Odds and Sods

Peculiar stuff

The full name of the U.K. is: ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Berwick-upon-Tweed’. Berwick-upon-Tweed is a border town between England and Scotland, and, because its nationality was in dispute, it was constitutionally enshrined as a separate entity.

In 1939 war was declared by Britain on Germany, and the declaration included the full title. The declaration of peace was performed with only the partial title. So in theory, Berwick-upon-Tweed was officially at war with Germany until 1987 when an official peace treaty was signed.

Hang on a jiffy, will you? A ‘jiffy’ is actually a scientific measure of time. 1 jiffy=3.3357 times 10 to the power of -11. Or (3.3357×10^-11) seconds. It’s the length of time it takes light to travel one centimetre in a vacuum.

Slightly more implausible than the jiffy is the unit ‘shake of a lamb’s tail’:

Scientists working on the Manhattan Project during the second world war, needed to measure very short periods of time. One of them, who belonged to a barber’s shop quartet (so the story goes), was very fond of the wiffenpoof song; “We’re poor little lambs…”

He and his colleagues invented the ‘shake’, which they defined as 1×10^-8 second (one hundred millionth of a second). They were measuring the time it took for an imploding shell of uranium to reach critical mass and initiate spontaneous fission. Just in case you’re interested, it’s about three shakes of a lamb’s tail.

The strength of early lasers was measured in Gillettes; the number of standard double-edged razor blades a given beam could puncture.

The abbreviation A.D. (Anno Domini, “Year of Our Lord”) should be properly placed in front of the year, not after. So it’s 417 BC but AD 2000.

Orville and Wilbur Wright made history at Kitty Hawke in 1903 with their flying machine. It was the first time a man-made device had flown under its own power. The flight covered a distance of a hundred and twenty feet – just over half the wingspan of a Boeing 747!

In 1848, Niagara Falls stopped flowing for more than 24 hours because the river that feeds it just froze solid.

Harvard uses ‘Yale’ brand locks on its buildings. Yale uses ‘Best’ brand.

The opening to the cave in which a bear hibernates is always on the north slope.

Fjords, no matter in what country, in both hemispheres, are always on the west-facing coast.

According to Isaac Asimov’s book of strange thingies, Abdul Kassem Ismael, Grand Vizier of Persia in the tenth century, carried his library with him wherever he went. The 117,000 volumes were carried by 400 camels which were trained to walk in alphabetical order.

Proceedings in the British Parliament are meant to be in private (even though they are televised). So, if the MPs want to have a secret session, one of them points to the gallery from which members of the public watch, and calls “I spy strangers!”, whereupon the House votes “that the strangers do withdraw.”

On the London Underground, one station (Bank) has a different name on two of its platforms (where it is called Monument). There are two pairs of stations (Edgeware Road and Shepherds Bush) which have the same name, but are different stations (though not very far apart).

The shortest British monarch was Charles I, who was 4’9″. That’s oh . . . about three cubits in metric. And he was even shorter in his later years after he was beheaded!

Elizabeth I of England suffered from anthophobia, a fear of roses.

Ambassadors to the United Kingdom are not called that, but ‘Ambassadors to the Court of St. James’ – the palace which was the residence of the monarch before Buckingham Palace was built..

Liverpool Street station in London is the departure point for trains to East Anglia, but not to Liverpool. Oxford Street in London is named after the Earl of Oxford, and it is only coincidence that it is the start of the main road from London to Oxford.

They say a little learning can be a dangerous thing. The British Tourist board gave a reporter from Singapore’s Straits Times a freebie trip to England and round the sights. In return the paper published two or three articles about the delights to be found in Blighty. One story featured Leeds Castle in Kent, and showed some very attractive photographs of the place. I’m not sure how many Singaporeans subsequently visited the Castle, though; the story included details of times of trains, and cost of a ticket to . . . Leeds in Yorkshire, three hundred miles away!

The patron saint of Oxford is St. Frideswide. I’m told that, in and around Oxford, Friday is a (fairly) common name for girls. Could lead to all sorts of confusing situations; “Bye, see you Friday.” “No, I’m busy on Friday, how about . . .”

The Nullarbor Desert in Western Australia my sound authentically aborigine, but it’s a Latin name, from NULL meaning NO, and ARBOR meaning TREE.

Hydrangeas produce pink and white flowers in alkaline soil and blue ones in acidic soil.

The King of Hearts is the only king without a moustache.

The London Underground station St. John’s Wood is the only such station that does not contain any of the letters of the word ‘Mackerel’. Now that’s real trivia!

The two front benches in the chamber in the House of Commons are two and a half sword lengths apart. This was so that, if it all gets a bit vituperative, the government and opposition can’t have a go at each other. Except for the usual verbiage.

The word ‘THEREIN’ contains ten other words without rearranging any of its letters: the, there, he, in, rein, her, here, here, ere, herein.

The letters H I O X in the Latin alphabet are the only ones that are ‘mirror-proof’; they look the same if you turn them upside down or see them from behind.

‘Rhythms’ and ‘syzygy’ are the longest English words without vowels. Though some people consider ‘y’ to be a sort of near-vowel.

A H I M O T U V W X Y are the horizontally symmetric capital letters in the Roman alphabet. i l o v w x are the symmetric lower case letters in the Roman alphabet.

The letter W is the only letter in the alphabet that is polysyllabic.

Vincent Van Gogh, one of the greatest painters of modern times, sold exactly one painting while he was alive; Red Vineyard at Arles.

The Dutch town of Abcoude is the only reasonably sized town in the world whose name begins with ABC.

Cranberries are sorted for ripeness by bouncing them; a fully ripened cranberry can be dribbled like a basketball.

Seoul, the South Korean capital, just means ‘the capital’ in the Korean language.

The term ‘Freelance’ is very ancient. It originally meant a knight whose lance was for hire, i.e. it was free – not pledged to any master.)

The Sanskrit word for ‘war’ means ‘desire for more cows’.

If you’re Jewish, it’s important to be able to tell when the Sabbath begins. Officially it’s at sundown on Friday, and according to Orthodox Judaism, it is officially sundown when you can’t tell the difference between a black thread and a red one. Has this got something to do with the large number of Jewish tailors to be found in London’s East End?

Super glue was invented by accident. The discoverer was trying to make optical coating materials; and tested their properties by putting them between two flat glass plate and shining light through them. When he tried cyano-acrylate, he couldn’t get the plates apart.

A very forgettable 1950s folk song included the line “They slew the Earl of Murray and lay him on the green.” The recording sounded like “They slew the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen.” Now the official term for a mis-heard lyric is ‘Mondegreen’. And if you believe that, you’ll believe that Nicholas Parsons is a decent sort of chap.

Velcro was invented by a Swiss researcher who was inspired by the way burrs stick to clothing.

Spiral staircases in medieval castles run clockwise (when climbing). This is because all knights were right-handed. When the intruding forces climbed the stairs they couldn’t use their swords; you try it – the central column makes it impossible. Left-handed knights would have had no trouble, but there weren’t any. Left-handed people could not become knights because it was assumed that they were descendants of the devil.

In the great fire of London in 1666, half of London was burnt down but only six people were injured.

Olympic Badminton rules say that a shuttlecock has to have exactly fourteen feathers

The glue on Israeli postage stamps is required by law to be certified kosher.

A cat’s jaws cannot move sideways.

Golf is, judging by the amount spent on it, the top sport in Japan. And most golfers dream of the hole in one. But it’s very common in Japan to carry insurance against that very thing.

In Japan it is traditional to share your good luck by sending gifts to all your friends when you get an ace. And they must be good quality presents, exquisitely wrapped. The price for what the Japanese term an albatross can easily reach $10,000.

In Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, the Sorcerer’s name is Yensid.

The word for a top sailor, Admiral, comes from the Arabic phrase ‘amir al bahr’, which means ‘lord of the sea’.

The longest passage in the Bible is Psalm 119. The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11 v 35; “Jesus wept.”

Ralph Lauren’s original name was Ralph Lifshitz.

Diana Dors was christened Diana Fluck.

Great Britain was the first county to issue postage stamps. Hence, the postage stamps of Britain are the only stamps in the world not to bear the name of the country of origin. However, every stamp carries a relief image or a silhouette of the monarch’s head instead.

St. Stephen is the patron saint of bricklayers.