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July 20th, 2005

Buckles and huckleberries / someone's else?

by Barbara Wallraff

Vickie Dickieson, of Northville, Mich., writes: “In a 1981 cookbook, I ran across a recipe for ‘blueberry buckle.’ I have tried to find a reference to ‘buckle’ as a food, but without success. When I mentioned this to my husband, he repeated an old rhyme that goes like this: ‘H you huckle, B you buckle, H you huckle high. H you huckle, B you buckle, Huckleberry Pie.’”

Dear Vickie: Good job -- you’ve found a word that isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, the world’s largest source of English words and their definitions. The OED includes “buckle” meaning the fastener on a shoe, belt or seatbelt, of course -- but not “buckle” meaning something to eat.

The food “buckle” does appear, however, in the current edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The Collegiate treats the name of the food (which it defines as “a coffee cake baked with berries and a crumbly topping”) as related to “buckle” meaning “a product of buckling: bend, fold” and dates this word back to 1876. The Dictionary of American Regional English also includes “buckle” in the food sense and gives a similar definition. Its earliest citation is from a 1959 cookbook.

As for that rhyme -- is your husband or his family from Virginia? A page on the Web site of a woman named Brenda Buttery Nichols, who grew up in Virginia, includes the following among rhymes that she “used to hear as a child.” “Here is how to spell ‘Huckleberry Pie’: H - U huckle, B - U buckle, C - U cuckle, Y. / H - U huckle, B - U buckle, B - U berry pie.” Another Web page -- one devoted to Virginia folklore -- includes a similar rhyme from a man named Mike Miller, who also says the rhyme was intended to teach children how to spell “huckleberry pie.”

I don’t get it -- at least, “hubucuyhubububerry pie” doesn’t look right to me -- but never mind that. The Dictionary of American Regional English says that people in some parts of the country call a blueberry a “huckleberry.” That seems to be another red herring, though. Your husband’s “buckle” is evidently an even more unusual “buckle” than yours.

Barbara F. Burr, of Yarmouth, Maine, writes: “The word ‘else’ never takes an ‘s.’ Therefore ‘someone else’s’ becomes ‘someone’s else’! Think about it.”

Dear Barbara: You’re right that “else” wouldn’t take an “s” (or, to be literal, an apostrophe and “s”) if it stood alone. But when would it stand by itself? “Else” is an adjective, and if it’s going to be useful, it needs a noun or pronoun to modify. It’s an unusual kind of adjective in English because it comes directly after the word it modifies. Most adjectives either come before the word they’re modifying or come after the verb. For instance, the adjective “mysterious” might appear in a phrase like “a mysterious someone” or in a clause like “someone is being mysterious.”

You would, of course, say “a mysterious someone’s secret.” But when you want to turn “someone else” into a possessive, the apostrophe and “s” need to come at the end of the phrase: “someone else’s.” The one partial exception is with “who.” Both “who else’s” and “whose else” are considered good English.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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