Three “Facts” (Maybe?) I Couldn’t Nail Down


I like to think I have high standards when it comes to what I share on these pages. There are a lot of fun facts out there but some, when you peel back the layers a bit, don’t seem to be supported by reliable sources — and as a result, I don’t share them in my normal Monday through Thursday emails. Today, I’m going to share three that didn’t quite make the cut, in large part because they’re either likely not true or I couldn’t determine if they were, one way or another.

But before I do, a quick programming note: I’m taking Monday off for Memorial Day.

The “Fact”: Drivers in the UK drive on the left side of the road because it was never conquered by Napoleon.

Verdict: Probably false.

My path to get there: Mostly painless, actually. First, there aren’t any reliable sources out there. There are a lot of questionable sources, with a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Colorado leading the way — that should give you a good idea of how weak this one was! That, and the theories as to why Napoleon would care about such thing were are over the place. One is that Napoleon was a lefty and wanted his dominant hand to be near his potential enemies, so he demanded that horses and the like travel on the right side of the road. Another is that left-side roadways were seen as aristocratic, and Napoleon didn’t like the aristocracy. The final one suggests that people would, in the normal course of travel, joust or swordfight while on horses; by flipping the traffic flow, Napoleon moved these would-be jouster’s non-dominant hand toward the center of the road, effectively ending the practice.

But again, thankfully, I didn’t waste a lot of time on this one. Wikipedia has a paragraph that strongly suggests the “fact” is just plain wrong: “An oft-repeated story is that Napoleon changed the custom from LHT to RHT in France and the countries he conquered after the French Revolution. Scholars who have looked for documentary evidence of this story have found none, and contemporary sources have not surfaced, as of 1999. In 1827, long after Napoleon’s reign, Edward Planta wrote that, in Paris, ‘The coachmen have no established rule by which they drive on the right or left of the road, but they cross and jostle one another without ceremony.’

The “Fact”: In the Japanese version of “Bob the Builder” (an animated US kids show, Bob has five fingers, not four, on each hand — because having four fingers suggests that he was a mobster.

Verdict: Maybe it was planned? But I don’t think it happened.

My path to get there: This should have been a slam dunk for me. The BBC — a very reliable source! — said the following back in 2000: “Television favorite Bob the Builder is to have his fingers doctored for the Japanese market – because he looks like a gangster. In Japan the country’s most feared mafia – the Yakuza – cut off their little fingers as a sign they can be trusted and have strength of character. Bob’s creators, Hit Entertainment, have also decided to give all merchandising of four-fingered Bob an extra digit so children will not be alarmed.”

That should have been good enough, right? But I wanted to show you all the five-fingered Bob… and I couldn’t find one. Here’s a picture of a Bob the Builder DVD from Japan released in 2009:

See? Four fingers. This clip from a Japanese episode again shows Bob with his usual four fingers. Wikipedia claims that “in fact, Bob the Builder aired in Japan without such edits” but cites a version of that clip as the source, which is hardly definitive. I also searched for a five-fingered Bob toy, with no luck.

My guess is that HiT Entertainment intended to make the change, got laughed at about it, and then realized it wasn’t worth the expense to “fix” something that wasn’t actually broken. But who knows.

The “Fact”: A couple in Kuwait got married — and then got divorced three minutes later.

Verdict: No idea.

My path to get there: This story is all over the “fun facts” sites that don’t cite to their sources. It’s consistently the same story, and seems to originate from Q8News, a Kuwaiti news site with a punny name. Q8News doesn’t mention any details about the couple — no names, no locations, nothing — except, of course, for what led to the divorce itself. Here’s a Google Translate of the page: “n what is considered the fastest divorce case between a couple in the history of Kuwait, after the newlyweds finished completing the marriage contract, the wife went out the door and stumbled on her foot while walking in the place, but she heard her husband’s voice saying ‘Thawul,’ [which means “sorry”] so she had no choice but to return to the judge and insist on annulling the contract. And they divorced within a few minutes.”

That would likely make this the world’s shortest non-sham wedding. But the only other sources I could find were ones from unreliable sources or ones citing “social media” (heh). So, yeah, I couldn’t share this one.

The Now I Know Week In Review

Monday: Another Brick In (?) The Road: I think traffic lights are a better idea, but I can understand why they can’t be everywhere.

Tuesday: When the Coca-Cola Company Failed Math and History: The fact that this happened absolutely dumbfounded me, and still does.

Wednesday: How “Office Space” Changed the Supply Closet: The red Swingline stapler? It didn’t exist before the movie made it famous. Really.

Thursday: How One of America’s Largest Malls Avoids Scary Utility Bills: Somehow, I failed to link the “From the Archives” story in this one. If you want to read about “When Minneapolis and St. Paul Battled over Population,” you can click that link. Sorry about that!

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend:

  1. Why Did This Guy Put a Song About Me on Spotify?” (New York Times, 24 minutes, March 2024). Meet Matt Farley, a guy who writes 50 songs a day that you’ll never listen to, and makes a living doing it.
  2. Remote Control” (The Believer, June 2014). A deep dive into the Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story. (If you don’t know what that is, you definitely need to read this.)
  3. I Played ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ on a Bar Jukebox Until I Got Kicked Out” (Vice, 9 minutes, March 2015). I may have shared this before but if I did, I don’t mind, because it’s still hilarious.

Have a great weekend!