Who decided on the order of the alphabet? And why do we say someone has a chip on their shoulder?

If there are any bizarre questions you’ve always wanted answered, you may find them in a new book by the “elves” who’ve spent years helping Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig on TV fave QI.

Here’s our pick of the best– along with some questions you never knew you wanted answers to. Until now…

Who was the first person to have a chip on their shoulder?

It surfaced in the US in the early 19th Century. Punchy young men spoiling for a fight would strut around town with a chip of wood on their shoulder, daring people to try to knock it off. This practice is widely reported from 1817 onwards.

It’s also where we get the word “chippy” from, as in, “he’s a bit chippy”.

You might think this is the origin of the phrase “knock your block off”, but it isn’t. That dates from 14th-Century England. Hats were made using a block of wood as a mould. Block came to mean the thing a hat sat on – your head.

Sandi Toksvig QI
Sandi Toksvig is the current host of QI

Who alphabetised the alphabet?

The Phoenicians lived on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean around 1500–300 BC. Building on early writing that came from Egypt, they developed an alphabet in which every letter represented a single sound.

It meant letters could be grouped to make any word or sentence the writer could think of. Before this, symbols represented a whole word or syllable, so people had to memorise hundreds of characters if they wanted to read or write.

Even though it was thousands of years ago, the resemblance between our alphabet and theirs is striking: the first four letters in theirs, Aleph, Bet, Gimel and Dalet, are early versions of A, B, C and D.

The ordering of the alphabet happened so long ago that we’ll never really know who thought of it first. Some believe that the arrangement may have originally told a story or formed a sentence. There is also the possibility, of course, that it was just the random choice of A BC person.

What do the Greeks say instead of “It’s all Greek to me”?

The phrase dates back to medieval monks who understood Latin, but not Greek. If they came across Greek in a manuscript, they would write, “Graecum est; non legitur” (This is Greek; it can’t be read).

The phrase appears around the world, but with local variations. In Balkan countries they say, “It’s all Spanish to me”. In Bulgaria, it’s “all Patagonian”, in Finland it’s “all Hebrew”, and in Greece they say, “To me, this appears like Chinese”.

Of course, there’s no such language as Chinese. But the Mandarin version of “It’s all Greek to me” is either, “This sounds like ghost’s script” or “This is the language of the birds”, while in Cantonese you would say, “This is like chicken intestines”. Much more fun. Meanwhile, instead of saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs”, the Welsh say, “It’s raining old ladies and sticks”.

Some bizarre questions need answers

If you can be underwhelmed and overwhelmed, can you ever just be whelmed?

The word “whelmed” is older than both the under and over versions. It was first used 700 years ago, when it meant overturned or capsized, before evolving to mean buried, submerged or ruined.

Whelmed appears in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Overwhelmed appeared 100 years later, meaning to be submerged or overpowered and whelmed largely dropped out of use. Underwhelmed was first used in the 1950s, giving it the most underwhelming history of the three by far.

What is the origin of the phrase “sent to Coventry”?

There are several theories. One comes from the English Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell’s troops captured a group of Royalist soldiers and held them in a church in Coventry. Most of the locals were on Cromwell’s side and didn’t like the idea of soldiers coming to their town and causing a nuisance. As a result, they shunned the Royalists, and the idiom was born.

An even darker theory is that during the reign of Henry III, traitors were hanged from a covin tree – a Scottish word for a tree outside a mansion beneath which visitors would be met. So being sent there was a euphemism for execution.

Anya Taylor as chess whizz Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit

Because chess has been played so many times over the centuries, has every possible game, move for move, already been played before?

No. There are more possible games of chess than there have been seconds since the start of the universe. And no one is that quick at chess.

Can plants talk to each other?

Plants can communicate, just not the way we do. They send, receive and respond to signals without making a sound. They can physically feel things, and have something similar to a sense of smell or taste.

Some plants communicate via fungi. Mushrooms are the visible part of a fungus, but underground there’s a whole network of thin, white threads called mycelium, which link plants.

They transport water and nutrients, but also information in the form of chemical signals. In return, plants provide the fungi with food. The network can stretch from one end of a forest to the other.

Many forests have a “mother tree” that acts as a hub. If young saplings aren’t getting enough energy because the canopy is blocking light, they can signal that they need food, and the mother tree uses the mycelium to pass sugar to them.

Where does “stealing someone’s thunder” come from?

In 1709, playwright John Dennis staged a production of Appius and Virginia, a tragedy set in ancient Rome. Critics were impressed by a new thunder machine built to create sound effects for stormy scenes.

Appius and Virginia was soon replaced by a production of Macbeth. When Dennis turned up to watch the Scottish Play, he was shocked to hear his distinctive sound effect being used.

They had literally stolen his thunder.

Why do wine and Champagne bottles have a dent at the bottom?

The “punt”, as it is called, comes with several advantages. An empty hidden space makes the bottle look like it contains more wine, which is useful for merchants but, crucially, just as adding an arch to a bridge makes it stronger, adding a punt to a bottle gives it extra strength.

In the 1500s, French monks were making the world’s first sparkling wine, but the increased pressure from the bubbles sometimes made the bottles explode.

Moet Chandon Imperial Brut

One exploding bottle would then disturb another, leading to a chain reaction that could destroy most of a cellar’s stock.

Being around sparkling wine was so dangerous the French began to call it “le vin du diable” (the devil’s wine), and brewers wore iron masks as protection.

In 1826, German winemaker Georg Christian von Kessler found a year’s output – 4,000 bottles – had smashed. He approached glassmakers Johann Georg Böhringer and Franz K Klumpp, who took the thick English-style bottles and added a deep punt. And so the modern Champagne bottle was born.

Why are people who don’t drink alcohol referred to as being teetotal?

In 19th-Century America, people in the Wild West were creating their own slang. “Tetotaciously” meant totally. The word was shortened slightly to tetotal, and it spread, first to the Irish population of North America and eventually the north of England.

At a temperance meeting in Preston in 1833, a reformed boozehound named Richard Turner announced in a speech: “I’ll have nowt to do with the moderation botheration pledge; I’ll be reet down T-total, that or nowt!”

It was exactly the catchy phrase the abstinence movement needed, and had nothing to do with cups of tea.

Funny You Should Ask: Your ­Questions Answered By The QI Elves in association with the BBC (Faber, £12.99)

Do animals have friends?

Some animals do form social bonds. Chimpanzees, like people, choose friends with similar personalities to their own.

Extroverts spend time with extroverts, and shy chimps hang out with other shy chimps. Vampire bats form friendships that last decades.

They begin by grooming each other, and once they trust each other, will share a meal, one regurgitating blood to feed the other. Meanwhile, crows not only hold grudges, they tell their friends and family about them.

*Funny You Should Ask: Your ­Questions Answered By The QI Elves in association with the BBC (Faber, £12.99).

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