Columnist searches for wisdom in the trivia file

Bill Duncan


For the Capital Press

Look what I found in my trivia file: In the 1700s, juries weren't allowed to eat or drink until they reached a verdict.

Now that's a thought for that sluggish Congress to get them concentrating on getting this country to its great potential. That would certainly hurry up stalled decisions on the economy.

That edict prompted Alexander Pope to write in protest: "Hungry judges soon the sentence sign. And wretches hang, so that jury men might dine."

There is much wisdom in trivia. Take, for example, these gems:

* Anthropologists say that wearing pants was a result of the domestication of the horse. You can't ride astride a horse in a toga.

* Clarence Darrow was perhaps the greatest trial lawyer of the 20th century. He was also a law school dropout. He attended law school for one year before deciding to study law on his own.

* Speaking of law, I saw a correction in a major magazine saying that the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. did not coin the term "anesthesia." It was his father, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. The senior Holmes was as famous for his essays and poems as he was for innovations in medicine.

* Ninety-nine percent of the words spoken in English come from a vocabulary of just 1,500 to 2,000 words.

* One of the oldest children's classics is "Mother Goose." The legendary storyteller's name was known in France during the 1600s and the nursery rhyme first appeared in print in 1697, in a book by Charles Perrault.

* About 1 in 4 fiction books sold in the United States is a mystery or suspense novel.

* Johannes Gutenberg, who invented movable type, is credited with creating the popularity of books. He became famous by publishing Bibles on his printing press invention, but he first used his invention to print playing cards.

* While young people are hitting the books in study, this bit of trivia could help with better grades: Cry while you study. Your long-term memory is more likely to recall the details of emotionally charged situations than emotionally neutral ones.

* Poet Walt Whitman worked as a low-level clerk in the U.S. government's Bureau of Indian Affairs until he was fired. His wife, consoled him by arranging pen and paper on his writing desk and telling him: "Now you have an opportunity to write."

* Alfred Lord Tennyson holds the longevity record for England's poet laureate: 42 years, from 1850 to 1892.

* This information has nothing to do with literature, but it should make you flush with joy: Yellow fever, dysentery, cholera, malaria and hookworm were once common illnesses in the U.S., in the time when outhouses were the only bathrooms. The first roadside diner with an indoor toilet wasn't built until 1911. There is no mention of toilet paper, so maybe it was ad hoc toilet paper, e.g. corn cobs.

Today there are better uses for corn cobs, including a recent development to make biodegradable containers. Interestingly, corn cobs are used to build houses in the Pacific Northwest using a process known as "Oregon Cob." The cobs are ground up and mixed with clay, sand, straw, earth and water, a process similar to adobe. It is fireproof and resistant to seismic activity.

The idea is really nothing new. It has been used in construction since prehistoric times and some of the oldest manmade structures in Afghanistan were built using this method. Cob houses can be found in Wales, England, the Middle East and in Africa.

Finally, can you believe this? According to the American Medical Association, which might not be completely unbiased, the average wait in a doctor's office is a mere 20 minutes.

You'll have no trouble with this trivia fact: One estimate is that there are about 10,000 insects for every human being in the world. But wait, there's more. There are about 1.5 million known insect species, but entomologists believe there are another 1 million more out there waiting to be discovered and classified.

Now, isn't there wisdom in all this trivia?

Bill Duncan can be reached by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, Ore. 97470.

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