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The Word 'Huh' Might Be Universal

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The word “huh” packs a lot of meaning into just one syllable. When we use it, we might be expressing confusion, asking for clarification, or requesting that a statement be repeated. We’re also communicating so concisely there’s hardly a break in the conversation, making “huh” the politest kind of interruption. 

No wonder, then, that the word “huh” appears in multiple languages. In fact, according to a recent study in the journal PLOS ONE, linguists have found that the word is used to express confusion not only in related language families, but across multiple, independently developed languages. The researchers, who recently won an Ig Nobel Prize honoring their study, argued that "huh?" is so common it may actually be universal. 

According to New York magazine, the researchers studied conversational use of the word “huh” in 10 different languages, including English, Icelandic, Murrinh-Patha (from Australia), and Cha’palaa (from Ecuador). Though these languages don’t share an origin, they still employ “huh” in much the same way. 

The researchers believe that the widespread use of the word “huh” is an example of convergent evolution. In each language, “huh” developed independently, but was shaped by similar environmental or linguistic pressures—for example, the need for a relatively polite way to signal confusion. According to the study, the word “fulfills a crucial need shared by all languages –the efficient signaling of problems of hearing and understanding.”

“Huh” is not an innate human sound, like a grunt or emotional cry, the researchers say. Rather, it’s learned, taught to children, and passed down linguistically from generation to generation. According to researchers, its universality is a result of its important conversational function. Most of us probably take the word “huh” for granted—or don’t even think of it as a word at all—but according to researchers, that’s exactly why it’s so important: It does’t draw attention to itself.

[h/t New York Magazine]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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