Cheer your friends and family up during these stressful times with some interesting facts that will elevate their moods from morbid boredom to ‘for fact’s same, I didn’t know that’. Works every time.

Oranges and lemons

Mark Twain was a shrewd observer of humanity’s frailties and foibles. He had the knack – while blindfolded – of being able to find a hammer and a nail in life’s satirical storeroom, and hit it squarely on the head without mincing words or thumbs.

Few escaped his irony or caustic wit, and he was somewhat cynical about some of the famous French and Italian Renaissance painters with their murky interiors, unappetising bowls of food and gloomy flower arrangements.

“If the old masters had labelled their fruit,” he wrote, “we wouldn’t be so likely to mistake pears for turnips.” Which brings us to the question of the humble orange – thankfully not the one in the White House, but those depicted in some dubious renditions of historical events. Like the Last Supper, for example.

Famous artists like Titian, Sandro Botticelli and even our more famous chum, Lenny da Vinci were lured by the orange temptation – perhaps to inject more colour into their works, or perhaps it was simple ignorance – but sadly they got it wrong. These Renaissance painters were depicting scenes from the time of Christ, 15 centuries earlier, and to put it bluntly, there were no oranges in Jerusalem back then.

In the 12th century, when the Crusaders returned to Europe from the Middle East, they brought with them a fleshy, juicy, bright orange fruit which had only recently arrived there from exotic lands much further to the east. Wisely, they decided not to call it a plum or an aubergine, and seeing that it was orange, they decided to call it one.

By the time the painters created their masterpieces, centuries after the Crusades, oranges were not uncommon in Europe. But whether they labelled them or not, an orange on the table in any depiction of the Last Supper was, though colourful, just wishful thinking. There weren’t any – full stop. Not for over a thousand years.

More words, words, words

Hitch-hike – This term originated in the 19th century to describe how two men could travel with only one horse. One would ride ahead for an allotted time, then hitch the horse and continue on foot. Number two, who was on foot, would arrive at the horse, hop on and ride past number one for the similar allotted time. He’d then hitch the horse again for number one and start hiking.

Gazette – Newspapers often incorporate this in their titles. A gazetta was a small Italian coin which was the price of a government newspaper published in Venice around 1536, and the term spread. Alternatively, some say it may come from the Italian gazza – tittle-tattle or gossip.

Deliberate – This originally comes from the Latin libra, referring to scales – to ‘weigh in the balance’. Anyone making a decision after careful thought is said to be acting ‘deliberately’. From the same root comes the pound weight – lb.

Trivial – In ancient Rome, serious business was carried out in the Forum, the main gathering place for constructive debate. Gossipers among the less privileged would gather outside at a crossroads of three streets, the Tri-Via, and the word came to reflect the idle chatter they exchanged.

Mother’s delight

Don’t discuss this over dinner. There is a type of fly, the cecidomyia gall midge, which reproduces by either laying eggs fertilised by a male, or by parthenogenesis, which basically means the female can self-fertilise without rumpy-pumpy.

In these cases, the female never reaches adulthood. She reproduces while still a larva or pupa, and the kids develop inside mom’s body tissue – not just the uterus. In order to grow they eat mom from the inside and when they emerge, all that remains is her shell. Within a couple of days the kids’ own kids start developing and devour their moms in turn. What a life! 

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