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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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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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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Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane
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What should be worn during takeoff?

Tony Luna:

If you are a frequent flyer, you may often notice that some passengers like to kick off their shoes the moment they've settled down into their seats.

As an ex-flight attendant, I'm here to tell you that it is a dangerous thing to do. Why?

Besides stinking up the whole cabin, footwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information.

During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren't properly covered, you'll have a hard time making your way to safety.

Imagine destroying your bare feet as you run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards. Kind of like John McClane in Die Hard, but worse. Ouch!

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
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A mere couple of seconds delay during an emergency evacuation can be a matter of life and death, especially in an enclosed environment. Not to mention the entire aircraft will likely be engulfed in panic and chaos.

So, the next time you go on a plane trip, please keep your shoes on during takeoff, even if it is uncomfortable.

You can slip on a pair of bathroom slippers if you really need to let your toes breathe. They're pretty useless in a real emergency evacuation, but at least they're better than going barefoot.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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