Did drinking a “shot” of booze originate in the Wild West when cowboys traded a bullet for a portion of rotgut? Did the greeting “hello” become popular because it was Alexander Graham Bell’s girlfriend’s surname? Inquiring minds want to know these things, and those that are clued in turn to the Snopes Guide to Fake Etymology. Since its 1994 founding, librarians have turned to Snopes.com, which calls itself “the internet’s definitive fact-checking resource,” and that’s no lie. As they state, “When misinformation obscures the truth and readers don’t know what to trust, Snopes’ fact-checking and original, investigative reporting lights the way to evidence-based and contextualized analysis. We always link to and document our sources so readers are empowered to do independent research and make up their own minds.”
Snopes was founded by Dave Mikkelson to investigate the veracity of urban legends, hoaxes and folklore, and originally he did all the writing. As Snopes began to delve in political claims and reports, the staff grew and now includes accredited researchers and has an unsurpassed record for disinterested reliability. When FactCheck.org was asked if Snopes articles revealed political bias, they responded, “We reviewed a sampling of their political offerings, including some on rumors about George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, and we found them to be utterly poker-faced.” That’s why Snopes was included in Popular Mechanics’ 2019 list of “The 50 Most Important Websites of All Time.”
Snopes’ low point came in 2021 when it was revealed by BuzzFeed News that Mikkelson had plagiarized other sources, like the NY Times and NBC News, for some of his reports. He still owns 50% of Snopes, but Vinny Green, Snopes’ chief operating officer, and Doreen Marchionni, the managing editor (who has a PhD in journalism from the University of Missouri) immediately suspended Mikklelson, who apologized and agreed to never again submit reports for his own organization. In their press release about this, they added that the BuzzFeed revelation was “an example of dogged, watchdog journalism we cherish.” By such quick, decisive action Snopes has maintained their excellent reputation, and they so thoroughly cite their sources and describe their methodology that anyone can submit a question and have confidence in the response. When they looked into the claim that “‘a shot of whiskey’ originated in the Old West, as a single bullet was worth roughly the same as the drink and often substituted for currency, Snopes responded, “The 1891 edition of Chicago hardware dealer Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co.’s General Catalog lists Smith & Wesson .45 cartridges at a price of $25 per thousand, or 2-1/2 cents per cartridge. For the price of a shot of whiskey, we consulted Kelly J. Dixon’s 2005 book Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City, which notes that the average cost of a measure of any drink was around two bits, or 25 cents … Using those figures as our base prices, one shot of whiskey would have cost the equivalent of 10 cartridges.”
As for the greeting “Hello” entering our language because it was the surname of Alexander Graham Bell’s girlfriend, allegedly Margaret Hello, Snopes showed she never existed and unsurprisingly came from a 2010 lying internet meme. When Bell invented the telephone in 1876, he “was engaged to Mabel Hubbard, a woman whom he married the following year and who remained his wife until his death in 1922.” The Snopes reports aren’t cursory; in this instance they added that “Hello is an alteration of hallo, which itself is an alteration of holla and hollo, which were shouts used to attract attention, in the manner one would use Yoo-hoo!, Hey there! and Hey waiter! today. The earliest forms of this exclamation appear to date to at least 1400. Hullo (the British version of hello), was recorded in print in 1803, but as a shout to garner attention, not as a greeting.” Bell himself preferred “ahoy” to “hello.”
Snopes is an example of small family businesses that make good. My family had several restaurants in my youth, and I’ll attest to how demanding and fraught such little commercial enterprises usually are, and how many familiar traditions they can engender. For example, my family up and down the line are pretty serious about their biscuits. “Biscuit” is my wife’s Girl Scout nickname, and every trip to Seattle includes patronizing Biscuit Bitch (“the BEST biscuits and the BEST damn gravy in Seattle”) downtown. But when it comes to esteeming biscuits, a woman described in a “News of the Weird” article I read in Funny Times is in a whole other league.
Funny Times, a monthly American humor newspaper, is another small family business owned and published by Susan Wolper and her husband Raymond Lesser since 1985. It’s composed of cartoons, essays, and article like “News of the Weird,” organized loosely under topics like relationships and bicycles. The biscuit-related piece described 50-year-old Belinda H.’s acute frustration when her Popeye’s fried chicken order was missing the promised biscuit. Although she was quickly given one, her consuming rage at the effrontery led her to drive her car through the store’s front windows anyway and spend four days in jail, where the biscuits were probably lamentable. Other weird news briefs included Japan’s “Suction Cup Tug-of-War in which pairs of bald men attached suction cups to their heads and pull in opposite directions,” and the 57th wedding anniversary recently celebrated by Pennsylvanians Tony and Frances Toto. “‘We have been blessed that we had all these years,’ Tony said, noting ‘that one time when we had a rough time’. Yeah, that was the time in 1983 when Frances hired teenaged hitmen five times to kill Tony. ‘I don’t think I was thinking straight,” Frances said. ‘It was like it was a love-hate kind of thing’.” That episode led to a movie and minor stardom, and they “got counseling and committed to better communication.”
Another small family business I greatly admire is the Argosy Bookstore in New York. It was founded in 1925 by Louis Cohen, and three generations later the family still runs the shop, which occupies an entire six-story building in Manhattan. Currently, three sisters provide hands-on management, and wisely worked out the operation side of things among themselves from the get-go. “When we took over, we made a pact that we wouldn’t argue about little things,” said Judith Lowry. “We get along because the business is more important than who’s right and who’s wrong.”
The Argosy’s clearly a labor of love, and its continued existence certainly strums the heartstrings of librarians and book lovers, as does a special nonprofit publisher: the Library of America (LOA), “a nonprofit organization [that] champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy,” according to their LOA.com website. “More than a publisher, Library of America is a vital part of the cultural landscape — an invaluable portal through which the words and ideas that formed and continue to shape America can enrich our lives for years to come …. These writings are our shared birthright. Everyone should have access to the enjoyment and enlightenment they provide. Yet the closing of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the loss of many book review pages have greatly eroded the potential for people to browse and discover important books. Through the mainstream media, readers learn of only a handful of the most popular and bestselling books … To address this need, Library of America publishes carefully curated editions of works by the greatest and most significant American writers.”
They aren’t fooling about “carefully curated.” Among other attributes, “LOA books are printed on a premium acid-free lightweight opaque paper that exceeds the requirements for permanence set by the American National Standards Institute. The paper will not turn yellow or brittle for centuries … LOA volumes feature Smyth-sewn binding, the most durable (and most expensive) commercial process available. In contrast to most books published today, you can bend LOA volumes all the way back without cracking the spine or endangering the threads or glue. The Smyth-sewn bindings also ensure that the books open easily and lie flat without crinkling or buckling … The trim size of 4 7/8” x 7 7/8” is based on the “golden section,” a mathematical ratio first codified by Euclid and considered since the Renaissance to be a basis for aesthetically beautiful proportions in architecture and art as well as book design. These dimensions were chosen to create a book that was not only visually pleasing but also easy to hold open comfortably in one hand.”
My new LOA edition of Charles Portis’ writings just arrived containing all five of his hilarious novels, including “True Grit,” as well as his short stories, essays, memoir and much more in its 1,096 pages that I can hold and read comfortably in bed since it weighs around 1.6 pounds. And it’ll still be completely readable in the 27th century. That’s an enduring library for us all. By the way, the LOA also publishes William Faulkner’s writings, including his famous Snopes Trilogy, which can still be had via your local librarians, even while Noel Wien Library is being made stronger. That’ll be finished in about a year, meanwhile we’ll just have to endure, for as one of Faulkner’s Snopes said, “What aches a man to go back to is what he remembers.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.