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Preparing yourself for law school is more than getting an LSAT score and a new laptop. One of my students found a list of 5,000 words and phrases entitled "What Literate Americans Know."  Much of it functions as a vocabulary list -- amnesty, amnesia, amino acids.  Since I'm more interested in the gaps in your historical knowledge, I've chosen several hundred names of people, places, and catch-phrases.  Some of them are fictitious, some are ancient, a few (like Elvis) should be obvious.  But all of them have some historical significance beyond the obvious one. 

Why do you need to know this stuff?  Because one day, if you're very lucky, you'll meet a senior partner at a law firm -- and he'll know these things.  And if you don't, you may join the ranks of the unemployed. A poor background in Cultural Capital often hurts minority and disadvantaged lawyers. If you can't converse with well-educated clients, what good are you?

Despite its importance, I think over the years four or five of you have looked at it. When I reviewed it recently, I could see why: it's just too daunting. And where on earth are you going to find W.E.B. DuBois anyway?

Well, that answer's easy these days: Wiki knows everything! But there's still that daunting disarray. So I decided to spoon feed you nice, manageable chunks, already linked to their Wiki pages. That also gives us the advantage of being able to add throughout the years without worrying too much about the ABCs.

Our Wiki Challenge

Wiki Logo

The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. is a non-profit charitable corporation with 501(c)(3) tax exempt status in the United States .

We've linked every item on these lists to its Wikipedia article, and made a donation to them as a thank you. Now we challenge you in two ways:

1) We know our list is woefully incomplete. Send us any item with its Wiki link, and we'll add it; and

2) Make a donation to Wiki, even $5, as a thank you for their inspired work. To donate, click on that Wiki logo.

So without further ado, here's the "what the heck, why not look?"
version of cultural enrichment.

The Ancient World

The Medieval World

European Imperialism

Colonial America

The Civil War Era

Industrial Revolution

U.S. Legal Ideas

Nazis & Communists

World Events

Recent History



Art and Artists

Writers of all Sorts

Folk Icons


Famous Feminists

Awesome Athletes

Best Movies

Best Actors

Best Actresses

These lists had over 600 items when we posted them on December 25, 2009. We asked readers to send in more suggestions.  Some are brief and uncategorized addenda, and others got added into content lists. so there are now over 700 links. And as of July, 2016, all 700 were checked for accuracy.

How can a Wiki Link become "inaccurate"? A large category may be split, like stock; history may relegate an Event to a footnote. Or another person or place with the same name may require a "disambiguation" -- references to "Jihad" have multiplied!

Gary, my honorary nephew and sometime employee, added the first new link to our collection: Cape of Good Hope and Cape_Agulhas

I've decided to add Manhattan , because Peter Minuit, not Peter Stuyvesant , "bought" Manhattan from the natives.


Alexander_Solzhenitsyn is too famous a Soviet writer and often political prisoner to ignore. 

One of my film buffs says we must know the "Big 5" and "Little 3" studios.

"No Man's Land " is a phrase, like "Mexican Standoff ," much-used by an earlier generation, especially in the context of war. 

Xanadu is NOT a fictitious place, although much of Coleridge's poem by that name might be fiction. 

Iditarod Dog Sled Race Susan Butcher is famous for her controversial entry to and accomplishments in the Iditarod Dog Sled Race .  Although Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the Iditarod, in 1985, it has been suggested that she won only because Susan Butcher had to scratch after her team was demolished by a moose.

Liz Taylor made her fame, not as the goddess of films in the 1960s and 70s, but as a 12-year-old star in National Velvet in 1944. 

Now, returning to the original 600-plus list: 

The Ancient World

The Sphinx There are certain names in the ancient world everyone should know: King Tut; the Terra Cotta Warriors; Pompeii; Genghis Khan. Here's a list of 35 "should knows" of the world before 1000 AD, complete with their Wikipedia links.
Alexander Augustus Caesar Battle of Jericho Battle of Marathon Cleopatra
Coliseum Constantine Eskimos Colossus of Rhodes Confucius
Exodus Genghis Khan Jihad Julius Caesar King Tut
Marco Polo Kublai Khan Marc Antony Dead Sea Scrolls Mosque
Neanderthal Omar Khayyam Ozymandias Oracle of Delphi Pharaohs
Philistines Seven Wonders Stonehenge the Wailing Wall Ptolemy
of Giza

Hanging Gardens of Babylon Lighthouse of Alexandria Terra Cotta
Warriors at Xi'an
Great Wall of China

The Medieval World

From the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Italian Renaissance not much happened, and most of what did was associated with either wars and kingdoms or churches and religions. So even though I deliberately chose not to make either religion or war an actual topic, they were pretty much unavoidable here. Feel free to send in suggestions to add to these 35, but the more secular and pacifist the better. Camelot
Bubonic Plague Aztec Byzantine Empire Calvinism The Crusades
Henry VIII Dark Ages Inquisition Inca Empire Joan of Arc
Machiavelli Erasmus Lucretia Borgia Magna Carta Martin Luther
Middle Ages Jesuit King Arthur Robin Hood Thomas More
Taj Mahal Mayan Spanish Armada the Hague Torquemada
Eleanor of Aquitaine Hundred Years' War Francis of Assisi Leonardo da Vinci Lorenzo de Medici
Cathedral of
Notre Dame
Tower of Pisa
(Free Masons)

European Imperialism

Don Quixote

If the line between Medievalism and the Renaissance seemed blurred, the one in this category is as ill-defined as a Monet painting . How can one separate European Imperialism from American Colonialism ? Badly, I admit. For instance, Ben Franklin was a politician in the Colonies, but you more likely remember that kite-and-key bit. Because this is a betwixt-and-between category, it's also a shorter one, with only 25 entries.

Bastille Henry Hudson Adam Smith King James Bible Jean Paul Marat
Guillotine Ponce de León Francis Drake Marie Antoinette Marquis de Sade
Puritans Queen Isabella Huguenots Queen Elizabeth I Ottoman Empire
Quakers Queen Victoria Reformation Reign of Terror Vasco da Gama
of Lourdes
Sir Walter

Colonial America

This list runs a bit later than the previous one -- more like 1600 to 1800 rather than the 1500s to 1700s -- but more importantly is focused on what is now the United States of America. This list might be particularly useful to immigrants, because these 30 items are names most U.S. students learn in elementary school. American Colonists
Abigail Adams Benjamin Franklin Alamo Betsy Ross Andrew Jackson
Boston Tea Party Federalist Papers Creoles John Smith Dolley Madison
Henry Hudson Independence Day Mayflower Liberty Bell James Madison
John Hancock Peter Stuyvesant Tecumseh Paul Revere John Winthrop
Plymouth Rock Washington Irving Manhattan Pocahontas William Penn
Articles of
de Tocqueville
Salem Witch

The Civil War Era

Uncle Tom's Cabin I could easily (and often do) argue that the seeds of the American Civil War were sown in the English Civil War and the results have not yet ended. More traditionally, however, the period from perhaps the 1830s (when the Abolitionist Movement began to gain momentum as the clause in the Constitution [Article 1, Section 9] permitting the ending of the importation of slaves was ignored) to 1877, when the Reconstruction Era ended. All of the words in this category connect to the Great Unpleasantness in some way, no matter what else may cause their notoriety.
 Abraham Lincoln Stonewall Jackson  Robert E. Lee Brigham Young Annapolis
Daniel Webster  Reconstruction Confederacy Charles Sumner Dred Scott
Ulysses S. Grant Mason-Dixon Line Oregon Trail Harriet Tubman Fort Sumter
Jefferson Davis Fredrick Douglas Appomattox Sojourner Truth Mormon
Thaddeus Stevens Stephen Foster Juneteenth Stephen Douglas  Nat Turner
John Brown Gettysburg
Harriet Beecher
Land Grant

The Industrial Revolution…

the Locomotive Between the invention of the Singer Sewing Machine and Black Tuesday was a time of wealth and immigration, Capitalism and Union-Busters . These were the Ellis Island years, when America became the multiethnic world in which we now live.  Subways were invented, as well as the Model T Ford .  Cities grew and slums took seed.  If you know nothing earlier than this, you might survive; if you don’t know something about this part of U.S. history, you won’t make it in the Big Law world. 
Erie Canal Jane Addams Das Kapital Charles Lindbergh Statue of Liberty
Henry Ford Robber Baron Fanny Bryce Dale Carnegie The Vanderbilts
ILGWU Andrew Mellon Mark Twain Andrew Carnegie Langston Hughes
Kitty Hawk Sigmund Freud Mother Jones Albert Schweitzer Great Depression
Irish Potato
Washington Carver 
John D.
Wright Brothers
(Orville & Wilbur)

…and its Legal Implications

Big changes like the vast immigration through Ellis Island and the explosion of capitalism through two gold rushes (California and Alaska ) don’t happen without legal repercussions.  If you want to impress your law professors, investigate most or all of these legal giants. Sacco and Vanzetti


AFL-CIO Huey Long Ku Klux Klan W.E.B. DuBois Sharecropping
Boss Tweed New Deal Rough Riders Clarence Darrow Fiorello La Guardia
Judge Crater Sitting Bull Scopes Trial Teddy Roosevelt Nelson Rockefeller
Antonio Lopez
de Santa Anna
Susan B.
Oliver Wendell
Holmes, Jr.
Jennings Bryan
Franklin Delano

Nazis and Communists

Nazi army Between the election of FDR and the election of JFK , the world was in quite an uproar.  Having been born and raised in the United states, I of course know more of the U.S. version of events, and they include the following 25 items:


Adolf Eichmann Auschwitz Ayn Rand Benito Mussolini George Orwell
Herman Goering Cold War Berlin Wall George M. Cohan Joseph Stalin
Joseph Goebbels Dachau Hiroshima Leni Riefenstahl Paul Robeson
Winston Churchill Vichy France Kamikaze Lillian Hellman Pearl Harbor
Nuremberg Trials Eleanor Roosevelt Dwight
Senator Joseph McCarthy Julius & Ethel

...and Other World Events

Se. Joseph McCarthy While we were busy singing “Over There” (you want to hear it?) and “The House I Live In,” (this one’s vintage Sinatra, folks, so don’t miss it! ) a lot of people were singing other songs in other languages.  I don’t know the songs, but I can name 25 people, places, and events that were perhaps more interesting in their countries than James Cagney . 


T.E. Lawrence Carl Jung Boat People Alfred Dreyfus Common Market
Chou En-Lai Cossacks Ho Chi Minh Emiliano Zapata Mao Tse-Tung
Vladimir Lenin Karl Marx Eiffel Tower Friedrich Engels Mohandas Gandhi
the Pogroms Emile Zola Kilimanjaro White Russians College of Cardinals
Chiang-Kai-Shek Jawaharlal

Civil Rights and the Seventies

After all that history, we arrived at the period that we old folks consider “the present.”  You know:  the Beatles , Jimi Hendrix , LSD , Flower Power , the Viet Nam war . Janis Joplin, Janis Ian , and Grace Slick …and these 35 other people and places. FTA

Andrew Young

Earl Warren



American Friends
Service Committee

Black Panthers

Hanoi Jane


J. Edgar Hoover

Birmingham, Alabama

Cesar Chavez



Jackie Robinson

Lee Harvey Oswald

Garry Trudeau

Ku Klux Klan


Thurgood Marshall

Dr. Benjamin Spock


Malcolm X


Louis Farrakhan

Charles Hamilton Houston

Huey Newton

Ralph Ellison

Strip Mines

My Lai Massacre

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jesse Jackson

Rosa Parks


Three Mile Island

William O. Douglas


Special Interests  

Okay, now that we’ve covered the general history of the world in 300 words, we’re going to look at those areas that only certain people care about.  Who are those certain people? We don’t know. They might be the people who interview for Cravath , or one of the most favored clients at Milbank . They might be your supervising attorney at your summer internship, or your father’s second cousin, the judge. I wouldn’t bother you with them, but I’ve seen people lose jobs over them.

Philosophers and Social Theorists

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is another “where do you draw the line?” category. Certainly Buddha is a philosopher, but he’s famous as a religious leader. Martin Luther King is thought of as a shrewd political activist, so people forget that he was also deeply philosophical. Is Ayn Rand a philosopher or a novelist? My philosophy professors gave a very different answer from my Objectivist friends.  Nonetheless, it’s a list of 25 names that will spark conversation in virtually any educated circle.
Aristotle Confucius Ayn Rand D.H. Lawrence Friedrich Engels
Carl Jung Nihilism John Locke John Stuart Mill Francis of Assisi
Karl Marx Sappho Machiavelli Vladimir Lenin Thomas Hobbes
Plato Socrates Francis Bacon W.E.B. DuBois Mahatma Gandhi
Jean Paul
Henry David
Ralph Waldo



If you thought some of the other lists were arbitrary, wait'll you see this one! I could triple it without blinking -- I am, after all, the woman with 7,000 songs on her mp3 player. But I've tried to stick with my theme — who do the senior partners know? That still took me a bit afield, and could easily have taken me further, but I applied my other rule: the goal isn't to teach you everything, it's to teach you something. So, without further apology, here's a list of 35 names you might want to recognize.

There was absolutely no way to choose one person to represent the music industry; even if I were willing to name, say, Billy Joel, how would I choose a song? But then I remembered the song they all sang:


Al Jolson Mario Lanza Bessie Smith Bette Midler Antonio Vivaldi
Bob Dylan Billy Holiday Enrico Caruso Duke Ellington George Gershwin
Franz Liszt Elvis Presley Frank Sinatra Claude Debussy Dionne Warwick
Cole Porter Ella
Woody Guthrie Josephine Baker Louis Armstrong
Scott Joplin Eddie Cantor Roberta Flack Frédéric Chopin Marian Anderson
Ludwig van

Artists and Art Forms

Ceramic sculpture by Jennifer McCurdy

Artists represent another endless category: Hitler painted roses , after all. And Marcel DuChamp said, "If it sells, it's art." But again I went for popular names of a certain age group, and gave you 30 talking points should the conversation wander to the other Met (the one without the music) . (Here's the one with the music)

Jennifer McCurdy's porcelains are so exquisite that I'm including a link for those who want more.

Michelangelo Art Deco Frank Lloyd Wright Van Gogh Art Nouveau
Impressionists Cubism Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa Diego Rivera
Andrew Wyeth El Greco Grandma Moses Botticelli Edgar Degas
Auguste Rodin Fresco Norman Rockwell Bas Relief Louis Tiffany
Salvador Dali Goya Peter Paul Rubens Surrealism Pablo Picasso
Henri Matisse Renoir Georgia O'Keeffe Rembrandt Paul Gauguin

Authors and Journalists

The title was easy -- the definition, impossible. Do we include epics to epigrams ? Ancient to Post-Modern? Drama, poetry, newspaper features? And what about Dear Abby and Miss Manners (or, for the guys, Dave Barry and Gene Weingarten )? So we just shrugged our shoulders and tried to create a potpourri of writers of all sorts. I drew the line at murder mysteries and Harlequin Romances , but there's probably at least one of everything else in this list of 45 writers.  
Erma Bombeck Walt Whitman Mark Twain Norman Mailer William Faulkner
Robert Frost Marcel Proust Victor Hugo Lillian Hellman Langston Hughes
Jane Austen H. L. Mencken Oscar Wilde Carl Sandburg Gina Barecca
J.D. Salinger Aldous Huxley Jules Verne Joan Didion F. Scott Fitzgerald
Isabel Allende Eugene O'Neill Franz Kafka Anton Chekhov Ernest Hemingway
George Elliot George Orwell T.S. Elliot Damon Runyan Edgar Allan Poe
Ralph Ellison Garry Trudeau Alice Walker James Michener Laura Z. Hobson
Virginia Woolf Dorothy Parker H.G. Wells Rudyard Kipling Ambrose Bierce
Bernard Shaw
Fran Lebowitz Tennessee
Marge Piercy William

Legends and Folk Heroes

You know who these people are; they’re the ones who, when mentioned in conversation, cause older people to respond to the blank look on your face by saying, “You mean you’ve never heard of…?” Then they either politely explain or kindly change the subject of conversation.  And you’ve lost – the job, the seat in the law school, the date, the contract, the whatever it was that you lost for want of a nail. 

You may notice that some of these people and places are on other lists as well.  Sinatra is a singer, but he’s also a folk icon whom you must know, especially if you’re within 500 miles of New Jersey.  T.S. Eliot wrote the poems that became the musical “Cats ,” but no one will think you’re ill-educated for failing to know that.  (On the other hand, knowing could land you a summer internship.)  Some of these references are fictitious; others are real, but the reason people use them isn’t (like Timbuktu, for example). 

One reference that seems to be lost on most people under 30, and is really essential to the culture of the Western World, is Judy Garland . To tell you that she was "Dorothy" in "The Wizard of Oz" is to show you one facet of a diamond. But which other facet to show? Luckily, I found a two-fer: Judy Garland singss a duet with Barbra Streisand . Now that's a pair of legends!


 Bessie Smith

Coney Island

 Big Ben

 Rube Goldberg

Elvis Presley Doonesbury Edgar Cayce Camelot the Jolly Roger

John Henry

 Don Quixote

 Frank Sinatra


 Jean Paul Sartre

 Helen Keller


 Gordian Knot


 Johnny Appleseed

 Paul Bunyan

 Lee Iacocca

 Norman Mailer


 Norman Rockwell

the Phoenix

 P.T. Barnum

 Sancho Panza

 Peter Pan

 Robinson Crusoe

 Will Rogers


Typhoid Mary


 Woody Guthrie

 Charles A.


 Loch Ness


 Pied Piper of


Catch-Phrases and Odd References

  “From here to Timbuktu.” As I mention above, Timbuktu is a real place. “Ivy League:” you thought it referred to a quality education, not a football league. Well Stanford will give an excellent, awesome, superb, education, but not an Ivy League one.  It’s in the PAC-12 .  So figure out not just what these 30 items are, but why people say them. 


[A temple in Timbuktu, Mali]



Bible Belt Ides of March Camelot Occam's Razor Boston Tea Party
Filibuster Off-Broadway Catch-22 Nouveau Riche Custer's Last Stand
Kamikaze Pandora's Box 7 Sisters Oedipus Complex Mason-Dixon Line
Emily Post Pyrrhic Victory Deja Vu Oracle of Delphi Harlem Renaissance
Q.E.D. Golden Rule E = MC2 Rock of Gibraltar Sword of Damocles
Gallup Poll Yin and Yang Hara Kiri The Prodigal Son Cultural Resources


Famous Feminists  


Marching in DC Sister Suffragettes

Some feminists, like Emmeline Pankhurst , are famous simply for being feminists.  Others, like Alice Walker , are famous for their writing, which (not coincidentally) covers ground-breaking feminist turf.  A third group were just stubborn women who refused to be deterred, thereby becoming legends, like Rosa Parks

A fourth group of famous women, whose fame is based on behavior which is not particularly associated with feminism, like Marilyn Monroe , have been omitted.  But such women are included in other lists; Marie Antoinette is in the section on Imperialism, and Typhoid Mary is in the catch-phrases. Besides, given my own feminist background, I had to work hard to keep this list under 50. (And yes, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein are adjacent deliberately.)


Isadora Duncan Judy Chicago Colette
Elizabeth Blackwell Amy Lowell
Leona Helmsley Hillary Clinton Emma Goldman Florence Nightingale k.d. lang
Margaret Mead Annie Oakley Emma Lazarus Helen Gurley Brown N.O.W.
Martha Stewart Alice B. Toklas Gertrude Stein Jacqueline Cochran Lucy Stone
Phyllis Wheatley Betty Friedan Gloria Steinem Katherine Graham Mary Cassat
Rita Mae Brown Lucretia Mott Myra Bradwell Geraldine Ferraro Willa Cather
Amelia Earhart Barbara
Oprah Winfrey Shirley Chisholm Twyla Tharp
Louisa May Alcott

Mary Bethune

Sally Gearhart Susan Brownmiller Angela Davis
Drinker Bowen
Perkins Gilman
Elizabeth Cady
Isabella Stewart Gardner Zora Neale



Some will argue that this is the most important list, because sports is what everyone knows. Others will argue that this is the most useless list, because sports is what everyone knows. A third group will argue that this is the most useless list because it doesn't include the time-honored male-dominated team sports that we have come to know and either love or hate.

So I admit: these are the also-rans -- or at least the rans. They are the track and field legends, tennis players, the swimmers and divers; they are the skiers and skaters, long-jumpers and discus-throwers, who are so often ignored in favor of those Damn Yankees . I chose fifty from a tradition that spans over 1800 years, so of course I neglected your favorites. I'm sorry. Send them in to me, and we'll gather them for the anniversary page. But if they're members of a televised team sport, they have to be real legends, not a mere Pete Rose .


Olympics Babe Didrikson Al Oerter Brian Boitano Arthur Ashe
Gabriela Sabatini Jimmy Connors Babe Ruth Eddie Arcaro Jim Thorpe
Ingemar Stenmark Wilma Rudolph Carl Lewis Irina Rodnina Chris Evert
Jackie Robinson Althea Gibson Kip Keino Jesse Owens Eric Heiden
Serena Williams Greg Louganis Jack Kelly John McEnroe Janet Evans
Venus Williams Peggy Fleming Bobby Riggs Joe DiMaggio Janet Lynn
Billy Jean King Robin Cousins Jim Ryun Dick Fosbury Mark Spitz
Dorothy Hamill Frank Shorter Steffi Graf
Edwin Moses Bob Beamon
Evelyn Ashford Mickey Mantle Bob Seagren Andre Agassi Joan Benoit
Jackie Joyner
Griffith Joyner

Best Movies

We threw in the towel here. There's just no way we could pull a list of movies you should know. Yeah, sure, everyone can name Casablanca and the African Queen. But what about The Miracle Worker, or To Kill a Mockingbird: do we have to specify editions and years? Do we include musicals? comedies? documentaries?

So we've cheated; we let somebody else do the work. I did make sure, though, that most of my favorites were represented -- a straw poll of one, granted, but it IS my web page :)


Click here for an astonishingly exhaustive list of movies.

Best Actors -- Female and Male

The 100 best Actors and Actresses of all Time

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon

There are too many lists. I couldn't use the IMDb list because it went by box office instead of skill, and included Arnold Schwarzenneger. I couldn't use the best of the 20th century, because it didn't include Meryl Streep! I finally found a list I could live with, even if I would have made a few substitutions. I especially like it because it doesn't limit itself to American actors or films.

I would add a few recent names: Emily Blunt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Viola Davis, Salma Hayek, Taraji P. Henson, Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Brad Pitt.


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