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What’s With the Word Order in ‘Believe You Me’?

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Trust me. I know what I’m talking about. You can rely on it. Believe you me.

One of these sentences is not like the others. There are many ways to emphasize a point in English, but only "believe you me" flouts the rules so extravagantly. The phrase basically means “believe me.” It's an imperative, and in an imperative, the “you” is understood; we don’t typically say it. Sometimes it can be added for emphasis, as in “You! Go!” or “Go, you!” but when there’s also an object, like the "me" in "believe me," we’d expect the “you” to come after it — “Believe me, you!” Why does “you” come before the object in “believe you me”?

This type of sentence construction has a history in English. The King James Bible contains examples like “be ye not proud” and “follow thou me.” Chaucer used it (“trust thou me well”), as did Spenser (“call ye me the Salvage Knight”), and Shakespeare (“mark ye me”).

These days, there are still a few phrases that make the implied imperative “you” explicit (“mind you,” “mark you,” “look ye,” “hear ye”) but only “believe you me” puts the “you” between the verb and its object. It looks like a frozen idiom. A phrase that got passed down from history and never bothered to change. End of story, right?

Apparently not. The strange thing about “believe you me” is that it seems to be a modern innovation. In a collection of 18th century English texts, it doesn’t appear once. (Neither does “believe ye me” nor “believe thou me.”) At the same time, “look ye” and “hear ye” show up all over the place. 

For the 19th and 20th centuries, a Google Ngram search shows that “hear ye” and “look ye” declined in use over time:

As did as the biblical phrases “command ye me” and “follow thou me”:

 

These charts fit the profiles of phrases that have stuck around, through frequent usage, from an earlier time with a different grammar. But what are we to make of the profile for “believe you me”? It only gets going in the 1920s. We didn’t inherit it from an earlier English at all:

 

The phrase begins its rise with the publication of the 1919 book Believe You Me, a light, popular comic novel about rough-and-tumble characters who use non-standard words and slang like “ain’t,” “says I,” and “holy smokes.” The phrase didn’t originate with the novel though. It’s clear that it was in use before the novel was published. The author picks it up in order it to evoke the kind of common people who use it.

So the phrase was already on the streets in 1919, but how did it get there? A possible answer lies...in Ireland.

A study of Belfast English by Alison Henry discusses how older speakers of some dialects of English in Belfast not only put the imperative “you” after verbs (“go you away,” “sit you down”), but also put it between the verb and an object (“put you it away,” “phone you them up,” “hand you me that parcel”). These speakers also use the phrase “believe you me.” It was probably brought to America during the great 19th century wave of Irish immigration, where it took root as non-standard slang until its wider debut in a popular novel spread it to the mainstream. The few 19th century examples of the phrase that can be found, in The Dublin University Magazine and The Christian Examiner and Church of Ireland Magazine, support the Irish origin account.

Of course, the use of the phrase in Ireland might itself trace back to the older English pattern, but it could also come from the grammar of Irish Gaelic, where the word order is verb-subject-object. In any case, as far as America is concerned, "believe you me" doesn’t reflect the long ago legacy of Chaucer and Spenser, but a more recent development, the slangy, boisterous, immigrant-led dialect of the streets that continues to enrich our language with every new wave.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

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 Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

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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