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How Do Countries Choose Which Side They Drive On?

Chaos has descended this week on the tiny Pacific island of Samoa after government officials decided to force the entire nation to switch sides of the road on Monday. While Samoan officials insist there have been no accidents as a result of asking drivers to switch from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the left, many non-driving Samoans have been left stranded because the island's buses now open to the middle of the road.

Samoa is the first nation since the 1970s to switch sides and did so, they say, to end their reliance on left-hand drive vehicles imported at great expense from America. All well and good, but the real question here is why do different nations drive on different sides of the roads? Here in England, where traffic comes from the right, it took me more than a few weeks to stop looking left every time I went to cross the street—training that was completely undone when I went to France for two weeks at the end of the summer.

So what is the deal with the "wrong" side of the road? How do countries decide which side they drive on?

Because The Pope Said So

According to some sources, about a quarter of the world drives on the left, as they do in Britain. This isn't too surprising, since at one time Britain owned about a quarter of the world. Traveling on the left side of the road was a practice that started with the feudal societies of Western world, like the proto-British empire "“ back in the day, you never knew who'd you pass on the road, so best to keep your sword arm between you and them. In 1300 AD, Pope Boniface VIII codified the practice with a law that decreed that pilgrims headed for Rome should keep on the left.

The Birth of the Left-Hand Drivers' Seat

Things were going fine until the advent of market-based agriculture on a grand scale. In the 1700s, farmers in the US and France began hauling their products to market in big rigs pulled by many horses. Because these wagons typically had no place to sit, drivers would sit on the rear left horse, with their right arm free to whip the team along "“ and the left-hand drivers' seat was born. Drivers naturally tended to ride on the right side of the road now, because it was safer to meet oncoming vehicles from where you could see their wheels. In 1792, a Pennsylvania law required that vehicles keep right, other states following soon after.

Because Napoleon Said So

Another explanation blames Napoleon. Because Napoleon was left-handed, he demanded that everyone approach from the right, so he could keep his sword arm between himself and anyone he'd meet. That's not exactly true; the custom of keeping to the right actually pre-dated Napoleon, but he did make sure his troops followed it whilst they spread their Empire, and from Napoleon's lips to law. Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain, which were all at one point under Napoleon's either direct control or influence, subsequently drive on the right.

It's an England/France Thing

So on two different continents, the "keep right" rule was becoming entrenched "“ while in England, keeping left remained the only way to go, especially after a 1756 city ordinance decreed that all traffic on the London Bridge must keep to the left. From there, it was all about influence.

Though not a hard and fast rule, places that were under French and US influence kept right, while those under the British Empire and its influence still kept left.

In Japan in 1859, for example, a British ambassador was able to convince the government there to keep left, a major coup for the lefties and Britain (this is what the Brits say; the Japanese, however, may disagree and claim that their decision to keep left had more to do with samurai warriors and their needs).

Because Hitler Said So

With the invention of the automobile, countries had good reason to pick a side and stick to it, although not all did. By 1938, there was another reason: Wherever Hitler invaded, he forced the native populations to drive on the right. Parts of Austria, including Vienna, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, that had historically driven on the left now had to drive on the right.

Ask Your Neighbors

Countries were still making "which side?" decisions well into the second half of the 20th century. Sweden, for example, switched to driving on the right in 1967 because by then, most of the countries their burgeoning car industry sold to were right-side countries. By this time, the clearest indicator of which side a country drives on became what its neighbors did, and with whom they traded.

Of course, some places, like the US Virgin Islands, confuse the issue even more by driving left-hand side cars on the left side of the road "“ it's the only place under US purview that does so.

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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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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