11 Terrifying Urban Legends That Turned Out to Be True

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Urban legends—those unsubstantiated stories of terror that allow us to use our imaginations to fill in increasingly horrifying details with each retelling—have been with us forever. While the internet has made dissemination of them easier, humans have been goading one another with spooky anecdotes for centuries. Psychologists believe we respond to these tales because we have a morbid fascination with the disgusting; we also can’t help but enjoy gossip. Put those two things together and it makes for an irresistible mix.

Urban legends often come with a dose of skepticism. (No, a killer with a hook hand has never terrorized necking couples.) But sometimes, these stories turn out to be true. Have a look—preferably under the covers and with a flashlight—at these 11 terrifying tales that actually happened.

1. RATS IN THE TOILET BOWL

Two rats try to swim in a toilet bowl
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You stagger into the bathroom at 3 a.m. to relieve yourself. Groggy with sleep, you lift the lid and position yourself over the toilet. You hear splashing. Turning on the light, you see a rat looking back at you from the bowl. You’re never the same again.

Urban legends about animals in sewers have been a staple of scary stories, particularly the one about baby alligators being flushed down toilets and then growing to adult size in waste channels. Most often told about New York. (Not true. While alligators and crocodiles have been found in New York, they’re generally released and found above ground, and it’s thought that New York is too cold for them to survive for very long.) But finding a rodent in your toilet, inches from very vulnerable areas of your body, is a particular kind of domestic terror—and one that happens to be possible.

Drain plumbing for toilets is typically three inches in diameter or more, plenty of space for a rat to climb up. The animals are attracted to sewage lines due to undigested food in feces and can travel through pipes before emerging through an opening and into your bathroom. And yes, rats can be somewhat testy when they complete their journey. One aquatic rodent bit the rump of a female victim in Petersburg, Virginia in 1999. In Seattle, the issue is common enough that public officials have given advice on what to do in case you encounter one (close the lid and flush).

2. THE LEGEND OF POLYBIUS

An arcade game joystick sits next to buttons
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Vintage video gamers have long traded stories about a coin-operated arcade game circa early 1980s Portland that had strange effects on its players. The game, titled Polybius, was alleged to have prompted feelings of disorientation, amnesia, game addiction, and even suicide. The machine’s cabinet was said to be painted entirely black, and it was rumored that stern-looking men would sometimes visit arcades to collect information from the machine before disappearing. Was it a CIA experiment spun off from MK Ultra, the psychoactive drug study conducted on unsuspecting subjects?

While the entire story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, individual pieces are actually based in fact. Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, did some investigative work and found that a 12-year-old named Brian Mauro had become sickened during a 28-hour marathon video game contest in Portland in 1981. (He apparently drank too much soda and experienced stomach discomfort.) Just a few days later, Portland-area arcades were raided by federal agents, who seized cabinets that were being used for gambling. Coupled with the existence of a real arcade game named Poly-Play, these memories seemed to amalgamate into the Polybius legend.

3. CANDYMAN

A woman takes a photo of herself in a medicine cabinet mirror
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Released in 1992, Candyman—based on a short story by Clive Barker—remains a potent horror tale of the revenge undertaken by a black artist (Tony Todd) murdered in the 1890s for having a relationship with a white woman. While it’s not likely you’ll be able to invoke him by saying his name several times in a mirror, the pants-soiling idea of having a killer burst through a medicine cabinet is actually based in fact.

In 1987 the Chicago Reader published a story about Ruth McCoy, a woman living in a Chicago housing project, who made a frantic call to 911 insisting she was being attacked in her apartment. Responders eventually found her dead of gunshot wounds. Investigators determined that her assailants had gained access to her unit by breaking through the connecting wall in the adjoining apartment and climbing in through her medicine cabinet. The complex was built that way intentionally, so that plumbers investigating leaks could simply remove the cabinet to check the pipes. It became a frequent mode of entry for burglars—and in McCoy’s case, her killers.

4. CROPSEY

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For years, kids living in and around Staten Island raised goosebumps by relating the tale of “Cropsey,” a boogeyman who lived in the woods and made a nocturnal habit of disemboweling children. Parents no doubt eased their kids’ fears by telling them no such monster existed.

But he did. In 1987, Andre Rand was put on trial and convicted for a child abduction. Rand, it turned out, may have been connected to a rash of child disappearances in the 1970s. He had once worked at Willowbrook, a defunct mental institution. While he denies involvement in other cases, it’s clear Rand’s activities had a heavy influence in the word-of-mouth stories that followed.

5. THE LEAPING LAWYER

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Sooner or later, Toronto residents hear the tale of a lawyer who had a peculiar fondness for running full-bore into his office windows to demonstrate how strong they were. This practice caught up with him eventually, as he crashed into a window and went sailing to his death. This hobby was actually practiced by Garry Hoy, a senior partner in an area law firm with an office on the 24th floor. On July 9, 1993, Hoy made his signature tackle against the window to impress some visiting law students. The pane finally broke and sent him plummeting to his death. In a eulogy, managing partner Peter Lauwers called Hoy “one of the best and brightest” at the firm.

6. THE BODY UNDER THE BED

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Vacationing couples. Newlyweds. Disneyland guests. All have been the subject of an urban legend involving hotel occupants who fall blissfully to sleep, only to wake up to an awful stench coming from either under the bed or inside the mattress. Closer inspection reveals that a dead body has been stashed away. Presumably, not anyone who has died of natural causes.

This traveling tale has been confirmed multiple times over. At least a dozen newspaper stories have detailed hotel rooms that have doubled as body disposal sites. While the smell is usually apparent right away, at least one couple slept on a mattress containing a body in Atlantic City in 1999. Cases in Colorado, Florida, and Virginia have also been reported.

In 2010, guests at a Budget Lodge in Memphis were horrified to discover they had been sleeping above the body of Sony Millbrook, a missing person. Fabric softener had been stuffed in the ceiling tiles to try and mask the smell. At least three other occupants had also rented the room since Millbrook’s disappearance. A court eventually convicted Millbrook’s boyfriend, LaKeith Moody, of the crime.

7. THE MAINE HERMIT

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For decades, people who vacationed in central Maine’s North Pond area were puzzled by items that would go missing. Batteries and food from cabins, flashlights from camping tents. Rumors spread that a permanent fixture of the area would forage for sustenance and supplies.

They were right. For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in the woods, keeping tabs on the hikers, canoeists, and other temporary residents of the grounds. When he was confronted by a game warden in 2013, Knight admitted he was responsible for an average of around 40 robberies a year. Despite the likely protestations of family and friends who dismissed tales of a hermit lurking somewhere in the woods, his identification proved that someone had been watching—and waiting—for nearly three decades.

8. THE FAKE COP TRICK

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You may have had an overly concerned parent or friend warn you of people impersonating police officers, using that veneer of authority to attack victims who have let their guard down. While there aren’t many who are in full patrol uniform or traveling in marked vehicles, there have been many documented cases of assailants posing as law enforcement—at least two this past summer alone. In Bloomington, Illinois, a man used flashing lights to get a vehicle to pull over. After walking up to the vehicle, the man tried—unsuccessfully—to overpower the driver before they managed to get away. In Fayetteville, Georgia, a man donned a uniform and pulled over a teenage boy on a bike, forcing him to empty his pockets. Talking to (real) police later, the boy told them a second car had pulled up with a man matching the description of someone who had been caught impersonating an officer two weeks prior.

9. THE LEGEND OF THE BUNNY MAN

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If you lived in or around Virginia in the 1970s, you were probably exposed to the story of the Bunny Man. In the tale, an escaped mental patient takes to gutting bunnies and hanging them from a bridge underpass. Later, the maniac is said to have graduated to gutting and hanging teens in a similar manner. Locals were cautioned to never be caught near the underpass, which is now known to most people as “Bunny Man Bridge,” on Halloween night.

This story likely spawned from the very real presence of a roving madman in the area. In October 1970, a couple reported seeing a man dressed in a white suit and wearing bunny ears who began yelling at them that they were on private property. To punctuate his point, he threw a hatchet at their windscreen, apparently shattering it. There was a second sighting of Bunny Man two weeks later, when a security guard spotted a hatchet-wielding man chipping away at a porch railing. Police tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the man. While he didn’t disembowel anyone, the thought of an adult wielding both a hatchet and a pair of rabbit ears somehow manages to be just as disturbing.

10. CHARLIE NO-FACE

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Imagine finding yourself outside and alone in the dark on a residential street. You hear footsteps approaching. Suddenly, a man with a misshapen face appears. You run, terrified beyond words. You spread the story of the man with no face throughout Pennsylvania.

“Charlie No-Face” (also called the Green Man) was actually a man named Ray Robinson, and he was no figment of anyone’s imagination. Born in 1910, Robinson was disfigured as the result of an electrical accident at the age of 8. He touched active wires, which effectively maimed him. Knowing his appearance could be disconcerting, Robinson took to taking strolls after dark. He often walked a path along Route 351 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. While his intentions were honorable, encountering Robinson in the dead of night inevitably led to spreading stories about a boogeyman haunting the town. Robinson died in 1985.

11. THE ALL-TOO-REAL CORPSE DECORATION

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Notorious outlaw Elmer McCurdy took on a second life following his death. In 1911, the embalmed corpse of McCurdy became a grim sideshow attraction throughout Texas, with people eager to see the famed criminal on display in funeral parlors and carnivals. Though it’s hard to document all of his travels, he eventually wound up in Long Beach, California, where someone apparently mistook him for a prop. McCurdy was hung in a funhouse at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park, his humanity discovered only after a crew member on The Six Million-Dollar Man—which was filming there in 1976—tried to adjust him, dislodging his very real arm. The following year, his corpse was put to proper rest. 

40 Years Later: 20 Facts About the 'Miracle on Ice'

The USA Team celebrates their 4-3 victory over Russia in the semi-final of the Ice Hockey event at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.
The USA Team celebrates their 4-3 victory over Russia in the semi-final of the Ice Hockey event at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.
Steve Powell/Getty Images

On February 22, 1980, the Soviet War in Afghanistan was almost two months old, making the Cold War as tense as ever. On that same Friday, a hockey team comprised of American college players defeated a dominant Soviet Union group made up of professional athletes—dubiously designated as students, engineers, or soldiers to maintain their then Olympic-required amateur status—in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Jim McKay, the venerable host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and its respected Olympic telecast anchor, was tasked to put into words what the viewers had just seen; the 59-year-old settled on, “That may be the greatest upset in sports history.” He added that it was the equivalent of an all-star football team of Canadian college boys beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had just won their fourth Super Bowl in six years. Forty years later, that comparison holds up.

1. The U.S. beat the Russians in a surprise upset in a hockey game 20 years earlier.

Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semi-final Men's Ice Hockey event at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York on February 22, 1980. The game was dubbed the Miracle on Ice. The USA went on to win the gold medal
Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semi-final Men's Ice Hockey event at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York on February 22, 1980.
Steve Powell /Getty Images

The Americans won the men’s hockey gold in 1960 thanks to a surprising semifinal win over the defending champion Soviet Union. After that, the Soviets dominated and took home the next four gold medals, going 27-1-1 and outscoring their opponents 175-44, making the 1980 victory a much bigger shock.

2. The U.S. head coach was the last player cut from the 1960 team.

Bill Cleary agreed to join team USA only if his brother Bob could play. The Clearys got their wish, and as a result, there was not enough room for Herb Brooks. Brooks would go on to play at the '64 and '68 Olympics, and he later earned a spot on the Olympic team as head coach after leading the University of Minnesota to three national championships in the 1970s.

3. Herb Brooks kept telling his players that one of the Russians looked like Stan Laurel.

Boris Mikhailov #13 of the Soviet Union sits on the boards during Game 1 of the 1972 Summit Series against Canada on September 2, 1972 at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Boris Mikhailov
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Insisting that Boris Mikhailov resembled the thin Englishman in the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy was an attempt to get the U.S. players to not take the Soviet Union squad so seriously.

4. The USSR beat the U.S. 10-3 less than two weeks earlier.

In a February 9th exhibition at Madison Square Garden, the Russians expectedly dominated. Combined with the Soviets’ 6-0 victory over a team of NHL All-Stars one year earlier, it looked like a fifth consecutive gold medal was inevitable.

5. The Russian head coach was hospitalized the day before the game.

Viktor Tikhonov had dealt with the flu throughout the Olympics, and was taken to the hospital on February 21st without any of his players knowing. Tikhonov did not believe in antibiotics.

6. The night before, the starting U.S. goalie and one of the Russian players enjoyed an arcade game together.

Jim Craig and Sergei Makarov played Centipede at Lake Placid's Olympic Village video arcade against one another. The two communicated with “nods and laughs.”

7. It was one of Al Michaels’s first times announcing a hockey game.

Al Michaels speaks at media day for Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan on January 31, 2006
Al Michaels
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Even though he had never called a hockey game before, Michaels got the play-by-play assignment for the 1972 gold medal hockey game on NBC because nobody else wanted to do it. In 1980, doing that one broadcast made him the undisputed hockey veteran at ABC, as well as the only one who knew what offside and icing were.

8. Al Michaels memorized the Russian names by playing table hockey.

He played against his broadcast partner and former NHL goalie Ken Dryden in their hotel room, announcing their contests and naming his little men after the players on whichever team the U.S. was about to face.

9. Ken Dryden had the busiest February 21st of all.

Dryden, who served as color commentator for the game, would later be teased by his children for not coming up with one of the most memorable sports calls of all time like Michaels, but it’s possible that he was a little bit tired. On Thursday afternoon, while Viktor Tikhonov was in a hospital bed, Dryden went up to Toronto to take the Canadian Bar Exam (which he would pass). That night, as the most famous game of Centipede of all time was taking place, he was back in Lake Placid, having dinner with Herb Brooks, answering a slew of questions Brooks had about the Russians. Dryden was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983, and to Canadian Parliament in 2004.

10. The game was shown on tape delay in the United States.

ABC tried desperately to have the opening face-off moved from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. eastern time, and agreed to pay the International Ice Hockey Federation $125,000 to make it happen (even though they considered it extortion). The IIHF, however, couldn’t get the Soviet Union to agree to the time change despite offering them $12,500, because they did not want the game moved from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. Moscow time. Since all of this happened in 1980, the outcome was not known by most Americans when they watched the recorded broadcast that started in primetime. McKay on air was upfront about the game not being live, and said the network received mail from viewers writing that they did not want the ending to be spoiled.

11. Parts of the game were cut out of the original broadcast.

The United States Hockey team competes against the Soviet Union hockey team during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York
The United States Hockey team competes against the Soviet Union hockey team during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York.
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ABC had scheduled footage for both the hockey game and men’s slalom from 8:30 to 11, with 8 to 8:30 devoted to the animated special The Pink Panther in: Olym-Pinks. To make room, minutes of the game were dropped.

12. Jamie Farr was the only celebrity in attendance.

Farr played Klinger on M*A*S*H, which was in its eighth season. The 7700 seat Lake Placid Olympic Center was sold out, and tickets with a face value of $67.20 were allegedly scalped for as much as $600.

13. It wasn’t the gold medal game.

The Americans and Soviets advanced to the “medal round” with Finland and Sweden. A win earned a country 2 points, a tie 1 point. Going into the big match, the U.S. had tied Sweden, and the USSR beat Finland. After the U.S. shocked the world, the Russians took out their frustrations on Sweden two days later and beat them 9-2, so if the U.S. lost to Finland in their next and final game, the Soviet Union would have won the Gold again, with 4 points to the Americans’ 3.

14. The starting Soviet goaltender was taken out of the game after the first period—and it shook up the team.

It looked like the USSR was going to finish the first period up 2-1, but a last second score by Mark Johnson gave the U.S. a lot of momentum. This upset Viktor Tikhonov so much that he benched Vladislav Tretiak and replaced him with Vladimir Myshkin, who, after shutting out the Americans in the second period, would allow two goals in the third. The move shocked the Russians at the time—defenseman Sergei Starikov said, “It felt like a big hole had been put in our team.” Tikhonov himself looked back on it and admitted, “It was my worst mistake, my biggest regret."

15. Al Michaels did not rehearse his famous question.

The word “miraculous” was swimming in his mind as the final seconds ticked away, which led to him asking if we believed in miracles. Hours later, after working the Finland/Sweden game that transpired while most of the country watched the game whose nickname he was mostly responsible for on delay, he had forgotten what he said.

16. Some of the Soviet players took the loss in stride.

The first Russian Mark Johnson shook hands with after the game had a smile on his face. When Johnson and Eric Strobel ran into Valeri Kharlamov and Boris “Stan Laurel” Milkhailov in a waiting room before taking a urine test, Milkhailov said, “Nice game.”

17. The U.S. team sang "God Bless America" after winning, but didn’t know all the words.

The United States Hockey team celebrates after they defeated the Soviet Union during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York
The United States Hockey team celebrates after they defeated the Soviet Union during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The team got tripped up after “land that I love,” hummed through the lines they didn’t know, and picked it up again for the big finish.

18. Players from both countries later played in the NHL.

Thirteen of the 20 members of the U.S. squad went pro, Including defenseman Ken Morrow, who, after winning the gold medal, joined the New York Islanders and won the Stanley Cup in each of his first four seasons. Jim Craig’s arcade buddy Sergei Makarov was one of five players from the 1980 USSR team to join the National Hockey League in the 1988-90 season. Makarov won the Rookie of the Year award at the age of 31, which led to the league enforcing a rule starting the following season that you had to be 26 or younger to win.

19. There was a made-for-TV movie about the game starring Steve Guttenberg.

The 1981 ABC film Miracle on Ice mixed actual game footage with written scenes. Guttenberg portrayed goalie Jim Craig, Karl Malden played Herb Brooks, and Jessica Walter—known by some today as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development—played Herb Brooks’ wife, Patti.

In 2004, Disney released the film Miracle, which starred Kurt Russell as Brooks.

20. The Lake Placid Olympic Center Rink was renamed Herb Brooks Arena in 2005.

Brooks returned to lead the 2002 U.S. men's hockey team to a silver medal. One year later, he passed away after a car accident.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

36 Unusual Units of Measurement

When it comes to measurement, we have a lot of words that mean a bunch of stuff or a bit of something, but many of those terms have actual, specific meanings.

Let's learn about a whole barrel full of them.

1. A barrel changes depending on what's in it.

Many barrels stacked on a dock with the water in the background
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When you're talking about oil, a barrel is exactly 42 gallons. For beer, a barrel is 31.5 gallons. For dry goods, it's 105 dry quarts. That last one was defined by Congress in 1915.

2. A dash is part of a teaspoon.

Multicolored measuring spoons
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Then there's the dash, as in, "just a dash of salt," which is between 1/16 and 1/8 of a teaspoon.

3. A pinch is part of a dash.

Chef putting pinch of salt on food
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A pinch is half a dash, or 1/16 of a teaspoon.

4. A Smidgen is a real thing.

Black peppercorns in a measuring spoon
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It's a half of a pinch, or 1/32 of a teaspoon.

5. Pats of butter are 1/3 of an ounce.

Pat of butter on corn
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Butter is packaged at 48 pats per pound, which means that each pat is 1/3 of an ounce or 1 tablespoon.

6. A drop is 1/480 of a fluid ounce.

A dropper releases a drop into a brown vial
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Okay, to be more specific, it's .05 milliliters, which you probably already knew if you're a pharmacist.

7. Australians used to measure rain by points.

Flooded street with splashing cars
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We don't measure rain by drops, but in Australia, they used to measure rain by points. A point was .254 milliliters, so you might say, "We got a hundred points of rain last night!," which sounds like a lot, but isn't.

8. The Jiffy is about 10 milliseconds.

Computer circuit board
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The jiffy is a unit of time used in computer engineering that has to do with a computer's clock cycle. It's about 10 milliseconds. It means something even faster in physics, where a jiffy is a unit of measurement for the time it takes for light to travel a distance the size of a nucleus.

9. A Shake is 10 nanoseconds.

Nuclear power plant
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Physicists also have the shake, which is used to measure nuclear reactions. A shake takes 10 nanoseconds, or 10 billionths of a second, so the next time you go somewhere for the weekend, you can tell friends you'll be gone for 17,280,000,000,000 shakes.

10. A hogshead was 63 gallons.

Black and white engraving of three men opening a hogshead barrel
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Specifically, 63 gallons of wine. It's a term dating back to at least the 15th century, and it might be a corruption of the term hog's hide, which might make clearer sense for referring to a wine container, but we really don't know how the word came about. The casks are also repurposed to mature whiskey.

11. You can have a double hogshead ...

Port pipe barrels
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It's called a port pipe, and it holds about 145 gallons.

12. ... or a butt.

Man pouring wine out of a barrel
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A butt holds about 132 gallons, so when someone tells you that they drank a buttload last night, they are either lying or dead.

13. Megadeath is a unit of atomic bomb destruction.

Atomic explosion
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Megade(a)th is not just the third-greatest heavy metal band of all time. It's also a terrifying unit of measurement. It was coined in the '50s as a unit of atom bomb destruction. One megadeath is equal to one million deaths.

14. A micromort measures the probability of death.

Woman holding a cigarette
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On the other end of things, we've got the micromort, a unit for measuring the statistical probability of death. One micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. So, smoking 1.4 cigarettes, or spending an hour in a coal mine increases your risk of death by precisely one micromort. Going skydiving? Seven micromorts. They're the coolest thing—and also the only cool thing—ever invented by actuaries.

15. manpower is about 1/10th as powerful as horsepower.

Close up of three horse heads looking to the left
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So you've heard of horsepower, but did you know there's also a measurable unit of manpower? It was worked out to somewhere between 1/8 and a 1/10 of a unit of horsepower. Horsepower was based on the fact that the average brewery horse could move something weighing 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute, stop, and repeat for eight hours. And it would take about eight to 10 men to do the same, so your Camaro might have a 300 horsepower engine, but my Chevy Volt has like a 2000 manpower engine.

16. A Darwin is, naturally, a unit of measuring evolution.

Statue of Charles Darwin
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We also measure things using the names of famous people. A Darwin, for instance, is a special ratio for measuring the rate of evolution. Evolution happening at the rate of one Darwin would change something by a factor of about 2.7 over a million years.

17. A Gal measures gravitational acceleration.

Milky Way over a mountain
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A Galileo or Gal is a unit of measurement used by physicists to talk about gravitational acceleration, but because there's only about a seven Galileo difference between the lowest and highest possible measurements on Earth, calculations are usually done in milli-Galileos.

18. Movements of your computer mouse are measured in Mickeys.

Woman holding computer mouse
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There's another guy you might have heard of who gave his name to a unit of measurement having to do with your computer mouse. The smallest detectable movement of a computer mouse—somewhere around 1/10 of a millimeter—is called a Mickey.

19. A Half-million twitter followers is a wheaton.

Woman smiling at smartphone
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After half a million people followed Wil Wheaton on Twitter, John Kovalic dubbed that number a Wheaton. The beloved actor and brewmaster got to about six Wheatons on the social site before deactivating his account in 2018.

20. The Length of a Beard-SEcond is in dispute.

A redheaded man with a big beard gestures a size with his fingers
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Speaking of great men with facial hair, a beard-second is the average length a man's beard grows in one second, but beard growth experts disagree on what that length actually is. Some say it's 10 nanometers. Some say it's five. Some say, "I can't believe that we're spending our time talking about this."

21. A millihelen is 1/1000th of one helen of troy.

Ships on a blue sea
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Helen of Troy's magnificent mug is said to have launched a thousand ships, but what if there's just one ship that needs help getting out of port? Then, you need a millihelen, the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship.

22. A barleycorn is 1/3 of an inch.

Barley on a wooden table
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A few hundred years ago in England, small objects were measured in barleycorns, as in grains of barley. A barleycorn was a third of an inch, which means it's barley there at all.

23. A poppyseed is even smaller.

Poppyseed rolls
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If you needed something smaller than that, you could measure by poppyseeds, defined as either 1/4 or 1/5 of a barleycorn. In fact, grain is the basis of our whole system of terms for measuring weight.

24. A pound was 5400 or 6750 grains.

Pound weight
Markus Thoenen/iStock via Getty Images

The Roman forerunner to the pound was the libra, which is why the lb. abbreviation stuck. Medieval England takes credit for using a pound (5400 grains) to measure metals and a mercantile pound (6750 grains) for goods.

25. A Bushel changes depending on the foodstuff.

Bushel of apples
Abbie Velker/iStock via Getty Images

The USDA has assigned individual bushel measurements to different things we grow in the ground. A bushel of corn is 56 pounds, while a bushel of oats is 32 pounds.

26. A Span is 9 inches.

Six different arms outstretched
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A span isn't just a vague term for how long something is, like a bridge or wings or the length of time you can pay attention to something. It originally meant a distance of about 9 inches, or the width of a man's hand with the fingers out.

27. A Hand is now 4 inches.

Man's hands on horse
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Besides the span, we also have the hand, now mostly used for measuring horse height. It's the width of your hand with the fingers closed. But these days, it just means 4 inches no matter how gigantic your hands are.

28. A Finger is the width of your finger.

Pouring a cocktail
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Noah Webster measured the breadth of a finger and nailed it down as 3/4 of an inch, but finger has been used a lot as a unit of measurement. Thus, it's not always clear whether we're talking about the width of the finger, like when your bartender pours you two fingers of booze.

29. A Finger can also be 4.5 inches of cloth.

Fabric rolls
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This unit uses the length of a finger as the basis.

30. A Nail is 1/16 of a yard.

Woman cutting fabric
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A nail of cloth, which is based on the length of your finger from the nail to the second joint, is half a finger, or 2.25 inches. That's also 1/16 of a yard.

So, there you have it. There are about seven barleycorns in a nail, two nails in a finger, four fingers on your hand, and three hands in a foot.

31. A Centipawn measures the value of chess positions.

A hand moves a black pawn forward on a chess board
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And now let us discuss centipawns. Chess computer programs can evaluate the value of a particular piece or position in terms of hundredths of a pawn, or centipawns.

32. A Frigorie is a Calorie's nemesis.

Woman putting food container in the fridge
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You've heard of the boring old calorie, a unit that measures energy that produces heat. A Big Mac, for instance, has 550 of them. But, what about the energy to cool something? That unit of refrigeration is called a frigorie, which fell out of use in the 1970s.

33. An Oxgang is about 15 acres.

Green fields with cows
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Also lost to history is the oxgang, a unit for measuring the area of land approximately equivalent to 15 acres—or the amount of land that a farmer could plow with an ox in one season.

34. An Olf is a unit of odor.

Cat nose
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Luckily, we've still got the melodious olf. Olfs are used for measuring the air quality of indoor spaces, like offices. One olf is basically the amount of odor of one standard person. So, what's a standard person? The olf standard is a person with a skin area of 1.8 square meters, who bathes 0.7 times per day, and is seated comfortably in a comfortable temperature. If the person becomes slightly active, it rises to 5 olfs. A heavy smoker gives off 25 olfs while smoking and six while not.

35. A QuasiHemidemisemiquaver is a unit of brief musical time.

Girl's hands playing piano
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Also known as the 128th note, it lasts for 1/128 of a note. Nice how that works. Beethoven and Bach were fans.

36. You can cut the Quasihemidemisemiquaver in half.

The great news about music is that you can always go smaller: a demisemihemidemisemiquaver is a 256th note, and it's been used in works by Beethoven and Mozart. 

In this episode, John Green explains some offbeat units of measurement. You'll be measuring things by fingers in a jiffy.

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