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Holiday party conversation starters from OUP

The time for holiday dinner parties is approaching. Bring more than a smile and a sweater to your next soiree. Offer your family and friends the most powerful libation: knowledge. Here are some gems that you can drop to keep the conversation sparkling.

The Chronicle of Jazz by Mervyn Cooke

During the World War I, Lieutenant James Reese was the director of the all-black military band of the 369th US Infantry, “The Hellfighters”. In France, they played in several cities during a six week period from February to March 1918, and were met with much success.

Cabinet of Greek CuriositiesA Cabinet of Greek Curiosities by J.C. McKeown

The original meaning of the word tragedy is “goat song.” This is because actors in ancient Greece often dressed up as goats, or goats were offered as the prize in dramatic competitions.

The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams

Lewis thought that the slow sales of The Lion upon first publication were due to the fact that some mothers and schoolteachers, “have decided that it is likely to frighten children,” later adding, “I think it frightens adults, but very few children.”

Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Fifth Edition, edited by Gyles Brandreth

Don Marquis on the art of poetry: “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”

In Spies We TrustIn Spies We Trust by Rhodi Jeffreys-Jones

There was funding for an American intelligence agency as early as 1793 under President George Washington, amounting to almost a million dollars.

Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ by Jim Baggott

The Superconducting Supercollider, a massive particle accelerator complex which would have been larger than the current Large Hadron collider, was cancelled by Congress in 1993 because of budget issues, after the expenditure of over 2 billion dollars and the excavation of 23 kilometers of tunnel. The hole is still there beneath the Texas prairie town of Waxahachie.

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

A seventeenth-century French preacher by the name of Louis Bourdaloue was so popular that people assembled hours before his scheduled sermons. In order to not lose their seats women often brought bourdalous, chamber pots, which they could use underneath their skirts. The euphemism for bathroom, loo, is thought to come stem from this practice.

Oxford Companion to BeerThe Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver

Queen Elizabeth I was known to drink ale for breakfast.

Anything Goes by Ethan Mordden

Florenz Ziegfield Jr., creator of the pioneering Follies variety shows, first integrated Broadway. He hired Bert Williams, an African-American performer, for his Follies of 1910 show, during a time when ethnic integration was illegal.

The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson

On the bigger Bordeaux wine estates, laborers receive a wine salary, a large allocation of wine in addition to monetary wages.

Wrong: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them by Richard S. Grossman

In the early 1600s, the King of Sweden declared that copper, along with silver, would serve as money. He did this because he owned many copper mines and thought that this policy would increase the public’s demand for copper—and also its price, making him wealthier. Because silver was about 100 times as valuable as copper, massive copper coins had to be minted, including one that weighed 43 pounds. This rendered large-scale transactions in Sweden virtually impossible without a cart and horse. It also explains why Sweden was the first European country to use paper money.

Worlds of ArthurWorlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages by Guy Halsall

Any Arthur proto-type didn’t win his wars because of his use of heavy cavalry. There’s no evidence for fifth-/sixth-century ‘Arthurian’ heavy cavalry. Most, if not all, war-leaders at the time led warriors who had horses, who sometimes fought mounted and sometimes on foot.

Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders From the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era by Paul K. Davis

Alexander the Great during the siege of Multan in India thought his men were too slow in scaling the fortress walls. He grabbed a ladder himself and climbed to the ramparts. The ladder soon broke leaving him stranded with just a few men amidst hordes of the enemy. He fought fiercely, setting an example for his men, rallying them to come to his aid and win the battle.

When a Gene Makes You Smell Like a Fish:…and Other Amazing Tales about the Genes in Your Body by Lisa Seachrist Chiu

Abraham Lincoln may have had Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder which causes a defect in the protein that manufactures connective tissues in the body causing them to be too “stretchy.” People who suffer from Marfan Syndrome have abnormally long limbs, congenital heart problems and cardiovascular problems, as well as poor vision.

The History of the World by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad

The first surviving inscription in Greek characters is on a jug from about 750 BC. The inscription is written in an adaptation of Phoenician script; Greeks were illiterate until their traders brought home this alphabet. The inscription reads, “Whoever of all these dancers now plays most delicately, to him this…” The vessel was most likely the prize in a dancing competition.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

The critically acclaimed television show Breaking Bad incorporates as central narrative devices a few poems from this quintessential book of American poetry including, “Gliding Over All” and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Looking for more conversation starters? Be sure to check out Oxford University Press’s Holiday Gift Guides for titles that are guaranteed to offer a fortune of interesting facts to family and friends.

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