When your best friend from high school sends you an URGENT!!! email about the postcard virus, or your Aunt Tillie tells you she’s appalled that a new Pepsi-Cola can omits the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, you know what to do: go directly to Snopes.com to confirm or debunk. (In both of these cases, the latter.)
Since 1995, a California couple, David and Barbara Mikkelson, have run Snopes.com out of their home, doing dogged research into urban legends, “common fallacies, misinformation, old wives’ tales, strange news stories, rumors, celebrity gossip, and similar items” (according to their site’s FAQ).
Why did they name the site Snopes? New York Times technology columnist David Pogue asked David Mikkelson that question for a “CBS Sunday Morning” segment. He excerpted the conversation in his Personal Tech newsletter:
David Pogue: Where does the name Snopes come from?
David Mikkelson: Snopes come [sic] from a family of characters who recur in the works of William Faulkner. He typically had different families that represented a different strata of Southern society. And the Snopes[es] were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. But none of that has anything to do with the site. It just -- I knew the name Snopes from having read William Faulkner.
It was my nom de net. And then when we started the site, it turned out to be sort of fortuitous. Because it is so short and catchy and distinctive.
In the interview, Mikkelson quickly dispenses with several common rumors: Mikey from the Life cereal commercials did not die of an exploded stomach; the Chevy Nova was not a failure in South America because “no va” means “no go”; you cannot see the Great Wall of China from space. Oh, and Barack Obama? He’s not a Muslim. Pass it on.
Read a New York Times article about Snopes.com from April 2010.