In vino veritas: The story behind truth serums

This post is in reaction to a Blogging101 assignment that stated we had to personalise a post based on the Daily Prompt. The prompt in this case was called Truth Serum and I thought I’d do a non-fiction spin on it.

Michelle* and I are sharing an end-of-week wine drinking session.  The bottle of chardonnay is chilled, gently sweating tiny drops of condensation onto the table where it stands reflecting the amber glow of the setting sun. And getting progressively more empty.

A strange thing happens as the wine level in the bottle drops.  A secret surfaces. An idea that I have been guarding very closely for some weeks gently floats to the top of my increasingly wine drenched mind and settles on the couch between Michelle and I.

It’s no crisis – Michelle is, after all, a good friend and the secret is nothing embarrassing: merely an idea that I had wanted to keep to myself a little longer, to develop a bit more before sharing with others.

But what happened there? For a second, it was almost as though I really could not control which information I chose to share and which to keep close to my chest. If alcohol can do this to us; is there really such a thing as a truth serum, then?

The answer seems to be yes and no. So-called truth serums are shrouded in mystery and are something we therefore always associate with books on espionage or the latest action film with an antagonist named Yuri.

But a quick Google search on truth serums shows that people have long experimented with different drugs that would make informants more amenable to sharing certain information. The idea was, in fact, first put forward by a certain Dr. Robert House in 1922 after he noticed that scopolamine, administered to women during childbirth, had the strange effect of making these women much more candid than normal. Given the ethical questions surrounding these drugs, few proper clinical trials have been conducted and in those that have, the success rate is unclear as it would seem that people who are deceitful when sober can maintain the deceit while under the influence of a so-called truth serum such as Scopolamine.

And, yes, alcohol is probably one of the most basic truth serums out there, though we don’t always think of it that way. It’s no secret that alcohol reduces our inhibitions, cancelling out the neocortex’s regulating function and allowing our more primal brain to take over.

The Latin expression “In vino veritas” (In wine, there is truth) encapsulates this perfectly. In fact, the truth serum-properties of wine were well-known even during the time of the Roman empire, when contemporary historian Tacitus noted that Germanic tribes would always hold their councils while drinking, as it was believed that it was impossible to lie when drunk.

The sentiment behind In vino veritas is also culturally ubiquitous, with many languages having similar expressions. In Russia, what a sober man has on his mind, a drunk man has on his tongue. In China, it is commonly accepted that after wine blurts truthful speech.

And here in South Africa, I have another bottle of chardonnay chilling in the fridge. As an aspiring non-fiction writer I do, after all, hold the pursuit of truth and journalistic integrity as my utmost responsibilities. A toast, then, as I chant along to this ditty (titled In vino veritas), which was written by Benjamin Cooke in the 1770s:

Round, round with the glass, boys, as fast as you can,

Since he who don’t drink cannot be a true man.

For if truth is in wine, then ’tis all but a whim

To think a man’s true when the wine’s not in him.

Drink, drink, then, and hold it a maxim divine

That there’s virtue in truth, and there’s truth in good wine!

*Names have been changed in order to protect the drinkers’ identities.


Keep calm and carry on (being fascinated)

Walk through my office door and it’s pretty much the first thing you’re confronted with. Hanging against the wall behind my desk, in a simple black frame, is a poster with five little words on it. A motto to live by:

Keep calm and carry on

More than just being sensible words to live by, though, this poster is an icon for insatiable curiosity and viewing the world with wonder. It represents the power of story in our lives. Not quite convinced? Allow me to persuade you.

I have always liked the Keep Calm and Carry On posters. The simple design and the sensible, dry irony behind the injunction to keep calm appealed to me immediately. So I bought one and hung it up on my office wall, assuming that, like so much in our lives, the poster was the brainchild of some corporate advertising genius. Just do it, Eat Fresh, Have a break, Have a Kit Kat. Keep calm and carry on.

Then one day I was looking at the poster and I thought, wait a minute – what exactly are you selling with a slogan like “Keep calm and carry on”? I looked into it and found, to my surprise,  that the answer is exactly that – you’re selling keeping calm and carrying on.

The poster was designed in 1939 by the British government as one in a range of propaganda posters intended to boost public morale. Even though about two million of them were printed, though, the posters were never distributed and therefore never seen by the British public.

“Keep calm and carry on” only became the phenomenon it currently is in 2000, when the owner of a second-hand bookstore in Northumberland discovered one in an old box and put it up in his store. Soon they were selling copies and the rest, as they say, is history.

I love how discovering these everyday little facts can make life so much richer. I look at my poster now and I wonder about the stories of those it was intended for originally. Perhaps a scared mother huddling in a bomb shelter with two young children. People who needed to hear that, whatever happens, you just keep calm and keep on living your life. I love how humanity is so connected in that simple need, and how even I, in 2014, need to look at a poster to remind myself sometimes to just carry on. I like thinking about the story behind this poster and how it lay, forgotten, for 50 years before being rediscovered, and I wonder if anything I do will be either remembered or rediscovered 50 years from now. I’m reminded, every time I look at it, to be curious about the things I see around me and to go and search for the deeper stories behind them.

Sitting behind my desk as the workload piles up, I look at the poster on the wall, and remember that I am just a tiny little piece in a very large puzzle of humanity. I take a deep breath. I keep calm. I carry on.

Watch a short video on the Story of Keep Calm and Carry On below:

What’s the story?

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” – Philip Pullman

I have always been drawn to stories. I seek shelter in stories and draw nourishment and companionship from them.

For the past few years, though, I’ve found myself inhabiting a much different world – not of stories but facts and figures. Increasingly I feel that, in the story of my life, I’ve somewhat lost the plot.

This blog is a small step toward regaining that plot and reviving an interest that has gone neglected for too long. It’s about things that inspire, motivate and intrigue me – the stories behind everyday things. My hope is that you will follow along because the everyday things presented here inspire, motivate and intrigue you, too.

Everything and everybody has a story. I want to learn and tell as many of them as possible.