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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
How Are Royal Babies Named?
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Jack Taylor, Getty Images

After much anticipation, England's royal family has finally received a tiny new addition. The birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's second son was confirmed by Kensington Palace on April 23, but the name of the royal newborn has yet to be announced. For the heir to the British throne and his wife, choosing a name for their third child—who is already fifth in line to the throne—likely won't be as easy as flipping through a baby name book; it's tradition for royals to select names that honor important figures from British history.

According to ABC WJLA, selecting three or four names is typical when naming a royal baby. Will and Kate followed this unwritten rule when naming their first child, George Alexander Louis, and their second, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Each name is an opportunity to pay homage to a different British royal who came before them. Some royal monikers have less savory connotations (Prince Harry's given name, Henry, is reminiscent of a certain wife-beheading monarch), but typically royal babies are named for people who held a significant and honorable spot in the family tree.

Because there's a limited pool of honorable monarchs from which to choose, placing bets on the royal baby name as the due date approaches has become a popular British pastime. One name that keeps cropping up this time around is James; the original King James ruled in the early 17th century, and it has been 330 years since a monarch named James wore the crown.

If the royal family does go with James for the first name of their youngest son, that still leaves at least a couple of slots to be filled. So far, the couple has stuck with three names each for their children, but there doesn't seem to be a limit; Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to George VI in 1936, shouldered the full name of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.

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 Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

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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