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Things people get wrong

One service we can provide at is to point out that things you have seen, heard, written and believed to be true for years are, in fact, dead wrong. Actually, we can only make a beginning. It’s a long list.

My learned colleague, Frank Roylance, whose blog on weather you can read at this Web site, points out an erroneous reference in The Sun to the "dark side" of the moon. But we’ll let him speak for himself.

"Notwithstanding John Johnson's reference in the second graf of today's P.1 story, there is no ‘dark’ side of the moon. As you know, all parts of the moon have a 28-day day and night cycle (except perhaps for some high and low spots near the poles). The reason astronomers are interested in the ‘far’ side of the moon is that it is permanently shielded by the moon from Earth's radio noise, and would therefore be an interesting place for radio astronomers to set up shop. Optical astronomers could establish observatories anywhere and get the same 14-day ‘night.’"

The reason that, from a terrestrial perspective, the moon has a "far side" is that its period of rotation and its orbital period around the Earth have become synchronized at 28 days, so the moon always presents the same surface area to the Earth. But it does rotate, and all of the satellite experiences intervals of light and darkness.

A colleague posted a remark at the Web site Testy Copy Editors about the phrase "a device light years ahead of its time," saying, "I thought we settled this miles ago." A light year measures not time but distance, a distance that amounts to about 5,865,696,000,000 miles.

You might find it amusing to consult the multiplicity of "Stoopid Science" postings at that site.

Closer to my own area of interest, language, I have to disappoint you doubly by telling you that the 19th-centrury British plumbing merchant Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet (though he did sell them) and that his name is not the source of the noun and verb crap (which appears to derive from the 16th-century Dutch word krappe, or waste matter).

And we did not get the work hooker for prostitute from Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker. Though the Union troops under his command were inordinately fond of the company of loose women, the word in that sense antedates the start of the American Civil War by some years.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (1)


I have an excellent, well-worn book, "The Dictionary of Misinformation" by Tom Burnam, that debunks lots of myths. It's a great resource for copy editors.

An excerpt: The bagpipe was not a Scottish invention. No witches were burned at Salem. LIzzie Borden was acquitted. Edison did not invent the light bulb.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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