The picture above has been floating around the internet for some time now. I first encountered it on Tumblr, where someone added a comment that the heart shape, our symbol for love, actually came from two hearts sewn together. People reblogged that explanation like mad, and now it’s all over the internet.
Totally romantic, right? Also totally B.S. The origin of the heart symbol is unclear, but historians speculate, among other things, that it comes from the shape of the seed of the silphium plant, once used as contraception, or even a representation of a woman’s buttocks and vagina. Two hearts sewn together is a complete fiction, but like so many things, a lie becomes stronger than the truth when it is attractive (“sexy,” as we say in philosophy) and repeated over and over.
It’s fascinating (and disturbing!) how prevalent this sort of thing is. Our knowledge of the past is marred by misconceptions, fiction taken as fact, and outright lies. Viking helmets didn’t actually have horns. Napoleon wasn’t short. Catherine the Great didn’t have a sexual predilection for horses. Paul is not dead, the walrus is not a symbol of death in Eskimo culture, “glass onion” is not a slang term for a coffin. And you do not swallow eight spiders in your sleep every year (that “fact” was actually created as an example of how ridiculous things travel around the internet as truth. Point made.)
There’s an Elementary episode from season one where Sherlock reveals that one of his hobbies is conspiracy theorists. “I love them,” he explains to Joan. “Like one loves a barmy uncle. Or a pet that walks into walls.” He joins conspiracy theory websites and periodically stirs the pot with a theory that he has constructed out of whole cloth. The CIA invented crack. The Supreme Court is owned by Scientologists.
I have at times toyed with the idea of doing something similar: creating a Tumblr account purely for the purpose of disseminating “facts,” and watching which ones take off and which ones don’t. It would be an interesting experiment, but I do have moral qualms about deliberately misleading people, even if it’s something as innocuous as the heart symbol being based on two hearts sewn together.