Have you ever been told something that just seems too perfect to be true? Here are some urban legends that I have come across. In each case, the person promoting it is completely convinced of its authenticity, but a small amount of research reveals the story to be utterly false.
Candy Canes for Jesus
I visited an outdoor shrine, decorated by thousands of Christmas lights. There was a building dedicated to children’s birthday wishes to the baby Jesus. Featured prominently on the wall was the story of the religious origin of the candy cane. The sign said that the popular Christmas candies were designed to be Js for Jesus, and then went on to describe the religious symbolism of the candy.
This struck me as sketchy, especially since these candies are always marketed as candy canes, not candy Js. I looked it up, and sure enough, the story is a myth. The original candy canes didn’t even have red stripes, which the story at the shrine attributed to Jesus’ blood. The funny thing is that this false history of the candy cane is so attractive to some people that several children’s books have been published that teach the story as actual history.
Years ago, the Principal of a school where I worked told the assembled staff that when she was a teacher and students used the word “fuck,” she would explain the word’s origin as an acronym for, “Fornicate Under Consent of the King.” I had already learned from comedian George Carlin that “fuck” had once meant “to hit,” so I was dubious. It turns out that legend of “fuck” repeated to by the principal is, as I suspected, fictitious. It’s sad and, quite frankly bizarre, to think that there are educators out there trying to pass themselves off as hip and smart by mindlessly regurgitating silly falsehoods.
A first Aid instructor from the Red Cross told the group I was training with that the candy Lifesavers were invented by a man who’s son had nearly died from choking on candy. As the story goes, the man invented a candy with a hole in the middle to allow air to pass through in case the candy were to lodge in a child’s windpipe.
I have to admit that I believed this story at first and even told my wife about it. It just seemed, like a lot of urban legends, to make perfect sense. As time went on however, and I mulled it over, it seemed just too perfect. When I came across the Candy Cane story (above), I looked up the Lifesaver story and sure enough, it’s made up. Lifesavers were created by a chocolate maker who wanted a candy that wouldn’t melt in the summer heat. He commissioned a pill manufacturer to create the candies. Because of their ring shape, Lifesavers were originally marketed to evoke a ship’s lifesaver ring – Save Yourself from Bad Breath with Lifesavers.
At the conclusion of a civil rights tour of the Southern United States, the tour leader told the group the the word “picnic” came from, “Pick a N*****,” (where the last word is a racial slur). He said that in the old days, White people in the South used to have family lunches out in parks and pick out Black people to lynch.
Being familiar with the actual brutal history of lynching in the United States, it struck me as odd that I hadn’t heard this derivation of the word picnic before. When I got home, I looked up picnic, and it turns out to have been derived from a French word which was hundreds of years older than lynching in the Americas. I thought the tour leader would want to know this, but he reacted defensively, saying that all the information given out on the tour was extensively researched. In fact, the origin of the picnic myth was easy to locate. It was a 1999 email hoax. But, it fits so nicely with a narrative of racist White culture that it’s hard for some people to dismiss.
Now that the internet has become the dominant medium to share news and opinions, hoaxes and rumors have become woven inextricably into the fabric of our communication. In the 1990s, not a week would go by without an otherwise intelligent friend forwarding me a warning about a non-existent email virus, or an email about how Bill Gates was going to give everyone millions of dollars who forwarded a message to 10 friends. I think that our level of sophistication has increased as we have become used to email, but persistent rumors are probably impossible to kill. As a general rule, everything anyone forwards to you about a politician is probably not true.
These examples are just some of the smaller stories that help form the “reality” by which many people view the world. How many big tall tales do we live with unquestioningly (e.g., “Columbus discovered America,” “Ancient civilizations were magical and wise,” or , “Cheese is not sentient”)?
Whenever you hear something to sounds too good or too bad or too perfect to be true, I suggest that you consult Snopes.com. It’s an excellent resource for sussing out urban legends.
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