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What Is ‘gh’ Doing in So Many English Words?

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It’s a blight, a thoroughly tough plight, enough to make you want to fight … or laugh. There are so many ways to pronounce, or not pronounce, the English "gh," almost none of which have anything to do with the usual "g" or "h" sound. Why is it there to begin with? 

Once upon a time, the "gh" did stand for a specific sound, one we don’t have in English today, except in interjections of disgust like blech. That back-of-the-throat fricative (written as /x/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) is found in German, and if you look for the German counterpart of English "gh" words, you will often find the sound there: light ... licht, night ... nacht, eight ... acht, high ... hoch, neighbor ... nachbar, though ... doch.

So when you see a "gh," it usually means that it was pronounced with the blech sound in Old English, when our writing system was first developed. Early scribes had to adapt the Roman alphabet to English, and since Latin didn’t have the /x/ sound, they used "h" or a non-Roman character called a yogh (ȝ). Eventually, during the Middle English period, they settled on "gh."

By that time the pronunciation was already changing. The sound turned into /f/ or was dropped entirely. The Great Vowel Shift was underway and many parts of the language were in flux, but by the time the shift was complete, the printing press had stabilized the writing system, and the "gh," pointing back to an earlier English, was here to stay.

Not all examples of English "gh" can be traced back to the /x/ sound. The word-initial "gh" of ghost and ghoul came from the habits of Flemish typesetters. Words borrowed from Italian like spaghetti and ghetto just stuck with Italian spelling conventions.

And there are some words that show how "gh" took on a life of its own in English, words that came into the language long after Old English and never had a /x/ sound in them. Delight and sprightly were modified under the influence of light and right. Sleigh was made to look like weigh, perhaps to avoid looking like slay. Haughty was modeled on words like taught and aught, because, well, doesn’t that look more haughty than hawty? Like it or not, "aught" now stands for a specific pronunciation, with a rounded vowel, that really can't be spelled any other way (at least in dialects without the caught-cot merger). Is taught the same as tot or tawt? I think naught.

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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?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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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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