1992: Ubykh, from the eastern end of the Black Sea, was one of hundreds of languages that disappeared during the century. Linguists were fascinated by Ubykh’s multitude of consonants and almost total absence of vowels. It was reckoned to have about 84 consonants and two or three vowels – the exact numbers were a matter for debate. Tevfik Esenç, who died on 7 October, was the last native speaker of Ubykh; his death marked not just the passing of an individual human being, but the extinction of a language.
1991: Vicki Childress, from Key West in Florida, kept two items beneath her pillow: an inhaler in case she had an asthma attack, and a .38 revolver to protect against intruders. Just before midnight on 21 October, she needed her inhaler. Half-asleep, she reached under her pillow. You can guess what happened next. The following day she was in hospital recovering well, but with several shattered teeth.
Source: Tampa Bay Times, 23 October 1991
1990: The retired Iowa farmer Charles Osborne finally stopped hiccuping, more than six decades after he had started. The hiccups had begun one day in 1922, when Osborne had been hanging up a hog for butchering. “I picked it up and then I fell down. I felt nothing, but the doctor said later that I busted a blood vessel the size of a pin in my brain.” Once the hiccups started, they wouldn’t stop. For the next 68 years, Osborne hiccuped 20 or even 40 times a minute – several hundred million hiccups altogether.
1989: Spare a thought for Berlin’s bunnies. For 28 years they flourished in the “death zone” on the East German side of the Berlin Wall. Hopping about, nibbling grass, relaxing in the sun. No speeding cars, no farmers with shotguns, no farmers’ dogs. Until November, when hordes of noisy humans came stomping through rabbit heaven.
Source: The New York Times, 24 November 1989
1988: Albania holds the record for the most consecutive Olympic boycotts: four, between 1976 and 1988.
Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 1169
1987: Japan’s former agriculture minister Hata Tsutomu told a luncheon on Capitol Hill that the United States should not expect his country to suddenly step up imports of American beef.
Hata cited as “fact” that Japanese people find it more difficult to digest beef as they have longer intestines than Americans. Centuries of eating a diet heavily reliant on grains had lengthened Japanese digestive tracts, Hata claimed; consequently any beef consumed would remain in the intestines longer and be more likely to spoil.
1986: The meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, released a cloud of radioactivity that affected not only the nearby human population, but also, indirectly, the stork population. Storks hunted for beetles, grasshoppers, frogs and other small prey in cultivated fields and meadows. When the Soviet authorities ordered the evacuation of residents from a wide area around the power plant, the abandoned fields and meadows became overgrown with tall grass, bushes and saplings. These made it difficult for the storks to forage for food, which in turn led to a decline in their numbers.
Source: Bird Census News (2000)
1985: Photographs of the young Fidel Castro showed him, more often than not, with a haze of cigar smoke wafting round his head from the Cohíba between his fingers. The Cuban leader stopped smoking in 1985, 44 years after he started.
Source: Volker Skierka, Fidel Castro: A Biography (2004), pp. 239–40
1984: Over a five-month period, the Animal Medical Center in New York dealt with 132 cats that had fallen from the city’s windows and roofs.
Wayne Whitney and Cheryl Mehlhaff, who gathered and analyzed data from the clinic, found that the shortest fall was two stories, the average fall 5.5 stories and the longest fall 32 stories. Four of the cats had fallen previously; two cats fell together. Most of the cats fell directly on to concrete but, despite this, 44 of them didn’t need treatment. One-tenth of the cats that did require treatment died, but nine-tenths survived. Treatment was mainly for respiratory problems, facial wounds and bone fractures.
1983: American President Ronald Reagan didn’t mince his words. The previous year, he had predicted that the West would consign Marxism and Leninism to the “ash heap of history”. In March 1983, he labelled the Soviet Union “an evil empire”.
Also in March, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. In April, the United States Navy conducted a large fleet exercise in the northern Pacific. An important NATO exercise was planned for Europe in November, around the same time that Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles were to be deployed in West Germany.
Viewed from Moscow, all this bellicose rhetoric and activity was highly alarming. Was it the prelude to a sneak attack on the Soviet Union?
1982: Culinary debut of the year: ciabatta, invented by an Italian miller named Arnaldo Cavallari.
Source: Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (2007), p. 128
1981: Alexander Haig announced that the United States was in possession of “physical evidence” that the Soviet Union was supplying its Southeast Asian allies with biological warfare agents for military use against their opponents. According to the Secretary of State, the Soviet Union was providing Laos and Vietnam with mycotoxins – poisonous compounds synthesized by fungi.
The “physical evidence”? Hmong villagers, refugees from fighting in Laos, had seen low-flying aircraft spraying what the Hmong called “yellow rain”, an oily liquid that left a residue of yellow spots on leaves, rocks and rooftops. Villagers caught in these chemical showers exhibited symptoms that included blurred vision, breathing difficulties and skin burns. Between 10 and 20 per cent of victims died.
1980: Joanne “Jo” Rowling celebrated her 15th birthday on 31 July, which by coincidence was the day Harry Potter was born.
1979: Idi Amin’s increasingly rickety rule of Uganda came to an end. In exile in Saudi Arabia, the deposed dictator put his bloodthirsty, allegedly cannibalistic, ways behind him and became a fruitarian. His appetite for oranges earned him the nickname “Dr. Jaffa”.
Source: Adam Leith Gollner, The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession (2009), p. 98
1978: The October issue of National Geographic magazine carried an article by Francine “Penny” Patterson about Koko, a female gorilla whom Patterson had taught to use sign language. Koko knew the signs for hundreds of words (“smile”, “lollipop”, “belly button”) and was clever enough to combine them in phrases (“damn me good”, “fine animal gorilla”). She had invented some choice insults (“rotten stink”) and was not averse to the occasional lie. When she plumped herself down on a kitchen sink and dislodged it, she blamed Patterson’s assistant Kate Mann: “Kate there bad.”
1977: Names that make you smirk: Splatt and Weedon, co-authors of a paper on urinary difficulties.
Source: British Journal of Urology, April 1977
1976: While his compatriots had to put up with empty bellies, the former Cambodian monarch Norodom Sihanouk complained that he was running short of the rum needed to create bananes flambées.
Source: Norodom Sihanouk, Prisonnier des Khmers Rouges (1986), p. 155
1975: On 16 January, the kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII died from tetrodotoxin poisoning. The actor, designated a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government, ate four servings of puffer fish livers in the apparent belief that his body would tolerate the highly toxic organs. He was wrong. Hours after the meal in a Kyoto restaurant he died of convulsions and paralysis.
Source: The Japan Times, 17 January 1975