Why Do Americans Say ‘Uh’ and ‘Um’ and British People Say ‘Er’ and ‘Erm’?

iStock
iStock

I’ve been reading the Harry Potter books with my daughter recently, and while most of the British terms in the series (git, nutter, prat, puckish, peaky, mental, chuffed, having a go, and so on) roll by without making me skip a beat, I keep getting hung up on those little pause words, er and erm. It feels wrong to say them that way, even in my dodgy approximation of a British voice.

The reason it feels wrong to say them that way, is because it is wrong to say them that way. British people do not read er and erm in the way that Americans would read those words, with a fully articulated r. Most British dialects are non-rhotic; the r is not pronounced in words like her or term. So how would a British person pronounce er and erm? Basically, as "uh" and "um," with perhaps a bit more tension in the vowel.

The identity of er and erm depends on pronouncing them like a native in your head, something we don’t have to do with other words (chuffed reads as British even if our internal pronunciation is American, and we can accept that Harry Potter will be pronounced differently by an English person even if we don’t actually pronounce it that way internally when we read). This fact, which on the surface seems so obvious, can escape even the most astute readers. Lynne Murphy of the blog Separated by a Common Language is a linguist who had been living in the UK for years when she finally realized the truth about er and erm. She was watching TV and noticed that the captions for American shows with American actors speaking with American accents used er and erm for uh and um. They were different ways of writing the same sounds. I completely identified with her reaction to this discovery: “Before any of you complain that I should not have been allowed to have a doctorate in Linguistics if it took me this long to figure out something this basic, let me tell you: I've thought the same thing myself. I think the technical term for this is: Duh!

Or should that be der? In fact, according to the OED der has been a British variant for duh since 1979.  Not sure if it shows up in the Harry Potter books this way, but I’ll be sure to notice it now if it does.

Why Do Dogs Lick?

iStock/MichaelSvoboda
iStock/MichaelSvoboda

​One of the more slightly annoying things our dogs do (or most adorable, depending on who you ask) involves their tongue obsessively licking every crevice of every spot possible in pretty much the whole world. From our faces to our furniture to themselves, some dogs are absolutely in love with licking anything and everything. Although it can be cute at first, it quickly gets pretty gross. So why do they do it?

According to ​Vetstreet, your pup's incessant licking is mostly their way of trying to show affection. When we pick up our dogs or give them attention, chances are we kiss or pat their heads, along with petting their fur. Their way to show love back to us is by licking.

However, there are other reasons your dog might be obsessively licking—including as a way to get attention. Licking can be a learned behavior for dogs, as they see that when they lick their owner, they get more attention. The behavior can seem like something humans want which, to an extent, it is.

Licking is also a sensory tool, so if your dog is licking random objects or areas of your home, they're probably just exploring. It's easier to get a feel for their surroundings if they can taste everything. But licking objects like your rug or furniture can also be indicative of anxiety or boredom (which can often lead to destructive behavior), and a recent study linked excessive licking of surfaces to certain gastrointestinal disorders.

Another reason for licking is your dog wanting to clean themselves and/or spots around them. They've seen it since they were born; animals lick things ritualistically for cleaning and care. If your dog seems to be obsessed with licking themselves or one particular thing, they probably are. (Yes, dogs can have OCD, too.)

As Vetstreet points out, "excessive" dog licking often only seems excessive to the dog's owner, not the pooch itself. But if it's bothersome enough to you, a trainer can often help curb your dog's enthusiasm for giving wet, sloppy kisses. And while strange behavior is not rare for pets, if your dog's licking seems odd or in any way concerning, there's no harm in taking your pet to the vet to check it out—even if it's just for peace of mind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?

iStock/RoBeDeRo
iStock/RoBeDeRo

The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

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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