History & Culture

Culture

A weekly show where knowledge junkies get their fix of trivia-tastic information. It’s our birthday! In celebration of a year of mental_floss on YouTube, John looks at some fascinating birthday traditions from around the world.

Keywords: Birthdays | Traditions

In this video, learn all about the traditions and legends that make Lunar New Year one of the most exciting times of the year.

Keywords: China | Traditions
Over the course of human history, thousands of languages have developed from what was once a much smaller number. How did we end up with so many? And how do we keep track of them all? Alex Gendler explains

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how linguists group languages into language families, demonstrating how these linguistic trees give us crucial insights into the past.

Lesson by Alex Gendler, animation by Igor Coric.

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Keywords: Change | Language
Vox
Ninjas are overrat—just kidding, they’re amazing. But how did they become famous around the world?
In this episode of Overrated, Vox’s Phil Edwards gets nunchucked in his heart by ninjas. But why are these

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secret killers known around the world?

The history of ninjas is, fittingly, one with many hidden twists and turns. It starts with the real historical ninjas in feudal Japan, who really did practice what we call ninjutsu. Their mixture of espionage, assassination, and combat was similar to what ninja-fans might imagine, though the reality was more about traveling incognito than looking cool in a black jumpsuit.

From there, the ninja quickly became a myth in Japanese culture, entering kabuki theatre as well as manga and novels of the time. Already, the exaggeration of the ninja in Japan had begun, a trend that continued with myth-making Japanese films that vaulted the imaginary ninja into public consciousness.

Finally, the ninja traveled to the West from these Japanese films, first showing up in James Bond, and then becoming part of a ninja-sploitation trend. Soon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles proved the ninja was so famous it could take on postmodern incarnations.

But nearly from the beginning, the ninja was as powerful an idea as a reality, a myth in both Japanese and western culture. And, perhaps most importantly, every version of the ninja — real or not — turned out to be awesome.

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: Japan | Martial arts
Every child deserves to be properly groomed and to feel confident in their sense of self and in their cultural identity. But for many transracial families, especially those where Black children are adopted by non-Black parents,

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hair care becomes a point of struggle. Many non-Black parents find that their unfamiliarity with their children’s natural hair leaves their kids at a disadvantage. That’s where Tamekia Swint comes in. As the founder and executive director of the non-profit Styles 4 Kidz, she is creating a space for parents to learn how to care for their children’s hair without judgment or negative criticism.

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: Adoption | Hair | Parenting

The crazy story of the arbitrary temperature scale used in a tiny minority of countries.

Vox
Fahrenheit, explained to the rest of the world.
Since I’ve moved to the US in 2010, there’s one thing that I still don’t fully understand: the imperial system.

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Virtually every country on earth uses Celsius but America has yet to follow. Although it might not seem like a big deal, not using the metric system puts America at a great disadvantage. For example, American kids have to learn 2 sets of measurements making science education even more difficult. On top of that, American companies have to produce extra products to export to metric countries. So why does the United States still have such an antiquated system of measurement?

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Vox
Disco, DJs, and the impact of the 12-inch single.
In the early 1970s, a musical sensation took over New York City. It was called Disco. Before Disco

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became synonymous with Saturday Night Fever, Rod Stewart, and celebrity-fueled parties, it was an underground movement powered by the innovations of young DJs challenging themselves and each other to throw the city’s most adventurous dance parties.

By 1973, their influence as musical taste makers became apparent, and a handful of unconventional dance tracks became pop crossover hits. With barely any radio airplay, songs like “Love Theme” and “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” became defining tracks of the disco era.

These songs were repetitive, hypnotic, and funky, and they were also pretty long compared to other pop hits. That presented a problem for DJs using 7-inch 45rpm singles, which fit only 3:30 minutes of quality audio on them, during their night-long sets. They needed a vinyl record that could make their most popular tracks sound powerful on a dance floor and last the whole night.

In 1976, an accidental studio discovery by Disco pioneer Tom Moulton provided the solution: A 12-inch single. By stretching one song across 12 inches of vinyl, a format typically reserved for full-length albums, those extended dance tracks had room to breath.

By the 1980s, the 12-inch single dominated pop music. It not only changed the sound of records, it allowed for music producers to experiment with length and structure.

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Category:  Art | History & Culture
Keywords: Celebrating | Music
Vox
How a cheesy joke from the 1830s became the most widely spoken word in the world.
OK is thought to be the most widely recognized word on the planet. We use it to communicate with each

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other, as well as our technology. But it actually started out as a language fad in the 1830’s of abbreviating words incorrectly.

Young intellectuals in Boston came up with several of these abbreviations, including “KC” for “knuff ced,” “OW” for “oll wright,” and KY for “know yuse.” But thanks to its appearance in Martin Van Buren’s 1840 presidential re-election campaign as the incumbents new nickname, Old Kinderhook, OK outlived its abbreviated comrades.

Later, widespread use by early telegraph operators caused OK to go mainstream, and its original purpose as a neutral affirmative is still how we use it today.

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Keywords: Common expressions | Okay

History

Trace the history of how wolves, one of humanity’s oldest rivals, evolved into the domesticated dogs we call “man’s best friend.”

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Since their emergence over 200,000 years ago, modern humans have established communities all over the planet. But they didn’t do it alone. Whatever corner of the globe you find humans in today, you’re likely to find another species as well: dogs. So how did one of our oldest rivals, the wolf, evolve into man’s best friend? David Ian Howe traces the history of humanity’s first domesticated animal.

Lesson by David Ian Howe, directed by Cabong Studios.

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Keywords: Dogs | Friends | History
As dawn breaks over a moveable city of ten thousand yurts, Queen Boraqchin readies her kingdom for departure to their summer camping grounds. While her husband, the grandson of Genghis Khan, is out raiding, she

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juggles the duties of managing flocks, family and a city of thousands. Anne F. Broadbridge outlines a day in the life of a Mongolian queen.

Lesson by Anne F. Broadbridge, directed by Els Decaluwe.

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: Countryside | Life
The year is 15 CE, and the Roman Empire is prospering. Most of the credit will go to the emperor, but this success wouldn’t have been possible without loyal soldiers like Servius Felix. Robert Garland illuminates what life was

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like for a solider in the Roman army.

Lesson by Robert Garland, animation by Brett Underhill.

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: History | Life | Retirement

The development of agriculture was a huge game changer for human beings and it may have even changed the way we speak.

Keywords: Change | Farming | Language | Speaking
There’s nothing quite as quintessentially British as a cuppa tea. But how did the Chinese tradition make its way into the British consciousness? It’s all thanks to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese royal who married England’s

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King Charles II in 1662. When she arrived in England, she brought with her loose leaves and spices in a set of crates labeled “Transporte de Ervas Aromatics,” or T.E.A. Soon, everyone wanted to be just like the Queen and sales of tea began to skyrocket. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Category:  Food | History & Culture
Keywords: England | Hot drinks
Loki the mischief-maker, writhes in Thor’s iron grip. The previous night, he’d snuck up on Thor’s wife and shorn off her beautiful hair. To fix what he’d done, Loki rushes to the dwarves and tricks them into making gifts for the

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gods. Wanting to best their smith rivals, the dwarves make a set of golden treasures, including a hammer called Mjolnir. Scott A. Mellor traces the legend of Thor’s hammer.

Lesson by Scott A. Mellor, directed by Remus and Kiki.

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: Deception | Tools
In ancient times, wildcats were fierce carnivorous hunters. And unlike dogs, who have undergone centuries of selective breeding, modern cats are genetically very similar to ancient cats. How did these solitary, fierce

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predators become our sofa sidekicks? Eva-Maria Geigl traces the domestication of the modern house cat.

Lesson by Eva-Maria Geigl, directed by Chintis Lundgren.

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Keywords: Cats | History | Pets
In 1974, farmers digging a well near their small village stumbled upon one of the most important finds in archaeological history – vast underground chambers surrounding a Chinese emperor’s tomb that contained

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more than 8,000 life-size clay soldiers ready for battle. Megan Campisi and Pen-Pen Chen shares the fascinating history of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Lesson by Megan Campisi and Pen-Pen Chen, animation by Zedem Media.

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Keywords: China | Death | History
The ancient Egyptians developed a sophisticated method to preserve a dead body for the afterlife: mummification. First, the internal organs were removed and all moisture from the body was eliminated. Next, the body was

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wrapped with long strips of linen, and then covered with a large linen cloth. Follow the steps of the mummification process in this short animation about the Getty Museum’s Romano-Egyptian mummy Herakleides.

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: Death | Egypt
The constant thud underneath your feet. The constrained space. The monotony of going nowhere fast. Running on a treadmill can certainly feel like torture, but did you know it was originally used for that very purpose? Conor

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Heffernan details the dark and twisted history of the treadmill.

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Category:  History & Culture | Sports
Keywords: Running | Past
2,300 years ago, the rulers of Alexandria set out to fulfill a very audacious goal: to collect all the knowledge in the world under one roof. In its prime, the Library of Alexandria housed an unprecedented number of scrolls and

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attracted some of the Greek world’s greatest minds. But by the end of the 5th century CE, it had vanished. Elizabeth Cox details the rise and fall of this great building.

Lesson by Elizabeth Cox, directed by Inna Phillimore.

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Keywords: Books | Place of learning
Vox
Early portraits looked pretty grim.
A lot of old photos from the 19th and early 20th century are fraught with doom and gloom—and on the

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occasion the literal dead face. That led to the popular belief that people just did not smile in old photographs. The common explanation is due to the limited technology at the time to capture a smile. Exposure times were long and the thinking was it’s easier to hold a serious expression over a long period. Another theory included early photography being heavily influenced by painting (which meant no smiling).

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: Photography | Pictures | Smiling
The year is 1996. Bill Clinton is the president, Celine Dion’s “Because You Love Me” is blasting across every FM radio station, and you’re about to head to the cafeteria for lunch. So what do you have tucked away in that

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lunchbox? Maybe some Lunchables? A Mondo Fruit Squeezer? Don’t get us started on Dunkaroos. This is a love letter to the sugar and preservative-filled snacks of our childhood, and a few surprising stories behind some of your favorites. How did Mondo Fruit Squeezers get its iconic bottle cap design? What other names did they brainstorm for Lunchables? And how is famed Broadway and television actor John Cameron Mitchell involved in all this? Relive all the sweet, sweet memories with us.

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Category:  Food | History & Culture
Keywords: Eating habits | Meals | School

Law

You know Anonymous, the hacktivist group that performs cyber ops to advance social and political change. Now, meet Jay Leiderman, the California-based lawyer who represents Anonymous, pro bono. Leiderman

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specializes in cyber law and he’s become the go-to resource for cyber protestors. Armed with detailed knowledge of cyber policy, Leiderman’s goal is to change outdated computer laws.

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Category:  History & Culture
Keywords: Hacking | Laws

Vocabulary:
cove
secluded
float
shore
anchor
lighthouse
greenhouse
handsaw
hammer
power tool
nail
board (noun)
ton
land sick
biomass
canoe
paddle
real estate
prosper
fulfilled

Expressions:
subsistence living
hon

Vocabulary:
word
word
word
word
word
word
word
word
word

Expressions:
expression
expression
expression
expression

Vocabulary:
prestigious
involuntary
swindler
fraudulence
unwarranted
concern
unfounded
impostor
syndrome
faculty
pervasive
prevalent
disproportionately
underrepresented
downplay
abnormality
self-esteem
spiral
accolade
threshold
susceptible
voice (verb)
peer
dismiss
excel
ease
mentor
competence
banish
frank

Expressions:
nagging doubt
shake a feeling
put something to rest
surefire way

Vocabulary:
filmmaker
principle
handcuff
clown
distill
underdog
aspect
familiar
unfamiliar
chopsticks
keyboard
organic
grounded
clarity
stuntman
steady
gag
perfectionist
rhythm
distinct
continuity
elbow
bunch
flail around
unlike
invincible
impressive
humanize
asset
payoff
relentlessness
finale

Expressions:
kick ass
going above and beyond
get smacked in the face
sell a joke

Vocabulary:
explosion
smoke (noun)
engine
unique
pilot
route
unemotional
terror
instant
reach out (to someone)
postpone
urgency
purpose
regret
humanity
ego
reflect
eliminate
frame (verb)
artistic
talent
bawl
miracle

Expressions:
bucket list
brace for impact
mend fences
make sense
connecting dots