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I wrote a column recently about our relationship with New Hampshire. I began by saying that Maine is the only state of the lower 48 states that shares a border with only one other state – New Hampshire. I admitted that you could probably make it through the day without knowing that. In fact I admitted in the column that it may be the most useless piece of information the average reader would come across in a lifetime.
But I may have misspoken. Soon after that column ran I started receiving emails from people who insisted that they knew from useless information and my statement about Maine’s border was not as useless as I may think. Many of the e-mails then listed what the sender thought was more useless than anything I’d ever written.
Well, I know a challenge when I read one, and I felt I had no choice but to take these readers up on their implied challenge. Having written a weekly column for the past fifteen years and hosted a weekend talk show for almost eighteen years, I like to think I know more than the average person about useless information.
Taking up the challenge I began to go over some of my old columns looking for possible “useful information” title contenders.
Right off, I came across a column I wrote on words and their meaning where I informed readers that the word “fez” was Turkish for “hat.”
How useful is that little gem, I ask, unless you happen to be a Turk or a Shiner on convention?
I remember writing a column on the phases of the moon and soon afterwards received a very nice e-mail from a retired English teacher who informed me that our planet’s only satellite is “the Moon” and therefore it should always be capitalized.
But she didn’t stop there.
She went on to say that the natural satellites of other planets are just called “moons” (lower case) because each has been given a proper name, e.i. Deimos, Amalthea, Hylperion, Miranda, Larissa or Charon, etc.
Where would we be without English teachers? Well, for one thing I’d be lacking that little nugget of “moon” information, that’s where I’d be.
To show how one piece of useless information can lead to another, after the moon column ran I received an e-mail from a former typesetter at the Portland Press Herald. He asked: John, Do you know where the phrase “lower case” comes from? Assuming I didn’t (even though, in fact, I did) he explained “lower case” came from print shops that would set type by hand. The small letters, those used most often, were kept in the lower type cases and the larger, or capital letters, were kept in upper cases.
See why you should read this column every week? Where else are you going to learn about these important things?
Something as innocent as a fish story can stir a reader into action. After writing about an old Maine fish story that my Grandfather loved to tell I received a brief e-mail from a reader that said: John, Did you know that “pnigophobia” is the fear of choking on a fish bone?
Well, I didn’t then, but I do now.
Sometimes, readers can get a little crazy with their “informative” e-mails. For example, I once did a column on the U.S. Postal Service which, for some reason, inspired someone to e-mail me to say: John, I enjoyed your column on the postal service and just wondered if you knew what the letters Z-I-P in ZIP code stood for? Not wanting to keep you in suspense I’l tell you that the letters stand for “Zone Improvement Plan.”
I’m sure some reader will find a use for that little nugget before the day’s out.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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