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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 Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

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
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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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 Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. 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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