9 Misconceptions People Have About The World Rosie Stoff

I try to be as “worldly” a person as I can be. Not only am a total nerd for maps, but my personal belief is that if you don’t know about the world we live in, then what do you know? What could be more important than how we came to be and all the events in history that lead to the conception of you and I? Even though I pride myself in having a fascination with history, I’m still ignorant about some fairly basic details in the past. Here are 9 common completely misconceptions about history everyone thinks are true:

1. Feminists did NOT burn bras.

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It is commonly believed that feminists in the ’60s burned their bras, but that is actually not technically true. In a 1968 protest against the Miss America Pageant, it was the protesters’ intention to burn bras, but not a single one went up in flames. The idea was to torch the trash can where protesters were throwing their nylon pantyhose and bras, but people at the event never saw a single flame. The “bra burning” legend has been traced back to a young female reporter for the New York Times, even though most feminists joke that the legend was created and spread by a man.

2. It’s not really Napoleon’s “complex”.

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A Napoleon Complex, or “short man syndrome,” is applied to people of smaller stature who compensate with an aggressive and overbearing attitude. It’s named after Napoleon, the famously short French emperor. However, this is a total fabrication. Napoleon was not short! In fact, he was 100% average height for his time. In the early 1800s, the average European man stood between 5’5″ and 5’8″. At 5’6″, Napoleon was perfectly average. However, with human height fluctuating over time, the average male height now in Europe is 5’10″.

3. A vomitorium is not a room made for vomiting.

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Everyone (including me until researching this article) thinks a “vomitorium” was a room off an ancient Roman dining room in which people went to purge after a binge of a meal. Well, I was very wrong. A vomitorium is actually an architectural feature, and an archway in which people entered and exited in a stadium. The misconception may come from the fact that Caesar vomited in one while escaping an assassination.

4. Viking helmets were not actually worn by vikings.

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We all know the Viking helmet that sailed from Lapland to Canada and other Arctic countries… or do we? The headgear has always been seen in art and media as having two horns coming off of it. This is a total lie! There is NO evidence that this was ever a style. The horned helmet was never a thing until an 1876 opera production by Wagner – about 1,000 years after the Vikings glory years.

5. Columbus Day is a LIE.

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I am in no way complaining that Columbus Day is a holiday and one frequently commemorated with closed schools and offices. But I’ve always known it was a big fat lie. Columbus DID NOT discover America; in fact, he never set foot here! That day in 1492, along with his 3 subsequent journeys, Columbus only got as far at the Caribbean Islands, so he wasn’t even within thousands of miles of mainland North America. Plus, don’t forget – the United States didn’t exist for another 284 years!

6. Burning witches at the stake? Never happened here.

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Yes, we all LOVED the scene in American Horror Story: Coven where Myrtle was burned at the stake, but it is inaccurate historically. Burning at the stake makes for a great demise end scene, but the witches in Salem, Massachusetts were either hanged or died in prison. Ever read The Crucible? That’s a pretty accurate depiction of the Salem Witch Trials. Burning at the stake was common practice for witches in other places, mostly through Europe and the Holy Roman Empire, but not in Salem.

7. “Let them eat cake!” – not said by Marie Antoinette.

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“Let them eat cake!” is the famous phrase we all attribute to the glamorous French Queen Marie Antoinette. We all believed she said this when she was presented with the dire issue of the people in her country starving during the French Revolution due to a shortage of bread, and this quote lead the and uproar and outrage from her people and eventually to her imprisonment and beheading. The first publishing of these words was when Marie Antoinette was only 10 years old, by the writer Rousseau in Confessions. Most historians believe he made up the term entirely, tsk tsk. There are other beliefs that the phrase was uttered somewhat differently, but by Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa. She might have said, “Let them eat brioche.” Marie Antoinette’s subjects may have attributed this quote to her as propaganda, since they already detested her.

8. George Washington’s dentures weren’t made of wood.

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We all know the story of one of our most important founding fathers and first president, George Washington. He had a wife, Martha. He was elected unanimously in 1788 and 1792 and had a great powdered wig. Plus, he chopped down that cherry tree and uttered the now infamous “I can not tell a lie!” Oh, and he had some serious dental problems. Dental dilemmas were not uncommon, what with a total lack of dental care and probably pretty atrocious nutrition. Losing your teeth at an early age was very much the norm, actually. Washington probably lost his first adult tooth at 22 years old and only had one real one left when he became president. John Adams suggested he lost them because he liked to crack Brazil nuts with them, but historians say probably from a treatment for small pox and malaria. Even though the known myth is that his dentures were made of wood, it is not true, and the actual truth is somewhat grosser. In reality, Washington had sets of teeth made from hippo ivory, lead, human teeth (probably gotten from his Mount Vernon home slaves), horse teeth, donkey teeth and gold teeth. That last one is somehow still a popular style.

9. You can’t really see the Great Wall of China from space.

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Everyone has been told since childhood that the only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon is the Great Wall of China. Well, LIES! LIES they’ve been telling you! Not a single Apollo 11 astronaut in their 1969 mission saw the 13,171 mile wall across Asia. City lights are visible on the night time side of the earth, but even from 180 miles above the earth, astronaut Jay Apt said it was invisible.

Images courtesy of Insurance Hotline, Media Myth Alert, ABC, Lucid Cafe, Shutterstock, Daily Mail, NRVDental, Archaeology Network,

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  1. [Sorry to break thread hierarchy, but for some reason when I try to "reply" it never shows up.]

    In Europe the usage for America/American seems similar to in the US, at least in my limited experience with French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Hungarian, where the cognates for “American” imply someone from the US, and more colloquially, cognates for “America” are usually used for the US. It’s generally acknowledged that the usage is even more strictly about the US when in English.

    For example, from the Italian wikipedia page on the US, “La forma più breve, Stati Uniti, è normalmente utilizzata. Altre forme comuni includono gli U.S., U.S.A., o semplicemente America… ‘American’ è raramente usato nella lingua inglese per riferirsi a persone che non sono in riferimento agli Stati Uniti.” From the French wikipedia page on the US, “En France et dans de nombreux autres pays, le pays est également désigné en forme courte, dans le langage courant, mais aussi parfois dans des discours officiels, par le terme informel d’Amérique. En anglais, la forme courte « America » est largement utilisée, y compris dans les discours officiels.” The Swedish wikipedia page for the US concurs, “Det vanliga sättet att hänvisa till en medborgare i USA är som en amerikan… ‘American’ används sällan i engelskan för att hänvisa till folk som inte är anslutna till USA.” Although their page for Amerika is a little more grudging: “I folkmun används Amerika även ofta (oegentligt) som benämning för enbart landet USA.”

    There are just some things that are settled usage, regardless of whether or not they’re logical. Even people from los Estados Unidos Mexicanos will say that just “Estados Unidos” refers to the USA, for example.

  2. Usage note: in English, “America” and “American” refer to the US and its citizens, when used without modification (“North American”, “South American”, and other modified versions are distinct, as is “the Americas”). Even in historical usage hundreds of years ago it mainly referred to European-descended inhabitants of the North American British colonies (i.e., much of the present-day US and Canada and little else). The non-US OED confirms this long-established fact, as does any quick reflection – there are Colombians and Guatemalans and Chileans and from the US… Americans. There is no other word for it. Garner’s _Modern American Usage_, one of the best modern authorities on English usage in the US, not only confirms this usage in its title, but also explicitly in the text (despite acknowledging that it isn’t really logical).

    But comments here aren’t the first time I’ve heard of non-US “Americans” upset over this usage, so I’d be curious about usage in Central- and South-American Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

  3. Washington didn’t wear a wig.

  4. When people say Columbus discovered America, they mean the continent. He in fact wasn’t the first person to set foot here, but he aided the colonization of the continent.

    • Misconception no. 10

      America is a continent, not a country. The United States of America is a country in North America, North America includes Mexico the USA and Canada.
      And that my little grasshoppers was today’s geography lesson.

  5. You have made some very big (and incredible and sad common) mistake in nº5.You think that when someone says that Colon discovered America they are referring to the United States. Such a big mistake. America is our continent. I’m an american, but I was not born in the US. I don’t consider myself a latinoamerican or iberoamerican person because that not true. I’m as american as someone who was born in Canada, United States, Cuba, Colombia, Brasil or Argentina. And Colon did get to America, to some of their Islands, ok it wasn’t the continental land, but it’s still very much american land.

    It’s sad for me to see that even in this kind of place, which are supposed to be a little more open minded there still is that “center of the world” way of think. And I don’t mean this as an attack, but this mistakes are only the top of the iceberg in this issues.

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