Word Matters Podcast

Ice Tea and Semantic Drift

Word Matters, episode 2

Terrific. Fantastic. Wonderful. Can we properly use these words without referring to terror, fantasy, or wonder? Today our editors look at one of the most dependable sources of language change: semantic drift. Then, we cool down with a discussion of how ‘ice’ and ‘iced’ function to describe various refreshing beverages.

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Because of this phenomenon called elision, these sounds just drop away, and this happens especially with t and d at the ends of words, it happens with consonant clusters…

PETER SOKOLOWSKI, HOST: Wonderful, which is a perfect example of an etymology or an original meaning that’s hiding in plain sight, because that meant simply “fully of wonder.”

EMILY: Coming up on Word Matters: how words change over time, and are chilled drinks “ice” or “iced”? I’m Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, produced in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary’s vantage point.

(music interlude)

EMILY: What do you think about words picking up new meanings over time? Is it, perhaps, awesome? Fantastic? Terrific? Is it just plain old awful? And can we properly use any of those words without referring to awe, fantasy, or terror? Here’s Peter Sokolowski on one of the most dependable sources of language change: semantic drift.

PETER: Sometimes I talk about what the job of a lexicographer is, and I think the job is revision. A lot of times people get the impression that adding new words to the dictionary is what we do, but actually that’s a fraction of what we do. We have to continuously correct the dictionary and bring it up to date. That means following the way language changes, following the way that people use words over time. I mean just think of words like mouse or cookie, for example, and lurk and browse. These are words that were already in the dictionary a hundred years ago, but now of course when we hear those words we immediately think of a new sense, of a different way of using those words. And that’s what our job is, is to sort of make sure that we’re keeping up with the language. And even the way that people use literally, for example, in a figurative sense, that is an old and established way of using that word, but it has to be explained. It has to be explained in the dictionary, and that’s what the dictionary is for. When you think about this, a lot of those words are words that have changed right before our eyes, they’ve changed recently. But if you look just a little bit past our own lifetimes, there are words like miraculous, or fabulous, or fantastic, and if you think about them literally, miraculous means “involving a miracle,” fabulous means “about a fable,” and fantastic means “about fantasy.” And yet those are words that have all kind of taken on what you might call a diluted meaning from their original meaning.

NEIL SERVEN, HOST: Dilute like you dilute water, not like you’re “deluded.”

PETER: Right, I’m sorry, “diluted,” yes.

EMILY: Depends on your stance.

AMMON SHEA, HOST: Sure, that’s terrific.

PETER: That’s terrific! There we go.

AMMON: That’s what I’m, I’m actually quite terrified.

PETER: Because terrific comes from terrify, right. And awesome, and awful, for example.

AMMON: That’s one of my favorites, that people love to complain about awesome taking on this broadened semantic content and sometimes you will hear people, without a shred of irony, actually say it’s awful.

(all laugh)

PETER: Right, because both words meant “full of awe,” right?

AMMON: Yeah, and awe itself, the original meaning at least in English, six, seven hundred years ago, awe had far more connotations of dread and fear. When we speak in Herod of an “awesome presence,” it was one that inspired fear and trembling rather than wonderment.

PETER: And yet these are words that are really part of our everyday vocabulary, so we actually never think of those original senses, those older senses.

EMILY: Right.

PETER: Even though we sometimes do with literally, for example. We often don’t when talking about terrific or awesome.

EMILY: Right, those older uses just aren’t present.

PETER: They’re just not present anymore, and yet they’re kind of hiding in plain sight, right, because fabulous obviously has fable, terrific obviously has terrify.

AMMON: But just to put in a plug for literally, we don’t actually think of the original sense, at least not the original sense of “of or relating to letters,” which is in fact the literal…

PETER: That’s the literal sense.

EMILY: That is the literal first.

AMMON: Guys, if you really want to be a literal literalist, you go back to letters.

EMILY: That’s right.

PETER: And we really don’t think of, decimate is another one of these, we don’t think of December as the tenth month, as being the correct way of using it, for example.

AMMON: Speak for yourself. In my household, November is still the ninth month.

PETER: But there’s always this tension between etymology, or the actual origin of a word, and usage, which is the way we simply use the word on a daily basis. And my favorite recent example of this is the word wonderful, which is a perfect example of an etymology, or an original meaning, that’s hiding in plain sight, because it meant simply “full of wonder; astonishing.” We use it today to mean “excellent,” right? “It was a wonderful meal.” And what’s interesting to me is that that shift happened relatively recently in terms of the thousand-year history of the English language. And I tripped over it. I was reading some of the Thomas Jefferson letters, and it’s great to sometimes as lexicographers go to a corpus of the correspondence of Abraham Lincoln, or in this case Thomas Jefferson. And there was a sentence where the word jumped out at me and I realized, oh, this word wonderful that I’m so familiar with actually means something else. So here’s the Jefferson, to James Madison in 1823, so they’re very elderly at this point. Here’s Thomas Jefferson: “I should say, then, that in some of the particulars, Mr. Adams’s memory has led him into unquestionable error. At the age of 88, and 47 years after the transactions of independence, this is not wonderful.” And it’s very clear that he means it is not surprising, right? And yet the word wonderful, I think in many contexts, I would just assume it would mean “excellent.”

EMILY: I like that quote also because I can also hear it kind of in a modern tone, like, “And that is not great. That’s not so great.”

(all laugh)

PETER: I think we do tend to give a lot of margin for this. We say “oh I understand what you mean, I understand what you’re saying.” And yet, this is clearly a different sense of this word.

EMILY: Yep. Yep.

PETER: In fact, Noah Webster’s dictionary, 1828, so just a couple years later, he was writing the dictionary when that Jefferson letter was being written—in fact they did not like each other at all, by the way; Webster was a devoted federalist—Noah Webster was working on his 1828 dictionary and his definition of wonderful is “adapted to excite wonder or admiration; exciting surprise; strange; astonishing.” And then he cites, as he often does, he cites the Bible. And in his case it would’ve been often the King James version. But he leaves the biblical reference, as he often did, with the book, the chapter and the verse, Job 42:3. He doesn’t even print the sentence, but I looked it up and it is “Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that I understood not things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” And again we’re not talking about excellent things, we’re talking about astonishing things.

EMILY: Right.

PETER: And that made me go to look in the Bible at other uses of the word wonderful, because we usually think it means extremely good, and it’s very clear that wonderful is by no means a good thing in biblical terms. So just to give you a couple examples, here’s one sentence from Jeremiah: “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land.” And then another one from Deuteronomy: “Then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful.”


NEIL: Wonder’s about fear at that point.

PETER: Exactly.

NEIL: The possibility of destruction and how far that could go, and how far to shock you and awe you.

PETER: It gets back to awe, right? Which is this word of, like, fear.

EMILY: Well and the word wonder has also changed over time, I assume, right? Wonder now is about, we think about a child’s wonder, like wonder is, these days it feels like a pleasant speculation, right? That is what wonder is, like “oh I wonder what it is like over there,” not you know I’m concerned, I’m worried about what’s going on over there.

PETER: Sure. And so from King James, the next place you look of course is Shakespeare, right? And sure enough, he uses wonderful, but listen to this from Hamlet, it’s a wonderful little example of the different use of wonderful, one that we might not notice. Hamlet says “my wit’s diseased,” and of course he’s struggling with mental anguish and he says “oh, wonderful son that can so ‘stonish a mother.” And I think can read that and not particularly know the difference between excellent and astonishing. And yet of course it does sort of change the interpretation of the line, obviously, you should understand that in this case it doesn’t mean “excellent son.” It means astonishing, surprising son. And that is interesting. In Much Ado About Nothing there’s a line, it’s Leonato, who’s the father of Beatrice, he talks about the change in her attitude, because of course Beatrice and Benedick are always sparring verbally, and he says "No, nor I neither, but most wonderful that she should so dote on Signor Benedick." And the point is it’s so surprising; they had been enemies and then they get married. And so once again this word, like so many I think in Shakespeare that are words that we still use today but in slightly different meanings, you hear it, you think “that’s English, I understand that, I speak English,” but actually we don’t. And I think of another line from Much Ado About Nothing. The transitivity of verbs have changed over time, so Leonato also says “we here attend thee," and that means we are waiting for you; it doesn’t mean we are waiting on you, the way that it might mean today. And so these little subtle changes in meaning over 400 years actually do affect the interpretation.

AMMON: Sure, I mean I think over 400 years but also over, say, a hundred years.

PETER: Oh sure.

AMMON: I mean one of my favorite pastimes is looking through usage books of, say, a hundred years ago and the changes in what is considered correct between then and now are quite astonishing. I mean what you’ve just reminded me of is the word obnoxious, which of course we always think of today as just being something you would rather not experience or think offensive in some way, but under a hundred years ago there were usage writers who were steadfast in their opposition to this use and how obnoxious really only properly meant “exposed to danger.” In the late 19th and early 20th century this was still a very common use. And it’s changed considerably, of course.

PETER: Yeah it has changed because I wouldn’t interpret it that way.

EMILY: And now if someone is obnoxious, you are not unhappy to have them exposed to danger.

AMMON: Exactly, sure.

NEIL: Well it’s someone who kind of makes you emotionally sick, almost, right? Just by being in their presence, of course.

AMMON: And what’s also interesting is sometimes we see when we get a more gradual shift, which can be nonetheless quite confusing, and as lexicographers we’re probably all familiar with the fact that Samuel Johnson, in his great dictionaries of the 18th century, would occasionally refer to words as “ludicrous” in his usage notes. And I think we’ve all largely interpreted this as just Samuel Johnson’s way of saying “that’s a stupid word” or something like that. Except that ludicrous, at that time, there was an overlap between senses of meanings. It did kind of have that meaning, but it also had the original sense, which was very much just “playful.” We speak of something as being "ludic" and we think it’s playful.

PETER: That’s right.

AMMON: And ludicrous did have that kind of sportive meaning at the time.

PETER: So it was a usage note

AMMON: It was a usage note but it was more like “jocular” than it was “dumb.”

EMILY: Right, right, yeah.

PETER: So a basic word like ancient, there’s a group in Boston called the Ancient and Honorable Artillery, or something like that, and it’s a group that’s been formed of veterans of the Revolutionary War and kind of come down like that Daughters of the American Revolution or something, and I was speaking with one of the members of this group and it just occurred to me. I said, you know, because it had been formed as a group of veterans of the Revolutionary War, Ancient and Honorable Artillery, it actually means “former.” The word ancient means former members of the artillery. Ancient at that time meant “former” and it still does in French. So it doesn’t mean “old,” necessarily; it also means former, or it did in the 18th century when the group was founded.

EMILY: Oh wow.

NEIL: I remember learning in French that you had to use ancient in a certain position in French.

PETER: To mean that…

NEIL: To mean old or to mean former, otherwise you referred to your old teacher or your former teacher.

PETER: That’s right, and you could insult somebody. “My old friend,” yeah.

NEIL: You could really insult your former teacher who might still be young, yeah.

PETER: Right, exactly. But anyway, I was thinking after reading these from Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson, that takes us to the mid-19th century. I looked up Abraham Lincoln’s correspondence and sure enough he uses the word wonderful only in one sense, which is the surprising sense, the astonishing sense. So here’s an address from Lincoln in 1840s: “it is not wonderful that they were slow, very slow to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations.” And so once again that’s taking us into the middle of the 19th century and it kind of reminds me of another biblical use, which is the “wonderful works” of God. And it happens frequently in the Bible and if you look at them, they are very often very un-, they are negative things and they’re not the “excellent” works of God, they’re the “astonishing, surprising” works of God, and that led me to go back to the very end of the 19th century to maybe find where this transition happened. 1899 is the year in which a book was published called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and sure enough that wonderful wizard of Oz was not the excellent wizard of Oz but the astonishing wizard of Oz. And I think most of us probably never give that a thought at all, and it shows that that word has changed meaning only recently. It’s kind of an amazing thing, and to think that there’s a parallel word in English, wondrous, and we have that word wondrous which has never had this shift, which continues to mean, as it has always, “evocative of wonder; that evokes wonder.”

NEIL: It seems like in the 20th century wonderful was probably used in a lot of advertising and marketing for things that we wanted to be impressed by, and so you talked about Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I think of the Wonderful World of Disney.

PETER: Oh there we go.

NEIL: Which, you know, has a double sense. Disney was definitely about exciting wonder in children, but it’s also probably saying “this show’s great, you’re gonna watch this, it’s gonna be awesome.”

EMILY: All it takes is an ambiguous context for occurring often enough for a word to really shift in its meaning.

PETER: Absolutely. It’s an interesting thing to think that so many things, words like this, can be just hiding in plain sight and even if you are encountering such a word, in relatively recent writings from a hundred, hundred-fifty years ago, it’s possible actually to completely misunderstand the intent of the author, in a language that we speak and use every day.

EMILY: Right.

AMMON: Just need some merchants of ambiguity, aka lexicographers.

(music interlude)

EMILY: You’re listening to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. We’ll be back after this break to sip some tea of the iced—or is it ice?—variety. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

PETER: I’m Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

NEIL: I’m Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

(music break)

EMILY: Welcome back to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. All of this talking is making me thirsty. I think I could use a nice glass of iced tea. Or can I call it ice tea? That is the central conundrum at the heart of our next discussion, in which I take a look at how this kind of language change has happened before, how it is currently being used, and where it might go in the future.

EMILY: If I pour a big glass of brewed concoction over ice, it is ice tea or iced tea?


NEIL: That’s a tough one.

EMILY: Oh it’s not.

NEIL: I think I’ve heard…

AMMON: Are those our only two choices?

EMILY: Those are your only choices, yeah. There’s no coffee in here, it’s just, it’s just…

NEIL: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard both, but my inclination would be to go to an iced tea.

PETER: Me too.

AMMON: I’ll go with iced.

EMILY: Iced. Okay, yeah. Well you’re Americans, so that makes good sense. I would also, in writing I would go with iced tea. But if we’re having a conversation and we’re just talking, none of us is likely to be able to determine which one we’re saying. We actually all, in running conversation, would say something that sounds exactly like "ice tea."

PETER: Sure.

EMILY: Right? Like we all say "ice tea," this is a linguistic phenomenon that is undeniable. No matter how you spell it, nobody really says "iced tea" in conversation. We all say "ice tea." Because of this phenomenon called elision, these sounds just drop away and this happens especially with T and D at the ends of words, and it happens with consonant clusters. I just think it’s an interesting phenomenon, and sometimes our spelling reflects it and sometimes it does not. We do enter ice tea in our Unabridged dictionary. That’s funny, even saying the word Unabridged dictionary, I have to pause or else I’ll say "Unabridge dictionary."

NEIL: D, d, yeah.

PETER: Unabridged dictionary, right, it’s an elision.

EMILY: Yeah, it’s definitely an elision. So we cover ice tea, but our main definition is at iced tea and I think this is interesting. Now I remember there being kind of a stir about this when I was a kid, people objecting. Maybe it was just in my family. My family was weird. People objected to ice tea and we were all very “no no no it’s iced tea, it’s iced tea, you have to write down iced tea.” Even though the D in iced is really silent.

PETER: It’s like boxed set, which is now clearly box set for everyone, but I still think of them as boxed sets. But you really can’t say it without seeming kind of hyper-vigilant about your pronunciation.

AMMON: Yeah, speaking of hyper-vigilant back in I think 1880, one of the 19th century’s most splenetic language writers Richard Grant White had an entry in which he was really unhappy about people saying "ice cream" rather than "iced cream." And "ice water" for "iced water." He says it was due to mere carelessness in enunciation, which is actually one of his gentler kind of responses.

PETER: But it also gives us a clue about sort of what the origin of the phenomenon is: iced cream. That sort of explains itself much better.

NEIL: Cream that had ice, or was frozen in some way or at one point had something done to it.

PETER: Cause now we think of it as its own thing, but it actually, this kind of reveals a little bit more like boxed set does too, a set that was put into a box.

EMILY: That’s right. Well, and there’s a semantic understanding there also. If you call it a boxed set, you think of it as a set that has been put in a box, and then could also be that there’s a kind of reinterpretation of what it means. Not only is it easier to say, is it more natural to say, is it, not only is it exactly what it sounds like somebody is saying when they say "boxed set," but a listener might also think of it as a set that comes in a box. And so box set not only sounds right but it also semantically just makes sense.

NEIL: And box set, without the E-D, could be linguistically interpreted, maybe it’s a stretch, as a set of boxes. I think people would see the unit box set and go to the meaning we know immediately, but if you didn’t know that such a thing existed, used some other noun in front of set…

PETER: A wrench set.

NEIL: Right. A wrench set would be a set of wrenches, a box set could be a set of boxes.

PETER: Sure.

EMILY: But Ammon I appreciate that you brought up Richard Grant White. Of course you know Richard Grant White, he bemoaned this ice water and ice tea thing. That was in 1871, but by 1906 Frank Vizetelly wrote his A Deskbook of Errors in English, and he wrote of both ice water and ice cream that “both are so firmly established that it is doubtful that they will ever be changed.”


EMILY: 35 years later.

AMMON: That’s interesting because he went on to become the editor-in-chief of Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary, so he was in some ways a major part of early-20th century lexicography.

PETER: Sure.

AMMON: He was not one of the more forgiving usage writers of the early 20th century. Nobody was quite as unreasonable as Richard Grant White, who would say things like “real estate is a barbarism upon our language.” He really hated all kinds of things without much reason, but Vizetelly was better, I think, or more reasonable, but I wouldn’t say he was a forgiving authority on the English language. So the fact that he’s accepted it means that it really must’ve come far.

EMILY: I think it had come far and I feel like there’s also something about the phenomenon that is ice cream. If we really have to go to the trouble to say "iced cream"—or try to—if we have to really think of it as being that much work, it just takes some pleasure away from this thing that is really, I think, one of the best substances in the world.

NEIL: Right, it kind of affects its identity when you need to emphasize its two-word nature. You kind of want it to have its own lexical identity.

EMILY: Well it just shouldn’t be that hard to say.

PETER: Well iced cream sort of sounds like the adjective and the ingredient, whereas “you want an ice cream?” now become an actual countable dessert, something you can just pick up.

EMILY: And we don’t think about how it’s made anymore. And people do not make ice cream at home very often anymore, where you have to, the barrel, put the ice in it, the salt…

AMMON: You have to convince a bunch of small children that this is an actual fun thing to do for the next three or four hours, and it’s worth the result that they get.

NEIL: But this distinction does probably still exist with iced tea, right? Because we do have iced tea that we make at home. You brew it, you can pour it over ice cubes. The idea of being iced is part of how it’s made, and yet we also have this thing you can see marketed and sold in stores. It’s bottled, it’s a brewed tea. It was chilled at some point in its production. You can pour it in a glass of ice and call it iced tea, but it’s still iced tea even without that. A bottle of Snapple is still called iced tea.

EMILY: I would venture to guess that there are very few bottles of iced tea that you buy in the grocery store that have actually ever touched ice.

NEIL: Right.

EMILY: Like they’ve probably not. The tea giant Lipton has a US website and a UK website and on their US website they refer to it as iced tea. And on the UK website they refer to it as ice tea.

PETER: So they have a different style…

EMILY: They do, and that styling backs what’s in the Nexus database of thousands and thousands of publications. In British English it’s ice tea; in American English it is iced tea. This is just in writing, of course. We all say it mostly the same except for our British and American accents. But the other twist to this is that in the UK they have iced water and we have ice water. I would venture to guess this is because their iced water is more often accompanied with ice and that is a more unusual thing. My understanding, I have never …

PETER: Cold beer, cold water, cold Cokes…

EMILY: … lived there, is that they don’t put ice in their drinks as often as we do here.

NEIL: I see.

EMILY: And so, for the water to be iced, you expect to actually see the ice there. Meanwhile, in American English, our ice water probably has ice in it, but so does all the other stuff.

PETER: So it’s like a commodity versus a process or something. There are two kind of slightly different semantic things going on. But I would suggest also there’s another one of these which is old-fashioned. I see so often that the E-D is dropped from that, like a banner in a town center that’ll say like “hey, old-fashion weekend,” or something, and I’m thinking that’s not what I would say, cause are you referring to clothing?

EMILY: Both of those date to the late 16th century. Old-fashion and old-fashioned are approximately the same old.

PETER: No kidding.

EMILY: As far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned, anyway. Those two words are basically the same age. Their first citations of each are both from I think it’s like 1592 and 1596. So old-fashion and old-fashioned are approximately the same age, but old-fashion has mostly faded away in print.

PETER: Interesting. So people are paying attention. Or editors, professional editors are paying attention.

EMILY: Is this again an instance of semantics coming in and having an impact? Is this about a way of analyzing the words? If something is old-fashioned, is the emphasis on how it was made? That it was fashioned in an old way, in a way that people used to fashion things? And is old-fashion of a fashion that is outdated?

PETER: Right. The old manner. But I was thinking an old-fashioned Christmas is clearly Christmas in the old manner, and yet I’m very comfortable using old-fashioned in that one. In other words, this is ambiguous, this a problem. I can easily see an old-fashion Christmas, Christmas in the older manner is valid and means exactly what I intend, but I would say old-fashioned Christmas. They all kind of require some analysis, don’t they?

EMILY: Well there may be a pull from people who are aware of the D tending to drop out of things. In a term like old-fashioned we may think, oh I know that this is the more sanctioned way of saying this so I’m going to keep the E-D. I don’t know.

PETER: Are there others like this?

NEIL: I remember seeing, referring to an old-fashioned car. And it would be a car that had been around for a long time, so I guess it was fashioned a long time ago, I suppose.

PETER: Yeah, what does it really mean?

NEIL: But it’s also in a fashion of…

PETER: It’s in a style of an old thing, yeah.

NEIL: I suppose if you retro-made a custom car that was meant to look like an old Edsel or something.

PETER: Sure.

NEIL: And I might be inclined to call that an old-fashion car.

PETER: Interesting.

NEIL: Because it wasn’t fashioned a long time ago, it was fashioned today.

PETER: In the manner of.

NEIL: In the manner of a car that existed a long time ago.

PETER: I never gave this so much thought before.

NEIL: Me neither.

EMILY: And I don’t think that these words really function very differently in reality, in the real world.

PETER: No, definitely, you don’t think about it.

AMMON: There’s actually an even earlier citation in early English books online. The earliest use they have of either one is old-fashion, which is somewhat older than old-fashioned. There’s a book from 1533 which talks about two ancient knights with old-fashion hats, which is I think the earliest of either one. It is early 16th century, which is quite a bit older.

EMILY: That’s surprising, yeah. There are some other examples of this dropping D. How do you guys feel about skimmed milk? Have you ever called it skimmed milk?

NEIL: I have never called it skimmed milk.

EMILY: No. I feel like I’ve only known the term skim milk for my whole life. Waxed paper and wax paper, I feel like both of those are familiar to me.

NEIL: Those I’ve seen both of, yeah.

EMILY: But it’s the same phenomenon.

NEIL: The paper had to be waxed at some point. It had to be covered with wax at some point, so yeah the action is sort of inherent in the object.

EMILY: It is, and also the orthography is over time reflecting pronunciation. And the pronunciation is really subject to just the limitations of our articulatory functions.

(music outro)

EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I’m Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

(end music)

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