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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
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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