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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
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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
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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