The cabbage myth returns: EU cabbage regulations don’t have 26,911 words

8 August 2019
What was claimed

There are 26,911 words in the EU regulations on the sale of cabbages.

Our verdict

This is false. It’s a long-running myth that has been around since the 1951, and was originally about a USA government agency.

A post on Facebook compares the small number of words in famous texts, such as the Lord’s Prayer and the US Declaration of Independence, with the supposed word count of “EU regulations on the sale of cabbages”, which it claims is 26,911.

It isn’t true. The EU does not currently have any regulations we can find that specifically cover the sale of cabbages.

In fact, this is an old American urban legend that has been circulating for almost seventy years, and was originally nothing to do with the EU.

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The cabbage myth

The claim that an organisation’s cabbage regulations contain precisely “26,911 words” is a myth that dates back to 1951, several years before the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the European Union) was even created. That claim was originally about the USA’s Office of Price Stabilization (OPS) during the Korean War, and was itself a variation on an even earlier claim that dates from 1943.     

The claim has been repeatedly debunked by various media outlets over several decades, but still persists.

The history of the “great cabbage hoax” is explained in a 2010 academic paper by Gary Alan Fine and Barry O’Neill, which drew on a 1965 study by Max Hall. There is a seed of truth in its history: the origin is thought to be a wire received in 1943 by the Office of Price Administration (the predecessor of the OPS during World War II), from a business organisation in Kansas, in response to the issuing of an over-wordy regulation about cabbage seeds:

The Ten Commandments contain 297 words

The Lord’s Prayer 56

The Declaration of Independence 1821

The Gettysburg Address 266

And it took an OPA lawyer 2611 words to say cabbage seed (Brassica capitata) is the seed used to grow cabbage.

Although an exaggeration for comic effect, the wire’s contents were subsequently reported as fact by Reader’s Digest , and mentioned in the Senate that year. When the OPS was formed in 1951 during the Korean War, the legend was revived by various publications—changing cabbage seed to cabbages generally, and increasing the word count tenfold, initially to a round 25,000, before settling on 26,911 (the seeming precision giving it an air of plausibility).

The myth continued to spread across the media throughout the 1950s, and was revived again in the late 1970s and 1980s as deregulation became a political topic; 1977 is also the first known instance of the target switching to Europe,   with the famous US broadcaster Walter Cronkite ascribing it to  European Common Market regulations about duck eggs.

Throughout this time, the number of words has generally remained stable at 26,911 (with occasional variations), although the subject of the regulation is sometimes changed to duck eggs, caramel, foghorns or other items.

In recent years the myth has appeared in columns in both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, and the version about duck eggs was mentioned in parliament twice in the 2000s.

So how does the EU regulate cabbages?

We have been unable to find any current EU regulations that apply specifically to cabbages; when the BBC covered the cabbage myth in 2016, they reached the same conclusion. (Cabbages are, of course, mentioned in plenty of regulations.)

Three cabbage-related regulations did exist in the past: one from 1966 on “quality standards for cabbages, brussels sprouts and ribbed celery”; its successor from 1987 on “quality standards for cabbages, Brussels sprouts, ribbed celery, spinach and plums”, and one from 2006 governing the “marketing standard applicable to headed cabbages”.

All three regulations have since been repealed. None of them was 26,911 words long—in all three cases the word count of the text specifically dealing with cabbages was in the region of a thousand words.  

Held to a count

For what it’s worth, the other word counts in the claim are all in roughly the right ballpark, although some of them seem a bit off to us. Many of them are for texts that have multiple different versions of varying lengths, though, so it’s impossible to be precise.

Pythagoras’ theorem is basically a formula, but a common sentence version comes out at 22 words (the claim says 24). The Lord’s Prayer is claimed to have 66 words: the traditional Church of England version has 70; the Catholic version has 55. Archimedes principle, supposedly 67 words long according to the claim on Facebook, normally has twenty-something words depending which version of it you read, although it’s not what Archimedes actually wrote. The Ten Commandments (supposedly 179 words) can have somewhere between 76 words and over 300 depending on which source you choose. The Declaration of Independence has between 1,320 words and 1,458, depending on exactly what you count (the claim puts it at 1,300).  

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