CLOSE

6 Surprising Facts about "Rats with Wings"

superdove.pngThis week we're lucky to have guest blogger Courtney Humphries blogging with us. Courtney is the author of Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World and she's got 5 great posts on pigeons. We'll let her take it from here:
Pigeons are ubiquitous, so common we hardly even see them. When they're noticed, they're castigated as flying rats, or turned into punchlines for New Yorker cartoons. But when I began researching pigeons a few years ago, I discovered a fascinating history and a trove of  information about the birds that I never knew before. Eventually I decided to turn their story into a book, Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World. Here are just a few facts about birds that surprised me.

  • Pigeons have walnut-sized brains and aren't known for their intelligence. But they are often used as research subjects in psychology labs; researchers have found that pigeons can be trained to remember over 1,000 images, and can distinguish letters of the alphabet and expressions of human faces. They excel at finding visual objects because they're natural foragers.
  • These days we don't think much about pigeons as food, but they may be the oldest domesticated bird; they were first domesticated in the Middle East and Egypt a few thousand years ago and have featured in traditional cuisines of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. In fact, the street pigeons we see in the U.S. were first brought from Europe in the 1600s for food.
  • fancy.jpgThere are hundreds of unusual breeds of domestic pigeons, called fancy pigeons. They're the same species as our familiar street pigeons, but you wouldn't know it from the looks of some. Fancy pigeons come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, weighing from four ounces to four pounds.
  • Charles Darwin kept and bred fancy pigeons in the few years leading up to the publication of the Origin of Species. He was so taken with the diversity of these birds that he began the Origin with a long description of fancy pigeons.

  • All pigeons have a keen ability to find their way home. Humans have exploited this ability with homing pigeons, which are specially bred and trained to be able to race back home from unfamiliar drop-off points hundreds of miles away. But before it became a sport, pigeon homing was used in large-scale pigeon posts as early as the fifth century BC, and pigeons were routinely recruited to carry messages in war for centuries.

Click here to purchase Courtney's wonderful book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World (it has one of the best covers I've ever seen). And come back tomorrow for more stories about pigeons.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
language
How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
iStock
iStock

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
TAKWest, Youtube
arrow
entertainment
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios