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Why Do Some People Say "Yuge" Instead of "Huge"?

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It might be the one thing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common: they pronounce huge as "yuge."

It’s not so surprising that Sanders and Trump should share some dialect features in common. They were both born in New York in the 1940s. Indeed, this "yuge" for huge substitution has been a recognized feature of the New York City dialect for a long time, but it doesn’t only occur in New York. It’s found in Philadelphia and here and there around the U.S., as well as in the Irish cities of Cork and Dublin.

So do some people just randomly drop the "h" for no reason? Of course not. When people do it, they aren’t just randomly or lazily leaving off a sound. This "h"-dropping occurs in a specific environment—only in words that start with a "hyu." If they drop it in huge, they also drop it in humor, humid, humiliation, humongous, and Hugh.

Words that start with a consonant followed by "yu" have long been subject to the deletion of a sound. Think of the British pronunciations of tune, duty, suit, and news ("tyune," "dyuty," "syuit," "nyews"). That's the older pronunciation. In the U.S. as well as many other English speaking regions, the cluster of sounds before the u is reduced by eliminating the "y." Even so, that only happens if the first consonant is of the type produced by the contact of the tip of the tongue with the ridge behind the upper teeth ("t," "d," "s," "n," "l"). Other kinds of consonants let the "y" sound stick around (c[y]ure, p[y]unitive, b[y]eautiful, m[y]usic, f[y]ew…).

That "y" doesn’t stick around if you’re in East Anglia, where many towns have done away with the "y" clusters altogether by getting rid of "y" in all environments. There they say "bootiful" and "foo" for beautiful and few. Also, they say "hooge" for huge.

"Hooge" and "yuge" are two solutions to simplifying the "hyu" sound. In the East Anglia case the "y" gets dropped and in the New York case the "h" does. This wouldn’t be first example of a cluster getting reduced in two different ways. The word what has a similar story. Originally, it was like huge: it began with the cluster "hw" ("w" is, like "y," something called a “glide” sound, falling between a consonant and a vowel). What was "hwat." There was also "hwen," "hwistle," "hwale"—pretty much any word spelled with "wh" today once had a pronunciation of "hw." In some places, particularly the American South, Scotland, and Ireland, it still does. But mostly, the "h" was dropped and people say what and whale without it. However, in some words, like who and whole, the "w" was dropped instead.

So, yeah, it’s complicated. The point is, there’s an instability to these consonant + glide clusters that makes them prone to simplify, and that can play out in various ways. As for why it results in "yuge" for New Yorkers in particular, we don’t know exactly, except to say that the story of yuge, like that of all New York dialect features, will have something to do with generation, class, status, and the hustling, bustling mix of people from all over who both adapted and contributed as they tried to talk to each other. That’s the messy way language changes over time. It happens because we're yuman.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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 Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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