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Why Is It “Woe Is Me” Instead Of “I Am Woe”?

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It’s a silent movie staple. The heroine weeps in the pouring rain, having just discovered her first true love to be a scoundrel. She has lost everything. She turns her eyes heavenward with a tortured look and the title card appears: “Oh—woe is me!” It’s a phrase we still use, with a wink of melodramatic irony, but there’s something grammatically strange about it. Shouldn’t it be “Woe am I”? Or better yet, “I am woe”?

The phrase was first formed long before the era of the silent movie, even long before Shakespeare (Ophelia says it in Act 3 of Hamlet), in a time when English grammar worked differently. The first citation of the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1240, and it goes all the way back to the 10th century for pronouns other than me (like in the phrase “Woe is them”). Back then English had what’s called a dative case. The dative case is used for an indirect object or where we would now have a preposition. For example, “This is difficult for me” was Uneaðe me is ðis (“difficult me is this”). “It would be better for him if he were never born” was Him wære bettere ðæt he næfre geboren wære (“him were better that he never born were”). The preposition for isn’t necessary in those examples because the dative form of me (or him) includes that sense. (This sense hangs on in phrases like “She gave me a dollar,” where the meaning is “She gave a dollar to me.”) The phrase “Woe is me” did not mean “Me and woe are one and the same thing,” but rather “Woe is to me” or “Woe is unto me.”

The dative sense is clearer in biblical phrases like “Woe unto them” or in other Germanic languages that still have a dative pronoun. German has Weh ist mir, not *Weh ist ich. Yiddish has Oy vey iz mir, not *Oy vey iz ikh.

The dative is also in play for another archaic term that seems grammatically odd to our modern ears, methinks. The thinks in methinks is not from the verb think we are all familiar with but from a different Old English verb meaning “to seem.” Methinks means “it seems to me.” Me has the dative sense “to me” in that phrase.

As Patricia O'Conner says in her book Woe is I, "'Woe is me' has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit--or an author trying to make a point--would use 'I' instead of 'me' here." So don't think about it too much. "Woe is me" is just another one of the many phrases in English that are handed down whole to us from history with bits of old grammar locked in place. We just have to put up with it. Woe is we. Wait, scratch that. Woe is us.

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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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