Fascinating Factoids that Fell Out of an Old Book

alex atkins bookshelf booksA common observation that you will find among book collectors is the eureka moment when something fascinating falls from a used book that was orphaned at a used book shop or library donation drop box. Quite often, booksellers glance at a book, price it, and shelve it for sale, unaware of the treasures that its former owner placed inside the book — perhaps a forgotten bookmark, a postcard, letter, or a clipped newspaper article. Depending on the age of the newspaper, specifically the type of ink and paper that was used at that time, the folded article can leave a ghostly imprint on the pages of the book, leaving behind a permanent watermark, as it were, proudly stating: “A cherished memento once lived here!”

Recently, I was reviewing a reference book that I had purchased at a library sale — I should really say, I rescued it, since it sat there dusty and forlorn at the end of a long row of tables. In any event, as I opened the book to a random chapter, out fell a neatly folded newspaper clipping. The book was titled Whose What? A Reference Book for All the Strange Expressions that Have Entered the American Language by Dorothy Blumberg. Although the book was published in 1969, the newspaper clipping was dated a few years later: March 6, 1972. Although the clipping was darkened considerably by age — the paper had turned from cream to brown — remarkably, it did not leave an imprint in the book’s pages. In my experience, most newspaper clippings relate directly to the book or its author; however, this article from the feature page of the Detroit Free Press contained a rather curious collection of fascinating factoids beneath the title “You Can Look It Up and Learn That…” with the subtitle “Things I Never Knew Until I Looked Them Up” by Sydney Harris. Since this was decades before the advent of the Internet, presumably curious fellow looked it up the old-fashioned way — by visiting a library and looking up various topics in actual books. Imagine that!

Even more fascinating — from a provenance point of view — is the book’s incredible journey. First, think about who was the original owner of this book? There was no name or bookplate; therefore, given the topic of the book and newspaper article, one could surmise that it was an educated person — curious, most likely with an interest in the English language and trivia. Second, consider that the book had traveled from Detroit to California, a distance of over 2,500 miles. Did it travel in a box, a suitcase, or a backpack? Finally, ponder that the book’s journey has taken a half century! And how the world has changed from 1969 to today! But I digress…

This serendipitous encounter with random facts — learning that goes beyond the scope of a specific book — is one of the wonderful byproducts of book collecting. Sadly, most books on bookcollecting don’t even address that incredible aspect. Nevertheless, without further ado, here are the fascinating facts that I learned when a newspaper clipping fell out of an old book:

Things I Never Knew Until I Looked Them Up

Baseball is an older sport than tennis; it goes back to at least 1840, whereas modern tennis began only 100 years ago, in 1872, when the first outdoor courts were built in England.

Florence Nightingale was the first woman ever to be named “Florence”; she was born in that city, and until her subsequent fame, the feminine name “Florence” was unknown in the English-speaking world.

Speaking of cities, both London and Paris were named by the Romans during the Caesarean period: the former was the Roman fort, Londinium, and the latter was a fishing village called Lutetia Parisiorum.

Sicilians wave “goodbye” with the same beckoning gesture that almost all other people employ to mean  “come here.”

The Oriental “rickshaw,” a mode of travel identified with the ancient East, was actually invented by an American missionary in Japan.

The military title, “Marshal,” which in many countries designates the officer of the highest rank, originally comes from the name of the lowly stable-boy, or keeper of the horses.

The custom of throwing rice at a wedding comes, oddly enough, from India.

The term “cowboy” did not originate in the West at all, but was a name adopted by a group of guerillas operating in New York State during the Revolutionary War. (It was then taken up by a gang of wild riders headed by one Ewen Cameron, who specialized in assaulting Mexicans soon after Texas became an independent state, in 1835, and only later came to mean the cow-punchers of the West.)

Speaking of the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere is a national hero only because of [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow’s poem [“Paul Revere’s Ride” published in 1860], which celebrated the wrong man. Revere was captured by the British on the famous “midnight ride,” and only Samuel Prescott got through to Concord with the message. Revere’s military career was mediocre at best: once he was arrested and court-martialed for disobeying orders.

All the Old Testament was originally written like this: “Gd crtd th hvns nd th rth,” with consonants only, and it was not until a thousand years later that Hebrew scholars supplied vowel points which indicated the proper vocalization and followed the traditional pronunciation.

The Germans have never called themselves “Germans,” and the origin of the name is totally unknown.

The first U.S. flag, raised by George Washington, had no stars on it at all, but the British crosses of St. George and St. Andrew.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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