4 minute read

Note: this blog was originally written on the MIT Admissions Blog here. Because of things like footnotes and images, it’s best you read it on that site! This page will redirect you in 10 seconds.

I’ve potatoed so much over the past few weeks of break — lounging in bed for hours, playing games, watching sports, etc. But one not-quite-potato thing that I’ve been doing is trying to learn a lot of trivia — time on Protobowl, going down Wikipedia rabbit holes, and playing Sporcle quizzes. I have a lifelong goal of trying to make it onto Jeopardy, and so I view all of this random-fact-learning as somewhat productive c:

To be clear, the reason why I feel like this is a “break”, even though objectively it is studying, is that it’s the opposite of the kind of learning that MIT’s filled with. MIT, in my experience, has been filled with essays and exams and psets that ask you to grapple with concepts and apply known things to new scenarios — to create. On the other hand, trivia is much more narrowly about being able to memorize and recall all sorts of random minutiae that barely matters in the broad scope of life. But they’re fun details to learn about and it feels very much like not-school :P (Definitely does harken back to my science bowl days where I memorized so much random stuff, and had a blast doing it…)

If you’re feeling burnt out from writing essays,⁠01 this is the distraction post for you. Because I just want to share some of the wacky and fun things that I’ve learned throughout the past few weeks, with Wikipedia articles⁠02 or other sources linked so that you can go down rabbit holes yourself.

The content below is biased towards history, geography, religion, and etymology: the first three because those are some of my trivia weak spots and I’ve been studying them more, and the last because I love the history of words. Each item is something that I did not know before the beginning of this break. But anyways, without further ado:

  • The Secret Service was originally part of the Treasury Department, charged with preventing counterfeit money from circulating. Only after the assassination of McKinley in 1901 were they asked to protect the president. It moved from the Treasury Department only in 2003, after the Department of Homeland Security was founded (in response to 9/11).
  • Blue Hall, the banquet hall for the Nobel Prize Ceremony, is actually made of red brick. The architect originally designed it to be painted blue, but he liked the red color and changed his mind mid-construction.
  • Rascall Flatts is a band, not a person. I swear I should have known this, but I only knew them from singing music from Cars and only heard one voice. Oof.
  • Ambrose Bierce published The Devil’s Dictionary in 1906, a book filled with funny/satirical definitions of everyday words. Find some highlights here or the full dictionary here. One example: Mayonnaise, n. One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.
  • There are three countries completely enclosed within another country: San Marino, Vatican City, and Lesotho. Many other countries have much, much weirder borders.
  • The Statue of Liberty is officially named “Liberty Enlightening the World”.
  • The word “halibut” (the fish) originated from haly meaning “holy” and butt meaning “flatfish”, since it was a flatfish eaten on holy days when the consumption of other meat was not allowed. My inner middle schooler is highly amused.
  • The musical Kiss Me, Kate was written by Cole Porter as a response to Oklahoma!
  • The Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland has a different etymology than “Bosnia and Herzegovina” — the former comes from an Old Norse word meaning “bay”, while the latter comes from the river Bosna (and a PIE root meaning “the running water”).
  • The Mosquito Coast on the east side of Nicaragua/Honduras is not named for mosquitos, but for the Miskito people. Mosquito (the word) derives from Latin musca (meaning “fly”) and through Portuguese/Spanish.
  • There are two doubly-landlocked countries: Liechtenstein and Uzbekistan.
  • While electricity was installed in the White House in 1891, Benjamin Harrison (president #23) and his wife were afraid of getting shocked and did not use the light switches.
  • Martin Van Buren (president #8) was the first president born in the United States and the only president to speak English as a second language; his native language was Dutch.
  • Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, is named for James Monroe (president #5).
  • The symbol of the New Orleans Saints is called a fleur-de-lis.
  • Manchego, a type of cheese, is named for a region in Spain called La Mancha.
  • Many presidents have died unusual deaths. Zachary Taylor (president #12) died from eating too many cherries (maybe). Warren Harding (president #29) died in office, and a later conspiracy theory suggested he was poisoned by his wife, Florence.
  • You can call someone a traitor by saying they are a Benedict Arnold.
  • Coach K’s last name is pronounced “shih-SHEF-skee”.
  • The phrase “return to normalcy” used by Biden was first used by Harding in the post-WWI era.
  • The election of 1876 between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden was a time. I will leave it at that.
  • The name Israel means “wrestled with God” (or other similar phrases depending on your interpretation); Jacob was given that name after he wrestled with an angel.
  • There was not one, but two successful ventriloquist acts over radio: Edgar Bergen (The Charlie McCarthy Show) and Peter Brough (Archie Andrews). Like … half of the appeal of a ventriloquist is that the person’s mouth doesn’t seem to be moving? But radio is not a visual media???
  • Flight of the Bumblebees, now an iconic piece of music, was not an important part of The Tale of Tsar Sultan, the opera it comes from.
  • Paavo Nurmi won 5 gold medals in track at the 1924 Olympics. However, the Finnish delegation stopped him from competing in the 10,000m (a title he was defending) out of fear for his own health. As an act of rebellion, Nurmi returned to Finland and set a new 10K world record that stood for 13 years.
  • The word “vindaloo” comes not from Hindi, but from Portuguese vinh, meaning “wine”, and alho, meaning “garlic”.
  • The video game “The Binding of Isaac” (which I have never played, but have heard much about) is inspired by the Bible story of the binding of Isaac.
  • The Song of Songs is a section of the Tanakh and a Book of the Old Testament which “celebrates sexual love”. In Judaism, this is canonically interpreted as an allegory “where the subject-matter was taken to be not sexual desire but God’s love for Israel”; in Christianity, “an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Church”.
  • Xerxes I of Persia had bridges build over the Dardanelles, a strait in modern-day Turkey. After the bridges fell in a storm, he had those responsible beheaded. In addition, “Xerxes is then said to have thrown fetters [shackles that go around the feet] into the strait, given it three hundred lashes and branded it with red-hot irons as the soldiers shouted at the water … Herodotus commented that this was a ‘highly presumptuous way to address the Hellespont’ but in no way atypical of Xerxes”.

Well, I’ve run out of my trove of recently learned fun facts; feel free to share any other fun facts you have below. Perhaps one day I’ll do a part two :P Good luck finishing all of your applications!