Simanaitis Says

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SOME OF THE THINGS I KNEW FOR SURE WERE NOT

LIFE IS full of continuing ed. Or at least it can be. Among the many facts I’ve accumulated over the years, more than a few of them are downright incorrect. Here are but three of them. Maybe you have had some brushes with reality too?

Flash in the pan. I always associated this idea of a mistaken success with panning for gold. Something flashes and attracts attention, only to be fool’s gold.

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Panning for gold. Image by Lee Russell/Library of Congress from “A Selection of Pans.”

In fact, the term is much older than the California Gold Rush. Merriman-Webster traces its origin to 17th-century flintlock muskets, “firing of the priming in the pan without discharging the piece.” Percussion-cap and cartridge-based arms came later.

Corpus delecti. For a long time, I thought corpus delecti referred specifically to the corpse in a murder investigation. Apparently plenty of mystery writers suffered from the same wrong thinking: The police inspector says, “We know Spike offed him, but without the corpus delecti, Spike is in the clear.”

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Is there a corpus delecti? Image from Crime and Science Radio.

In fact, this legal term is much more general than I thought. Corpus delecti is Latin for “body of the crime,” in the legal sense of “the fact of a crime having been actually committed.” This, from Black’s Law Dictionary.

For example, embezzlement, having nothing at all to do with murder, could suffer from a lack of corpus delecti if it were especially complex in its concealment.

Frankenstein. You knew that Boris Karloff portrayed Frankenstein, right? This was my belief for a long time.

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Boris Karloff, born William Henry Pratt, 1887 – 1969, English actor. Image at the right from The Annotated Frankenstein.

However, in Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley gave her character plenty of names, “the being,” “the creature,” “the dæmon,” “the monster,” “the wretch.” But she never confused him with the novel’s Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s cursed creator.

I’m not much into horror flicks, so I hadn’t thought about Boris, Victor or his creature until I heard about Fantastic Worlds, an online as well as a museum exhibit, July 1, 2015 – February 26, 2017, at the Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery, Washington, D.C.

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Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780 – 1910, Kirsten van de Veen and Doug Dunlop curators, National Museum of American History, 2015.

“Fact Meets Fiction,” by Rachel Gross, cited the exhibition in Science magazine, August 28, 2015. She observed in her review, “Frankenstein, considered by many to be the first true work of science fiction, captures technology’s possibilities, both great and terrible.  … a natural outgrowth of an era of exploration that seemed to be crossing many of man’s frontiers and taboos.” This review encouraged me to dig out The Annotated Frankenstein.

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The Annotated Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, introduction and notes by Leonard Wolf, art by Marcia Huyette, Clarkson N. Potter, 1977.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley thought up the idea while swapping ghost stories on a dark and stormy evening at Lord Byron’s home near Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. She was 18 and not yet wedded to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (who was otherwise married at the time).

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1797 – 1851, novelist, dramatist, travel writer. Portrait by S.J. Stumk. Image from The Annotated Frankenstein.

Leonard Wolf’s annotations are copious and occasionally witty. Remarking on the creature’s comment “I shall collect my funeral pile” near the North Pole, Wolf annotates, “Where, in the vicinity of the North Pole, he expects to find wood enough to make a funeral pyre is a detail that did not trouble Mary Shelley. Perhaps it should not trouble us.”

Annotated Editions sure are fun. And perhaps you have some tales of awakened fact. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

4 comments on “SOME OF THE THINGS I KNEW FOR SURE WERE NOT

  1. Paul Everett
    December 3, 2015

    On Henry David Thoreau: “Although millions of people say Thoro’, they pronounce the name incorrectly. The citizens of Concord — who should know because the Thoreau tradition has made a lasting impression on the town — say Thu’rrow, as in furrow.” This from the Van Doren Stern “Annotated Walden” — which I had to get, second-hand, after seeing it in the picture of your annotated editions! Annotated editions are fun indeed.

    • simanaitissays
      December 3, 2015

      Thanks, Paul. Add another one to my list of corrections. (What’s more, I went to school in New England.)

  2. VTK
    December 4, 2015

    “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was about the geographical extent of the empire from east to west. It didn’t mean the empire would last forever, although it became an ironic statement as the empire collapsed after WWII.

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