Pop Culture Fallacies

Editor’s note:  It was one year ago that we passed along to you the unfortunate news of the death of our popular GrammarBook writer Tom Stern. Tom loved writing about the English language, and he loved writing for and hearing from you, his audience. He was a keen observer and critic of the media. While the article below is only tangentially related to grammar, punctuation, and the use of language, it’s one he left for us to publish at some point in the future. We thought we’d run it today in remembrance of Tom Stern’s wit and way with words.


This is the paradox of the pop culture: it’s street smart and cutting-edge hip, yet as easy to fleece as Little Bo Peep.

In an open society, people are free to believe anything. It’s not like centuries ago, when you could be put to death for doubting the sun revolved around the (flat) earth.

Which “experts” should we trust? A few years back, word got around that we weren’t sufficiently “hydrated” unless we drank eight glasses of water a day. Then the British Medical Journal said never mind, just drink when you’re thirsty.

When running swept the country in the 1970s, the first commandment was, Stretch those muscles and tendons before hitting the trail. Now Sports Illustrated has a different take: “Study after study has found that increased flexibility actually impairs performance.”

I’ve lost track: Is pasta good or bad? Did you know dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and improves cardiovascular health? Silly me, I thought it trashed my teeth. Remember when red wine rotted livers and caused gout? Now it prevents blood clots, lowers the risk of prostate cancer, and protects against Alzheimer’s.

Yet more popular misconceptions:

“Kiss me, you fool!”  We’re all familiar with this audacious, provocative line, and we always picture a woman saying it. But would you believe it’s a misquotation? It comes from A Fool There Was, a popular 1915 silent film starring the sultry, wicked Theda Bara. In a torrid scene with her lover, Bara spoke wordlessly as the intertitle flashed “Kiss me, my fool!”

Sodium Pentothal is a “truth serum”  Sodium Pentothal in small doses lowers inhibitions and makes users talkative, but there’s no certainty they’re telling the truth. So much for those movies in which the bad guys drug some hapless character who spills crucial classified info.

Mussolini made the trains run on time  The trains were no more efficient under him than they were before. This infamous canard was devised to assure skeptics that as fascist dictators go, you could do a lot worse than Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini (1883-1945), who (mis)led Italy from the 1920s and on into World War II.

Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech  In July 1979 the U.S. had an energy crisis, an inflation crisis, and a growing unemployment crisis. Carter addressed the nation with what is remembered as his ill-advised “malaise” speech, supposedly a putdown of America that helped seal his political doom. But at the time, the speech was received quite positively—and Carter never once said “malaise.”

Tom Stern

Posted on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, at 10:59 am

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