As Big as a What? How Literary Size Comparisons Change Over Time

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iStock

Many humans are bad at visualizing what measurements really mean unless you give them a comparison. Tell someone a space is 360 feet long and they'll probably just blink; say it's the length of a football field and you might get a nod of comprehension. That's why many writers use size comparisons rather than precise measurements in non-technical works. (It also helps convince people your work wasn't written by a robot.) But the comparisons that writers use reflect the culture and time period they're in—tell an ancient Roman something is the size of a credit card or a car, and you're not going to get very far.

As spotted by Digg, programmer and data visualization whiz Colin Morris recently performed an experiment that demonstrates how these kinds of object comparisons change over time. Morris mined the vast Ngram dataset of English-language Google Books for occurrences of the phrase "the size of ___" between 1800 and 2008, then ranked the top results by popularity overall and in specific centuries. Some of the results made perfect sense (England has phased out the shilling; basketball didn't exist for most of the 1800s), while others were more surprising (why did we stop referring to cats as a popular size comparison in the 21st century?).

Overall, Morris found that items from the natural world have fallen into decline as reference points, while sports analogies have exploded onto the scene. (Morris wonders whether this has to do with the rise of leisure time, and/or the mass media that exposes far more spectators to sports than ever before.) Some of the specific results also have intriguing stories to tell: We no longer talk about the size of pigeon's eggs largely thanks to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in the United States. The numbers of city pigeons just don't compare—when was the last time you saw one of their eggs?

There is one clear winner across the centuries, however: peas. These tiny legumes were the most popular reference point in the 1800s and they remain so today. The same is true of runner-up the walnut. Let it not be said we have nothing in common with our ancestors.

Here are the top five items in each century that Morris investigated:

1800s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. hen's egg

1900s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. orange

2000-2008

1. pea
2. walnut
3. quarter
4. football field
5. egg

For the full list, head over to Colin Morris's site.

[h/t Digg]

Harry Potter Fans Have Been Mispronouncing Voldemort's Name

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. // Harry Potter Publishing Rights J.K.R.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. // Harry Potter Publishing Rights J.K.R.

Just last month we learned J.K. Rowling included the correct pronunciation of "Hermione" in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to keep fans from continuing to say her name wrong. And now we find out that the vast majority of Harry Potter fans have been mispronouncing Voldemort's name for 20 years as well. We need a second to collect ourselves.

According to Cosmopolitan, List25 tweeted, “#DidYouKnow Contrary to popular belief, the ‘t’ at the end of Voldemort is silent. The name comes from the French words meaning ‘flight of death.’”

Apparently, JK Rowling also confirmed the correct, silent "t" pronunciation of Voldemort three years ago—yet many Potterheads have been blissfully ignorant to their mispronunciation.

Back in 2015, a fan messaged Rowling on Twitter, saying, "One piece of Harry Potter trivia I always forget to mention: the ‘t’ is silent in Voldemort." According to ​The Sun, Rowling confirmed the common mistake by replying, "… but I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who pronounces it that way."

What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

iStock.com/dusipuffi
iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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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