealed that Quiney fathered a child by another woman before marrying Judith.

This may have really happened. Shakespeare summoned his lawyer in January 1616 to write Quiney into the will. Then in March, a month after his wedding, Quiney confessed in the vicar’s court to being responsible for the pregnancy of unmarried Stratford woman Margaret Wheeler, who had just died in childbirth (along with the child). Shakespeare then met again with his lawyer to strike out Quiney’s name and insert Judith’s name instead. However, some historians dispute that Shakespeare made this change as a result of the scandal; they instead suggest that it was due to practical concerns about Judith’s financial future.

All Is True reverses scholars’s common assumption that Shakespeare had a better relationship with Susanna’s husband, physician John Hall, than with Judith’s. It depicts Will’s removal of Quiney from his will as a reluctant necessity. “What the movie does is suggest [that John] Hall is an obnoxious, Puritan prig and that Thomas Quiney is actually a very nice fellow,” Greenblatt says.

One aspect of Shakespeare’s relationship with Hall that the film leaves out entirely is scholars’ assumption that Hall would have tended to the playwright during any sickness that led to his death. The cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown, however, and Hall’s surviving casebooks date back only to 1617, the year after Shakespeare’s death.

11. Unlikely: Shakespeare’s family recited his verse at his funeral.

At what appears to be Will’s funeral, Anne, Judith, and Susanna (all with varying levels of literacy) read aloud the words of a dirge sung for the supposedly dead Imogen in Cymbeline. “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,” they quote, “Thou thy worldly task hast done … All lovers young, all lovers must / Consign to thee and come to dust.”

The words are evocative of Scripture. (“Be not afraid” / “Have no fear” is said to be the most repeated phrase in both the Old Testament and the New Testament—and of course there’s the Genesis passage often read at funerals: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”) Greenblatt says it is “very unlikely” that verse not from the Bible would have been recited at a funeral at the time of Shakespeare’s death, adding, “but I found that moment quite touching.”

SPOILER WARNING: The remainder of this article includes spoilers about some major twists in All Is True.

12. Uncertain: Shakespeare’s offspring wrote poetry.

Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All is True (2019)
Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In All Is True, when Will voices grief for his son who had died 17 years prior, he often references Hamnet’s apparent talent as a poet. “He showed such promise, Anne,” Will cries.

Branagh’s film imagines that Hamnet wrote poems full of wit and mischief. Then Judith drops the revelation that she actually crafted the poems, dictating them to her twin brother, who knew how to write. All Is True thus displaces the controversial authorship question from Shakespeare to his children.

“There’s no historical trace of any of this,” Greenblatt says. “That is just an invention.”

13. Uncertain: Hamnet Shakespeare died of the plague.

The other revelation that stuns Will in All Is True is about Hamnet’s death. Will looks at the record noting young Hamnet’s death and becomes suspicious about whether his only son really died of the plague. He confronts Anne and Judith, pointing out the small number of deaths in Stratford in the summer of 1596, saying that the plague strikes with “a scythe, not a dagger.” At this point, Judith confesses that her twin took his own life after she threatened to tell their father about the true author of the poems. She then tearfully recalls Hamnet, who did not know how to swim, stepping into a pond and drowning.

Though the historical record doesn't supply a cause of death for Hamnet, many historians assume he died of the bubonic plague. For the film's revelation about Hamnet’s suicide, which Greenblatt deems as another imaginative invention, Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton seem to have taken inspiration from the real parish register recording burials at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, which lists no more than two dozen burials between June and September 1596. Meanwhile, a plague epidemic hit Shakespeare’s hometown shortly after the poet’s birth in 1564 and lasted about six months, killing more than 200 people in Stratford, which was about a sixth of the population.

As Greenblatt points out, the storyline about Judith’s poems and Hamnet’s death serves as a commentary on Virginia Woolf’s compelling essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister,” which appears in A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. The essay imagines a tragic story for Shakespeare’s fictional sister who is as gifted as her successful brother but is not permitted to go to school and whose parents scold her each time she picks up a book. “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was,” Woolf wrote.

Greenblatt observes that the central theme of All Is True seems to be “the tragic cost of not having full access to literacy if you were a woman.” He notes, though, that in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, “there were actually quite a few [literate] women, and the work of the last generation, particularly feminist scholars, have recovered a much larger field than Virginia Woolf could have understood or than the movie suggests, of women who were reading and writing in the period.”

Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True is in theaters now.

10 Vacation Destinations That Ended Up in the Dictionary

iStock/Jasmina007
iStock/Jasmina007

Thinking of getting away from it all this summer? How about France? Italy? The Mediterranean? Or what about somewhere more exotic, like north Africa or southeast Asia? Well, no need to pop down to your local travel agent to find out more, because all of these can be found much closer to home in the pages of a dictionary …

1. Genoa, Italy

In the early Middle Ages, the city of Genoa in northwest Italy became known for its production of a type of fustian, a thick, hard-wearing cotton fabric typically used to make workmen’s clothes. In English, this cloth became known as gene fustian in honor of the city in which it was made, but over time gene altered to jean, and the hard-wearing workmen’s clothes made from it became known as jeans. The fabric that jeans are made of today, however, is denim—which was originally manufactured in and named for the city of Nîmes in southern France.

2. Paris, France

Speaking of France: The Romans knew Paris as Lutetia Parisorum, meaning “the swamps of the Parisii,” after the name of a local Gaulish tribe. It’s this Latin name, Lutetia, that is the origin of the chemical element lutetium, which was discovered by a team of scientists working in Paris’s Sorbonne University in 1907. Not that Paris is the only city with an element named after it, of course: hafnium derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen, Denmark; darmstadtium takes its name from Darmstadt in Germany; and holmium is named for Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Speaking of which …

3. Sweden

A light napped leather made from the softer underside of animal hides, suede has been manufactured in northern Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that soft, high-quality suede gloves first began to be imported into Britain from France, when they were sold under their chic French name of gants du suèdes—or, the “gloves of Sweden.” The name soon stuck, and eventually came to be used of the fabric suede itself.

4. Milan, Italy

If you’re looking to buy a chic hat to match your chic Swedish gloves, then you’re best off heading to your local milliner’s. Millinery takes its name from the Italian city of Milan, from where all manner of high-end fashion accessories, including laces, gloves, handbags, and hats, were imported into England in the early 17th century. The name milliner—which was originally just another word for a Milanese person—eventually came to refer to anyone involved in the sale of such products (Shakespeare used it to mean a glove salesman in The Winter’s Tale), but over time its use came to refer only to someone involved in the hat trade.

5. Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Italy, it’s a short ferry trip to the stunning Croatian city—and UNESCO World Heritage site—of Dubrovnik. Like Paris, it’s Dubrovnik’s Latin name, Ragusa, that has found a permanent place in the language. In the late Middle Ages, the city became known for its large fleets of merchant ships that were known across Mediterranean Europe as ragusea, but in English this name eventually simplified (and metathesized) to argosy.

6. Cyprus

In Latin, copper was known as cuprum (which is why its chemical symbol is Cu, not Co). In turn, cuprum is a contraction of the Latin phrase Cyprium aes, meaning the “Cyprian metal,” because historically the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a principal copper mine of the Roman Empire.

7. Mahón, Spain

Another Mediterranean island to have (apparently) found its way into the dictionary is Minorca, the second-largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. When the island and its capital, Mahón, was captured by France during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, a local speciality was supposedly taken home by the victorious French troops: sauce mahonnaise, as it was known, made from a mix of oil, vinegar, and egg yolk, eventually became a popular condiment and garnish and was first introduced to the English-speaking world as mayonnaise in the early 1800s.

8. The Canary Islands

Another Spanish island group, the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, gave their name to the small finches that were found there by European settlers in the 16th century. The wild birds were originally a dull greenish color, but have since been domesticated and selectively bred to come in almost any color possible, although traditional yellow canaries are by far the most familiar. Despite their contribution to the language, incidentally, the Canary Islands themselves are actually named after dogs.

9. Tangier, Morocco

Head northeast from the Canary Islands and you’ll reach the Moroccan port of Tangier on the Straits of Gibraltar, which in the 18th century gave its name to a small, slightly darker-colored variety of mandarin orange that was grown in the area—the tangerine.

10. Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann in 1754 of a discovery that was “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” Walpole explained that he had taken the word from “a silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” It might come from a “silly fairy tale,” but the magical land of Serendip is actually a real place—it’s an old name for the island of Sri Lanka.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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