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The Day The Mississippi River Ran Backward—and How It Led to The Trail Of Tears

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New Madrid seismic zone. Red circles identify earthquakes that occurred between 1974 and 2002 with magnitudes 2.5 and larger. Green circles denote earthquakes that occurred before 1974. The larger the circle, the larger the earthquake. Source: USGS

In 1811 and 1812, a series of earthquakes emanated from New Madrid, Missouri, and were felt as far away as Ohio and South Carolina. The soil beneath the Mississippi River rose, temporarily changing its course so that it flowed backward. (The phenomenon is not as rare as you might think; in fact, the Mississippi flowed backward earlier this year thanks to Hurricane Isaac.) The event might have gone relatively unnoticed except that a group of Muskogee people thought the phenomenon was a river god, the Tie Snake, writhing under the ground.

The Tie Snake was believed to be an antlered river monster who lurked beneath the water and straddled the divide between the Upper and Lower Worlds—between sky and river, and order and chaos. Muskogee culture focused on communal prosperity, but their traditions had been altered by the infiltration of European trade goods and the new culture that accompanied them. Some Muskogee people believed that the Tie Snake was calling them to return to a traditional lifestyle—and warning them to stop the Europeans from infiltrating their culture.

This command might also have gone (relatively) unnoticed, except that a remnant of the Spanish government met some Muskogee warriors in Pensacola, Florida, and gave them weapons. The British had the young American navy tied up off the Atlantic coast in the War of 1812, and the Spanish hoped that the Muskogee men could weaken the Americans from another direction.

The Muskogee (Creek) War

The Muskogees themselves were divided over the potential for conflict, but before they could reach a consensus, European settlers in the area caught wind of the exchange and ambushed the Muskogee warriors at the Battle of Burnt Corn. The Muskogees retaliated at the Battle of Fort Mims in 1813, and panic flared all the way from the frontier outpost to the paved streets of the new capital. Andrew Jackson charged south, leading a cavalry which chased the Muskogees from the Battle of Talladega to the slaughter at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

The Muskogees were forced to cede a huge portion of their land in the subsequent peace treaty, and Jackson didn’t forget the experience. When he ascended to the presidency, his harsh policies led to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Throughout the next decade, thousands of Muskogee, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw people were forced to march from the forests of the Deep South to what is now eastern Oklahoma. The Cherokee people’s journey was the most notorious; of the 15,000 who began the journey, 4000 died along the way.

All told, 46,000 Native Americans were removed from their ancestral lands during the forced migrations, in the exodus now remembered as the Trail of Tears.

Laura Steadham Smith is a graduate student at Florida State University.

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Where Does the Word 'Meme' Come From?
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Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group

By Jenna Scarbrough

Certain fads, catchphrases, dances, and songs bombard our society—nowadays, almost all of these are either born on or popularized through the Internet. Grumpy Cat, Rickrolling, Left Shark, the optical illusion dress—all of these ubiquitous cultural sensations have this in common. Some of these stick for a while, some don’t. Those that stick are branded as memes. But what exactly is a meme?

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, the English evolutionary biologist, proposed an idea in his book, The Selfish Gene: What if ideas were like organisms, where they could breed and mutate? These ideas, he claimed, are actually the basis for human culture, and they are born in the brain.

Dawkins’s research is primarily in genetics. He has argued that all life relies on replication. But unlike cells, ideas do not rely on a chemical basis for survival. They begin from a single location—the brain—and spread outward, jumping from one vessel to another, battling for attention. Some ideas are more successful, which may be due to an element of truth they carry, while others slowly die out. Some may not be accurate, but society has accepted these ideas for so long that they are just accepted (think about pictures of Jesus or George Washington; while these may not be what they actually looked like, almost all art now portrays these men in the same way).

Dawkins needed a name for this concept. He proposed calling it mimeme, from the Greek word meaning “that which is replicated.” He wrote in his book, “I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.” He felt the monosyllabic word would be more fitting because it sounds similar to "gene." “If it is any consolation,” he continued, “it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”

Although he probably couldn’t imagine the possibility of Internet memes during his initial research in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dawkins has now accepted the appropriation. Because it’s still viral, he said in an interview with WIRED, this popularity increase goes right along with his theory that ideas are similar to living things.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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25 Awesome Australian Slang Terms
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by Helena Hedegaard Holmgren 

Australian English is more than just an accent, and the Aussie vernacular can easily leave both English speakers and foreigners perplexed. Australian English is similar to British English, but many common words differ from American English—and there are many unique Aussie idiosyncrasies, slang terms, and expressions.

The term for Aussie slang and pronunciation is strine, and it is often characterized by making words as short as possible; the story goes it developed by speaking through clenched teeth to avoid blowies (blow flies) from getting into the mouth. So if you plan to visit the world’s smallest continent, this list of some of the most commonly used slang expressions is for you.

1. Arvo: afternoon

2. Barbie: barbeque

3. Bogan: redneck, an uncultured person. According to the Australian show Bogan Hunters, a real bogan sports a flanno (flannel shirt), a mullet, missing teeth, homemade tattoos (preferably of the Australian Flag or the Southern Cross), and has an excess of Australia paraphernalia. This "species of local wildlife" can be found by following their easily distinguishable tracks from burnouts or the smell of marijuana.

4. Bottle-O: bottle shop, liquor store

5. Chockers: very full

6. Esky: cooler, insulated food and drink container

7. Fair Dinkum: true, real, genuine

8. Grommet: young surfer

9. Mozzie: mosquito

10. Pash: a long passionate kiss. A pash rash is red irritated skin as the result of a heavy make-out session with someone with a beard.

11. Ripper: really great

12. Roo: kangaroo. A baby roo, still in the pouch, is known as a Joey

13. Root: sexual intercourse. This one can get really get foreigners in trouble. There are numerous stories about Americans coming to Australia telling people how they love to "root for their team." If you come to Australia, you would want to use the word "barrack" instead. On the same note, a "wombat" is someone who eats roots and leaves.

14. Servo: gas station. In Australia, a gas station is called a petrol station. If you ask for gas, don’t be surprised if someone farts.

15. She’ll be right: everything will be all right

16. Sickie: sick day. If you take a day off work when you are not actually sick it’s called chucking a sickie.

17. Slab: 24-pack of beer

18. Sook: to sulk. If someone calls you a sook, it is because they think you are whinging

19. Stubbie holder: koozie or cooler. A stubbie holder is a polystyrene insulated holder for a stubbie, which is a 375ml bottle of beer.

20. Sweet as: sweet, awesome. Aussies will often put ‘as’ at the end of adjectives to give it emphasis. Other examples include lazy as, lovely as, fast as and common as.

21. Ta: thank you

22. Togs: swim suit

23. Tradie: a tradesman. Most of the tradies have nicknames too, including brickie (bricklayer), truckie (truckdriver), sparky (electrician), garbo (garbage collector) and chippie (carpenter).

24. Ute: Utility vehicle, pickup truck

25. Whinge: whine

Good onya, mate! Understanding the Aussies should be easy as now.

Additional Sources: Urban Attitude; All Down Under - Slang Dictionary; Australian Words - Meanings and Origins; Australian Dictionary; Koala Net; Australian Explorer; Up from Australia; YouTube, 2; McDonalds.

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