15 Surprising Facts About Marco Polo


Born in the Republic of Venice in 1254, Marco Polo was a trader, traveler, and adventurer, who (probably*) journeyed to Central Asia and China in an era when vast swaths of the world were still uncharted and just traveling to a neighboring town could take you days. When he returned from his adventures, he brought back stories that helped introduce Europeans to Asia, and contributed to demystifying the largely unknown continent. In the influential work, The Travels of Marco Polo, he outlined the geography of Asia, described the customs of its people, and told tales of life at the court of legendary Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. But as amazing as all that may sound, it only scratches the surface of the bizarre and exciting life of the traveling merchant. Here are 15 things you might not know about Marco Polo. 

*More on that later! 


Marco Polo wasn’t yet a seasoned traveling merchant when he embarked on his great journey east. In fact, he was just 17 years old. In 1271, Polo left home with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo, and set out for Asia, in hopes of reaching the court of Kublai Khan. It was likely the first time the young Polo had left home as well as the first time he’d met his father and uncle, who had been traveling the world since Marco’s birth. 


While his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, brought knowledge of the Far East to the European world, Marco Polo wasn’t actually the first European to visit China. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Polo to visit China. Before Marco embarked on his journey to Asia, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo had already travelled to China and met with Kublai Khan. 

In some ways, Marco’s journey was a bit of a sequel to Niccolo and Maffeo’s original adventures: The two older travelers had befriended the great Mongol emperor and told him about Christianity, the Pope, and the Church in Rome. Curious about European religion, Kublai Khan apparently requested that the travelers bring him 100 Christian men from whom to learn more about the religion, as well as some holy oil of the lamp in Jerusalem. Niccolo and Maffeo returned to Europe where they picked up the young Marco Polo and somehow procured the oil, but not the 100 Christians, requested by the emperor, before journeying East again.


Marco Polo left home at age 17 and didn’t return to Venice for 24 years. Over the course of two decades, he travelled around 15,000 miles both on land along the Silk Road, and by sea, coming across parts of Asia and, if some highly controversial (and possibly forged) maps are to be believed, visited parts of the Alaskan coast hundreds of years before Vitus Bering.


When Marco Polo returned to Europe in 1295, his adventures were far from over. He returned home to find Venice at war against the Republic of Genoa, and took up arms on behalf of his homeland. After a sea skirmish in the late 13th century, Polo was captured by the Genoese and tossed in jail. There, he befriended another prisoner, Rustichello of Pisa, who just happened to be a writer of popular romances. He began dictating his story to Rustichello, who produced the manuscript that would become The Travels of Marco Polo.


Long before Europe began printing its own bills, the Mongol empire was circulating paper money. Marco Polo described the strange currency in his book, facetiously describing Kublai Khan as an alchemist who could transform mulberry trees into money, instead of base metals into gold. He wrote, in awe, about the way paper money was treated by Kublai Khan’s subjects as though it were as valuable as gold or silver—and described the systems in place to prevent counterfeiting the paper currency.



Marco Polo encountered numerous animals on his journey that were then unknown in Europe. These included the chow chow dog breed, the musk deer, and the yak. Of these, the yak seemed to be Polo’s favorite: Impressed by the silky softness of their fur, he brought yak hair back to Venice with him, where he displayed it as a curiosity.  


Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced Italy to pasta. While the veracity of that story has long been debated, Polo did encounter some interesting foods. Ginger was widely used in the Roman era, but by the time of Marco Polo was considerably rarer, and much more expensive. During his travels, however, he found endless quantities of rare spices, costing virtually nothing. And while he may not have brought ice cream to Europe either, as some sources suggest, he does describe an early power shake. The Mongols reportedly dried milk, and, while riding, would add water to the milk in a flask. Riding with said flask would cause the mixture to churn, resulting in a thick syrup.


Back in the 13th Century, European superstition portrayed unicorns as horned, horse-like animals, who could only be tamed and captured with the help of a young woman. Marco Polo’s account of the animal debunked that superstition: In reality, Polo claimed, unicorns weren’t serene and beautiful creatures who gravitated to the pure of heart. They were ugly and dangerous, with hair like a buffalo, feet like an elephant, the head of a wild boar, and a black horn in the middle of their foreheads. Unicorns, Polo informed his readers, primarily liked to roll around in the mud and dirt, and attack people with their prickly tongues. Based on Polo’s description of the “unicorn,” historians now know he was actually describing the rhinoceros. 


Throughout his book, Polo describes encounters with magicians and sorcerers. At the court of Kublai Khan, Polo describes meeting astrologers who could control the weather from the palace rooftops, and magicians who made flagons of wine levitate at feasts.


If Marco Polo sounds a little bit superstitious, it’s likely because he lived in superstitious times. Throughout his book, he not only describes first-hand experiences with magic, but repeats the myths and rumors he encounters as fact. In one passage, Polo claims that it’s a well-known fact that evil spirits haunt the Gobi Desert, torturing travelers with illusions, and calling their names to turn them away from their path and make them lose their way—which is probably a reference to the very real phenomenon of the Gobi's “singing” sands. 


In his book, Polo claimed not only to have made it to the court of Kublai Khan in Shangdu—traveling farther than almost any European had in the process—but to have befriended the emperor, becoming his right hand man and advisor. 


When Marco Polo finally decided it was time to end his adventures and return home, Kublai Khan had grown so attached to the Venetian merchant, he chose to deny his request. Polo finally convinced Kublai Khan to let him go in return for helping the emperor’s great nephew on a sea voyage. In order to ensure Polo was safe on his travels, the emperor awarded him a golden tablet of safe conduct—an inscribed gold plaque—which would help him safely obtain supplies on their journey, and let everyone know he was under the emperor’s protection.


While Marco Polo and his ghostwriter Rustichello of Pisa were undoubtedly great storytellers, historians to this day continue to debate exactly how true some of their stories were. Some historians have gone as far as to question whether Polo even made it to China, arguing he may have simply picked up stories from other merchants during his travels. While Polo’s historical significance isn’t up for debate, it’s unclear which of his tales stretched the truth. 


After providing some of the first written descriptions of yaks, musk deer, and of course, unicorns, it seems fitting that Polo would eventually have an animal named after him. In 1841, zoologist Edward Blyth named a species of sheep Ovis ammon polii after Marco Polo (the sheep are colloquially called Marco Polo sheep). 


Marco Polo’s travels have inspired plenty of explorers to go on adventures of their own. Christopher Columbus himself brought a copy of Marco Polo’s book with him on his trip to the New World. And in the 1960s, a group of travelers even decided to follow Marco Polo’s exact route, journeying from Italy to China in cars and trailers instead of on horseback. 

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.