April 16, 2021

Marie Antoinette Syndrome

Let them eat brioche*.

Many of us are familiar with the famous last Queen of France who is said to have pronounced those words when her people were dying of hunger(1)

I bring Marie Antoinette up, because I recently read House of Hollow, an excellent fantasy-horror novel by Krystal Sutherland. The novel is about three sisters who mysteriously disappeared in their childhood, only to reappear a month later, with no memories of what had happened to them. Shortly after the girls' reappearance, their hair turned suddenly white, a medical condition that doctors in the novel call the "Marie Antoinette Syndrome". 

Turns out this syndrome is real** and comes from the embellished witness accounts that state that Marie Antoinette's hair turned suddenly white right before the Revolutionaries had her pretty neck offered to the guillotine (this was in 1793, a month short of her 38th birthday).

As an article on Healthline(2) states, a similar occurrence was reported to have happened a couple centuries prior, with Thomas Moore (also upon his execution), and, more recently, with WWII bombing survivors. 

But, although (chronic) stress could be a catalyst for such a dramatic whitening of hair, science tells us it's not the actual cause, and certainly does not happen that quickly. Instead, other possible reasons listed include: pattern baldness, which would suddenly expose the white hairs we already have but haven't noticed until then; a genetic predisposition to graying hair; hormonal changes, including thyroid issues, menopause or a drop in testosterone levels;  nutritional deficiencies, and the B12 vitamin in particular; and vitiligo, which impacts our body's pigmentation.

Still, I can imagine that the state of Marie Antoinette at her execution must have been quite a contrast to the popular vision people may have had of her as a young, pretty and profligate queen. After all, she had just spent ten weeks in prison, and that was after a couple of years of house arrest and failed attempts to flee the country. This sudden contrast between reality and the popularized image of her may thus explain the idea that her hair turned white overnight.

Marie Antoinette moments before being beheaded

Notes and Sources:

*I know that traditionally, the quote is translated as "cake," but brioche is more of a sweet bread, more like Hawaiian bread, rather than actual cake...

**Well, somewhat... as explained lower in the text.

(1) Interestingly, that happened because some "clever" bourgeois decided to force King Louis XVI's hand in adopting more capitalistic business practices, which included raising the price of bread (when before, it was forbidden to do so).

(2) Marie Antoinette Syndrome: Real or Myth?

(3) Additional info on Marie Antoinette's end of life

March 25, 2021

Money Has No Smell

The expression Money has no smell is attributed to Roman Emperor Vespasian (CE 9-79). The story goes that, in dire need of money for the Empire, he decided to tax just about anything.

Including urine.

This precious liquid, so to speak, was used by tanners and dyers to treat their hides and cloths, and thus the tax on it proved quite lucrative. Still, it didn't stop many from complaining about it. Vespasian's own son, Titus, criticized him for this tax which he deemed absolutely ridiculous (I can only imagine how the tax collectors and auditors must have had their nostrils assaulted by the sharp smells).

But Vespasian was satisfied with his tax, and that is when people say he retorted that, "Money has no smell."

Interestingly, in the 19th century, some French (who wrongfully assumed then that Vespasian was the one who had created the Roman public toilets to help in his tax collections efforts) started calling their toilets Vespasiennes.


Roughly translated from a short article in the French magazine Les grandes figures de l'histoire No. 20.

March 18, 2021

Comedy Of Gestures - A Writing Tip

Can you guess what each is thinking
just based on their "gestures"?

I'm reading Chuck Palahniuk's Consider This, which is a neat little book with a lot of great writing advice, given in the author's usual direct speech (and peppered with fun little stories to illustrate).

One of the tips Palahniuk gives is to provide texture to your storytelling, and in particular your dialogues, by mixing in gestures. This makes the story come alive more (more "human"), as well as provides a tool to help figure out who's speaking without resorting endlessly to the "he said/she said" tags. Better yet if these movements contradict what's being said!

To help us, his students, Palahniuk suggests coming up with 50 quick wordless gestures we use every day to raise our awareness of them, and starts us off with a few already:

  1. Thumbs-up
  2. Thumb-and-index finger "okay"
  3. Knocking your fist lightly on your forehead to "recall" something
  4. Clutching your heart
  5. Hitchhiker's thumb (which can imply "get lost")
  6. Index finger held vertically against the lips, for "hush up"
  7. The hooked "come here" finger

  8. Here are 43 more I've come up with on the spot...
    Rigid posture, clenched fists, head high...
    Shuffling feet, hands raised in shock

  9. Scratching nose
  10. Looking up to think (perhaps because lying)
  11. Looking down in shame or shyness
  12. Avoiding eye contact (to try to avoid conflict or being noticed or stopped or otherwise hailed)
  13. Sticking out the tongue
  14. Rolling the eyes
  15. Biting the lower lip
  16. Tossing your hair
  17. Holding onto the back of the neck in discomfort
  18. Hiding hands deep inside pockets
  19. Hooking thumbs in pants
  20. Lifting the chin in defiance
  21. Yawning
  22. Closing eyes in pain 
  23. Blinking
  24. Winking
  25. Nodding the head
  26. Shaking the head
  27. Twirling the hair
  28. Holding arms crossed tightly over chest
  29. Head thrown back, arms open wide,
    large grin - you're free!
    Squishing arms a little around boobies to make them stand out (as distraction or mating ritual)
  30. Throwing hands up in frustration
  31. Pinching lips
  32. Nostrils flaring in barely repressed anger
  33. Tapping toe of shoe on the ground bashfully
  34. Hands on hips
  35. Flipping the bird
  36. Blowing a kiss
  37. Snapping teeth (clear warning...or come hither?)
  38. Pinching bridge of nose
  39. Holding pinky and thumb up to face as a "call me" sign
  40. Miming writing with a pen to ask for pen and paper while too busy talking to someone else (ex: phone)
  41. Holding hands up, either as "stop" or as a "I give up"
  42. Rolling shoulders and cracking neck (or knuckles) to get down for business
  43. Pulling on ear in thought
  44. Picking your nose
Anything else you can think of that could be added to this list? I think what would be cool, too, would be to also have a whole list of gestures that could mean something different in another culture, like when Ross was telling Emily "Time out!" and she took offense, stating "Well up yours too!" (yeah, I like FRIENDS) :)