From the creators of BBC television's QI, a quietly intriguing new column

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The stars of the BBC gameshow QI (Quite Interesting)

Quite Interesting has just got more interesting. From today, this column will bring you a mixture of freshly minted research, oddities, strange coincidences and happy discoveries from the depths of the QI vault. Some will be topical, some will have lain unmolested in books or libraries for aeons. For our first outing, we start at the very beginning, with a clutch of quite interesting As. We finish with some interesting Es.

is a village in Norway, north of Bergen.

A first appeared as a hieroglyph meaning "ox" in the written language of the Sinai Peninsula more than 3,000 years ago. In the early scripts, the letter looked like an ox's head - and still does if you turn a capital "A" upside down.

Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is essential to sight and the growth of bones, but too much of it can kill you. A polar bear's liver contains a quantity fatally toxic to humans. The vitamin is generated by marine algae and grows in concentration as it passes up the Arctic food chain.

Ainu are the aboriginal people of Japan. They believe that the world is supported on the back of a giant trout and that sin is caused by otters.
Anyone possessed by an otter loses their memory immediately - forgetful Ainu are called "otter-heads". If an Ainu should accidentally eat a piece of otter, or even a fish killed by an otter, he has to tie a tight band round his head to stop the otter getting into his brain.

Albanian is one of Europe's oldest languages, but its alphabet was only invented in 1908. It contains 36 letters but no "w".
Divided into two main dialects, Gheg and Tosk, it has an extraordinary richness of vocabulary for facial hair, with 27 different words to describe the shape of moustache and even more for eyebrows.
It may be the only language in which the word for male sheep (dash) also describes a well turned-out young man.

(Ati, yne qe je ne qiell, te nderofshin te gjithe ngerezit. Ardhte mbreteria jote - u befte vullneti yt se ne qiell, ashtu edhe ne toke. Buken tone te perditshme na e jep sot. na i fal fajet tona, sic ua falem ne fajtoreve tane. E mos lejo te biem na tundim, por na shpeto nga i Ligu.

The Lord's Prayer in Albanian)

Albatross is a corruption of the Portuguese word alcatraz, meaning "large sea bird".
In Portuguese, the "Birdman of Alcatraz' means the "Birdman of the Large Sea Bird".
The derivation of the English word is uncertain. Opinions differ as to whether it comes from Arabic al-qudus, "the pitcher" (from its large beak) or the Latin albatus, "clad in white".

Alveary is the hollow bit of your ear. It's from the Latin alvearium, a collection of beehives, because it's the part of the ear that contains wax.

Anaximander (610BC- 545/6BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of astronomy and geography. He made the first map of the world and is credited with inventing the sundial. Anaximander was also the first to suggest that the Earth floated unsupported in space rather than resting on turtles, elephants or a vast ocean. Despite his enormous contributions to astronomy, only one sentence of his work survives.

Anger and anxiety both come from the same word: the ancient Greek angkos - a bend or hollow - from which also come ankle, angle, angst, anguish, angina, inglenook, ungulate, hang and anchor.

Armadillos are rarely kept as pets in Britain, but the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti somehow managed to secrete a pair in his Chelsea back garden. One of them burrowed its way into the kitchen of a neighbour, where its head appeared from under a hearthstone, convincing the witness that she had been visited by the Devil.

Jane Austen is now believed to have suffered from Addison's disease, although she died 40 years before Thomas Addison named the condition. The evidence is in letters where she complains of back pain, nausea, tiredness, mood swings and the loss of her looks, "which have been black, white and every wrong colour".

Axolotl is an Aztec word. This is a species of salamander but its pale colour and external gills meant that when first discovered, it was thought to be the tadpole of some much larger unknown reptile.

The world's largest book is about the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Each copy of Bhutan used a gallon of ink on a roll of paper longer than a football pitch. The printing process took 24 hours for each book, which weighs 133 pounds, roughly the same as a professional wrestler.

Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, is the only Asian capital city without traffic lights. They introduced one, but thought the flashing lights too bright, so they now use a traffic policeman instead. Bhutan was the last country in the world to introduce television, in 1999, and the first country to ban cigarettes, in 2004.

"Dwarf-tossing" is banned in France and Canada. Mince pies - also known as Christmas, mutton, shrid (ie shredded) or minched pies - were banned by Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth on December 22, 1657, as a Popish abomination. In Ethiopia, hang-gliders are banned in national parks, because antelopes mistake them for giant vultures and stampede in panic. In 1314, the mayor of London banned football because of the disturbance it caused in the streets.

Approximately 20 million golf balls are lost in water hazards on British golf courses every year. When North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il first played golf, he eagled his first hole, then posted a score of 38 under par, comfortably the lowest in history. Bangkok Golf Club is floodlit so it is possible to play 24 hours a day.

Bangkok is the only city in Thailand. Male diners in its Cabbages and Condoms restaurant are entitled to a free vasectomy at a clinic next door. Instead of an after-dinner mint, all customers are given a condom with their coffee. The unusual menu includes "Spicy Condom Salad" and guarantees "that the food won't cause pregnancy".

A baby oyster is called a "spat" while a baby quail is known as a "cheeper" or a "squeeler". Baby koalas are weaned on their mother's excrement. This is consumed directly from their mother's bottom in the form of "soup". Ancient beer was fermented using spittle or the contents of a baby's nappy.


In 1814, a huge vat burst in The Horse Shoe brewery off Tottenham Court Road in London, unleashing a tidal wave of beer that destroyed the neighbourhood. A riot broke out as people tried to save themselves, while others dived in and drank!! Eight people died; at least one of inebriation. St Brigid of Ireland, the sixth-century abbess of Kildare, was noted for the miracle of transforming her used bathwater into beer for visiting clerics.

Gregory the Great, who was the first monk to become Pope, allowed Sunday bathing, and recommended baths, as long as they did not become a "time-wasting luxury". According to the stern Roman statesman Cato the Elder (234 BC-149 BC), boys who are bathed in the urine of a person who has lived on a cabbage diet will never become weak and will be able to see better. "Old Q", the fourth Duke of Queensberry (a typical British eccentric), liked to bathe in almond-scented asses' milk while eating hot-buttered crumpets.

The word "butter" is thought to derive from the Greek word boutyron, meaning cow's cheese. Camel's milk makes decent yogurt, but you can't make butter out of it. Circus owner P T Barnum merchandised "Jumbo Peanut Butter", which is ironic, as the ashes of the giant elephant he exhibited currently lie in a peanut-butter jar at Taft University, Massachusetts.

After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the Marquis of Anglesey had his leg amputated. It was buried with full military honours in a nearby garden in Belgium. When he died 40 years later, the leg was reburied with him.
Sir George Somers, founder of Bermuda, had a similarly disjointed burial. His heart is buried in Bermuda but his body (minus entrails) was shipped back to Britain in a barrel of alcohol to be interred in Lyme Regis, Dorset.


The English county of Cornwall once had its own Celtic language

In the late 19th century, there was only one Cornish speaker left in the world - John Davey, a schoolmaster from Zennor, Cornwall. Davey, who died in 1891, was said to keep his knowledge of the language alive only by talking to his cat. According to Cornwall County Council, there are now some 2,000 people who can speak Cornish, but only 125 do so fluently.

(AN Taz ny es yn nf, bethens thy hannow ughelles, gwrnz doz thy gulasker: Bethens thy voth gwrez yn oar kepare hag yn nf. Ro thyn ny hithow agan peb dyth bara; Gava thyn ny agan cam, kepare ha gava ny neb es cam ma erbyn ny: Nyn hombrek ny en antel,mez gwyth ny the worth drok: Rag gans te yn an mighterneth,an creveder, hag an' worryans, byz a venitha. An dellna ra bo.

The Lord's Prayer in Cornish, a language spoken in England)

Cat Simon, a cat, is possibly the best known (non-pigeon) winner of the Dickin Medal, an award for animals who have distinguished themselves in war. As the ship's cat of HMS Amethyst on the Yangtze River in China, Simon survived injuries from a devastating enemy assault and helped both the crew's sanitation and sanity by catching hundreds of rats. He became an instant celebrity on his return to England, and was buried with full military honours in 1949.

China Under the leadership of Chairman Mao, China's Communist government went to extreme measures to prevent diseases, including schistosomiasis, or snail fever, a disease caused by parasitic worms carried by snails. The campaign to eradicate it involved huge teams lancing snails with sharpened chopsticks. Mao also led a campaign against grass during the Cultural Revolution. Children had to trample grass and knock the heads off flowers to show they rejected bourgeois notions of beauty.

Culture Every culture studied by anthropologists makes music. Nobody knows why. According to Doctor Selman-Housein, Fidel Castro's doctor, there are six secrets for a long life: cultural activities (including music), motivation to live, a good diet, medical attention, strenuous physical exercise and a healthy environment.

Castro The US Central Intelligence Agency has attempted to kill Fidel Castro on a number of occasions. Operation Mongoose sought to assassinate the Cuban leader with a bizarre range of weapons, including an exploding seashell placed close to his favoured scuba-diving spot. Other ruses included a contaminated wetsuit and a cigar packed with explosives.

Cigars The Hon. Simon Howard, owner of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, keeps his cigars in a 4ft-long, 19in-high replica of his stately home. The "cigar house", made by Princess Margaret's son, Lord Linley, from more than 20 different woods, has secret compartments for five separate humidors that accommodate hundreds of cigars.


Cadbury Castle, in Somerset, is believed by some to be the site of the legendary Camelot, the stronghold of King Arthur. Despite being called a castle, it is more like a fortified hill. The oldest ever condom was found in a lavatory in Dudley Castle in the West Midlands. The sheath, made of animal and fish intestines, was excavated from the castle in 1985 and is thought to have languished there since 1646. We don't know if it was used.

Cadbury Cadbury, the confectionery company, has spent millions of pounds and many years attempting to trademark a range of purple colours. Last year, the company successfully convinced the Registrar of Trade Marks that it should be able to register one shade of purple (Pantone 2685C) in relation to boxed and block chocolate. This means no one else can market a chocolate using the same colour.

Chocolate Controversial author Salmon Rushdie worked as an advertising copywriter as a young man. He invented the phrase "delectabubble" for Aero chocolate bars and "naughty but nice" for fresh cream cakes. Chocolate was a favourite nightcap for Casanova, who also believed it was an aphrodisiac. He once seduced a woman by serving her chocolate breasts for pudding.

Casanova Casanova (1725-179 nearly died from nose bleeds as a child. He claims to have lost his virginity to two sisters when he was 16, the same age he obtained his doctorate of law from the University of Padua. After sleeping with more than 200 women, he retired in 1785 to become a librarian.

Compulsion: David Beckham admits he is affected by OCD in his day to day life
DAISY Lettuce is a kind of daisy. Lettuce belongs to the Asteraceae, or Compositae, family that not only includes dandelions, chicory and thistles but also bristly oxtongue, goat's-beard and nipplewort. Goat's beard is also known as "Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon" because the flower's head has a habit of closing up at midday. It has dandelion-like flowers and an elaborate head similar to a dandelion's "clock".

DANDELION The word dandelion comes from the French dent de lion, meaning "lion's tooth". It is so called because of the plant's toothed leaves (not the petals, as many people think). The French, however, call dandelions pissenlit - "bedwetter" - after the plant's diuretic properties. In Canada, whole dandelions are brewed into beer and the plant is registered as a drug.

DRUGS The first athlete disqualified from the Olympic Games for drug abuse was Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, who confessed to having two beers before the pistol-shooting discipline to calm his nerves during the 1968 Games in Mexico.

DRINKING The biggest drinker in the world is the broad-tailed hummingbird, which can manage five times its own body weight (in amber nectar) every day. Conversely, the ruby-throated hummingbird can drink a couple of grammes of nectar and then fly more than 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to get to its winter home in Central America . Sport's biggest drinkers are darts players. Although drinking during a match is illegal, some players drink up to 12 bottles of beer before a match.


Darts legend Eric Bristow has six toes on his left foot. Some believed this gave him an unfair advantage of balance over other players. Bristow's nickname, "The Crafty Cockney", came from a bar in Santa Monica, California. During the late 1980s, Bristow suffered from "dartitis", a disorder that prevented him from throwing a dart with any fluency. It took 10 years to recover and he says it still haunts him occasionally.

DISORDERS David Beckham says he is affected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which makes sufferers repeat the same action continually. The footballer counts his clothes and the cans of cola in his fridge, and always places leaflets and magazines in symmetrical patterns and straight lines. Beckham also says the reason he continues to have tattoos is that he is addicted to the pain of the needle.

DISABILITY The easiest place for disabled people to shop in Derby is the Ann Summers sex shop. It was praised by Disability Direct for its ramped entrance and open-plan floor. Store manager Carol Dobson admitted that "it was not built with disabled people in mind".

DERBY In 2003, the science magazine Focus ran an article on the most secure places in the world. Derby's hi-tech Bold Lane Car Park, which has spaces for 440 cars, featured in the top 10. It had not seen a single case of theft or vandalism in six years. Other entrants in the top 10 included the US president's plane, Air Force One, the bank vault at Fort Knox and Saddam Hussein's Baghdad bunker.

DEATH When playwright Anton Chekhov died in 1904, his body was sent from Germany to Moscow in an ice-filled freight car labelled "For Oysters Only". In 1994, a 23-year-old, large-breasted Viennese woman, Berbel Zumner, was killed by her bra. Zumner, who wore a good supporting bra with metal underwire, was struck by lightning. Doctors said she would have survived had she not been wearing the support.

DOCTORS Hastings Kamuzu Banda, President of Malawi from 1963 to 1994, was previously a GP in North Shields. It is said that every business building in Malawi had to have an official picture of him hanging on the wall. No other picture, clock or poster could hang higher than his.

Estonia has more meteor craters per square mile than any other country. Its capital is Tallinn, which means "Danish castle" in Estonian. Famous Estonians include the man who discovered that people come from eggs. Karl Ernst von Baer was the father of modern embryology and his work provided the basic argument for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Today his picture graces the 2 krooni banknote.

Parrot protection: the unlikely guardians of Paris during the war years

An ostrich egg is the equivalent of 24 hens' eggs. Queen Victoria had one for breakfast and claimed it was one of the best meals she had ever eaten. Ostrich eggs are actually the smallest birds' eggs compared to body size; the largest are laid by kiwis. A female earwig can't tell her own eggs from those of another and will steal them at any opportunity.

The word "earwig" probably derives from the mistaken belief that the insects crawl into people's ears, or it could be due to the fact that their wings are the shape of ears. The Hungarian word for earwig is the same as the word for "catchy", as in "a catchy song". The Spanish word for the insect is the same as the word for "an overhead kick" in football, while the Ukrainian version also means "pimp".

The name of the country of Niger does not derive from "black" as you might imagine. It comes from ni ger ("the River Ger"). Sudan, on the other hand, does mean "black" in Arabic and Guinea is Berber for "black man". Kenya is named after the mountain of the same name, which means "mountain of whiteness" in the Kikuyu language, while the name of Mount Etna comes from the Greek word Aitne, meaning "burner".

Mount Etna in Sicily has been active for more than 2.5 million years and has erupted 111 times since records began. The eruptions rarely kill people; in modern times, the main nuisance they cause is wrecking skiing facilities on the upper slopes.
In 1902, the Governor of Fort-de-France on the Caribbean island of Martinique went to the town of St Pierre to persuade its inhabitants that the volcanic rumblings of Mont Pele were nothing to worry about. The next day, it erupted, killing all but two of those who remained. The only survivors were a murderer locked in a cell with a tiny window and a cobbler who managed to run to safety.

In 2003, a museum in Southend abandoned its plans to exhibit a 150,000-year-old, 4ft long woolly mammoth's tusk that had been found in a garden in Leigh-on-Sea. A second opinion from a geologist identified the artefact as a length of Victorian drainage pipe.

The crystal palace of the Great Exhibition was exactly 1,851ft long to commemorate the year of its erection. The name of the structure was coined by Punch magazine. Singing was banned at the exhibition after an impromptu choral performance by a group of teetotallers. Today, there is a TV transmitter in Crystal Palace known as London's Eiffel Tower. It is the second highest structure in London after Canary Wharf.

During the First World War, parrots were kept on the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Parrots have excellent hearing and are able to warn of the approach of enemy aircraft long before the planes are heard or spotted by humans. The 19th-century writer Guy de Maupassant liked to eat lunch in the tower's restaurant because he hated the building so much it was the only place he couldn't see it. One of the alternative designs that lost out to the tower was a giant guillotine.


The guillotine was invented in England, not France

The guillotine was invented in Halifax in Yorkshire in the 16th century. The French Revolution's Dr Guillotin did not invent the device; he merely recommended its use to the National Assembly. His ancestors changed their name to avoid being associated with the machine.

Watch out for the next letter - F

Last edited by Blackleaf; May 12th, 2007 at 01:58 PM..