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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 Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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 Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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