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How Do You Say "Pecan"?

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April is national pecan month, and while it’s easy to celebrate by cooking up some pecan treats, it’s a little hard to talk about it. Is it pih-KAHN or PEE-kan? Or maybe puh-KAN? There may be as many ways to say it as there are pecans in a pie. What makes this word so hard to pin down?

The main thing people disagree on is which syllable to stress. The pe-KAHN vs. PE-kan difficulty can be traced back to a problem that’s plagued English for a long time. English at its historical core is an old Germanic language that always puts stress on the first syllable in a two-syllable noun. The oldest English words, the ones that have been part of the language since before the Romance-language speaking continentals arrived on English shores, follow this pattern: mother, father, water, meadow, iron, apple, liver, marrow. (Words formed with prefixes like besmirch, forbear, and afoot did not follow the same pattern.) It is still the case that a high percentage of English words have first syllable stress.

But starting with the Norman invasion of 1066, English took on a giant wave of French influence, and French has second-syllable stress. Many of the earliest borrowings adjusted to the English stress pattern (montagnemountain, jardingarden, forêtforest, cicity, monnaiemoney), but later borrowings often didn’t adjust (advice, machine, homage, divorce, balloon, giraffe, chagrin) especially when they had to do with high-style living (façade, soufflé, chiffon, couture, buffet, carafe, panache, chauffeur).

This leads to a tension between the borrowed stress pattern and the native pattern that occasionally breaks through in dialect differences. The British, for example, say GAR-age, and VAC-cine, and, BAL-let. In some parts of the United States people say JU-ly, and PO-lice, and CI-gar, and GUI-tar, and CE-ment.

So where do pecans fit in? Pecans are native to the US, and their name ultimately goes back to an Algonquian root, pakan, but we got the name through the French explorers who called it pacane, stress on the second syllable. It’s been switching back and forth ever since. For what it’s worth, cashew does the same thing. As food items go, both are slightly exotic, and the second-syllable stress preserves a bit of their mystery.

As for the vowel issues, they follow from the stress confusion. Vowels can take on different forms depending on syllable stress, and when combined with the general regional variation in vowels all kinds of combinations become possible. The interesting thing about pecan is that you’d expect it to be PE-kan in the south, and pe-KAHN in the north based on the distribution of IN-surance vs in-SUR-ance or the second vowel of pajamas, as shown in these maps from Joshua Katz (based Bert Vaux's Harvard Dialect Study).

But this is the pecan map:

It’s not a North-South split, but rather looks to have something to do with the Appalachian Mountains. Even so, there’s a lot of variation within the map regions. Kathleen Purvis, who wrote a book on pecans, tells the story of how her parents had a pecan “mixed marriage.”

He was from Americus, a small town in South Georgia, and she was from the mighty city of Atlanta.

All of my childhood, I couldn’t say the word without being corrected: If I said “pah-cahn,” my father would accuse me of talking snobby. And if I said “pee-can,” my mother would sniff, “Pee-can? That’s something you put under the bed.”

She attributes the pecan split not to a general regional difference, but to an urban vs. rural one. Basically, “if you want to sound down-home or a little bit country, say ‘pee-can.’ If you want to sound a little more urbane, say ‘pah-cahn.’”

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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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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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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