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When and Why Did People Start Saying "Um"?

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Reader Darren wrote in to ask, "When and why did people start saying um when they are talking?"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the speech hesitation "hum" goes at least as far back as 1469. We also find "hem" from 1526, "haw" from 1679, and "er" from 1862. But these are only the first attestations of the words in print. It is likely that they go back much further than that.

Michael Erard, in his book Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, traces the history of um, and doesn't find any mention of it—or its ancient Greek or Latin equivalent—in classical works on oration, though there is plenty of advice against speaking with hesitancy or lack of fluency. It doesn't appear in court transcripts, or other written records of natural conversation either, until the modern era. With a few exceptions, people didn't really start talking about um, or complaining about it, until the advent of voice recording. It is likely they were using it all along, but they either didn't notice it, or didn't deem it worthy of writing down—it wasn't considered a word, but a noise, like a cough.

Every language has its own version of um. French has euh, Korean eum, Finnish öö, Russian eh; even sign languages have signs for um. The fact that most languages have some kind of um suggests that it serves a natural and important language function.

So what is this important language function? Why do people say um? Not because they are nervous. Scholarly studies of the word reveal that the use of um does not correlate with anxiousness or any particular personality traits. Rather, um is used to signal an upcoming pause—usually uh for a short pause and um for a longer pause. The pause may be needed in order to find the right word, remember something temporarily forgotten, or repair a mistake. Um holds the floor for us while we do our mental work. It buys some time for thinking.

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between Generic and Name Brand Ibuprofen?
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What is the difference between generic ibuprofen vs. name brands?

Yali Friedman:

I just published a paper that answers this question: Are Generic Drugs Less Safe than their Branded Equivalents?

Here’s the tl;dr version:

Generic drugs are versions of drugs made by companies other than the company which originally developed the drug.

To gain FDA approval, a generic drug must:

  • Contain the same active ingredients as the innovator drug (inactive ingredients may vary)
  • Be identical in strength, dosage form, and route of administration
  • Have the same use indications
  • Be bioequivalent
  • Meet the same batch requirements for identity, strength, purity, and quality
  • Be manufactured under the same strict standards of FDA's good manufacturing practice regulations required for innovator products

I hope you found this answer useful. Feel free to reach out at www.thinkbiotech.com. For more on generic drugs, you can see our resources and whitepapers at Pharmaceutical strategic guidance and whitepapers

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

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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