Strange but true: Dead last, but fan favorite


Q: What were two wholly antithetical paths to Olympic fame -- at least up until 1988?

A: Superior performance or unrivaled incompetence, answers "Mental Floss" magazine in "The Eagle Has (Barely) Landed." When British downhill skier Michael Edwards decided to compete in the 1988 Calgary games, he studied the list of sports and competitors, noting that there were already many well-qualified Brits going for his event. So he aimed instead for the sport of ski jumping, becoming the sole British contender and making the team by default.

Never mind that Edwards was no good at ski jumping after only 18 months of practice and a broken jaw along the way, besides having poor vision and being 20 pounds overweight. Joking to the press about his "perpetually fogged" glasses, he quipped: "My glasses clear up enough for me to see where I'll land and on which part of my body."

Naturally, he finished dead last, his score not even half of what the medalists earned. Though the rules were quickly changed "to keep such hopeless cases out of future Olympic competitions," "Eddie the Eagle" became a fan favorite, even garnering a parade upon his return home! Ever humble, Edwards told the media, "I'm not letting this go to my head. ... I'm determined to keep my feet on the ground. Except when I'm ski jumping, of course."

Q: What's the "baby illusion" and how does it make things even tougher for some youngest family members to avoid being overshadowed by their siblings?

A: When Jordy Kaufman of Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, asked 77 mothers to mark on a wall how tall their children were, the mums underestimated the height of their youngest child by 7.5 centimeters (3 inches) on average but were almost "spot on for the height of any older children" -- defining the "baby illusion," from "Current Biology" as reported in "New Science" magazine.

If mothers and perhaps fathers tend to see their youngest as shorter than they really are, they may treat them differently than elder siblings, which may help explain the existence of birth order effects. Birth order difference is "one of the great mysteries of child development," adds Andrew Whitehouse of the University of Western Australia in Perth. "Perhaps we tend to see our youngest child as the baby and that never changes," just another example of how our perception of the world is different from the way the world really is.

Q: "Toponyms" are derived from place names, such as "bohemian" (unconventional) from Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Can you name the places of origin and meanings of a few more: damask, perse, campanology and stellenbosch?

A: "Damask" is a reversible fabric with a pattern woven into it, from Damascus, circa 1325, where the fabric was first produced, reports Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day website. The word is also short for "damask rose," a grayish red or pink color. Also "colorful" is "perse," grayish blue or purple, from "persus" (dark blue) of Persia, now Iran.

For "campanology," the study or art of bell-ringing or bell-making, give credit to the Campania region of Italy, known for the bronze used to cast bells. In general, Garg explains, the simpler "bell-ringing" is preferred by people involved in the activity.

Finally, "stellenbosch" means to relegate someone incompetent to a position of minimal responsibility, taking its name from a town near Cape Town, South Africa, which housed a British military base during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Originally, officers who had not proven themselves were in effect demoted and sent to the base, or stellenbosched, where they were given relatively insignificant tasks such as looking after horses.

"Eventually, the term came to be applied when someone was assigned to a position where he could do little harm."

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