Writing the factchecks under letters is time-consuming but often interesting, especially when people raise facts that are counter-intuitive but prove to be correct. But even when, as in most cases, they’re just plain wrong, the work is never wasted – many an editorial has been spawned from a factcheck.
But along the way, facts unrelated to the question at hand often emerge and at some point, I realised they were too interesting to throw away. Here are this year’s.
1. Dundee United is an insult in Nigeria. This follows a tour by the Scottish side in which they performed less well than the locals expected. Apparently, “You Dundee” is a singular idiot, Dundee United in full refers to a group of idiots. If we have any Nigerian readers, perhaps they could expand.
2. Sneeze should be fneeze. The original word was “fnese” but during one bad day in his Middle Ages office, some Dundee mistook the “f” for the old form of “s”. Fneezing makes so much more sense.
3. Rule of thumb. I assumed that “rule of thumb” came from a carpenter or such like carrying out rough measurement using a thumb; it’s about an inch. Another theory is that “rule of thumb” was the creation of 18th century English judge Sir Francis Buller. He ruled (allegedly) that a man was legally permitted to beat his wife as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb. At the time, men were permitted to admonish their wives in “moderation”; nowadays, ageing newspaper columnists merely call for women to be shamed naked through the streets in a desperate attempt to appear edgy.
4. The last Labour Government did not “spend all the money”, despite the joke note left behind by a minister. Labour was not responsible for the 2008 recession (any more than the Tories are responsible for Ukraine); the recession was caused by the housing bubble bursting in the US, which led to subsequent financial crises in other countries. Labour did not believe we’d see boom and bust again, but both Labour and Tories had been lax in imposing financial regulation on the finance sector. National debt in Labour’s last year was 62% of gross domestic product, lower than when John Major and Maggie Thatcher left office. When the Conservative coalition took over, the ratio increased to more than 90%. Public sector net debt was 94.9% in January 2022, the highest since the early 1960s.
5. Just to balance things out, Margaret Thatcher didn’t do as much as critics say she did, either. While she did set out to destroy the power of trade unions and did increase inequality, from a total of 1,250 pits in 1947, 522 mines were closed by Labour and 728 by the Tories (although the percentage of pits closed against the total left rose as total pit numbers fell). Harold Wilson closed 253 pits, Margaret Thatcher 115. The PM who closed the most pits in one term (1957 to 1963) was Harold Macmillan.
5. The biggest hub for Ukrainians in Poland was known as The Tesco. The border checkpoint at Medyka, Poland, was (and maybe still is) the first destination for many displaced Ukrainians. If no friends or family picked them up at the checkpoint, they were directed to a bus and driven to the refugee hub set up by the Polish government at a former supermarket warehouse, operated by Tesco. It was grim, reportedly.
6a. Some 85% of people were not on a fixed energy tariff when the energy crisis struck. This was why rising utility prices mattered.
6b. 1.3m UK adults are “unbanked”, meaning they do not have a bank account.
6c. On the other hand, at the start of 2022, there were 71.8m mobile phone connections in the UK, 4.2m more than the population.
7. Talking of which: wi-fi stands for nothing at all. It was based on the old term hi-fi (high fidelity) but was just a made up name for marketing purposes. Some people wrongly say it stands for “wireless fidelity” but Phil Belanger, a founding member of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said: “Wi-fi doesn’t stand for anything. It is not an acronym. There is no meaning.” The reality is his organisation needed a better name than IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence.
8. You may know that a local man, William Buckley, gave his name to an Australian expression “Not a Buckley’s”, which means somewhere between zero and no chance. I once played in a band with a guitarist of Swedish extraction who dropped in Swedish expressions; “Seventeen men!” was a favourite (Swedish curses are not sexual, but to do with the Devil and “sjutton” means seventeen, but also rhymes somewhat with “Satan”).
So I was interested in the variations on “too big for one’s boots”. The English example given was “He thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips” so I can’t vouch for accuracy. The best were:
He thinks he’s the Pope’s head mustard-maker (French).
He enjoys being looked at like a long-haired goat (Zulu).
He’s high on the pear (Norwegian).
If you’ve been to Tenerife, he’s been to Elevenerife (Wales).
If you’ve got a giraffe, he’s got the box it came in (Unknown).
He thinks he’s the last biscuit in the bag (Brazilian).
He thinks he’s the last suck on the mango (Mexican).
Don’t come here and act King Carrot (Danish).
He believes he’s Brother Dick (Italian).
9. Service à la Française, “service in the French style”, is the practice of serving various dishes of a meal at the same time, with the diners helping themselves from the serving dishes. The introduction of menus was a cause and a result of service à la Russe “service in the Russian style” taking off, in which dishes are brought to the table sequentially and served individually, portioned by servants. Maybe in protest we should abandon menus as part of the Russian sanctions.
10. Despite all the talk of nurses’ pay starting at £27k on band five and nurses pay rising from then, most nurses seem to stay on band five and their pay doesn’t rise by much throughout their career. The numbers on each band are surprisingly hard to find, the most testing factcheck of the year, in fact, and a statistician might object to the following. A newly-qualified band five NHS nurse earns £27k but the average annual salary of an NHS nurse is £33k (this was before the 2022 pay rise so probably closer to £35k). Band five nurses can earn up to £32k with enough experience (over four years); within band six, the starting salary is £33k and the highest is £40k but given that the mean salary is £35k, this suggests the average nurse hovers around band five or low band six. The biggest age demographic of UK registered nurses is 51-60, so your average nurse is very experienced but has only seen his/her pay rise by a small amount.
10a. There has been no progress AT ALL against a 2019 target set by the Government to increase GP numbers to 6,000 by 2024. This follows a failure to make any headway against a 2016 ambition to increase GPs by 5,000 by 2020. In fact, since 2019, there has been a decline of 387 fully qualified, permanent GPs working in England. No wonder it’s hard to get appointments.
11. Mel Blanc lived next to a lake and tour boats would stop outside his house and ask him to do voices. Which he did, through a megaphone. When he was in a coma after a road accident, his doctor said (after two weeks): “How are you, Bugs Bunny?” and Blanc came out of the coma and said: “What’s up, doc?”
12. Captain Birdseye was a real person. His name was Clarence, but he was known as Bob. He invented frozen fishfingers but sold up almost immediately and then worked for the firm that became Birdseye.
14. People who believe 13 is unlucky are foolish.
15. Fraud is the No1 crime in the UK; 41% of all crimes are fraud or fraud-related.
16. Finally, the most common fact a factchecker comes across is the fact that the current Government tells lies. Whoppers. Not in a “I never said that” way but huge porky pies that can easily be checked. They just don’t care. I suspect the lies are for social media, soundbites and loyal media to repeat, as the lies feed into their agendas. It is also a lie that the “woke left” has all the say in this country; the majority of our mass media is right wing – Mail, Express, Sun, Telegraph, even the Times – who have either cut staff so there’s no-one to check or just don’t care. TV presenters often seem woefully ill-prepared to counter the lies.
There seems a difference between, say, David Cameron’s invented “families from hell” (based on a decade-old tiny study in Bristol that looked at troubled families struggling with mental health, unemployment, low education etc but never mentioned anti-social behaviour) and outright lies. The non-existent hellish families did prove how, in a short space of time, misleading newspaper stories and social media bury the truth so far down that you can’t find it unless you know it’s there in the first place. And of course all the money that went towards the non-existent families from hell did no good at all, because they did not, in the terms framed by Mr Cameron, exist.
The most famous lie is possibly that we sent the European Union £350m a week and the money could be spent on the NHS. It’s not already gone to the NHS, as some claim because, like families from hell, it was never there. In 2016, the UK Statistics Authority diplomatically said it was a “misleading” figure.
Other lies include the pledge to build 40 hospitals – actually only four – and the fact we could push ahead with the covid vaccine because we’d left the EU.
It’s not true to say asylum seekers are illegal. It’s not true to say, well, a whole number of things.
It is untrue that the rail dispute is out of the Government’s control: train operators are not free to agree terms and conditions with their employees without the involvement of the Government and face penalties if they do so. The train operators’ handling of the industrial action is “subject always to the secretary of state’s direction”.
The lies percolate down to constituency level, too, illustrated by local MPs saying that Owen Paterson (think back half a dozen lobbying scandals or so) had not had the right of appeal when even a cursory glance at Parliament’s own records would show he had.
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