<< One Stop Shopping | Official Sponsor Of The Big Bang >>
Research Day: Urban Legend Purge

Once upon a time I was known as the go-to guy for urban legend debunking. I'd read all of Jan Harold Brunvands's books and could spot a foaf-tale at 100 yards. My friends and family were forever calling me up and saying, "my friend Sally said that her aunt bought the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe for $250 -- that ain't true, is it?"

These days, of course, there's snopes.com, so my bullshit detection services are no longer in high demand. But I still consider myself something of a minor authority in the subject. But let's face it -- even someone who makes an effort to keep abreast of urban legends can occasionally get suckered. So this month, I've rummaged around in my mental file cabinet full of "beliefs" and flagged a few that, despite my having quoted them as fact for years, strike me as suspicious.

Bottlers in Washington State are prohibited by law from printing alcohol content on beer labels: This is the belief that prompted this urban legend purge. Some drinking buddies and I were recently in a local tavern, and I noticed that the alcohol content for the microbrews were listed in the menu along with the descriptions. So I asked my friend J., a bartender by trade, how they could do that when they can't print alcohol content on bottles and cans.

"Why wouldn't they be able to print it on bottles and cans?" J. replied.

"Oh, it's some old Washington law," I informed him. "Apparently when they were worried that brewers would get into an alcoholic arms-race if they were allowed to put the alcoholic content on the cans and bottles -- you know, each would try to outdo the others by jacking up the potency and proudly advertising this fact. So they made it illegal, and the law has never been overturned."

"I don't think that was ever a law," said J. "And I'm sure it's not now." He pointed to the label of my own bottle of beer, where, in tiny letters, it read "5.1% alcohol by weight."


The next day I wrote an email to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and they confirmed that there had never been any such law.

I have no idea how that "fact" came to be lodged in my head, but it had been there since college.

Honey never spoils: I learned this in one of those "10,001 Amazing And Poorly Researched Facts!" books I read as a kid. But given that these are the kind of books that perpetuated the great lemmings myth, re-evaluating those "facts" is probably a good idea. And this one strikes me as particularly bogus.

But it appears to be true all the same. According to Wikipedia: "Honey does not spoil. Because of its high sugar concentration, it kills bacteria by osmotically lysing them. Natural airborne yeasts can not become active in it because the moisture content is too low. Natural, raw, honey varies from 14% to 18% moisture content. As long as the moisture content remains under 18%, virtually no organism can successfully multiply to significant amounts in honey."

That is amazing! But it's too bad it's honey, which I don't particularly like. Everlasting corned beef, though -- that would pretty much rule.

Cher had a pair of ribs removed: Having not thought about Cher for a decade or so, this isn't one I've mentioned recently. But I do recall, at some point, telling someone that this was a for-real fact. Alas, no. Snopes has the goods on this one: "In 1988 the chic magazine Paris Match announced Cher had .. two ribs [removed] ... Cher sued the magazine, but the rumor gained even wider acceptance after being picked up from the Paris Match piece and run in other papers. That these stories were later corrected didn't do much to mitigate the impact of the rumor's first finding its way into those pages as revealed fact."

Dude, I came this closed to getting sued by Cher!!!!!

If you'd like to play along, pick one of your own beliefs that you are having second thoughts about, research it on Google, and post your findings in the comments.

Posted on December 17, 2004 to Research Day


Why did you haver to bring up cher? Now i'll have to bathe myself for the rest of ther evening to feel clean again.

Good one from over here on the east coast: It is illegal to drive in New York State without shoes on.

But in fact, there is no law against it in the books.

Posted by: Wedge on December 17, 2004 4:20 PM

Growing up on Bainbridge Island, one little bit of local lore was that The Professor from Gilligan's Island lived on our own little island. There are always legends about celebrities on Bainbridge...Brad and Jen were supposedly looking at a house there, supposedly the lead singer of Queensrych lives there, yada yada. I believe none of it. But according to several sources...Russell Johnson (the actor who played The Professor) really does live on Bainbridge. The most concrete evidence is the fact that Johnson's own website lists a Bainbridge Island PO box for ordering merchandise.

Urban Legend...TRUE!

Posted by: Ariel on December 17, 2004 4:26 PM

I had no idea that the lemming cliff-jumping-off-of thing was a myth! I don't know what to believe any more.

Posted by: rich toscano on December 17, 2004 4:33 PM

You can believe that honey never spoils.

Posted by: Matthew on December 17, 2004 4:39 PM

on the subject of honey, the ancients used it as a preservative. the body of alexander the great was preserved in honey for years, while it was trucked around the remains of his empire by Ptolemey I Soter.

Posted by: tony on December 17, 2004 5:03 PM

You can also use honey as a temporary bandage, since it's water-soluable and can be gently washed off for real treatment, but meanwhile it'll kill surface bacteria on a wound. Usual caveats apply about honey and young children-- mold spores can get along just fine in honey and kids under 1 year or so don't yet have the immune system to fight off such things.

My sister, a vet-tech, tells me that they occasionally use it on dogs and cats that're in clinic for a while to heal because they've been "de-gloved." How do I put this? Think of the skin of your hand as a glove over your muscles and bones. If your hand was de-gloved, then... anyway, it's a common injury for cats' and dogs' paws to be degloved by a bad encounter with machinery or another animal, but the tissue can be regenerated over time, as long as the wound is kept clean. Honey does the job of keeping everything under the bandage dry and clean.

Posted by: LAN3 on December 17, 2004 6:06 PM

"Everlasting corned beef?" Gawd. To be read like a televangelist: "WELcome to the House of EverLASTing CORNed BEEF! Step up to the BapTISmal Font of MUStard and smear yourself in the HOLY spice! Avail yourself of the diVINE sauerkraut as we rise to the state of the exalted HOLY Reuben! Hold the mayo."

Posted by: Davey on December 17, 2004 6:08 PM

Hallelujah! Preach it Brother! And pass the collection plate!

Posted by: Big Wang Glick on December 17, 2004 6:14 PM

Here's a Guinness twofer - Bubbles Sink and a Pint is a Complete Meal

Bubbles in Guinness Sink - Yes and No.
A quick search of Guinness in Wikipedia.com explains the sinking bubbles phenomenon.

"The liquid near the edge (which was slower rising to start with) thus gets sucked downwards, establishing a circular current, with liquid (containing lots of bubbles) rising in the middle and liquid (also containing some bubbles) traveling downwards near the wall of the actual glass. Because Guinness is a dark, mostly opaque liquid, all the bubbles an observer will see from the outside are bubbles traveling downwards."

Guinness as a Complete Meal - No
Once again from Wikipedia.

"Despite the 'meal in a glass' reputation some non-Guinness drinkers label the beverage, Guinness only contains 198 calories per pint, less then an equal sized serving of skim milk or orange juice."

I don't care what they say, I still believe a pint is the equivalent of a plate of meat and potatoes.

Posted by: eggi on December 17, 2004 8:38 PM

It struck me only recently that there's something extremely bogus-smelling about the famous exchange between Mahatma Gandhi and "a reporter" (never named):

Reporter: What do you think of Western Civilization?
Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.

Budaroom-CHING! Goodness knows reporters love to ask vague non-sequitur questions just in the hopes that A Hard Day's Night-style one-liners will follow.

Anyway, if anyone finds a genuine source on this one (Google just finds what seems to be 7,000+ repetitions without citation), I'm willing to retract my scorn.

Posted by: Andy James on December 17, 2004 9:11 PM

Wow, I always believed that one about it being illegal in NYS to drive barefoot! GO SUMMER!

Is the lemmings cliff-diving a myth? Gotta check that, too!!!

Posted by: mrgrooism on December 17, 2004 10:38 PM

"The Buckhorn Beer of Weblogs"... Buckhorn Beer? Damn, I love Buckhorn... and Burgie. Tastes just as good as the can it came in... Back in the day.


Posted by: MontanaJim on December 17, 2004 11:02 PM

Please, please don't use wikipedia as a source!

From their home page:
"Welcome to Wikipedia, a free-content encyclopedia in many languages that anyone can edit."

Go ahead, try it yourself. I just edited the article on honey (in the "Related Topics" section).

Posted by: shake*your*booties on December 18, 2004 3:11 AM

Funny about the ribs thing. I once heard (when I was much younger) that Prince had had his bottom ribs removed so that he could... pleasure himself in a way that usually requires a willing partner. I'm wary of googling this one, in case someone comes and arrests me, or something.

Posted by: Pierce on December 18, 2004 6:30 AM

Well, that honey thing's either gibberish or the stuff they call honey that they sell in those litte plastic bears at the market ain't honey. Ever leave a container of that sitting in a cupboard for a couple of years? I don't know if what it turns into is spoiled, but it ain't the same as the stuff it was before the two years started.

Posted by: i, squub on December 18, 2004 6:59 AM

Well, don't know if it counts as an urban legend but here is a little something for those of you out there who still believe Jesus was born on Christmas:

In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christís birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.

from this site

My favourite part of ancient christmas celebrations is the children running through the town, bathed in blood, whipping the townsfolk with the hide of reindeer to wash away their sins.

Posted by: keith on December 18, 2004 7:03 AM

Yo, Honey can totally spoil. Well, at least, it can grow mold. I guess that's not technically the same thing (if "spoiling" is used to mean "changing the actual product so that it's bad"), but it's not like honey is some magical antibiotic. I found mold on the lid of my honey jar last week. Not even a FOAF, but ME!

(Though, in New Zealand where you can't give cows antibiotics -- by law! -- honey is fed to and spread on cows who are having mastitis issues and it apparently works great.)

(Also! My dad is thanked in a bunch of Brunvand's books for helping to, like, prove stuff wrong and stuff.)

Posted by: leen on December 18, 2004 8:44 AM

Wikipedia wasn't my only source for the honey thing, it was just the most quotable.

Posted by: Matthew on December 18, 2004 9:12 AM

What color is a watermelon before you cut it open?

A newspaper article I read years ago said that it was white, but turned red on exposure to air. When I called their reference desk to ask how they knew, they said they performed a laparascopic inspection of the watermelon.

I decided to google around, a couple of months ago (twelve years after the incident; we didn't have Google back then), to see if it was true. Apparently not.

Newspaper standards haven't changed much, have they?

Posted by: Gopi on December 18, 2004 10:59 AM

Water-in-the-sink-spins-the-other-way-in-southern-hemisphere just never dies. NOT TRUE! NOT TRUE! Which way it spins depends on the sink, not on the hemisphere!

Posted by: Mike Y on December 18, 2004 11:33 AM

Go ahead, try it yourself. I just edited the article on honey (in the "Related Topics" section).

You mean you vandalised the article on honey. Luckily your defacement was corrected soon afterwards.

Posted by: Ben on December 18, 2004 11:45 AM

That Churchill said "nonsense up with which I will not put." It seems almost certain that he didn't: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001715.html .

Posted by: Margaret on December 18, 2004 1:10 PM

Oddly enough, just yesterday morning I mentioned to a friend the honey myth, which is now proven to be fact thanks to you. I read it in one of those trivia books as well, that claimed honey is the only food that does not ever spoil.

I've been curious about another fact I read in the same book though; the book claimed that the longest non-medical word in the dictionary is Flaucinaucinhilipilification, with the definition being The state of deciding if something is worth value or not. Much to my dismay I have never been able to find this word in any dictionary I've ever looked in, but the book also claimed that one of the past presidents (can't remember which one) had used it in his speech.

Posted by: meg on December 18, 2004 2:20 PM

I've also heard that if honey is placed in the fridge, it will turn into sugar

Posted by: Anonymous on December 18, 2004 2:31 PM

If honey is allowed to get too cold, it crystallizes. Put it in a pan of warm water for a while and it turns back into honey.

They say if you have hay fever you should eat local honey. It'll help you develop tolerance for whatever is causing the hay fever. Why, honey is the mostest magicalest stuff ever! And I say go ahead and "vandalize" wikipedia. Jeez, you'd think anybody reading this blog would have more of a sense of humor.

Posted by: davey on December 18, 2004 5:30 PM

I'm the urban legend debunker in my circle. My minor was actually in folklore.

Posted by: Alli on December 18, 2004 7:11 PM

I was about to say, huh-uh! Water does TOO go the opposite way, not in the sinks, but in the toilet bowls of the southern hemisphere!

Nope. Psssshhhhh.

Posted by: Lunasea on December 18, 2004 9:38 PM

No one ever uses anything other than the internet to research anything anymore.

Posted by: Rob Cockerham on December 18, 2004 11:47 PM

No one ever uses anything other than the internet to research anything anymore.

I'd research that, but I wouldn't know where to start!

Posted by: Pierre on December 19, 2004 2:29 AM

The internet, of course.

Posted by: The White Hat on December 19, 2004 4:00 PM

Actually, one of those urban legends you cited was true (albeit not quite the way you remembered it).

Until 1994 there was a *federal* law prohibiting alcohol content on beer labels (except in states that required that info). Ironically, that same law *required* alcohol content on all wine and hard liquor labels.

Coors took the government to court, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law on First Amendment grounds in Rubin v. Coors Brewing Company.

Posted by: Brian Disco Snell on December 19, 2004 7:18 PM

meg- google your word and it says "did you mean Floccinaucinihilipilification". so you spelled your inquiry word wrong

Posted by: joe plaugher on December 19, 2004 7:30 PM

You heard that the ribs thing was Cher or Prince? I was told that it was Marilyn Manson who had his ribs removed.

Posted by: Jared on December 19, 2004 8:54 PM

Regarding Guinness, I had heard that you could get a prescription for the stuff in the UK due to its medicinal properties. I found, with a little research, that in Ireland it is given to blood donors and post-op patients due to its high iron content.

The moldy honey from above made me remember something else - the bottle of (real) maple syrup in my fridge says on the label that if it develops mold, you can remove the moldy parts then boil the syrup to make it safe again. Research shows that the opinions are mixed on that one.

Posted by: spygeek on December 19, 2004 9:44 PM

A good friend from college who went on to do some scientific digs in egpyt told me they come across intact vessels of honey in burial chambers quite frequently. Some of it is thousands of years old and although he professionally refused to answer if they had ever sampled any, he smiled real wide and winked at the question. He's still standing, so perhaps it is true.

Posted by: william on December 20, 2004 7:00 AM

The corrected Google spelling of that "floccin..." word also makes the word longer than antidisestablishmentarianism, which is the more conclusive evidence to me ;-)

Posted by: Dragon on December 20, 2004 8:12 AM

Can it really be 'too cold to snow'?

Not really, but there is some relationship between temperature and the ideal conditions for snow. Something about cold weather usually doesn't contain enough moisture for snow, but then again sometimes it can. I fell asleep after the first couple of sentences.


Posted by: FDL on December 20, 2004 8:36 AM

A friend of mine has long claimed that his old high school, Northern Secondary School here in Toronto, is the largest public high school in North America. Though it is a big school (~2000 students) I have never believed him, because it seems crazy to think that there are no public high schools in the U.S. that are larger. However, I have found the internet to be useless in proving him wrong. If anyone out there can direct me to a reputable source that would tell me what the largest high school in North America is I could finally resolve this matter for myself.

Posted by: Blake Richards on December 20, 2004 9:25 AM

Ok, so when I tell you this, you are going to say to yourself, "Who could be so *gullible*?" My only excuse is that when you grow up in the "Biggest Little State in the Union", you take what you can get for fame and fortune.

Growing up, I (and almost every other Rhode Islander I've quizzed since the debunking) was told that my home state, Rhode Island has more coastline than California. The usual supporting evidence for this is, 'Think of all those little islands we have on our coast'.

Now, I know you must be awed that something like this can be repeated by otherwise intelligent sounding people. After all, a quick check at 50states.com shows:
Area 1545 sq.mi
Coastline 40 miles
Shoreline 384 miles
Area 163707 sq.mi
Coastline 840 mi.
Shoreline 3,427 mi.

Posted by: zipl on December 20, 2004 10:04 AM

The biggest high school in North America is the United States Congress.

Posted by: Davey on December 20, 2004 10:51 AM

To the person who said honey was not an antibotic.

You're Right! Mold is not a bacteria. Therefore it should not be (I'll use hte wrong one i know it) affected (effected?) by a antibotic.

Remember that penicillian was from bread mold!

I live in La Crosse, Wisconsin where 3 rivers join together. There has been a myth (supposedly Native American Legend) that states where ever 3 rivers meet, there will never be a tornado.

While there hasn't been one in "recent" history there is a story that many people claim is sign of tornado back in the 1800s. But there are no facts to support that anything dealing with 3 rivers meeting has anything to do with preventing cyclones.

Posted by: Brian on December 20, 2004 11:15 AM

As a kid it was common knowledge that it was illegal to kill praying mantis bugs because they ate so many "bad" insects. I just checked and alas, it is not true. You can kill as many as you want. In fact, you may even kill them in Connecticut where the mantis is the state bug.

No wonder Space Ghost has no qualms about blasting Zorak on such a regular basis...thekeez

Posted by: Jeff Keezel on December 20, 2004 11:45 AM

One for debunking, the sexual laws.
On RI vs California: perhaps if you take the fractal dimension of the coastlines.

Posted by: Camilo on December 20, 2004 12:03 PM

Bread soaked in bleach and eaten by a seagull will cause it to explode.

I always wondered about this, even though it's incredibly stupid, it was quoted as gospel in my high school. I don't think even seagulls are stupid/scavengers enough to eat bleach.

I did find the 'alka seltzer will not kill birds' one but that was it.

Posted by: Jen on December 20, 2004 12:12 PM

Blake, a school local to me, Spanish River, has over 3000 students - and this is after another school was built and it's zoning was halfed. The school that was added, Olympic Heights has over 2500 students.

Thus, I would imagine it is safe to say your friend is misinformed.

Posted by: jessi on December 20, 2004 1:54 PM

spygeek said:
"Regarding Guinness, I had heard that you could get a prescription for the stuff in the UK due to its medicinal properties. I found, with a little research, that in Ireland it is given to blood donors and post-op patients due to its high iron content."

That was completely true up until a couple of years ago for blood donors. They only gave you a half pint. I'm pretty sure they've stopped doing it though.

Posted by: Pierce on December 20, 2004 2:25 PM

Regarding the lemmings -- it is NOT TRUE that lemmings are so dumb they'll walk off cliffs. It IS TRUE that during the filming of a Disney wilderness documentary, the film crew ran the lemmings off the cliff to perpetuate the idea the lemmings are suicidal.

snopes: http://www.snopes.com/disney/films/lemmings.htm

Alaska Wildlife Reserve:

Posted by: Narineh on December 20, 2004 3:00 PM

On the rib thing, I had always heard that it was Janet Jackson who had ribs removed to make her waist smaller.

Posted by: Lev on December 20, 2004 3:03 PM

Belmont HS in Los Angeles is the largest school in the US with 5299 students.

Posted by: Halcyon on December 20, 2004 3:06 PM

Raquel Welch and Sophia Loren supposedly had ribs removed to make them curvier.

Posted by: Davey on December 20, 2004 5:08 PM

My college had no sorority houses, and they had the "brothel laws" claim. Supposedly, it was illegal for more than six women to live together in a house, because it would then be considered a brothel. Not true, though. What's funny is that we were told this from university administration. Apparently it's a pretty common one.


Posted by: gretchen on December 20, 2004 5:45 PM

Okay: true or false, since I can't even find it on Snopes:

If you give soda to a rat, it will explode, because rats can't belch.

Posted by: gladys on December 20, 2004 5:56 PM

This ask metafilter thread:

inspired me to research the "[insert some staggering statistic] of restaurants fail in the first year." Just google "restaurant failure rate" for some quick debunking.

Posted by: Kim on December 20, 2004 8:46 PM

my grad student friends recently had a professor tell them that he lured a tapeworm out of his body by holding a brick of cheese close to his open mouth. he evidently SWORE that anyone telling you that it couldn't happen was a liar.

i called bullshit immediately, because A) it doesn't seem that tapeworms would have any means of mobility, B) it doesn't seem that tapeworms would have any olfactory senses, C) why would a tapeworm detach from it's home inside your plentiful intestines for one measly meal?, D) there are highly effect medications in the world that would do the job for you that simply dissolve the beast, and E) why wouldn't you lure the tapeworm out... uh... the other end, if you had the choice?!?

anyway, so i can't get them to believe that it would be impossible, as snopes.com doesn't explicitly say that it isn't true. it mentions the idea in another debunking here, but it doesn't say anything regarding it's validity.

i KNOW that it cannot be true, but i can't find any proof with which to convince these fools!

Posted by: erin on December 20, 2004 11:26 PM

gretchen: My college had no sorority houses, and they had the "brothel laws" claim.

It was that way at my college too. Nice to know it isn't true after all!

Posted by: spygeek on December 21, 2004 7:37 AM

I believed that you weren't allowed to toss rice at weddings because small birds would explode when eating too much. Needless to say, I was wrong.


Posted by: Jonathan on December 21, 2004 9:07 AM

Can someone confirm/debunk the Jamie Lee Curtis chromosome legend?

Posted by: chris on December 21, 2004 10:09 AM


Posted by: Longer word on December 21, 2004 11:46 AM

i had NO idea about the rice at weddings. or the lemmings. or the alka seltzer. man, i feel so violated and gullible. i'm never believing anyone about anything ever again.

Posted by: kimberley on December 22, 2004 12:50 AM

Let me just say this about Snopes: its an urban legend that they are the end all and be all of myth dedubunking. I have gotten into some arguments with them over some of their research and I believe them to be wrong on a few things. Which is fine, we all make mistakes in proud moments.

Posted by: Gordon on December 22, 2004 10:03 AM

Yes, I have argued with Snopes, as well. They tried to say that the Mexican water rat story isn't true but it happened to my cousin's friend so I know it's true!!

I had no idea there were any other rib-removal stories out there except Cher's.

I just learned that swallowed chewing gum will probably digest. If it is the sugar-free variety, it will probably pass, undigested, into your stool in due course and in much less than 7 years.

Posted by: Tinabug on December 22, 2004 2:30 PM

Would the chewing gum, having passed through you, stick to the toilet paper?

Posted by: davey on December 23, 2004 1:08 PM

more importantly, does your chewing gum lose it's flavor in the degestion track overnight?

Posted by: meg on December 24, 2004 6:19 AM

It will if it is EXTRA..which lasts an extra extra EXTRA long time!

My co-worker by the way has introduced me to Listerine Pocket Packs. Who needs Crack with this stuff around?

Posted by: Gordon on December 24, 2004 6:36 AM

Blake Richards: See Brooklyn Tech.

Does me posting this count as "using the Internets"? In case it doesn't, the whole honey thing reminded me of a story about a movie director smearing a kid with honey to get a shot with a bear,...

TAFKAC and Snopes both say "no",... but they talk about dumb parents rather than committed artistes,...

Posted by: billkauf on December 27, 2004 3:09 PM

in university i took a Current Issues in Nutrition course - where i learned that botulism spores can live in honey because they like an anaerobic (no 02) environment. for this reason, we are not to dip our babies' pacifiers in honey. (?people used to do this?)
have since learned in my practice (i'm a registered dietitian) that many people mistakenly believe that honey is rich in B vitamins - which i think nust have originated from old joke about honey being full of BEE vitamins.

Posted by: domin8trix on January 4, 2005 9:08 AM