Easy to believe

Here are two little facts about the “Ring around the Rosie” nursery rhyme.

Fact #1: As you’ve perhaps heard before, the song is actually about the Black Death. The “ring around the rosie” refers to the red blotches on victims’ skin. The “pocket full of posies” was believed to ward off the disease in medieval times. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” needs little explanation.

Fact #2: The previous fact is complete nonsense.

I’ve heard this thing about the Black Death a number of times, and I used to believe it myself. But it doesn’t take much digging to find out that it’s all made up.

First of all, the version of the song that’s most famous today is just one of many variations, many of which seem unrelated to the disease. Second, the song has been around since the nineteenth century, yet the earliest known mention of it being about the Black Death isn’t until the 1940s or ’50s. (If a song’s secret meaning goes undiscovered by anybody for over half a century, it’s very secret indeed.) But most importantly, there just isn’t any evidence that it’s true, aside from a vague textual link — and you can “find” any meaning in any text if you look hard enough. The theory is false.

So why do so many people believe it? Why did I believe it?

Well, it doesn’t help that this little theory gets repeated a lot, often by sources who should know better, including professors, historians, and news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times. It also doesn’t help that a lot of people just aren’t terribly skeptical. Someone tells them something, so they add it to the mental database. It’s easy to do. I’ve done it myself many times.

But I have another hypothesis — call it speculation. Here it is:

People are more likely to believe things that sound subversive.

In this case, the Black Death explanation subverts the surface appearance of a harmless children’s song. “You think it’s harmless, but really …” I think that appeals to human nature. It’s satisfying. It feels like you’re seeing deeper, going beyond what the average person knows. And it makes more intuitive sense than “You think it’s harmless, but really it’s about this, except not really, it’s just a kid’s song after all.”

Ever heard that thing about how Mr. Rogers was a sniper in Vietnam? That’s nonsense too. But there’s that same element of subversion.

People like to find secret, often sexual messages in Disney movies too. Some of these are likely intentional, and some of them likely are not — in many cases it’s difficult to say. But many viewers prefer to skip the skeptical phase entirely and get straight to the business of believing.

On a grander and more ludicrous scale, there’s the conspiracy theory that we never really went to the moon. This seems to be less widely believed than the other examples, perhaps because it stretches credulity more, and perhaps because the counterarguments debunking it have become about as well-known as the conspiracy theory itself. But again, it has that feeling of subversion to it. “You know the official story, but here’s what really happened.”

Anyway, that’s my speculation. What do you think? Do counternarratives have more staying power than other rumors and urban legends?


Still crazy busy …

… which means less blogging time, per yuʒ. But it’s better to have too much work than not enough.

At least, I think it is.

Have an excellent day.

My new favorite sentence

I was reading an article about Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic (but long-shot) Democratic challenger for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat this year. Toward the end, the article casually drops this quote from one of his supporters:

He reminds me of Robert Kennedy, but more so.

I can’t decide what I love most: the sentence itself, the fact that I actually get what she’s saying, or the fact that the article didn’t even feel the need to clarify.

I love you, English. Never change.

The unwritable word

Betsy and I have gotten into the habit of saying “per usual.” It’s just “as usual” phrased a little differently. “They played half an hour of ads before the movie, per usual.”

We say it often enough that we’ve shortened it. We drop the “-ual” from the end, leaving just two syllables.

One day, I tried texting the shortened form to Betsy, and I got a surprise. There’s no way to write it. At least, no good way that I could discover.

If you just drop the “-ual” ending, you get “per us,” which looks like you’re talking about “us” as in “you and me.” You can change the “u” sound from short to long by making it “per use,” but that has the same problem.

You can try to write it phonetically … but how? Something like “per yoosh”? First, that looks weird, and second, it doesn’t actually make the right sound. The end of the syllable isn’t an -sh sound. It’s the same sound made by the “J” in “Jacques” and by the “s” in “measure.” The problem is, there’s no standard, standalone, widely understood way to write that sound in English.

Now, if you forget about “widely understood,” there is a standard way to write the sound: “zh.” You could say “per yoozh.” That actually looks reasonable, to me, but I doubt it would fare as well with anyone who isn’t obsessed with language.

So I end up spelling out the whole thing, or just dropping it entirely.

How did we end up with an unwritable word?

Okay, maybe it’s not exactly a real word (whatever that means), but it’s still a fragment of English, a meaningful thing that I can say, and that others can understand. If I can say it, I can write it.

Or at least, that’s what I thought until recently.

What do you think?

Quick note re: civility

Still very busy, wish I had more time to talk about this, but I’ll throw out a quick note about members of the Trump administration being refused service and getting heckled while going about their private lives.

I’ll put aside the question of whether business owners and the general public have the right to do this sort of thing — which I think is a complicated subject — and focus on whether they should. That one is much simpler.

Let people eat in peace. Let people have their private lives. Not because they deserve it, but because we are human beings living in a society. Because we are already divided more than enough. Because it hinders the path to a more civilized democracy. Because we shouldn’t use Trump’s us-versus-them mindset to oppose Trump’s policies.

When a restaurant owner ejected Sarah Huckabee Sanders from the building, it was at least done politely. I still don’t agree with that choice, but politeness is a good start. Other members of the administration have been heckled and harassed with much less respect, and I think that’s very sad.

Take Stephen Miller, for example. Miller has somehow done the impossible: he has managed to make me despise him more than Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter. I am convinced the laws of physics must have been broken somewhere to allow that to happen. And yet — he is still a person, still a part of our society. Does he deserve respect? Not particularly. But it’s not really about him, is it? By offering him civility, we improve ourselves, and we improve each other. The goal, remember, is to be better than dudes like him.

I have somehow managed to (1) ramble on longer than intended and (2) get on a preachy soapbox. C’est la vie.

Back to editing.

Happy Friday!

Very busy lately, hence the minimal blogging. But I hope you’re doing well, hypothetical reader. Enjoy your weekend!

F is for feathers

I saw this last night. Took me half a second to realize CNN was talking about Turkey the country and it was the most confusing 0.5 seconds of my entire day.