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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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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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What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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