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Madagascar's Legendary Man-Eating Tree

It's probably one of the most fantastical tales in all of botany: the legend of the man-eating tree. First reported in 1881 by a German explorer named Carl Liche, it was said to be a sacred and much-feared plant used in sacrifice rituals by the native Mkodo tribe. The South Australian Register printed his account of a first-hand encounter with the Mkodo and their fearsome tree:

"From the top of the tree sprout long hairy green tendrils and a set of tentacles, constantly and vigorously in motion, with ... a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air. [Presented a woman as offering], the slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey."

Forty years later, a former governor of Michigan turned explorer named Chase Osborn wrote about the tree in his book Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree, confirming Liche's claims and adding that other tribes as well as missionaries also knew about the tree.

So where are these amazing and terrible trees? Are they so rare? Or have they simply been victims, like much of the lush, green canopy that once covered Madagascar, of deforestation? Unfortunately, the answer is none of the above -- the whole thing was a hoax. It was debunked in 1955 by a science writer named Willy Ley, who discovered that not only were the tribe and the tree made up, but so was the German explorer who supposedly found them. Still, that hasn't stopped sci-fi writers from inventing a whole host of carnivorous plants to take its place (think Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors or the bushy villains from Day of the Triffids). Still, I think the fact that people were willing to believe this outlandish story for nearly 70 years says something about human nature. Some strange part of us wants there to be giant man-eating trees somewhere in the world.

Why do you think that is?

Also: it's purely coincidence that I'm posting this on April Fool's Day ... but it's kind of appropriate, no?

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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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.

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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]

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