Titmice, Turks and Marinated Mummies

Titmice, Turks and Marinated Mummies was originally released in print as Tall Tales and Tittle-Tattle (UK) and Why Americans Zig Zag When They Eat (US).

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Titmice, Turks and Marinated Mummies

What’s the longest word in the world? How did a werewolf get into the ancient Olympics? Why does Monday come after Sunday? For the answers to these, and dozens of other questions no one has ever bothered asking, there is nowhere to turn but to Titmice, Turks and Marinated Mummies. Call it literary hash. It’s full of twisted tales from history, science, food, art, popular games, toilet folklore and the crime news. It will show you who designed the constellations, who invented Spam, and who built the greatest architectural cock-ups of our age. We throw in a recipe for lamprey, some little word puzzles seen on cards in bars, and even a few winsome logic problems designed by Lewis Carroll. Finally, in a exposé scoop, we reveal the secret identity of the Jack of Hearts.

Titmice, Turks and Marinated Mummies is the first ebook expressly designed for high-class people to read on the toilet.

Selected Excerpts from this eBook

The Homeric Riddle

An anonymous work from the time of Emperor Trajan, called Of the Origin of Homer and Hesiod, and of their Contest, does its best to clear up some of the endless mysteries surrounding the two great poets. Even then, however, nobody knew who Homer really was, or where he came from; cities all over Greece claimed him as one of their own. As Of the Origin relates, Homer himself did not know his birthplace or his family. He once stopped at Delphi to see if the Oracle could enlighten him, and he was told `The isle of Ios is your mother's country and it shall receive you dead; but beware the riddles of young children.'

As an old man, while wandering the Greek lands as a minstrel, he happened to visit that island, and while sitting on the shore one day he met some sons of fishermen coming back from the sea and asked them what they had caught. They replied:

‘What we caught we threw away, and what we didn’t catch we keep.’

While Homer was trying to puzzle that out, he remembered the oracle and knew his time was up. After composing his own epitaph, and presumably still distracted trying to figure out the answer to the riddle, he slipped and bumped his head.

This kind of riddle has been rattling round the world ever since, and it still turns up in varying shapes and guises. Here’s one of the best, with a different answer:

in Maltese: Haga mohgaga: Is-sinjur jigborha, il-fiqr jarmiha
in Sicilian: Lu galantomu si lu metti ‘n sacchetta, lu povru lu jetta
‘The rich man puts it in his pocket, the poor man throws it away’

(answers at the end of the book.)

How the United Nations got its Name

Mr. Churchill was visiting Mr. Roosevelt at the White House in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor. They had been discussing the new organization they were planning for after victory. The next morning, as Roosevelt lay in bed, an idea came to him. He sought out Churchill, and found him taking a bath. ‘How about “United Nations”?’, he hollered through the door; ‘That’ll do it’, Churchill replied.

note: H. L. Mencken, always on the lookout for the origins of names and phrases, found this story in contemporary news reports and put it at the end of his magisterial The American Language, p. 786.

More Tedious Long Words

People no doubt have been playing around with words as long as they’ve had languages to do it in. The longest word in ancient Greek is also the silliest:


conjured up by Aristophanes in his comedy The Ecclesiazusae, as ‘a hash composed of all the leftovers from the meals of the leftovers from the meals of the last two weeks’.

Some modern languages serve up even less palatable fare. We are told that in Finnish, järjestelmällistämättömyydelläänsäkäänköhän is an honest half a sentence: ‘I wonder if even without his lack of systemizing...’ While in Cheyenne, Náohkêsáa'oné'seómepêhévetsêhésto'anéhe means ‘I truly do not pronounce Cheyenne well’, and one can only sympathize.

The Spanish temperament has little patience for long words, and the best they can do seems to be the rather undistinguished anticonstitucionalmente ("unconstitutionally") at 23 letters, and electroencefalografistas (‘female electroencephalograph technicians’), the champ at 24. For English, disputes among word freaks are lively; we are offered pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, a lung disease suffered by miners, or hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian, which seems to describe itself well enough.

Turkish is always a strong contender; twist your tongue around Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmisiniz? (Are you the people whose nationality we cannot change to Czechoslovakian?). But the Turks at least practice a little restraint. In a Kulürkampf like this one, German always wins, because anyone can imagine any word they like in German as long as they carefully follow the Byzantine rules of Wortordnung. Geckosoup.com reports the longest word yet imagined in the German language:


Or: the (n. gender) armed aerial fighter thunderstorm commando team very quick and manoeuverable submersible bridge-laying tank battle-wagon with lots of bombs, immeasurable aircraft defense self-activating flame-throwing many mine and fog throwing two monstrous mortars and five machine-gun turreted.

White Punks on Fungus

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

Hunter S. Thompson

One of Mother Nature’s most potent little pills, ergot (Cleviceps purpurea) is a dark fungus that in cool wet springs grows on grasses, in particular on rye. Heat cannot kill it; eating bread baked from infected flour causes hallucinations, dementia, convulsions and burning pinpricks that can lead to gangrene and even death. They call it ‘ergotism’.

Ergot is a prime suspect behind some of the weirder episodes in history. Some have even speculated that small doses may have been used to create altered states of consciousness in the ancient Eleusian mysteries (dedicated, after all, to Demeter, the corn goddess). Medieval Europeans, who often ingested it accidently, called the result St Anthony’s Fire, after the 4th-century St. Anthony Abbot of Egypt, who got the job as patron saint of ergotism after curing the son of a 14th-century French nobleman; in gratitude the nobleman founded hospitals for sufferers in his name. Pictures of St. Anthony began to show a flaming torch or writhing sufferers, their limbs on fire.

Studies into the climate of the past seven centuries in zones where rye bread was consumed (usually by peasants or poor town-dwellers) found a striking correlation between outbreaks of the bizarre behavior associated with St Anthony’s Fire and witch hunts, including Salem in 1692. Significantly, oat-eating Ireland had only four witch trials in its history. Women were more likely to display witch-like behavior because midwives, from medieval times on, would give doses of ergot to increase contractions (or cause abortions). Even today it’s used medically, to stop post-partum uterine hemorrhage or even a migraine headache.

Just how bad ergotism can be was demonstrated in August, 1951, in the small town of Pont St-Esprit, France, when 230 people had a collective bad trip after eating infected baguettes from the local bakery. For a week, the town resembled a scene from the brush of Hieronymous Bosch. People jumped out windows screaming that their bodies were wrapped in snakes and their heads had turned to copper; others were inflicted with St Anthony’s Fire, violent convulsions, the sensation of insects crawling under their skin, visions of being pursued by wild and deformed animals (or turning into them, like werewolves), of fire and blood running down the walls.

None of this surprised the chemists at Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, who were in the forefront of ergot research, and had synthesized alkaloid derivatives of ergot in 1938. The mad juices in the diethylamide version of the lysergic acid molecule were discovered five years later, when Professor Albert Hoffman spilt some on his skin, and experienced a mild euphoria and some rather pleasant hallucinations. Curious, he swallowed what he thought was a minuscule dose of the stuff, 0.25 mg, which sent him on a very fierce acid trip; lysergic acid diethylamide has been determined the most powerful hallucinogenic substance known to man, distorting messages sent to and from the brain, mixing up the senses (synesthesia) so the user ‘hears colors’ or ‘sees sounds’.

Once they discovered LSD, the Swiss, being Swiss, wondered how to make a buck off it. Using doses measured in micrograms, or millionths of a gram, research at Sandoz then shifted to LSD’s potential as a treatment for schizophrenia, and in 1947 it hit the market as Delysid, advertized as a cure-all for mental illness, criminal behavior, sexual perversions, alcoholism, and perhaps most of all as a study aid for psychiatry and psychology students, who by taking the drug themselves could have an insight into the subjective experiences of a schizophrenic. Until it was banned in 1967, LSD was prescribed to over 40,000 patients and generated over 1,000 scientific papers. Casual use in academia, to the ‘Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out’ mantra of Timothy Leary, psychology professor at Harvard, made LSD the psychedelic drug of choice in the 1960s.

Today, as designer drugs proliferate, a microdot of LSD is just another cheap thrill for the teenagers. In his last two decades, Leary had moved on from LSD as well, finding a new alternative universe in computer software. Learning that he had cancer in 1996, he talked of making his last trip ‘live’ on the internet (it never happened); instead his ashes were rocketed into space, sharing the same container as those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

The Devil's Book

Nobody knows where playing cards originated; they do not preserve as well as archaeologists might like. But it’s almost certain that they came our way via Muslim Spain. Even today the Spanish call them naipes, which may be a word that travelled all the way from India, meaning a viceroy or lieutenant, from the same root as ‘nabob’. The English, and hence the American decks, come straight from the French, who always imagined the face cards as historical personalities. They often still print their names on the card, though this is a habit we have long lost. Here’s a list of who the figures of these royal houses really are.

For anyone from the early centuries of cards, to learn that spades had become the highest suit in most of our games would be taken as evidence that we had turned somewhat degenerate. Hearts by rights should be on top, and so we begin with:

King of Hearts
That’s Charlemagne, the paragon of Christian kingship, though at times it would be figured as Caesar, or strangely, a ‘wild man of the woods’—who might be the Green Man of English tavern signs, of Gawain and the Green Knight, of so many Romanesque church carvings, also the Moslem mystic’s Khidr, or Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. But don’t get us started on that subject. Let him be Charlemagne. Royalists in the English Civil Wars took the Heart King for Charles I, battling royally against ‘city clubs, country spade-men and rich-diamond men’.
King of Spades
David, the royal hero of the Old Testament, who held a harp on the oldest cards. Now he wields the sword he used to chop off Goliath’s head.
King of Diamonds
Julius Caesar. He carries a battle axe instead of a sword. Don’t ask us why.
King of Clubs
Alexander the Great. He never wore a beard, let alone a big black one. But he does get a sword.

Royal ladies find a home in the pack everywhere except Spain, where cards has always been an all-male world. Our queens carry a leaf or feather or flower, the significance of which, if any, is unknown.

Queen of Hearts
Judith, the most courageous of women. In some packs she might also be Helen (of Troy, or maybe St. Helen, the mother of Constantine), or even Joan of Arc.
Queen of Spades
Pallas, meaning Pallas Athena, or Minerva, is the only mythological lady, and the only one to carry a sceptre.
Queen of Diamonds
Rachel was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Sometimes, though, the Queen was Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons. In France, this card often bore the early advertising inscriptions of the cardmakers:
Vive les bons enfants
Qui jouent souvent
Queen of Clubs
We may think of her as Elizabeth, though the carrot-top queen would look better in a red suit. To the French, she is Argine. Unfortunately, no one has managed to track down such a personage anywhere in history; she might be simply an anagram for Regina. Out of that confusion, the English commonly called her ‘Queen Bess’, while to the French she was ‘Marie d’Anjou’, much-beloved wife of Charles VII in the Hundred Years’ War, or even Marie de Medici.

The Jacks all hold pikes, the preferred infantry weapon of the era when our cards took their form. Why two of them are ‘one-eyed’ is a mystery lost in time.

Jack of Spades
Hogier the Dane, another adventuring knight from Charlemagne’s court. You might remember him as Holger Dansk from Hans’ Christian Andersen’s stories, but he wasn’t a Dane at all—really, Hogier de Dannemarche, a place in the Ardennes. Legend gave him two mighty swords, called Courtante and Sauvagine, though today’s pack allows him only a pike. It may look like a spindle or a short-wave antenna, but believe us, it’s a pike.
Jack of Clubs
Lancelot. In the old days, the romantic prince of legend got stuck with the job of being the ‘duty card’, the one that royal tax collectors would look at for the stamp and the name of the manufacturer.
Jack of Diamonds
at first Roland, Charlemagne’s right hand, and later Hector, though there’s some doubt whether this is Hector of Troy, or ‘Ector de Maris’ from the Arthurian legends, the devoted half-brother of Lancelot. That strange pike of his with the protruding blade is a weapon of Renaissance times, called a ‘Welsh hook’.
Jack of Hearts
We’ve saved Lahire for last; poker players are rarely sad to see him, and though no friend of Britain he may be the most sympathtic fellow in the pack. Etienne de Vignoles (1390-1443), known as La Hire, was a doughty Gascon warrior from the Hundred Years’ War, a comrade-in-arms of Joan of Arc and a veteran of a hundred battles. Just before one of them, he had a bad premonition, and stopped at a country chapel for a last confession. ‘All my sins?’ he told the priest, ‘Impossible; I have only a few minutes!’ He lived through that one, and at a later battle he offered this famous prayer: O God, I pray thee to do for La Hire today such things as Thou wouldst wish La Hire to do for thee, if he were God, and Thou wast La Hire.

Of the other cards in the pack, only a few have shown much personality over the centuries.

Ace of spades
‘old frizzle’ to the English of long ago. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army ordered entire packs of spade aces for soldiers to leave around villages and woods, in the belief that the superstitious Viet Cong would be terrified of them. They must have had a good laugh.
Ace of diamonds
the lowest ace (in the old days) was called the ‘Earl of Cork’, after the poorest nobleman in Ireland.
Jack of clubs
‘Pam’, from the fashionable 17th-century French card game pamphile, in which this card was the highest trump.
Nine of diamonds
the ‘curse of Scotland’, because it resembled the arms of Colonel Packer, a black-hearted scoundrel who commanded Oliver Cromwell’s forces there.
Eight of spades
according to some the unluckiest card in the pack (but see below).
Four of hearts
called ’Hob Collingwood’, for no evident reason, and also unlucky.
Four of clubs
the ‘Devil’s bedposts’, and even worse. Just hope it does not come accompanied by two pair, aces and eights. That’s the ‘dead man’s hand’, what Wild Bill Hickok was holding when Jack McCall shot him in Deadwood, South Dakota. He still had a death grip on the cards when they carried him out the door.

When Rome Falls—the World

For a city that considers itself the city, the Urbs, it’s perhaps not surprising that Rome is chockful of superstitions that its demise will herald the end for the Orbs, or the rest of the world. Back in the 8th century, the Venerable Bede recorded a saying popular among the city’s Saxon pilgrims, which Byron translated in his Childe Harold:

While Stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls–the world.

Which of course did not stop the Roman themselves from tearing the Coliseum apart for building stone, until Pope Benedict XIV stopped them in 1744, when he consecrated the arena to the Christians supposedly martyred there. The celebrated gilded equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, now standing in front of Michelangelo’s City Hall on the Capitoline hill, comes with a similar dire warning: once the last bit of gold flakes off, the world will end.

We’re safe here as well; the statue has not only been recently regilded, but moved indoors. More worrisome, however, is the frieze of papal portraits running along the nave of St Paul’s Outside the Walls. The world will end when the frieze is filled: there are, at the time of writing, mosaic portraits of all the 265 pontiffs, beginning with St Peter to John Paul II, and after him room for only eight more.

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© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls