The Book of General Ignorance

Albanian dogs go “ham ham.” In Catalan, dogs go “bup bup.” The Chinese dogs say “wang wang,” the Greek dogs go “gav gav,” the Slovenians “hov hov,” and the Ukrainians “haf haf.” In Iceland, it’s “voff,” in Indonesia, it’s “gong gong,” and in Italian, it’s “bau bau.

Astronomers have recently discovered a massive amount of alcohol in our region of the Milky Way. The giant cloud of methanol measures 288 billion miles across. Although the alcohol we like to drink is grain alcohol (otherwise known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol) and methanol would poison us, the discovery goes some way to supporting the theory that the universe is here so that we can drink it.

BiC remains the world’s ballpoint market leader with annual sales of $1.85 billion. In 2005 they sold their 100 billionth pen. The bestselling BiC Cristal sells 14 million units a day.

He once wrote: “Life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.

Hravat is the Croatian word for “Croat” and it’s where we get the word cravat. So Croatia means “tie land.

It is impossible to test accurately how long a severed head remains conscious, if at all. The best estimate is between five and thirteen seconds.

Krungthep Mahanakhon Amorn Rattanakosin Mahintara Yudthaya Mahadilok Pohp Noparat Rajathanee Bureerom Udomrajniwes Mahasatarn Amorn Pimarn Avaltarnsatit Sakatattiya Visanukram Prasit.

Mongolians will never eat a marmot’s armpits because “they contain the soul of a dead hunter.

Only ignorant foreigners call it Bangkok, which hasn’t been used in Thailand for more than two hundred years. For Europeans (and every single one of their encyclopedias) to go on calling the capital of Thailand Bangkok is a bit like Thais insisting that the capital of Britain is called Billingsgate or Winchester.

People sometimes accuse me of knowing a lot. "Stephen," they say, accusingly, "you know a lot." This is a bit like telling a person who has a few grains of sand clinging to him that he owns much sand. When you consider the vast amount of sand there is in the world such a person is, to all intents and purposes, sandless. We are all sandless. We are all ignorant. There are beaches and deserts and dunes of knowledge whose existance we have never even guessed at, let alone visited.

Read it wisely, Little One, for the power of ignorance is great.

St. Bernards have never, ever carried brandy barrels. The dog’s mission is entirely teetotal—apart from anything else, giving brandy to someone with hypothermia is a disastrous mistake—but tourists have always loved the idea, so they still pose wearing them.

The largest egg in comparison with the size of the bird is that of the little spotted kiwi. Its egg accounts for 26 percent of its own weight: the equivalent of a woman giving birth to a six-year-old child.

The other Andamanese languages have no known relatives. They have five numbers: one, two, one more, some more, and all. On

The reason everyone thinks all frogs go “ribbit” is that “ribbit” is the distinctive call of the Pacific tree frog (Hyla regilla). This is the frog that lives in Hollywood.

The rickshaw was invented by an American missionary, Jonathan Scobie, who first used it to wheel his invalid wife through the streets of Yokohama, Japan, in 1869.

Ursus arctos isn’t the polar bear, it’s the brown bear. Ursus means “bear” in Latin and arctos means “bear” in Greek. The Arctic is named after the bear, not the other way around; it

What’s the most dangerous animal that has ever lived? Half the human beings who have ever died, perhaps as many as 45 billion people, have been killed by female mosquitoes (the males only bite plants).

Who is America named after? Not the Italian merchant and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, but Richard Ameryk, a Welshman and wealthy Bristol merchant. Ameryk was the chief investor in the second transatlantic voyage of John Cabot—the English name of the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto, whose voyages in 1497 and 1498 laid the groundwork for the later British claim to Canada. He moved to London from Genoa in 1484 and was authorized by King Henry VII to search for unknown lands to the west. On his little ship Matthew, Cabot reached Labrador in May 1497 and became the first recorded European to set foot on American soil, predating Vespucci by two years. Cabot mapped the North American coastline from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. As the chief patron of the voyage, Richard Ameryk would have expected discoveries to be named after him. There is a record in the Bristol calendar for that year: “…on Saint John the Baptist’s day [June 24], the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristowe, in a ship of Bristowe called the Mathew,” which clearly suggests this is what happened. Although the original manuscript of this calendar has not survived, there are a number of references to it in other contemporary documents. This is the first use of the term America to refer to the new continent. The earliest surviving map to use the name is Martin Waldseemüller’s great map of the world of 1507, but it only applied to South America. In his notes Waldseemüller makes the assumption that the name is derived from a Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci’s first name, because Vespucci had discovered and mapped the South American coast from 1500 to 1502. This suggests he didn’t know for sure and was trying to account for a name he had seen on other maps, possibly Cabot’s. The only place where the name “America” was known and used was Bristol—not somewhere the France-based Waldseemüller was likely to visit. Significantly, he replaced “America” with “Terra Incognita” in his world map of 1513. Vespucci never reached North America. All the early maps and trade were British. Nor did he ever use the name of America for his discovery. There’s a good reason for this. New countries or continents were never named after a person’s first name, but always after the second (as in Tasmania, Van Diemen’s Land, or the Cook Islands). America would have become Vespucci Land (or Vespuccia) if the Italian explorer had consciously given his name to it.

William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, hunter, Indian-fighter and showman, joined the Pony Express – the West’s legendary mail service – at the age of fourteen, in response to an ad which ran: ‘WANTED young skinny wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.