Monday, September 24, 2012


A few weeks ago -- or maybe it was a few months ago -- I wrote a post about some misinformation that I found in The Dictionary of Misinformation, by Tom Burnam.  And now I think it's time to inform you about some more things you might have been misinformed about.

Misinformation #1:  

Maybe you remember that song by Mr. Stephen Foster called "The Old Folks at Home," where Mr. Foster talks about the Swanee River.  Except that there isn't any such river.  There is only the Suwannee River, which goes through part of southern Georgia and the panhandle of Florida.  

Okay, so maybe you are thinking that Mr. Foster just made a mistake in spelling this strange river name that came from the language of the Timucuan Indians.  But if you thought that, you would be wrong, because here is what really happened.  Mr. Foster started writing the words of "The Old Folks at Home," and it was about this African-American who was missing the sweet old life of slavery on the plantation.  And Mr. Foster, who was writing the song in Pittsburgh, needed a two-syllable name of a river where a plantation home was likely to be located.  

So first he tried the PeDee River that goes through the Carolinas, but that sounded kind of silly.  And then his brother suggested the Yazoo River, which is in Mississippi.  But Mr. Foster didn't like that either.  After which, the Foster brothers got out the atlas and started looking at names of rivers, and they found the Suwannee.  Stephen Foster thought this was the perfect name, except that it had three syllables.  So he smushed it together to make two.

A postcard of happy life on the Suwannee River
"The Old Folks at Home" was first published in 1851.  Here's how it goes, in case you forgot.

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,

Far, far away,

Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,

Dere's wha de old folks stay.

All up and down de whole creation

Sadly I roam,

Still longing for de old plantation,

And for de old folks at home.


All de world am sad and dreary,

Eb-rywhere I roam;

Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,

Far from de old folks at home!

Of course, Stephen Foster had never seen the Suwannee River, except on a map, so he did not know that it was a blackwater river that went through a bunch of swamps where nobody would ever think of building a plantation.  Florida adopted "Old Folks" as their state song, but eventually they had to change the words to make them more PC.

Misinformation #2:

Some people say that milk is the most nearly perfect food, but this is not true.  What is true is that for all kinds of infant mammals, their mother's milk is the best source of nutrition and colostrum, which provides antibodies for the baby to help keep it from getting sick.  

Humans are the only animals that keep on drinking milk, even after they stop being babies.  The problem with this is that some adult humans no longer have this stuff called lactase, which helps them digest the lactose in milk.  So when these people eat dairy products, they get diarrhea and other nasty symptoms.  This is called being lactose intolerant.

There are maybe 30 to 50 million Americans who are lactose intolerant, and this includes 75% of Native Americans and African Americans.  Among Asian Americans, 90% are lactose intolerant.  So for all these people, milk is a long way from being a nearly perfect food.

Misinformation #3:

It used to be that when somebody had gout, other people told them that they had been drinking too much booze and eating too much rich food.  But now we know that we don't really know what causes gout.  

Gout is very painful, and it usually only happens in one joint, except when it happens in more than one.  There's this chemical called uric acid that is left over when certain foods get digested, but sometimes a person's body makes too much uric acid or else doesn't get rid of the extra uric acid.  

In 50% of cases, gout shows up in the joint where the big toe is attached to the foot.  Men get gout more often than women, and certain families might be more likely to have gout than other people.  Also if you have a condition such as diabetes, obesity, anemia, or leukemia, you are more likely to get gout.  Certain foods might trigger gout in some people, but you don't get it just because you eat a lot of rich food.

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