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The Unusual Syntax of “Sexiest Man Alive”

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In the wake of People magazine’s announcement of its choice for this year’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” our thoughts, naturally, turn to the unusual syntax of this phrase.

Why “alive”? Isn’t that a given? Not quite. After all, this is not a competition between all the sexy men of history. That would be ridiculous, not to mention very hard to judge. “Alive” narrows the field, takes Gary Cooper and Alexander the Great out of the running. Let the dead men have their own competition.

However, “Sexiest Man Dead”? That doesn’t work, and the fact that it doesn’t reveals something interesting about the syntax of the phrase.

“Sexiest man” can be modified in various ways. It can take a prepositional phrase (Sexiest Man in the World, Sexiest Man with a Frog Tattoo, Sexiest Man in the Dentist’s Waiting Room). It can take a verb in the –ing form (the Sexiest Man Graduating, the Sexiest Man Flossing) or passive past participle form (the Sexiest Man Elected, the Sexiest Man Eaten by an Anaconda). It can also take a full relative clause (the Sexiest Man who Rides the 8:55 Train). Alive is none of those things. It’s an adjective, and this construction does not work with other adjectives, dead included. The Sexiest Man Blond? The Sexiest Man Canadian? (We’re talking simple adjectives, not those derived from verb participles, like elected above.)

So why is “alive” the only adjective that fits in this construction? Actually, there is a small set of other adjectives that also work here, and the thing they have in common is etymological history. Alive originated in the Old English phrase on life. It was a prepositional phrase, one that got reanalyzed along the way into a single word, an adjective.

The other phrases that underwent this change are on flote, an slæpe, and on waecnan. In their current forms, they work beautifully in the “Sexiest Man” construction. Really, some magazine should judge a winner for these categories too:

“Sexiest Man Afloat!”
“Sexiest Man Asleep!”
“Sexiest Man Awake!”

Adrift, formed on analogy with afloat also works, as do a few other words where the initial a- can be traced back to the meaning “on”: afire, aflame, ablaze.

Do you like hot guys? Well, you’re gonna love the Sexiest Man Ablaze!

There are some words that can be traced back to an on/a- phrase, however, that don’t sound right in the “Sexiest Man” frame because the part joined to the a- is too unrecognizable. Sexiest Man Aghast? (From gast, “to frighten.”) Aloof? (From luff “windward part of a ship.") And the words that we borrowed from French with the a- prefix already attached don’t sound quite right either. Sexiest Man Alert? Afraid? Agog? Not all a- prefixed adjectives will be suitable partners for a “Sexiest Man.” History and transparency matter.

So congratulations, Chris Hemsworth, on receiving this honor and once again bringing this linguistically fascinating phrase together for our inspection. In the firmament of Hollywood stars, may you remain the sexiest man ablaze, and on the sea of celebrity career striving may you remain the sexiest man afloat. At least until next year.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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