Answers To 12 Questions About History We Wish We'd Gotten Sooner

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Vote up the answers to questions about history that really blow your mind.

When it comes to history, it may seem like there are more questions than answers, including some you were afraid to ask about. Don't be afraid. Many of life's burning history questions were never addressed in school, such as, "What were electric eels called before electricity?"

It's a perfectly reasonable inquiry, and we've found many more. Take a look at the questions and answers, then vote up the ones that are pretty amazing.

  • 1
    613 VOTES

    What's The Oldest Living Tree On Earth?

    As of 2016, the oldest living tree in the world is a Great Basin bristlecone pine in California. Dated to be 5,062 years old, the tree bests nearby Methuselah, another Great Basin pine not too far away in the White Mountains.

    Methuselah is only 4,845 years old but is still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest living individual tree, which means it doesn't share a root system with any other trees. The locations of Methuselah and its rival remain shrouded in mystery to protect them. 

    Clonal trees, however, do share a single root system. The oldest clonal tree is found in Sweden. Old Tjikko (pictured), a Norway spruce, is roughly 9,550 years old.

    In 2022, scientists in Chile announced they might have identified a new candidate for oldest living tree: an alerce (a type of conifer), dubbed the Alerce Milenario or Gran Abuelo (great-grandfather), in Chile's Alerce Costero National Park. Researchers used statistical computer modeling as well as traditional methods to determine the tree's age, which they estimated at 5,484 years. According to Science, because the researchers didn't take a full sample of rings from the tree, other tree experts might be skeptical of the findings.

    613 votes
  • 2
    534 VOTES

    Why Is The Pentagon A Pentagon?

    During the early 1940s, Brehon B. Somervell, an officer in the US Army, expressed a need for more space to house the War Department. As the US looked to enter WWII, what was intended to be a temporary building became a centralized, permanent structure.

    Construction began on the Pentagon in 1941, but its unique shape is representative of the site first identified to be its home - not where it was actually constructed. Initially, the Pentagon was supposed to be built at Arlington Farms in Virginia. The tract of land was pentagon in shape and bordered by five access roads, so it was necessary to design a building that would fit.

    When it was later determined that Arlington Farms (once owned by Robert E. Lee) was too close to Arlington Cemetery, the site of the building shifted (largely to the former Hoover Airport), but the shape remained the same.

    Reportedly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt liked "that pentagon-shaped building. You know why?... I like it because nothing like it has ever been done." There was resistance to the shape, however, with assertions that it "presented the largest target in the world for enemy bombs."

    The Pentagon opened in 1943, although employees began moving into the building the previous year. It cost at least $75 million to build, spanned 6.24 million gross square feet, and, with the expanding military infrastructure and bureaucracy that developed through the 20th century, became home to the National Military Establishment (later the Department of Defense) in 1947.

    534 votes
  • 3
    429 VOTES

    How Did D-Day Beaches Get Their Names?

    On June 6, 1944, Allied forces arrived on five beaches in northern France, all with distinct code names. Those names - Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword - were applied to specific sections of the coast of Normandy. The use of code names (for the overall operation dubbed Overlord) was a necessity for security, but the names themselves came from the groups set to land at each designated location.

    American forces were assigned to the westernmost parts of the coast of Normandy - Utah and Omaha. Omar Bradley, who was in charge of Operation Overlord, purportedly chose the names himself at random, "with radio clarity in mind."

    The remaining three sections were designated for British and Canadian troops and given names that corresponded to different species of fish. Swordfish and goldfish are the most obvious, and although jellyfish was another first choice, that name was switched to Juno as a way to honor an officer's wife.

    Apparently, Winston Churchill thought "jelly" wasn't appropriate because the names needed to be "suitable for operations in which a very large number of men could lose their lives."

    429 votes
  • 4
    418 VOTES

    How Do People 'Read' Totem Poles?

    Totem poles are vertical, visual commemorations and representations of events, ancestors, beliefs, people, and other aspects of cultural and historical significance. Crafted out of wood (usually cedar) by Indigenous groups in North America, totem poles tell and document stories through carved symbols and images.

    Totem poles can stand as tall as 65 or 70 feet. The figures, shapes, and designs on totem poles vary significantly by intent, type, and culture. Totem poles are not venerated idols, nor are they believed to contain souls of gods. 

    Contrary to popular belief, totem poles are not read top to bottom. Some totem poles have no linear structure, while others place important figures and images at the bottom for increased visibility. Both of these practices debunk the colloquial phrase "low man on the totem pole." 

    418 votes
  • Why Is It Called 'Jaywalking'?
    Photo: Dan McCoy / NARA / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    297 VOTES

    Why Is It Called 'Jaywalking'?

    During the 19th century, the word "jay" was used to describe someone who was a "hick, rube, dupe." The first application of "jay" in the context of transportation had nothing to do with walking, however. As more and more horse-drawn carriages - and later automobiles - were used on roadways, someone driving down a street the wrong way became known as a "jay-driver." 

    Complaints about jay-drivers soon carried over to "jaywalkers." As early as 1905, an article in the Kansas City Star offered this assessment:

    Much annoyance would be obviated if people when meeting others going in the opposite direction would keep to the right and avoid collisions and being called a "jay walker."

    Jaywalking was of concern in post-WWI America. The National Safety Council introduced a campaign against jaywalking, as did cities like San Francisco, CA; Grand Rapids, MI;  and St. Louis, MO. In some locations, Boy Scouts handing out cards about "jay-walking" and how dangerous it was, while, in Cleveland, OH, "crowds of 'jay walkers'" were paraded around to demonstrate exactly what it was and how to avoid it.

    By 1930, jaywalking was a well-known word used to describe pedestrians who were in the streets and - annoyingly - in the way.

    297 votes
  • Why Do People Say 'Cheese' When They Get Their Picture Taken?
    Photo: Terveuren / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    321 VOTES

    Why Do People Say 'Cheese' When They Get Their Picture Taken?

    Smiling for a picture was limited before the early 20th century, largely believed to be the result of concerns about staying absolutely still. Minimizing the risk that a photo - an expensive venture - would be blurry was important, but so was the serious reason behind many pictures: Some people had photos taken of deceased loved ones. Generally referred to as "post-mortem photography," these photographs "were taken in love" as the living marked the passing of their loved ones.  

    Other reasons for somber pictures included fear of exposing bad teeth, a lack of familiarity with the medium itself, and the belief that too much smiling could imply madness.

    This doesn't mean people didn't smile - they did. To get the perfect grin, photographers needed people to pull back their lips and bear teeth - both things that happen when the sounds "ch" and "ee" come out of one's mouth.

    It's not entirely clear when "cheese" became the ideal word to say in front of a camera; some theories suggest it began in the 1940s. In October 1943, an article from The Big Spring Daily Herald titled "Need to Put on a Smile? Here's How: Say 'Cheese'" may have started it all:

    Now here's something worth knowing. It's a formula for smiling when you have your picture taken. It comes from former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies and is guaranteed to make you look pleasant no matter what you're thinking. Mr. Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of Mission to Moscow. It's simple. Just say "cheese," it's an automatic smile.

    Davies said he learned the trick from a politician, perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt, who'd appointed Davies to be ambassador to the Soviet Union

    321 votes