Disease and Rumors Spread Like Wildfire for Centuries

Sources agree on the definition: something that quickly affects or becomes known by more and more people. Rumors, diseases, and memes can spread like wildfire. But only dictionary.com offered anything on the origin.

In the twelfth century the term “wildfire” referred to a skin disease (if it was highly contagious,  the modern usage for disease sounds like it has a very old origin) and the “figurative sense is recorded from c.1300.” includes several historical examples, but all modern – for example, from The Messenger by Elizabeth Robins, 1920. News can fly and flee, as well as spread, like wildfire.

Not a Chinaman’s Chance

There are many parts of our history that should make us proud, but there are other examples that we should consider with shame. One of the later is how badly Chinese immigrants were treated when they were transported to the U.S. to do difficult and dangerous jobs such as building railroads in the 1800s. The expression explains that the Chinaman wanting justice had little “. .  .or no chance at all, a completely hopeless prospect.” The Chinese immigrants worked for extremely low wages to perform difficult and often dangerous jobs and were prevented from testifying on their own behalf in court if violence was committed against them.

Jump on the Bandwagon

This expression is used to describe someone who begins supporting a political figure, sporting team, or idea only after it has become popular or successful. The internet tells me “bandwagon” had its origin in a book written by P.T. Barnum published in 1855. The expression is often used to describe those who are only attracted after it appears a campaign, team, or idea is a sure winner.

Give Wide Berth

According to the Phrase Finder, this was originally a nautical term when berth was used to describe where a ship would be moored. Sailors were warned to keep a wide bearing to maintain sea room around a moored ship. Captain John Smith used a version of the term in 1626. “Watch bee vigilant to keepe your berth to the windward.” In 1829 Sir Walter Scott wrote “Giving the apparent phantom what seamen call a wide berth,” which led to the current meaning of maintaining a goodly distance.

Run to Ground

This expression is used to describe the successful conclusion of a difficult search for something or someone or to get to the bottom of a matter. Wordwizard explains the idiom is “. .  .from hunting, especially fox hunting.” The fox has been chased and cornered in the den.

Can Perception Become Reality?

There’s a lot of discussion these days about how the media influences people – whether the stories are real or fake. I ran across an interesting example that predates our current political mess by decades: Mad Gasser of Mattoon in 1944

Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims
Both Recover; Robber Fails to Get Into Home

Even for a newspaper, that’s a lot of assumptions: first, that these were only the “first” victims; second, that the prowler was using some sort of anesthetic; and third, that he was a robber. But it was enough. Within days, several more people called police saying that they too had been attacked by the prowler they read about in the newspaper. Their stories were published in the paper on September 5, owing to no publications on Sunday and the Labor Day holiday.

And that’s when the real melee began.



[Then] the character of the newspaper reports changed dramatically. The headlines became: THE MANHUNT FOR MR. NOBODY

And as soon as that became the tone, suddenly there were zero more police reports. skeptoid.com

No residue of gas or lasting symptoms were observed, no gas is known to cause all the symptoms reported, and no prowler was ever caught – though there is an anecdotal suggestion that the initial attack could have been real.

In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published one research article on the Mad Gasser. Graphs of newspaper space in square inches compared to the number of reports showed a very apparent effect. If the morning newspapers dedicated more space to the Gasser, more reports came in that day. And during that initial 2-day Labor Day publishing break, no gassing was reported.

It’s depressing to think people can be manipulated so easily.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon became one of the most famous case studies in mass hysteria. skeptoid.com

This was a small event in a small town during wartime, and it was over in a couple weeks when the local newspaper moved on. Consider Americans today, reading and viewing stories aimed at an agenda, whether pushed for ideological or financial reasons. Over and over, day after day. Maybe a single story gets repeated a dozen times – it feels as if it happened a dozen times.

As individuals zero in on fewer outlets, they get caught in the “echo chamber” of their own fears, hopes, and biases. Depending on which rabbit hole each of us chooses to fall down, we end up in “living” in different worlds.

No one can save us from ourselves – the answer must come from us.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I was fairly sure I knew where the expression “down the rabbit hole” comes from – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carol, and her entry into Wonderland by following a white rabbit and tumbling down his hole. But I was curious how it became a metaphor for any entry into the unknown, the disorienting or the crazy-making.

The slang expression arose in the drug culture for a psychedelic experience. Although I didn’t find a citation for its first use, the phrase has spread.

We mean that we got interested in something to Juliasetsdkpictfield3 (400x300)the point of distraction—usually by accident, and usually to a degree that the subject in question might not seem to merit. newyorker.com

The New Yorker’s writer goes on to attribute the current popularity of the phrase to the internet, and explains why it perfectly captures what happens to us as we surf. Fun article.

Stackexchange.com warns against the mistake of diving for a rat hole when you meant a rabbit hole. A rat hole is a North American phrase for a waste of money or resources, which are commonly “poured” down the rat hole in a short-sighted move. That’s a bad trip.