The definition of misunderstanding, (as per dictionary) describes it as such:
- An incorrect interpretation of a certain point of view, situation, argument or piece of information.
- A conflict or disagreement between two or more parties.
It’s safe to say that any human that has ever lived has been in such a situation. But some misunderstandings are bigger than others and history is peppered with some hilarious examples
Without further ado, here are history’s strangest cases:
Cultural misunderstanding examples
British understatement leads to a heroic but pointless last stand
During the Korean War, a British army unit was tasked with holding a hill that overlooked a strategically important river which the opposing Chinese forces attempted to cross.
The situation however was desperate, since the British unit was outnumbered at least 8 to 1 and surrounded on all sides.
The Misunderstanding: The commander of the British unit reported to his American superior that “Things are a bit sticky, sir”, which really meant “Things are desperate, sir”.
Unfortunately, the American superior misinterpreted this so-very-British understatement and thought the situation was difficult, but manageable. He told the British commander to hold the line, and promised no reinforcements and ordered no retreat.
After four days, the British position was overrun. 500 out of the 600 soldiers were taken prisoner, with the rest either dead or managed to escape.
The time when an army fought against itself
It’s the year 1788, and the Austrian Empire is at war with the Ottoman Empire. The Austrians had a sizeable army, commanded by the Emperor Joseph II himself, stationed at Karansebes, a strategically important town that guarded a vital mountain pass.
The Misunderstanding: While camped near the town, the Emperor sent a contingent of hussar cavalry to scout out the surroundings for any Ottoman forces. They didn’t find any, but they did come across some Romani that sold them schnapps (a hard liquor). Soon, the hussars were drunk and partying around the barrels.
Later, an infantry contingent from the same army arrived at the scene and demanded they be given schnapps too. The hussars refused, the infantry didn’t like that, and soon a fight broke out, gun shots and all.
During the heat of the fight, soldiers started shouting “Turks, turks!”. Everybody panicked, and the hussars fled the scene and rushed to the main camp, yelling “Turks, turks!”
The panic spreads, and thinking they are caught in an ambush, the army quickly retreats and leaves Karansebes defenseless. The Ottomans happily occupy it a few days later.
The name of the Yucatan Peninsula quite literally came from a misunderstanding
The Yucatan Peninsula is on the southern end of Mexico, and is the ancestral home of the Maya people, that inhabited the land long before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers.
The Misunderstanding: When the first Spanish explorers arrived in the area, they tried to get a feel for the area and know the name of the place he had just arrived.
Unfortunately for them, there were no interpreters available that could translate from the native languages to Spanish, so they had to play it by ear.
When the Spanish kept asking what the country was called, the natives kept responded with a word / phrase that sounded very similar to Yucatan, which in the native language meant “I don’t understand you”.
And so the name stuck.
A Hong Kong street name is accidentally written backwards
There is a street in Hong Kong named Rednaxela Terrace, which is the backwards writing for Alexander.
The Misunderstanding: Western languages are written and read from left to right. The Chinese language is written and read from right to left. Most likely a city clerk that didn’t know English accidentally transcribed the name as Rednaxela, rather than the correct “Alexander Terrace”.
Japanese interpreter didn’t know how to translate a joke
Soon after his presidency, Jimmy Carter found himself in a Japanese college, giving a speech there.
To ease the tension and get everyone onboard, he decided to tell a joke (by his own admission, it wasn’t a funny one, but it was short).
To his surprise, the Japanese interpreter translated the joke much faster than he spoke it, and the entire audience burst out laughing.
The Misunderstanding: President Carter was curious how the Japanese interpreter translated his joke, because it was shorter than it should have been, and people laughed much harder than normal.
Finally, after much coaxing, the interpreter simply admitted to translate the joke as: “President Carter told a funny story. Everyone must laugh.”
Funny communication misunderstanding examples
NASA once lost a Martian orbiter satellite because two teams didn’t know measurement system to use
During the 90’, NASA launched a mission to mars called the Martian Climate Orbiter (MCO for short). As part of the mission, the Orbiter would also deploy a Martian Polar Lander on the surface of the planet for scientific measurements.
The lander and orbiter would then communicate with each other, and send any information back to Earth.
The Misunderstanding: Unfortunately, the Orbiter team and Lander team worked with different measurement systems.
Orbiter team used metric, while Lander was on imperial. This caused measurement problems from the very start of months long space voyage. Over time, several errors accumulated and these brought the MCO over 100 miles closer to Mars than was originally anticipated.
When it came time to land the probe, NASA lost contact with the MCO. We don’t really know what happened to it after that. It either went kaboom on the surface of the planet, or shot straight through the atmosphere and went off into the solar system, entering an orbit around the sun.
The time when a United States destroyer nearly killed the President
During World War 2, President Roosevelt was onboard the battleship USS Iowa on a long voyage to North Africa.
Attached to the Iowa was a protective convoy, and one of the member ships was the destroyer USS William D. Porter. To put it mildly, the William D. Porter was flawed in more ways than one. During the voyage it accidently detonated an antisubmarine depth charge and lagged behind the convoy when it lost power in one of its boilers.
But those were not the missteps that would place it in the history book of big goofs.
The Misunderstanding: At one point, President Roosevelt requested an anti-aircraft drill by shooting at balloons. During the exercise, the William D. Porter wanted to clear its shameful name and perform admirably, but accidentally fired a ready and armed torpedo right at the Iowa.
To make matters even worse, the captain of the William D. Porter didn’t even radio the Iowa about the torpedo and used light signals to tell them a torpedo was on its way, since they wanted to stick to the rules of the drill.
When they realized the Iowa didn’t understand their signaling, they broke radio silence and warned the battleship of the incoming torpedo. Fortunately, they managed to avoid the torpedo.
Fearing the firing was actually a part of an assassination attempt, the Iowa then pointed all of its guns at the William D. Porter until the situation was cleared up.
Afterwards, the William D. Porter was always greeted with “Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans!”
When Phillip Morris said smoking is good for a country’s finances
In the early 2000s, Phillip Morris had an epic PR failure within the larger public health discussion of smoking.
The Misunderstanding: The Czech health ministry had pointed out that the costs of smoking were greater than the tax benefits, as far as a country’s national budget was concerned.
To counter this, Phillip Morris had commissioned a study that showed how smoking was actually good for a country’s finances.
On one hand, cigarettes were taxed much higher than normal products, so they brought a lot of money to state coffers.
Another benefit, explained the study, is that smokers die faster than non-smokers, meaning they don’t reach retirement and don’t live long while retired. Thus, the state doesn’t have to cover their pensions for long.
Somehow, Phillip Morris missed the memo that people would rather die later, rather than sooner. It also seemingly proves the point of health campaigners who always said smoking is bad for you.
The Berlin Wall fell because the Berlin Communist Party leader didn’t know when to open up the border crossings
In late 1989, Germany was still split in two, the democratic West and communist East. That year wasn’t too kind for the East Germany communist regime, since it was rocked by major protests and civil disobedience.
A constant fixture of the protesting east Germans the freedom to travel to West Germany, and not have their movement impeded or restricted.
Eventually, the Communist Party leadership decided to cave in to these demands, and came up with a set of regulations designed to ease the process of travelling in between the two Germany’s.
The Misunderstanding: The Communist Party agreed on the form of the regulations early on the 9th of November. The plan was for the regulations to come into effect the following day, on the 10th. This would give the border guards enough time for an orderly application of the new regulations.
Later during the day of 9th of November, the Berlin Communist Party leader was due to hold a press conference. Shortly before the conference, he was given a note that detailed how the new regulations would work. What the note didn’t contain however, was the exact time when they would come into effect.
After he announced the changes at the press conference, the journalists asked when they would come into effect.
Caught unprepared, and with no obvious future date, he responded with “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay”.
Immediately after, throngs of people stormed the Berlin Wall border crossings, demanding to cross into West Berlin.
Vastly outnumbered, confused and with no clear orders, the East German border guards eventually gave in. Soon after, order broke down and no form of regulation that restricted movement was capable of being enforced. Within the next few hours and days, the process of destroying the Berlin Wall was in full swing.
The foolish, yet poetic, Charge of the Light Brigade
In 1854, the British, French and Turks were fighting the Russian Empire in a conflict named the Crimean War.
During the Battle of the Balaclava, the Russians had overrun a Turkish artillery position and were busy moving the captured guns away at a safer location they could defend.
The Misunderstanding: The overall British Commander, Lord Raglan, had a good view of the battlefield and wanted to stop the Russians stealing away the guns. As a result, he decided to send his Light Cavalry Brigade to quickly overwhelm the enemy, force them to retreat and try to keep control of the artillery.
The first problem was that Lord Raglan’s order was ambiguous: “advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns”. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly clear which guns.
Edward Nolan, the officer who carried the order, also misunderstood which guns the order referred. When asked, he pointed to an artillery battery that was dead ahead, and flanked on either side by more artillery guns.
The Earl of Lucan, commander of cavalry, followed this order and effectively charged straight ahead into a valley, where he was shot from three sides by Russian artillery.
The result was a complete military failure, where the British suffered heavy losses and were forced to retreat.
When a burglar didn’t know if he should give the gun, or fire the gun
A peculiar legal situation occurred in 1953, when two British men, 19 year old Derek Bentley and 16 year old Christopher Craig, were caught red handed by the police as they attempted to rob a warehouse.
The Misunderstanding: At some point during the robbery, a police officer had cornered the two and asked Christopher Craig to hand over his gun.
Derek Bentley then said to Craig “Let him have it, Chris”. Apparently, Craig understood this as “shoot the guy, Chris” rather than “give him the gun, Chris”. Craig then fired at the police officers, injuring one and killing another.
During the trial, the jury debated about the exact meaning of the phrase and eventually settled around the notion that it meant “shoot the guy, Chris”. As a result, Derek Bentley was convicted of murder by joint enterprise and then hanged.
A French scientist used reverse psychology to convince Parisians to eat potatoes
Back in the 18th century, potatoes were banned for human consumption in France for a variety of reasons, such as the misguided belief that they caused leprosy. Their most common usage was for animal feed.
But one man, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, decided to change that and used some unusual methods to do so.
The Misunderstanding: The French monarchy gave Parmentier a plot of land very close to Paris, which he used to grow potatoes. To give this plantation an air of importance, Parmentier kept the contents of the plot of land a secret and assigned guards to protect the crop.
This intrigued the populace, so they started to bribe the guards and steal some of the crop, believing that potatoes were very important and valuable.
Of course, this was carefully controlled by Parmentier, who instructed the guards to take the bribes and turn a blind eye to the stealing that took place.
Americans and Canadians invade an empty island during WW2, suffer casualties doing so
During World War 2, Japanese forces invaded and occupied Kiska Island, a United States territory.
Because of its location, Allied forces had to recover it before advancing further east towards the main theatre of war, so they planned an invasion of Kiska island, with Canadian forces landing on the Northern side of the island, and US forces on the south side.
The misunderstanding: What the Allies didn’t know was that the Japanese had abandoned the island two weeks earlier, after they realized it was too far away from their supply lines and thus impossible to defend.
During the invasion, the Allied forces were on edge the entire time expecting a fierce fight to break out at any moment.
More than once, the American and Canadian forces mistook each other for enemies and engaged in the occasional bout of friendly fire. These episodes were made worse by the fact that the Japanese had booby trapped and mined the island, which increased the confusion.
By the time the invasion was over, 92 Allied soldiers were killed fighting an absent enemy.
The United States accidentally builds a military fort in Canada
During the early 19th century, relations between the USA and British Empire weren’t all too good. As a result, the USA decided to improve its border defenses, and one of these measures was to build a fort right at the edge of the US border with Canada.
The Misunderstanding: Construction was going according to plan, until a more careful land survey discovered that the fort was actually being built on Canadian soil.
At once, construction was halted and any remaining materials were sent back to the US, where a new fort was to be built, this time within the country’s borders.
Soon afterwards, the remains of the fort were aptly named “Fort Blunder”
Soviets see cloud, think it was American nuke
By 1983, the Cold War was at its height and both superpowers had no trust in one another. At the time, the US engaged in intense psychological warfare, such as rushing airplanes towards the Soviet border only to turn them around at the last moment.
There was little communication taking place, and the Soviet Union was paranoid because it had little technological counters to US ballistic missiles such as the Pershing II. As a result, their only way to fight back against a threat was to use an all-out nuclear retaliation.
The Misunderstanding: To detect any nuclear launches, the Soviet Union employed an array of orbital satellites that identified a nuclear missile by its exhaust plumes.
On September 26 1983, Stanislav Petrov was on duty at a military bunker near Moscow, when this early warning system indicated that a single nuclear missile was heading towards the Soviet Union. Soon after, four more nukes were detected.
In such situations, Petrov was supposed to immediately notify his superiors, but in this case, he decided not to. According to his judgement, an American nuclear attack would be massive in scale, containing hundreds, if not thousands of missiles. Also, the system was still new and in Petrov’s eyes, untested.
So what caused the error? An unusual and rare cloud formation that reflected light in such a way that it resembled the exhaust plumes from Pershing II’s.
Americans think training tape is Soviet nuclear attack. Almost start WW3.
In 1979, the US missile defense system showed the stuff of nightmares: an all-out, “throw everything you have” nuclear attack coming from the Soviet Union.
The attack didn’t seem to be a glitch. It was showing up on all the major strategic centers: NORAD, Strategic Air Command Center, the Pentagon National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center.
Nuclear bomber crews were sent to their planes, fighter interceptors launched, presidential airborne command posts were in the air.
The Misunderstanding: Turns out, the attack seemed so realistic because an operator at NORAD accidentally inserted a training tape of a Soviet nuclear launch into a computer. From there, the simulation propagated across the entire US defense network.
The situation was finally defused when corroborating evidence from radars and others like it didn’t show anything out of the ordinary.
The Library of Alexandria wasn’t that big of a deal
The Library of Alexandria was without doubt the biggest library of the Ancient World, at its height containing up to 400,000 texts.
According to popular knowledge, the Library held priceless texts that would have advanced human progress by decades, or centuries. Knowledge that was lost after the Library was burned by early Christian rebels.
The Misunderstanding: While the Library of Alexandria was huge, it was never the only major library in the Ancient World. For instance, the Library of Pergamon was a major competitor, with somewhere around 200,000 texts at its height.
Also, most of its texts had copies spread around the Ancient World, in many smaller libraries.
As for its destruction, it cannot be traced to one single event. The Ancient World was chaotic in nature, and in almost 600 years of existence the Library endured countless military conflicts.
Its buildings and facilities were destroyed gradually, mostly as collateral victims and not main targets. The damage could have been repaired, but during times of hardship Alexandria directed its money towards essential needs and not the library.
As the damage accumulated and the scrolls were lost, the Library reached a tipping point around the 3rd century BC when it just wasn’t worth trying to repair and maintain it anymore, and it fell into disuse.
The Quest for Jesus’s Foreskin
Jesus was Jewish. Jews get circumcised soon after birth. Thus, religious believers thought it was possible to somehow obtain the foreskin of Jesus, and that it contained miraculous powers.
The first reports of Jesus’s foreskin appeared in the year 800 AD, when Charlemagne gave this supposed foreskin to the Pope as a way of saying “thank you for making me Emperor”.
Misunderstanding: The problem with biological parts is that they don’t really survive for long when detached from the body.
This implies that Jesus’s foreskin was somehow preserved soon after birth, and then kept hidden away somewhere for 800 years. All while keeping solid evidence that it was the real deal.
Considering Jesus’s historical importance, there is an above 0 chance this may have actually happened (although it would be a veeeeeeery small chance).
The second problem however, was that numerous European cities and towns claimed to house the foreskin of Jesus, all at the same time.
As a result, you ended up with thousands, if not hundred of thousands of people, who came in pilgrimage and prayed to false foreskins of Jesus.
This is an embarrassing episode for the Catholic Church, and they would prefer it if people don’t talk about it, or else they will be excommunicated.
When some guy tricked a country into thinking he was the Emperor
From 1598 to 1613, the Tsardom of Russia (predecessor of the Russian Empire) suffered a severe succession crisis when no heir apparent was available to take the throne.
As a result, bloody politics happened. Numerous factions within and outside the Tsardom started fighting for the throne, pushing their own candidate as a legitimate ruler of the country.
The Misunderstanding: The hero of this story is called False Dmitry I. Very little is known about him until the year 1600, when he was around 18 years old.
That being said, many historians believe his true name to have been Yuri Otrepyev, and carried the monk named Grigory.
Between the years 1600 and 1602, Yuri claimed to be the rightful heir to the Russian throne. Apparently, he was so convincing, that Russian authorities wanted to arrest him.
Dmitry then escaped Moscow and took refuge in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. There, he made friends in high places and slowly convinced the country’s elite that he was the real deal. Finally, he obtained sufficient resources to gather up a small army, and marched into Russia.
As luck would have it, the illegitimate Russian tsar, Boris Godunov, died soon after the start of the invasion. This removed the final obstacle to Dmitry’s path to the throne, and he became tsar in 1605.
Unfortunately for him, he was rather unpopular with the nobles who assassinated him 10 months later.
A German politician created a misunderstanding to start a war
Germany as we know it today is a young country. For hundreds of year up until 1871, most of what we today call Germany had been tens of very small states and free cities, usually under the influence (but not outright control) of Austria, and later on Prussia.
By 1870, Prussia had managed to replace Austria as the dominant and most important German-speaking state. Prussia was now after the ultimate prize: unifying with all of the little states and cities to form the German Empire.
The Misunderstanding: At the time, Prussia was led by Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, a cunning and highly capable politician.
Bismarck knew that the biggest obstacle towards German unification was the opposition from its neighboring power, France.
However, he couldn’t declare war on France directly, since the smaller German states still wanted to keep their independence and would have perceived a Prussian started war as an outright annexation.
So he instead decided to manipulate reports of a diplomatic meeting between the Prussian King and a French diplomat to make it seem like each had insulted the other.
The manipulation became known as the Ems Dispatch, and outraged France into declaring war on Prussia.
This then pushed the German states firmly into the arms of Prussia, which won the conflict, and then promptly unified and formed the German Empire.
Allies accidentally bomb the wrong city in World War II
During WW2, the Allies heavily bombed industrial German cities in an effort to cripple the country’s production capacities.
In February 22nd 1944, one such raid was tasked with bombing the German city of Gotha or Eschwege.
The Misunderstanding: On that particular day, the weather was unusually cloudy. So much so that many of the planes lost visual contact with one another and the organized formation started to break. Soon, many bombers simply broke off the raid and returned to their airbase.
At the some point, weather conditions became so bad the raid was cancelled altogether, and all bombers were ordered back home before they reached their primary targets.
As protocol dictated, on the way back they had to find a target of opportunity on German territory. This meant any target that had a minimal strategic importance.
Unfortunately, because of poor weather conditions and bad communication, the bombers mistakenly believed the Dutch city of Nijmegen was a German town, so they proceeded to launch their bombs.
To make matters worse, most of the payload fell right on the city center, and not at the railway station the bombers were aiming at.