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7 Concepts We Totally Take For Granted, Like ‘White People’

Possibly the weirdest thing humans do is come up with something and then immediately act like it’s always been around. Like the guys who started marketing diamond engagement rings by pretending it was an immutable tradition. The reality is that once you start poking around at even the most fundamental realities of life, they reveal themselves to be laughably recent. For example …

7

Teenagers Were Invented Around The Time Of World War II

Depending on who you ask, your teenage years are either the best of your life (says your uncle who still wears his high school class ring, despite his finger looking like a tied-off sausage) or a cringefest that makes us wish the memory eraser from Men In Black were a real thing (says everyone else). If you could ask your great-great-grandpa, though, he’d likely ask you what the hell a “teenager” was, before telling you to get back to tilling that goddamned corn field.

That’s because up until the 1940s, teenagers weren’t really a thing. We don’t mean that people used to time-warp from age 12 to 20. We mean that the cultural concept — this ethereal, not-quite-child-yet-not-quite-adult period in human development — simply wasn’t considered to exist prior to the Great Depression. Up until then, you were either a child or you were an adult.

That all changed with a single spread in the December 1944 issue of Life.

In a historic attempt to quantify this “new” American youth phenomenon, Life excitedly told of the “teen-age” girl — specifically the white, middle-class teen-age girl. They did so maybe a bit too excitedly, as evidenced by their up-close examination of Dorothy’s too-tight sweater:

The expose then went on to paint a picture of American teenagers as we all know them from every teen comedy ever, from their crippling obsession with phones …

… to their insistence on playing their ding-danged music too loud …

… to their tendency to be completely bored with just, like, everything.

Fast forward several years, and the word “teenager” had officially entered the national lexicon, thereby cementing John Hughes’ future career and instilling in all of us the firm belief that everyone else’s teenage years were way better than our own.

6

Beach Vacations Were Invented In The 18th Century

In the U.S. alone, hundreds of millions of people visit the beach each year. It’s clearly the ideal vacation destination — warm sun, toe-welcoming sand, relaxing waves, and Mai Tais that practically find their way to you of their own volition. You’d assume that’s been the case for as long as humans have lived near beaches they could travel to. You’d be wrong

The vast majority of people throughout human history would view all those beachgoers as impeccably tanned lemmings marching toward their inevitable and gory demise. Because for them, the beach was a place not of summer lovin’, but of shipwrecks, pirates, natural disasters, deadly diseases arriving from faraway lands, and sea monsters with an insatiable thirst for human liver smoothies.

Greek Mythology Wiki
Pictured: the beach, circa the 18th century.

Like afternoon tea and existential despair, the origins of the beach as a paradisaical destination — and, in turn, of the vacation itself — can be traced back to England. In the middle of the 18th century, the wealthy elite came to view the working class as healthier than they were, mostly due to their having to, you know, work. The answer to this, of course, was even more relaxation, and thus was born the idea of the “restorative sea.” Doctors prescribed a dip at the beach for everything from leprosy to gout to the veritable holy trinity of Victorian diseases: tuberculosis, hysteria, and melancholy.

The town of Scarborough near York became home to the world’s first seaside resort, and as such establishments spread throughout the 19th century, so did the concept of the pleasurable beach getaway and vacations in general. See, prior to the rise in popularity of the beach, the term “vacation” itself referred to an involuntary and un-pleasurable absence from work, probably due to tuberculosis, hysteria, or melancholy. So when you’re cleaning a small Pacific island’s worth of sand out of your car after your next vacation, stop cursing your fellow vacationers and start cursing uppity Victorians.

5

We Didn’t Have Zero Until The Sixth Century (And It Didn’t Hit Europe Until The 12th)

The value of zero belies its true importance in mathematics. It’s downright impossible to solve complex equations without a numeral to represent zilch. As such, you’d think that even man’s earliest attempts at counting would have accounted for zero — for instance, “I killed precisely one woolly mammoth” pales in importance next to “I have a zero percent chance of outrunning this pissed-off herd of woolly mammoths.” But you’d be several millennia on the side of wrong.

Though humans have been happily mathing since the development of the Sumerian counting system nearly 5,000 years ago, this and the other systems it inspired — including that of the Babylonians — glaringly omitted the all-important zero. When they needed to represent nothing, early mathematicians did so via jotting down a placeholder or … well, nothing. It wasn’t until around 500 CE that the concrete concept of zero was developed in India, and it took yet another century and change for astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta to create a symbol for it: a dot beneath other numbers.

Over the next few centuries, zero made its way across China and to the Middle East, where it pigged out on shish kebab, spread from a dot into a circle, and found a new home in the Arabic numeral system. But it wasn’t until the 12th century and the Moorish conquest of Spain that zero found its way onto the worksheets of Italian mathematician Fibonacci, who realized that you sort of need zero to, you know, be a mathematician.

Even still, it took until the dawn of the 13th century to catch on, and an additional four centuries to reach widespread use throughout Europe, thus finally paving the way for calculus. And in case your high school experience has tainted your opinion on the importance of calculus, its study is what in turn paved the way for physics, engineering, computers — that is, your ability to read this right now.

4

National Cuisines Are Modern Political Bullshit

Quick, picture Italian food.

We’re betting you imagined a heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs heavily doused in tomato sauce. Well, we’ve got some news for you: Spaghetti and meatballs is an American creation dating all the way back to the early 20th century. Not only that, but the same way ordering up a mound of General Tso’s Chicken in China is likely to leave you with an empty plate and a hopelessly rumbling belly, ordering what we Americans tend to think of as the quintessential Italian dish in Italy is likely to get you something with olives, shellfish, or both.

As a matter of fact, seeing as how the tomato was brought to Europe from the Americas, and tomato sauce only found widespread use in Italy in the late 18th century thanks to heavy influence from Spain, it could be reasonably argued that marinara sauce is more of a joint American/Spanish concoction, which Italian immigrants to America later honed to scrumptious perfection.

In other words, almost everything you think of as a traditional “national cuisine” is bullshit. So why do we identify specific types of food with specific countries at all? Simple: Much like wartime propaganda posters or your high school gym teacher, a national cuisine is a tool. Specifically, it’s a tool employed by a government looking to create a unified national identity.

You see, prior to the late 19th century, there was no such thing as “Italian” food — at most, there would have been Sicilian food, Piedmontese food, Sardinian food, and so forth. Hell, even today there are dialects spoken in Italy that are mutually unintelligible, despite sharing the same Latin roots and having developed in the same basic geographic region. Food, however, is a fantastic unifier — something that even people who historically sort of hate the shit out of each other can agree upon.

To look at it from a more personal perspective, many of us experience such “invented traditions” firsthand each year at Christmas. If you’re trying to foster an annual tradition, it helps to pretend that everyone enjoys roasting a large bird with bread shoved up its ass, and always has. So if you’ve ever wondered what propaganda tastes like, wonder no more. Chances are you’ve eaten some this week.

3

The Concept Of Authorship Is Newer Than Shakespeare

For nearly five millennia after humanity discovered that a rock could be used to scratch stuff onto other rocks, there was absolutely no concept of having ownership of said scratches. If you were to write, say, a trilogy detailing the thrilling exploits of Rumble Thrustrod, international spy/archaeologist, some random chucklehead could come along and not only write a fourth volume, but also publish and sell it without acknowledging you whatsoever. Imagine a world in which fan fiction was a legitimate way for people to make money.

Mike Coppola/Staff/Getty Images
*cough*

This was the state of publishing up until the 18th century, which you may recognize as being long after Homer, Shakespeare, Sun-Tzu, and probably a few others wrote their most famous works. As a matter of fact, we’ve mentioned before how Shakespeare flat-out copied some of his most famous plays from earlier writers … and that he wasn’t doing anything that was considered wrong at the time, because it wasn’t until 1710’s Statute of Anne that there was even a legal concept of intellectual property. More importantly, this law had the effect of legally granting the rights to a written idea to the person who came up with it, rather than to whomever had the means to reproduce it.

Prior to the introduction of the idea that a particular arrangement of words was something that could be owned, authors not only didn’t strive for originality; they consciously avoided it. Writers built upon the creations of other writers who came before, and this literary Jenga is how some of history’s most famous works were produced.

Wikimedia Commons
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, The Incredible Hulk, etc.

In fact, there’s a credible theory that Homer — of the Iliad and Odyssey fame, not of the beer and the donuts fame — was not a single prolific poet. Rather, “Homer” might have been entire generations of poets who built onto and streamlined one another’s writings until they had arrived at the epic works that we use to torture middle schoolers to this day, like a version of the infinite monkey theorem in which all the monkeys are plagiarists.

2

Owning A Bible Was Nearly Unheard Of For Much Of Its Existence

When it comes to the world’s best-selling book, the Bible handily trounces everyone, with Guinness World Records estimating more than five billion copies sold. And why not? The book itself commands you to buy one — it’s the Word of God that must be continually read and pondered. A faithful follower without a Bible on their nightstand is unthinkable … until you realize that for much of the book’s history, it was practically a sin to own one.

First of all, let’s remember that books are relatively recent, at least in the form of a consumer product the average Joe could buy. You’re only talking about the last 500 years or so.

As for the Bible, let’s rewind a little bit. Okay, a lot bit: Around 400 CE, the Council of Hippo got together and codified what we now think of as the Christian Bible from a big, messy-ass pile of ancient texts. Basically, they decided that some books were canonical and could be added to the existing Old Testament (27, to be exact) and the rest were heretical, thereby creating a single thread of true Christian belief that inexplicably still kept the unicorns in. The church higher-ups didn’t want budding Christians reading any ol’ scroll they stumbled across in the desert — they wanted them reading what they had determined was the Gospel truth.

Actually, scratch that — they didn’t want them reading it at all. For the next thousand years, the official stance of the church was that the average layperson was far too stupid to read the Bible for themselves. To gain a true understanding of the text, the masses needed to come to church and have it read/translated to them in bits, probably from a very expensive hand-printed copy.

The printing press was invented in the 1400s and started cranking out cheaper copies of Bibles. But in 1536, one William Tyndall had the temerity to translate the New Testament from Greek into English (you know, so the average English reader could comprehend the freaking thing), and was promptly burned at the stake for his efforts. Nonetheless, that event was the swan song of the church’s Bible-clutching, and the Reformation soon saw readable, affordable Bibles flowing throughout Europe in the 1600s.

But for most of history, telling Christians they needed to “read their Bible every night” to get on God’s good side was the equivalent of telling them they could only get to Heaven by flying there in their own helicopter.

1

The White Race Is A Recent Invention

Somewhere on social media, someone is currently asking, “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” or “Why does every White Pride parade spawn bitter protests?” To understand the problem, we have to explain why the concept of a “white” race is kind of weird to begin with.

First of all, the idea is very recent. The ancient Greeks, for example, noted that there were various lighter-skinned peoples to their north, whom they considered inferior and barbaric. This view, of course, did a horrific 180 as the world changed, but divisions based on culture and geographic location always trumped skin tone (although it did admittedly come in handy for determining who was and was not a filthy Nordic invader).

Then, near the end of the 18th century, German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach decided to make racism easier and more accessible for everyone. So he gathered up a shitload of skulls from all over the planet, lined them up, and classified them into five races: Caucasian (or white), Mongolian (or yellow), Malayan (or brown), Ethiopian (or black), and American (or red). Blumenbach was adamant that his work was not meant to signify that one race was inherently better than any other, and he was quick to condemn the earlier work of his contemporaries who had determined that Africans were an inferior race. Then he went ahead and noted that whites were obviously the prettiest.

Great American thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson took Blumenbach’s work and further narrowed it, proclaiming that Anglo-Saxon was the white race to be. This notion of superior and inferior sub-races is clear up through the 19th century. Sure, the Irish were treated better than people of African ancestry, but political cartoons of the time still depicted them as pipe-smoking ogres who couldn’t discern pots from hats. They obviously weren’t “white.”

This ideal morphed again in the late 1910s, when the “Saxon” was dropped because it was no longer cool to be associated with Germany for some reason we can’t quite put our finger on. Finally, in the 1940s, anthropologists declared that there were only three races: White, Black, and Asian … or, since that’s not nearly offensive enough to have been conceived in the ’40s, “one Negroid race, one Mongoloid race, one Caucasoid race.” Suddenly, all of the bitter hatred of the Irish, Italians, etc was set aside long enough to establish one race of somewhat similar-looking people who could be smugly set apart from the others.

In other words, “White” became a label that truly meant “not one of those filthy minorities.” So yes, the enthusiastic embrace of the label is something of a sore spot for many people.

Nathan Kamal lives in Oregon and writes. He co-founded Asymmetry Fiction for all your fiction needs. Jordan Breeding is a part-time writer, full-time lover, and all-the-time guitarist. Check out his band at skywardband.com or on Spotify here.

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