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Is it Anxiety-Ridden or -Riddled?

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When people talk about the problem of anxiety (or guilt, or debt, or mistakes) both ridden and riddled show up. The words are close enough to each other in both meaning and form to suggest that at some point in their histories, one of them got confused for the other. So what are those histories? Which is correct?

They both go back a long way. This use of ridden began as the past participle of to ride. In the 1500s you could talk about a ridden horse, and that eventually carried over to the figurative idea of ridden as being affected or burdened by something. The first citation of a compound with ridden in the OED is from 1640: “you devil-ridden witch you.” Many subsequent uses maintained this idea of the “rider” having some oppressive power over the ridden—"tyrant-ridden" (1848), "capitalist-ridden" (1844), "bureaucracy-ridden" (1861)—but it was also extended to anything generally burdensome: "theory-ridden" (1835), "bird-ridden" (1835), "fog-ridden" (1885), "gout-ridden" (1901). The sense expanded from “having an oppressive thing metaphorically riding on your back” to “beset by something annoying.”

While ridden goes back to a familiar verb form of ride, riddle is not related to the familiar word we know for “enigmatic question.” It’s from a different word, an Old English word for "sieve." A riddle was used to sift gravel or ashes, and by the 1500s riddled had become a way to evoke something sieve-like or filled with holes. It showed up in the descriptions of post-battle scenes where the effects of ammunition could be seen on things like “riddled ships” and “riddled flags.” Compounds with riddled started in the 1800s, first with "shot-riddled walls" (1836), then “rat-riddled stairs” (1855) and “worm-riddled rafters” (1893). It wasn’t long before things were bog-riddled, cliché-riddled, traffic-riddled, or allergy-riddled. The sense expanded from “full of holes caused by X” to “afflicted with X.”

Both ridden and riddled ended up meaning “afflicted with” or “beset by” but through different metaphorical paths, one with the imagery of a weighty burden, and the other with the imagery of being punched through with holes. There may be faint echoes of those different images when we judge whether a given use sounds better with one or the other today, but the choice seems to be mostly governed by grammatical structure. To my ear, ridden simply sounds better in a compound ("anxiety-ridden"), but riddled sounds better in a phrase ("riddled with anxiety"). Google hit counts back me up on that: the ratio of anxiety-ridden to anxiety-riddled is 71:7, while the ratio of “ridden with anxiety” to “riddled with anxiety” is 7:32.

In any case, both are correct, so don’t let anxiety over the ridden/riddled question weigh on you too heavily or pierce you too much.

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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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Big Questions
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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