There are some facts that are in fact not facts at all. However, this doesn’t mean we don’t believe them. Some are just too good, too interesting, and too ingrained in our society not to believe. Like the fact that all penguins mate for life1, or Vikings wore horned helmets2. How about the belief that humans share 90% of their DNA with bananas3, or that an octopus has 2 hearts4?

From experience, these “facts” go down a treat at dinner parties (as long as the crowd isn’t too discerning).

One of my favourites is the origin of the saying, “Here be dragons”, supposedly taken from early cartographers.

It’s been said that unexplored territories on old maps were often marked with the ominous words: “Here be dragons,” or the Latin equivalent, “Hc svnt dracones”. This wise bit of advice warned anyone wandering into unknown regions to do so at their own peril. Who knows what danger awaited in these mysterious lands?

Section of “La Nuoua Francia”. Map based on the 1524 voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano. Credit: Leventhal Center/Boston Public Library

Fast forward a few hundred years, and today’s programmers (witty little sods) are using the phrase as their own.

If you’ve ever done any coding you’ll know that you can leave comments inside your code, either as notes for yourself, or for whoever might work on the project after you. Because these comments are hidden from plain sight, they are the perfect place for a witty remark or an inside joke. Sometimes however, they are used to warn fellow programmers of a dodgy bit of code that may or may not lead to certain catastrophe should it be changed.

In these situations, a dev may find a simple, /* here be dragons */ warning. It’s the programming equivalent of a “fragile” sticker on a moving box. Handle the code with care, and things might not fall to pieces right after it’s been pushed.

This simple phrase is likely to elicit a few chuckles from an overworked dev, however the story of its frequent use throughout the ancient cartographic world is not entirely true. Although several early maps have illustrations of mythological creatures, there are only two known uses of the phrase, “Here be dragons”, and both are in Latin.

The most famous is on the Hunt–Lenox Globe (c. 1503–07), where the term appears around Asia’s east coast. It is believed that this probably references Indonesia’s Komodo dragons – which are indeed real – but a far cry from their way more awesome, mythical, fire-breathing cousins.

But, hey – I say “no” to letting actual facts get in the way of more interesting “fake facts”. However, if you’re a stickler for the truth, here’s a good, true fact for your next social interaction: Mark Twain is responsible for inventing the clasp still used on most modern bras. Check out his patent.

If that’s not enough, then perhaps travel by dragon, courtesy of Google, is your thing. Here be dragon.

[1] While mostly monogamous, there are some species of penguin, such as Emperor penguins,  which only stick to the rules season by season.
[2] Archaeologists are yet to find a Viking-era helmet embellished with horns, and Viking art depicts warriors bareheaded, or wearing simple helmets.
[3] We do share DNA with bananas, but it’s only 60%.
[4] An octopus actually has three hearts, not two.