Sunday, January 29, 2012

Snopes: the wordy cabbage

I've been thinking of posting an occasional piece of urban legend, email rumor, or other misinformation from

I mean, have you seen the crazy stuff that gets passed around in email these days? And not just in email. Bloggers pick up these things. Politicians pick up these things. Even the news media, to their shame, repeat some of this stuff.

And in many cases, all it would take is a quick check of to determine the truth. But no matter how often I point that out, the crazy keeps coming (though not to me, often enough, which is one advantage of replying to those emails!).

At any rate, I get the newsletter, so I might pick out an occasional piece of misinformation to highlight here. Today, let's look at cabbages:
Pythagorean theorem: 24 words
The Lord's Prayer: 66 words
Archimedes' Principle: 67 words
The Ten Commandments: 179 words
The Gettysburg Address: 286 words
The Declaration of Independence: 1,300 words
The US government regulations on the sale of cabbage: 26,911 words

The wordy cabbage memo is often held up as a telling illustration of needless verbosity and prime example of the sort of pointless government spending everyone is in favor of seeing cut from the bone. It's a shame such an archetype is naught but pure invention, yet it appears it was never anything other than the product of someone's fertile imagination.

Versions of the showcased list have been around for at least a half a century, with earlier ones decrying a memo by the government of France specifying the price of duck eggs, a British one referring to "shell eggs," and an American one (from 1953) about fresh fruits. While not all accounts agree on the precise number of words used in the various religious and patriotic texts pointed to as effective models of brevity, the 26,911 words expended in the cabbage tome eerily remains almost constant. [Funny, huh?]

In 1977, Mobil Oil was fooled by this thing — it vectored the legend in its "Pipeline Pete" print advertisement as a bit of revealed truth. Mobil had found the item in a house organ published the year earlier by FMC Corporation, an agricultural concern in Chicago. That version went back to yet another publication that had found it printed on a card someone was carrying in his wallet.

A 1987 book (Pearls of Wisdom: A Book of Aphorisms) claimed an "EEC [European Economic Community] directive on the import of caramel and caramel products requires, apparently, no fewer than 26,911 words." Once again, someone was so charmed by a bit of authoritative-sounding apocrypha that he chose to pass it along as revealed truth. ...

(We note that a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture document from 1945 which details "Standards for the Grades of Cabbage" falls about 26,000 words short of being a 27,000-word memo.)

Funny, isn't it? But this fits the meme that many people believe, and which many politicians want to spread, that of hopelessly incompetent government bureaucrats and the over-regulation stifling business in America. The fact that it's not true,... well, who really cares about the truth?

The fact is, there's plenty of incompetence in government, just as there is everywhere else, too. With a little effort, these people could probably find examples that were real. Apparently, that's too much effort. But is it too much effort for the rest of us just to make a quick check at

Or just do a search on Google. You'll find plenty of websites which repeat that misinformation - without attribution - but you'll also find plenty of places which express doubt about it. At the very least, you might realize there's reason not to just forward that anonymous email to everyone in your address book!

PS. While looking around, I stumbled across this and thought it was pretty funny:
If a bureaucratic document is one that takes tens of thousands of words to describe how to do something in stultifying detail, here’s my revision of the document, taking out the fake cabbage claim and putting in reference to a document with which most of us are familiar:
All you Need to Know about Bureaucracy:

* Pythagorean theorem:………………………………………..24 words.
* Lord’s prayer:…………………….…..……………………….66 words.
* Archimedes’ Principle:………………………………………67 words.
* 10 Commandments:……………………………………….179 words.
* Gettysburg address:……………………………………… 286 words.
* Declaration of Independence :…………………….1,300 words.
* US Constitution with all 27 Amendments:…..7,818 words.
* God’s Biblical instructions for building a place of worship and making sacrifices:…............. 18,672 words.


Sources: King James Bible,
Exodus 23:14-19… 161 words
Exodus 25:1 to Exodus 31:11… 6201 words
Exodus 35:4 to Exodus 40:30… 4872 words
Leviticus 1:1 to Leviticus 10:15… 7438 words

(Note that I didn't fact check that. I just thought it was funny.)


Anonymous said...

It's not the exact number of words that matters. It's an example of how governments tend to complicate things in legislature.
Point is that we have a sea of stupid laws that regulate every facet of human life and interaction ... for what? Because we can't govern ourselves and set the price of things by ourselves (free market)? Amongst a lot of other things government is trying to regulate.

So what are you defending here? Wordy laws because they are necessary? I want small government with little regulation so people can do as they please. Free market.

And that list sums it up, be the number correct or not, or if you find some larger quotation in the Bible, that doesn't change the point this message was created to portray.

WCG said...

You're right, Anonymous. It's not the exact number of words that matters. What matters is that it was a lie. That's the point.

Do we have "a sea of stupid laws that regulate every facet of human life and interaction"? No, of course not. Why would you think so? Probably because of lies like this, huh?

We have stupid laws, no doubt - some laws that I'd consider stupid, at least. You might disagree. Clearly, someone didn't think they were stupid. And we have good laws, too - important laws, necessary laws, valid laws.

What am I defending? Primarily honesty. I don't like lies. But I suppose I'm also defending common sense and the need for government regulation - not all regulations, of course, but the fact that regulations are necessary.

We're social animals. We live together - we've always lived together - and we need rules for that. With more than 300 million people in America, and a more complicated world every year, we need more government than we used to. Nothing odd about that. Just what you'd expect, in fact.

We also need some defense against big institutions - corporations and other private entities. Government would be a danger if it got too powerful, but we'd be in danger, too, if government was too small and weak. You have to choose a middle ground, based on reason, evidence, and common sense.

People can make all the points they want, Anonymous. But when they have to make them with lies, what does that tell you?

Anonymous said...

Excellent response! - RG in NY/NJ

WCG said...

Thanks, RG. I appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

I agree that its important to be truthful, any debate needs honesty. However it may be that some people present this statistics without realising that it's false. I'm assuming you haven't personally looked up every document relating to cabbage law from the EU to validate this falsehood and are basing your view on other texts by others who you consider more trustworthy.

At the same time you appear to be arguing that a larger government for a larger population is an obvious necessity and that apparently stupid laws probably aren't stupid laws because someone wanted them. Why? You don't actually give a justification, just an assertion apparently based on assumption. You might as well make a broad assertion such as ant super-colonies need more complex leadership compared to smaller colonies or Apartheid was probably a good idea because someone came up with it and it only appears to be a bad idea.

The historian A J P Taylor from his book, English History 1914 to 45 describes a far smaller, less intrusive State. Prior to 1914 people could travel more freely, trade more freely and were less restricted by the volumes of law that span everything from State sanctioned morality to what you pay for your goods and services with. We experienced an industrial revolution, free international trade, the birth and rapid expansion of science along with innovation born out of the exchange of ideas and produce. It's easy to ignore all what was achieved as being somehow easier in a simpler, smaller world that didn't have all the complexity of the modern world. The world was just as complicated back then, there was still conflict, religion, financial problems, crime, health challenges, trade challenges, spies, population movement and more.

To quote the American Nobel Laureate economist and public intellectual Milton Friedman “Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost come in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.”

Just look at the shocking incarceration rate in the US, 10 times more per 100,000 people than other first world countries with around 1/4 of the world’s inmates, 1/5 of them incarcerated for drug related crimes. 80% of those incarcerations are just for possession, the State feels it has a moral right to create criminals out of people for how they treat their own bodies. Heck kids are being added to sex offender registers for taking selfies, something that's stupid but hardly an excuse for the State to publically humiliate and criminalise them. Just accepting the laws and the State we are given is shirking responsibility and has been responsible for some of the darkest chapters in human history. Heinrich Himmler drive for a pure State built on strong morality backed by the rule of law is just one example.

In 1900 a person living in the UK would typically pay around 8.5 percent of their earnings on government or between 5 and 15 percent in the USA. Today it’s around 36% in the USA or 46% in the UK. In the UK as much as 25% of the population now works for the State. Why does a growth of population require such large increases in tax contributions or such a large growth in government? I happen to agree with Milton Friedman and believe that yes, we need to be true about what we know but equally we should not blanket assert that we shouldn't challenge the status quo. I personally believe the State is far too big, far too costly, far too intrusive and the law far too complex. That isn't such a shocking point of view and isn't just for people wearing tin foil hats, it happens to be shared by many including people in government and academia.

WCG said...

Pt. 1:

"However it may be that some people present this statistics without realising that it's false."

Yes, I'm sure that's true, Anonymous. So what? People pass around even ridiculously implausible anecdotes if they just want to believe them. That's kind of the whole point.

And, of course, someone made up that cabbage story, knowing that it wasn't true, almost certainly just to persuade others to his own view of government.

If you have to use lies to back up your position, then it's probably because the truth doesn't back you up, don't you think? Otherwise, why wouldn't you use the truth?

When it comes to, I trust their investigation mostly because I'm familiar with their work. They bend over backwards to be objective and unbiased.

And if you read that article, you saw how they listed their sources, with links for everything available online.

Obviously, no one has the time to check out the original sources on every claim online, but the fact that those sources are listed - plus my prior experience with - causes me to be confident that they're not lying (although I'm not infallible, and neither are they).

Do you disagree?

WCG said...

Pt. 2):

"you appear to be arguing that a larger government for a larger population is an obvious necessity and that apparently stupid laws probably aren't stupid laws because someone wanted them."

Not exactly. Note that my original post was about urban legends, nothing more. Now you're talking about my reply to a previous comment. (I don't know if you were also that anonymous person or not.)

I did not say that stupid laws don't exist. I said just the opposite, in fact. I made the point that "stupid" is subjective, that's all. I doubt if you and I would entirely agree on which laws are stupid and which aren't.

If you want to talk about specific laws, fine. But it's pretty... stupid... to talk about "stupid laws" in general - especially when I agreed that some laws are stupid.

This is what I said: "What am I defending? Primarily honesty. I don't like lies. But I suppose I'm also defending common sense and the need for government regulation - not all regulations, of course, but the fact that regulations are necessary."

I stand by that. I also stand by my opinion that 320 million people living in a very high-tech society in "a more complicated world every year" need more government regulations than we did as a simpler society (not "simple" even then, of course) of only 76 million people.

Of course, I'd also say that we probably had fewer laws and fewer regulations than we should have had in 1900, back when racial segregation was still legal, back before women could even vote, back before the Great Depression demonstrated how government regulation was essential.

Partly, we have more laws today because we discovered what happens when we don't have them. The "good ol' days" weren't that good for many people. It's easy to look back with rose-colored glasses and forget all that.

Of course, a lot of complication has come from big-money interests and politically-powerful groups getting special exemptions and favors from politicians.

We definitely need to deal with the first part of that, the influence of money in our political system (made much worse since Citizens United).

But the second part is just democracy. I don't like the special deals, but I'm not sure how we can fix that (although getting money out of politics would certainly be a big help).

"Just accepting the laws and the State we are given is shirking responsibility..."

But see what happens? Now you're simply making shit up, just like whoever originally made up that cabbage story.

You are creating a strawman, so you can argue against him, rather than against me. Maybe it's easier to argue against a point of view that you've simply invented yourself, but it's not very honest, is it?

As I said above, "You have to choose a middle ground, based on reason, evidence, and common sense." Where did I ever say, "just accepting the laws and the State we are given"?

So maybe I should repeat the conclusion of my reply above: When people have to make their point with lies, what does that tell you?