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Why Is It That You "Can't Even" But You Never Find That You "Can Even"? 

It has nothing to do with the mesmeric power of Bandycoot Cabbagepatch's name or a particularly wow grammar of doge or anything else that might affect your ability to even. No, we need to go back to even's canonical use. For example, these sound fine:

She doesn't even go here.
She hasn't ever gone here.
She didn't go anywhere.

But these sound weird:

*She even goes here.
*She has ever gone here.
*She went anywhere.

What's up with these sentences? Even, and its friends ever and any, are a type of word known as a Negative Polarity Item (NPI). They work with a sentence that's already got a negative in it and make it even more negative, but they just don't sound right in the positive ones. You can think of them like the glass-half-empties of grammar.

So, it's fairly clear that I can't even is short for a longer phrase like I can't even handle this or I can't even think right now. And because even is an NPI, there's no equivalent I can even handle this or I can even think right now, so there's also no I can even.

And it's the same thing with just plain I can’t. It’s shortened from something like I can't go on or I can't understand why I like this so much. In theory there could be I can, but we don't seem to be using it the same way.

But then things get interesting. You see, the thing is, the incomplete phrases "I can't" and "I can't even" look an awful lot like far more common types of complete phrase, "I VERB" and "I can't VERB," as in "I know," "I can't sleep," and so on. What if we just pretended that can and even were actually normal verbs?

Well, in that case, you could do with can and even anything you could do with a normal verb. For example, you can talk about your ability to can/even, as in this delightful set of examples that I collected a while back:

"I am unable to can."
"I am unable to even."
"I have lost the ability to can."
"I have lost the ability to even."
"I am all out of can."
"I’ve lost all ability to can."
"I firmly believe in your ability to can."
"The world seemed to have lost the ability to can."
"I seem to have temporarily misplaced my ability to can."
"My ability to even continues to send me out-of-office emails."
"My ability to can has been compromised. For the rest of my life I will have to take medication to help me deal with my can deficiency."

Turning one part of speech into another is a really common thing to do, especially in English where we don't have a lot of prefixes or suffixes that tell you whether something's a noun or a verb. Thus we get a record from to record, or to blog from a blog from a web log. In fact, can and even themselves originally come from 16th century reanalyses of an Old English verb (can has the same root as know) and adverb (efne meaning "likewise, just, exactly").

But can you actually do everything with the new even and can that you can with a normal verb? Well, maybe not. There's a sizable online speech community that's completely fine with the variations on "ability to can/even" above and yet finds the examples below just a step too far:

"So emotional…I can’t even. Maybe I’ll even tomorrow."
"Successfully regained my ability to even! I’m quite good at evening!"
"I just got out of a meeting, so now I can stop evening."
"I evened for a while, but then I saw that gif and I couldn't even anymore."

What's the difference? It seems that using the uninflected to can or to even is an easier step than making it past (evened), future (I'll even), or progressive (evening).

So my best guess is that can and even are in a state of flux right now. At the moment, people are pushing them into new areas of grammar, but with full knowledge that they sound a bit weird, which I've called stylized verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence.

And we may stop there. Or, can and even may continue along the path towards full reanalysis. There are some things that are beyond even a linguist's ability to can.

Part of a new series on internet linguistics.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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 Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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