Our 26 Favorite Stories of 2023

Members of the Mental Floss staff are counting down their favorite stories of 2023, in case you missed any of them.
Barbie and Ken are just two members of the Barbie bunch.
Barbie and Ken are just two members of the Barbie bunch. / kaisphoto/iStock via Getty Images
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Here at Mental Floss, we’re not in the habit of picking favorites—except for when a new year is upon us. As we prepare to ring in 2024, our editors and writers are taking a moment to reflect back on the past 12 months and share with you our favorite stories, just in case you missed any of them. From why medieval artists drew such goofy-looking lions to Albert Einstein’s letters about UFOs, here are our staff picks for the best stories from 2023.

1. 13 Old and Obscure Terms for the Butt

Photo of a statue's butt in a speech bubble on an orange background
You’ll want to start using these butt-related euphemisms from days past. / Grady Coppell/ Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images (statue), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)

On the outside, I’m an adult woman, and on the inside, I’m a child—which is why this list of euphemisms for the butt, written by Mark Peters, delights me so. Why call it a “butt” when you could go with labonza or rusty-dusty instead? —Erin McCarthy

2. When Pepsi Tried Giving Away $1 Billion With the Help of a Chimp

In 2003, Pepsi hosted a game show in which contestants could win $1 billion if they guessed the same six-digit number as a chimpanzee named Kendall. It’s hard to choose the most ridiculous part of that sentence, but for me it’s probably that the chimp was named Kendall. Jake Rossen is good at writing weird stories about Pepsi and weird stories about primates, so you can imagine that he’d really be in his bag for a story about both. —Ellen Gutoskey

3. The Iceman Baldeth: New Genome Analysis Shows Ötzi Had Surprising Ancestry—and Male-Pattern Baldness

Ötzi, the beloved frozen mummy unearthed from an Alpine glacier in 1991, should probably be the Mental Floss mascot by now. We’ve covered the many characteristics of the Copper-Age hunter, from his multiple tattoos to his animal-skin clothing to his intestinal parasites. This year, geneticists sequenced Ötzi’s genome using the latest technology and found that he was likely prone to male-pattern baldness, among other traits. Ellen Gutoskey ably reported this important news and came up with my favorite headline of the entire year. —Kat Long

4. Why Medieval Artists Drew Such Goofy Looking Lions

illustration of a goofy looking lion
A lion as depicted in a French Book of Hours, circa 1432. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (lion); SEAN GLADWELL/Moment/Getty Images (gold background)

Old books are full of strange wonders—including delightful doodles of lions that look nothing like lions at all. Writer Jane Alexander explores the reason these beasts look so quirky in this story from February, which features a medley of images of the bizarre beasts. —Kerry Wolfe

5. A Handy Guide to Barbie’s Friends and Family

Thanks to the success of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, forgotten Mattel dolls like Allan and Midge are now movie stars. But true fans of the toy brand know that Barbie’s social network spans far beyond what was shown on the silver screen. In this handy guide, Ellen Gutoskey gives the supporting players in Barbie’s life the scholarly attention they deserve. Tutti and Todd may not have appeared in the 2023 film, but there’s still hope for the rumored Ken spin-off. —Michele Debczak

6. Stede Bonnet, the Real-Life ’Gentleman’ Pirate Who Inspired Our Flag Means Death

If you’ve been watching the silly, swashbuckling Max comedy Our Flag Means Death, the name Stede Bonnet is certainly familiar to you. But what you may not realize is that Bonnet, a.k.a. “The Gentleman Pirate,” is indeed based on a very real person. Who, yep, left his family behind to pursue his dreams of becoming the next Blackbeard. Kristin Hunt gives some fun historical context to the character for fans of the series. —Jennifer M. Wood

7. Albert Einstein’s Letter About UFOs

A photo illustration of Albert Einstein next to a UFO.
Einstein: Not curious about UFOs. / Lambert/Keystone/Getty Images (Einstein), MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images (UFO); Photo illustration by Mental Floss

Most times when I search through Getty Images, I find stuff that’s so weird that I can’t help but post it to the Mental Floss Slack for discussion. (I mean, check out this happy baby holding Krampus’s tongue! And these menacing owls! And this picture of a person in a bar dressed like a cat holding on to a camel!) But sometimes, when you least expect it, you find something really interesting—like this letter Einstein wrote in response to a person asking about UFOs. It was really fun to dig into what was happening with UFOs in the U.S. at that time, examine Einstein’s response, and cover how the media wrote about it. —EMC

8. “An Erotic Motorcycle”: The Surprisingly Surreal Subtext Behind Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”

Anyone who has been to a karaoke night with me knows that I love to close with Celine Dion’s epic power ballad “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”—and when I found out this year that writer Jim Steinman had described the song as “an erotic motorcycle,” I knew I had to assign a story about it. Kenneth Partridge expertly covered all the fasciating twists and turns in the history of the song, from its origins in Peter Pan and Wuthering Heights (really) to how it caused a falling out between Steinman and Meatloaf. The word saga gets thrown around a lot, but if the story of this song doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does. —EMC

9. How Mammoth Poop Is Changing What We Know About Their Extinction

Freelance science writer Joseph Howlett had me at mammoth poop—but there was also an intriguing scientific question behind the phrase. Joseph describes a heated debate among scientists over the uses of environmental DNA—a method of sampling DNA from the environment, rather than actual bones or tissue, to gain clues about ancient fauna. In this case, the presence of DNA from fossilized feces in Siberian permafrost suggested that woolly mammoths may have lived as recently as 4000 years ago, according to a study published in Nature. But other scientists weren’t convinced. —KL

10. Penelope, the Bronx Zoo Platypus That “Faked” a Pregnancy and Then Disappeared

three blue and green platypus illustrations decreasing in opacity against a murky green and yellow background
She's erasing herself from the narrative. / Dorling Kindersley/Dorling Kindersley RF/Getty Images (Edited)

I’m obsessed with platypuses, and probably with Penelope most of all. The monotreme was brought to the Bronx Zoo in 1947 with a male and another female in hopes that they’d breed. But as Ellen Gutoskey explains in this feature, Penelope couldn’t stand the overtures of her would-be mate and hated their enclosure. She would eventually fool zookeepers into thinking she was pregnant (garnering herself double portions—clever girl) and eventually made a break for it. Iconic. —EMC

11. Death & Horror: How BBC’s Controversial Sound Effects Album Became a Surprise Hit

Among the many fascinating facts I learned while editing this piece by Michele Debczak about Sound Effects No. 13 – Death & Horror—a sound effects album by the BBC’s record label released in 1977—is that they manhandled cabbages to create some of the effects. Sound Effects No. 13 ended up catching the attention of of people who sought to have it banned, but unfortunately for them, their campaign only helped turn it into a hit. —EMC

12. The Eerie Legend of the ‘Old Leatherman,’ Connecticut’s Silent Wanderer

There’s nothing better than a historical mystery, which is why I love this piece by Jake Rossen—things don’t get much more mysterious than the Old Leatherman. This mid-19th century figure would, over the course of around 35 days, walk a 365-mile trek to the same places in Connecticut and New York before starting the journey all over again. Who he was, where he came from, and why he walked was a total mystery; he never told anyone his name and never spoke beyond more than just a few sentences in French. Things didn’t get any clearer (or any less weird) even after he died. Trust me, you’ll want to put this one on your reading list. —EMC

13. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride: The Disneyland Ride That Kills You and Sends You to Hell

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is one of Disney’s most bizarre attractions, and I had a blast writing about the quest to save it in the 1990s. Discovering that savetoad.com is still live and preserved in its pre-Y2K glory will go down as a career highlight. If only the shirts that say “ASK ME WHY MICKEY IS KILLING MR. TOAD” were still for sale. —MD

14. 8 Historical Methods for Keeping the Dead in Their Graves

Fear of revenants was a very real thing back in the day. We took the opportunity provided by a potential revenant unearthed in a burial ground in Poland this year to ask Kristina Killgrove to explore the many ways people tried to keep the dead from rising. My favorite fact I learned from this story is that corpses were sometimes buried with stones in their mouths, which in theory kept them from eating their burial shrouds to gain strength and stalk the night. —EMC

15. Lost Soles: When Concealed Shoes Kept Witches Away

Just as people in Eastern Europe were once very concerned with keeping possible revenants in their graves, people in the UK and America were quite interested in keeping witches out of their houses. To do it, they’d conceal a shoe in a wall of their home. This fascinating piece by Mental Floss’s Science Editor Kat Long details the origins and history of the strange tradition; one founding father’s birthplace in particular had a lot of concealed shoes, but you’ll have to read to find out which one! —EMC

16. Audio Invasion: How the Theremin Went From Soviet Labs to Hollywood

Still from 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951) beside illustration of a theremin.
Still from 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951) beside illustration of a theremin. / Left: John Springer Collection/Getty Images. Right: JDawnInk/Getty Images

It is always so funny to me when a guy is trying to create a machine that uses electromagnetic waves to measure the density of gases and accidentally invents a musical instrument instead. That’s what happened to Leon Theremin, who called his invention—you guessed it!—the etherophone. Michele Debczak tracks the theremin’s (it got a name change) trajectory from the early Soviet Union through to ’90s Hollywood with a clarity that conveys how wild the story is without saying “How wild is this story!” at every turn. —EG

17. Raisin’ Hellbenders: How Scientists Are Saving North America's Largest Salamander

Meet the snot otter, a.k.a the eastern hellbender. Freelancer writer Maggie Gigandet takes us on a journey into a river canyon in Tennessee to show how biologists are saving these charismatic giant salamanders from a gauntlet of environmental threats. I couldn’t help but admire the two scientists trying valiantly to get pairs of the finicky, mucus-covered amphibians at the Nashville Zoo to raise their young without eating them first. —KL

18. 18 Surprising Facts About Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Ask many members of the Mental Floss staff and they’ll tell you that Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a criminally underrated part of the Halloween cinematic universe (especially when you compare it to many later Halloween sequels). In this piece, Shayna Murphy breaks down a number of fascinating facts about this weird little movie that definitely deserves your attention. Before you know it, you’ll be rooting Dr. Dan Chalis on. —EMC

19. 17 of History’s Coolest Cats

Illustration of three cats: one wearing a sailor's hat; one with an artist's palette; and one wearing an astronaut helmet
These cats went to see and to space, and inspired artists, writers, and scientists. / Volanthevist/Moment/Getty Images (cats), bounward/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (sailor hat), CSA Image/Getty Images (palette), appleuzr/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (astronaut helmet)

As a cat person, I had a ton of fun getting to know some of history’s most fascinating felines for an episode of The List Show. I just regret not being able to sneak my own very cool cats into the script. —KW

20. Why It Can Be Hard to Get Pronouns Right, According to Linguistics

I loved editing this piece by Kirby Conrod for a number of reasons: Not only did it explain why pronoun slip-ups happen and how to navigate them, plus tips for how to get pronouns right, but it also helped me understand why I sometimes miss particular words when I’ve been reading and editing all day (function words, I’m looking at you!). —EMC

21. The Best Way to Clean Baking Sheets, According to a Professional Chef

I can’t be the only one who has tossed out a baking sheet because I can’t get it clean. No more, thanks to this excellent advice Michele Debczak received from Roger Sitrin, lead recreational chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. This isn’t the only time we’ve consulted ICE this year; in fact, its chefs have given us a number of delicious receipes to try, from butternut squash soup to sweet potato waffles to smashed onion burgers and beyond. —EMC

22. A Tale of Two Creeps: Radiohead, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Great ‘Creep’ Face-Off of 1992

Pick a "Creep." Any "Creep." / Thom Yorke: Gie Knaeps/Hulton Archives/Getty Images; Scott Weiland: Niels van Iperen/Hulton Ar
Pick a "Creep." Any "Creep." / Thom Yorke: Gie Knaeps/Hulton Archives/Getty Images; Scott Weiland: Niels van Iperen/Hulton Archives/Getty Images /

The stories you read in Mental Floss can originate in a variety of ways; sometimes they come about during the course of an official editorial meeting—and sometimes they occur to you during a road trip. It took more than 30 years for it to occur to me that it seemed strange that we had two hit songs titled “Creep” in 1992—then a third a year later. Fortunately, Kenneth Partridge was just as intrigued by this coincidence, and took the time to dig into the musical face-off. —JMW

23. and 24. 13 Tantalizing Facts About the Lost Colony of Roanoke and The Dare Stones: The Elaborate Hoax That “Solved” the Mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

I roped Ellen Gutoskey into writing this twofer about one of Colonial America’s enduring mysteries: What happened to the English colony of Roanoke, which vanished in 1590? She covered the ill-fated attenpt to build a community on the island in modern-day North Carolina, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s enthusiastic survey of “Virginia” in 1584 to the settlers’ unexplained disappearance six years later. Ellen also dug into the story of the “Dare Stones,” an elaborate hoax purporting to solve the mystery of the lost colony of Roanoke, involving messages supposedly carved on rocks by the parents of Virginia Dare, the first child born in Roanoke. Even 400-plus years later, the plot still thickens. —KL

25. 13 Authors Whose Deaths Were Stranger Than Fiction

Do you know which famous author died from accidentally swallowing a toothpick? Or the one whose death remains a mystery to this day? Lorna Wallace breaks down the many unusual ways our favorite authors shuffled off this mortal coil in this list, which is full of facts I know I’ll be dropping at parties for years to come. —EMC

26. Make the Holidays Extra Cozy—and Entertaining—With Our 100-Fact Fireplace Video

OK, so this one is not exactly a “story.” But I happen to think that loading up crackling yule log with 100 random facts about everyting is the perfect way to enjoy some quiet time reflecting around the holiday season—and would be lying if I didn’t say that I’m mad that this idea never occurred to me. —JMW