In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Tom Burnam’s little-known dictionary of misinformation
Joan of Arc wasn’t French. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone. Winston Churchill didn’t coin the phrase ‘iron curtain’. The ‘grey’ in ‘greyhound’ has nothing to do with the colour. The Wright Brothers weren’t the first aviators to build a heavier-than-air flying craft. Contrary to the title of a famous film, Krakatoa is actually west of Java.
This blog began life in 2012, largely because I’ve always been attracted to such fallacies, misconceptions, urban legends, and old wives’ tales, especially those relating to my chosen profession (not to mention my hobby – and dare I say it, life), literature. Some of the first blog posts I wrote were largely based around the examination and, where necessary, correction of such misconceptions or untruths, and although Interesting Literature has branched out since then to consider individual poems, plays, short stories, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, novels, and literary lives, the spirit of debunkery (to coin a word*) has always driven this blog and been at the heart of what it’s about. We might call this the QI spirit, after the excellent BBC comedy panel show which makes such ‘general ignorance’ (a play on general knowledge) the signature of the programme. (When panellists fall prey to such a fallacy, the ‘klaxons’ or sirens go off and the predicted ‘common but wrong’ answer flashes up on the screens behind.)
But as I discovered in the early days of researching for this blog, the spirit of debunkery is nothing new, although it has become more popular in the age of the world wide web where fake news, poorly researched information, and ‘factoids’ (itself a dubious word, widely misused) abound, and it becomes necessary, in the age of information overload, to separate the truth from the legend, information from misinformation. Indeed, the seventeenth-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne wrote a book in which he examined widely held beliefs and half-truths.
But it wasn’t until relatively recently that someone directed me to another book from a pre-internet age which sought to explore the hinterland between fact and myth. This book, The dictionary of misinformation, was even written by someone in the same profession as me – a professor of English named Tom Burnam – and was published in 1975. Although it’s now out of print, you can pick up a second-hand copy of it online for a few quid (my copy cost me less than £2.50 including postage). And I’d strongly recommend doing so.
Tom Burnam must join the panoply of great patron saints that inspire and inform this blog, taking his place alongside such luminaries as Browne, Plutarch, E. Cobham Brewer, Holbrook Jackson, and other men and women of letters whose work shines a brighter light and exacts a more critical eye over those things in literature we thought we knew but didn’t. For instance, I learned from Burnam’s book that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestor wasn’t one of the judges at the Salem witch trials of 1692. As Burnam outlines, the truth is that Hawthorne’s forebear, John Hathorne, was merely an examiner of accused persons before their trial, but he did not sit on the panel that condemned anyone.
And, to clear up some of the misconceptions I mentioned at the beginning of this blog (although not all of them: you’ll have to buy The Dictionary of Misinformation for that!): Joan of Arc was from Domrémy, which was part of an independent duchy, Bar, which would not become part of France until 1776. And she wasn’t a poor peasant girl either: her father was actually quite well-off compared with the other citizens of Domrémy. And the first heavier-than-air craft to make a sustained flight under its own power, Burnam informs us, was ‘Model No. 5’, which ‘flew about three quarters of a mile along the shores of the Potomac’ in 1896, seven years before the Wright Brothers’ famous flight at Kitty Hawk. The man responsible for Model No. 5 was Samuel Pierpont Langley. And before Alexander Graham Bell perfected the telephone, several earlier inventors had already made prototypes or filed patents, most famously Elisha Gray (although Antonio Meucci is another man who often gets mentioned here).
The book which gave its name to this weekly Friday blog column (or blogumn: now that coinage must surely be mine!**), The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, was my attempt to collect together some of the most interesting misconceptions I’d discovered in the world of books. Burnam’s The dictionary of misinformation has a similar aim, although, like QI, it sets its sights not just on the world of literature but on the world as a whole.
*Actually, and rather fittingly, I didn’t coin it. A quick Google search returns some 59,000 results.
**Not quite. Are there no new words left to coin?! But with only 3,600 results returned through Google, it’s fair to say that this is one portmanteau that’s yet to take off.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.