Archive for June, 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

May I Have a Word? Part 3

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

For a conversation class for intermediate ELL students, I once had the seemingly innocuous idea for a theme of talking about foods that the students had never had before coming to the US. So I asked them to name some of the foods which seemed “exotic” to them.

“I love french fries,” exclaimed Mahmood from Bahrain. “When did the French invent them, Mr. Firsten?”

“They didn’t, Mahmood. French fries are American.”

“Oh?” interjected Pierre from Quebec. “They’re not French? Very interesting! Well, I love bread, and one of my favorites here in the US is English muffins. I really like them. I suppose they’re not English, eh?” he joked.

“Nope. They’re not, Pierre. They’re American, too.” The confused looks on the students’ faces said it all.

“You know, in my country,” said Clara from Peru, “we eat an animal that you have as a pet. I find that very strange. I don’t know the name in English, but in Peru they are cuy.”

“Cuy? Oh, those are guinea pigs,” I explained, a little proud of myself for knowing such a low-frequency Peruvian-Spanish word. “Yes, you’re right, Clara. Many children have them as pets in the US, but I myself ate one in a restaurant in Peru when I visited your country a few years ago. I must say it was very tasty.”

“What is the name in English?” Clara asked.

“Guinea pigs,” I said.

“Guinea . . . pigs?” she echoed. “Huh? But Guinea is a country in Africa. Do they come from Africa originally? I don’t think so. And what do you mean pigs? They are not pigs!”

“Yes, I know they’re not, Clara. They’re rodents.”


“Animals related to rats and mice.”

“Ugh! You eat rats, Clara?” asked Mahmood, looking totally shocked.

“Not rats! Cuys! They are very good to eat!”

Feeling confident that most of the students wouldn’t know what a guinea pig looked like, I googled it in my computer and found some good pictures to show them all. That turned out to be a mistake.

“My God!” shrieked Nuri from Curaçao. “They’re so cute! You eat them? Oh, my God! How can you eat them?”

Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about student participation in this conversation class. Everybody piped in with an opinion about Peruvian dining customs, and I was even mildly attacked for having participated in such an “uncivilized” act. I was very relieved when that class finally ended, I can tell you!

But it got me to thinking yet again about how nuts English vocabulary can be: french fries aren’t French; English muffins aren’t English; guinea pigs don’t come from Guinea ― and they certainly aren’t pigs. It’s unbelievable that I can stand there in front of my students and feel embarrassed about my own language, the language I’m teaching them! That’s why I’ve done a lot of thinking about English vocabulary and its strange paradoxes, and why I’ve written previously here about this topic, which seems to be a never-ending source of both amusement and angst.

So why shouldn’t I have you join me in pondering these imponderables? Some of the following come from my own musings, and once again, some come from author Richard Lederer in his book Crazy English*. I think I’ll let you share in my consternation over such thoughts as:

  • Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
  • Have you ever figured out the difference between sympathy and empathy?
  • Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
  • Do you realize how crazy it sounds to say something was awfully good?
  • How can quite a few and quite a lot mean basically the same thing?
  • When you garnish food, you add; when you garnish wages, you subtract!
  • Is it reasonable for a language to be able to say that feet smell and noses run?

So ponder, people, ponder! And while you’re pondering and, I hope, joining me in this mild diatribe by sending in your own comments and observations, there’s one more gem I’d like to mention that kind of drives me batty.

To post a letter and to mail a letter are interchangeable, and until the politically-correct police got a hold of the following terms, postman and mailman were also interchangeable. So why isn’t it equally okay to say the post office and the mail office, or How much is the mailage? instead of How much is the postage? And finally, since we’ve got that relatively new expression going postal, can’t we also say going mailish? I ask you!

Well, before I go mailish over pondering too much, I’ll leave you to dwell on these thoughts and wait to hear what you’ve got to say.

*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc). 1998

Friday, June 20, 2008

We’re All Entitled, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I think titles are fascinating. I’ve already shown this in Part 1 (“We’re All Entitled”) in which I discussed Mr., Mrs., Miss, Master, and Ms. But we’ve got lots more titles in English, titles that reflect our cultures and our linguistic histories, things well worth talking about. Some titles are used wherever English is the primary language; some are used exclusively in the UK. And some of the same ones are used differently, depending on the English-speaking country they’re used in.

For starters, there are some titles that are normally used “correctly” if a name goes along with them. Remember, I’m talking about titles, not job descriptions. Here’s a sampling of these
titles, normally used with a name:

  • Mr.
  • Mrs.
  • Ms.
  • Master (old fashioned, for a boy)
  • King
  • Queen
  • Prince
  • Princess
  • Lord
  • Lady
  • Sir (British English; a knighted man)
  • Dame (British English; a knighted woman)
  • President
  • Vice President
  • Attorney General
  • Ambassador
  • Doctor (a dentist or Ph.D., not an M.D.)
  • Uncle
  • Aunt

And we have two British titles that are used differently from all the others:

  • first name, Duke of Duchy/Dukedom (e.g., Prince Andrew, Duke of York)
  • first name, Duchess of Duchy/Dukedom (e.g., Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall)

There are some interesting things I’d like to say about Mr. before we move on. If used alone, it’s considered an unrefined or low-class way to address a man: “Hey, Mr! You can’t park there.” I remember years ago, it was quite common to hear Mr. used with a man’s first name if he happened to be a hairdresser. In fact, it was basically a stereotype.

A current phenomenon I’ve noticed, at least in my part of the US, is to hear Mr. used with a first name, possibly because the speaker is ignorant of how the man’s last name is pronounced and too lazy or embarrassed to ask, or it may be cross-cultural interference. It actually bothers me when somebody calls me Mr. Richard, and I often correct the person and say my name’s Mr. Firsten, not “Mr. Richard.” That may not bother others, but it bothers me.

In a similar vein, I don’t particularly like when a perfect stranger, like a salesperson, decides on his/her own to call me by my first name. Maybe the culture is changing more quickly than I am, but I still adhere to the rule that, when appropriate to do so, I should ask people if I can call them by their first names rather than assume I can. I think salespeople do that as a way of sounding chummy, making you think you’re among friends. Well, it doesn’t work on me.

Then, of course, there’s the opposite situation in which a colleague will continue to call me “Mr. Firsten” even after we’ve worked in the same place for years. I think that’s typical of the public school system. I finally get to a point where I say, “Please call me Richard.” I mean, you can carry formality just so far, don’t you think?

Moving right along, we also have titles that can be used with or without a name, including:

  • Miss
  • Madam
  • Judge
  • Doctor (an M.D.)
  • Nurse
  • Officer (policeman or woman)
  • Father (Roman Catholic priest)
  • Mother (Mother Superior, head of a convent)
  • Grandfather (very formal)
  • Grandmother (very formal)
  • Grandpa
  • Grandma
  • Sister (nun; also a nurse in the UK and Australia)
  • Brother (monk)
  • Cousin (without a name, considered archaic; with a name, considered old fashioned / doesn’t universally work for uncle and aunt, but among some ethnic groups, Uncle and Auntie are used without a name)
  • Reverend
  • Pastor
  • Preacher
  • Rabbi
  • Imam
  • Governor
  • Mayor
  • military titles such as General, Admiral, Sergeant
  • Captain (airline pilot)
  • Professor
  • Maestro
  • Ma (rarely used with a surname, but does occur among people in Appalachia and the Ozarks in the US; used without a name in many areas as a very informal way of addressing one’s mother)
  • Pa (rarely used with a surname, but does occur among people in Appalachia and the Ozarks; used without a name in Appalachia, the Ozarks, and some other areas as a very informal way of addressing one’s father)

And finally, there are titles that are normally used without a name, among which we find:

  • Your Majesty; His/Her Majesty; Their Majesties*
  • Your (Royal) Highness; His/Her (Royal) Highness; Their (Royal) Highnesses*
  • (Your) Excellency; His/Her Excellency; Their Excellencies* (Roman Catholic archbishops and bishops; foreign ambassadors; heads of state in some countries)
  • Your Eminence; His Eminence; Their Eminences* (Roman Catholic cardinals)
  • Your Holiness / His Holiness (the Pope or Dalai Lama)
  • Your Grace; His/Her Grace; Their Graces* (for a duke and duchess; the archbishop of Canterbury; sometimes a Roman Catholic archbishop)
  • Your Lordship / His Lordship; Their Lordships*
  • Your Ladyship / Her Ladyship; Their Ladyships*

    *When addressing this person or these people directly, we say Your ___, but when talking about this person or these people, we say His/Her/Their ___.

  • Mr./Madam Prime Minister
  • Mr./Madam President
  • Mr./Madam Vice President
  • Mr./Madam Attorney General
  • Mr. Speaker (in the US Congress)
  • (Mr./Madam) Ambassador
  • Waiter/Waitress (quickly going out of fashion)
  • Driver (taxi, bus, limousine)
  • Steward (on a ship)
  • Your Honor (judge); His/Her Honor; Their Honors
  • Mother (very formal way of addressing this parent)
  • Mom [AmE] / Mum [BrE] (informal); Mommy [AmE] / Mummy [BrE] (usually what little children say)
  • Father (very formal way of addressing this parent)
  • Dad/Papa/Pop (informal); Daddy (usually what little children say; sometimes daughters of any age)
  • Pops (irreverent way for a younger person to address an older man)
  • Son (parent addressing a male child)
  • Daughter (parent addressing a female child, considered archaic)
  • Sister (for a sibling, considered archaic)
  • Brother (for a sibling, considered archaic)
  • My Son (Catholic priest addressing male parishioner, considered archaic in some places) Notice that My Daughter was never used for female parishioners.
  • My Child (Catholic priest addressing male or female parishioner)

You might not think that there could be so much to look at when it comes to titles, right? Well, I hope you’ve had fun looking over these lists. I know I have in compiling them! If anything’s surprised you, if I’ve left something out, or if you’ve got comments on this topic, I’d really enjoy hearing from you, Mr. Reader / Ms. Reader / Madam Reader – whoever!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why Do We Say That? Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Awhile back I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the etymology of some idiomatic expressions we commonly use in English (Why Do We Say That?).

Since the feedback I’ve received said it was so much fun and so interesting, I think it’ll be equally as much fun to delve into a few more oddities of the language. Amazingly, just last week a student of mine asked me why we call the trip that newlyweds take a honeymoon. That student, a Spanish speaker, mentioned that it’s even the same expression in Spanish, “luna de miel,” and it turns out that the same term or a similar one exists in other languages, too from Italian to Hebrew to Persian!

Well, for once I wasn’t caught in that awkward position of having to say something like, “Why? Because that’s English,” or, “Hmm… I’ll have to look into that and let you know.” One of the possible explanations behind this term really makes us linguistic archaeologists! Here’s why:

It seems to have been a custom in ancient Babylonia (ca. 1000 BCE) for the father of the bride to give his new son-in-law as much mead as he wanted for a whole month after the wedding. (Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey and still produced today in some countries.) Since the Babylonian calendar was lunar, this happy period when the new husband could imbibe all the mead he wanted was called the honey month. (It’s interesting to note that the word month is related to moon.) So that may be how we came to call this period the honeymoon. How it got from ancient Babylonia to us is another story, but eventually the meaning got cut down to only the period right after the wedding when the newlyweds traditionally go off on a trip. So there you have it!

Now, what about a proverb like, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”? The proverb means basically that fools can sometimes try to rid themselves of a bad thing, but instead succeed in destroying whatever good there was as well. The proverb may be of German origin, going back at least to the 16th century. One theoretical story about its origin is that in the Middle Ages, bathing was not something commonly done in Europe, but when it was, it became a family affair. Customarily, a large tub was filled with hot water and the father had the privilege of taking the first bath. Heating such a large amount of water was not an easy thing to do, so the water would be reused. The father was followed by his sons, who were then followed by all the women in the family, the mother first, and then the daughters. You can imagine how the water kept getting dirtier and dirtier as each person got in and out of the tub! According to this customary pecking order for family bathing, the last ones to take a bath were the babies. (This seems logical as babies have been known to release their bodily wastes in the water – and nobody would have wanted to get into the water after that happened!) By the time they were placed into the tub, the water was quite murky and it was just about impossible to see down to the bottom. If you weren’t careful, you might not even see a baby in that water if you let go! So that may be a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to why people started saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Isn’t that cool?

How about one more? Because I suffer from the occupational hazard of always thinking about words and phrases and remaining keenly aware of how odd they can be instead of just taking them for granted, I remember one day wondering about the word threshold. Our handyman had just put in a new kitchen door for us, and he also put in a new marble threshold. I suddenly began wondering where such an odd word came from and why we use such a name for that thing. Here’s what I found out:

Going way back to the time in Europe when royalty lived in castles, it was traditional for many of the floors of those castles and the houses of the rich to have smooth stone floors. (I suppose that was their equivalent of our ceramic tile floors.) The problem was that those smooth stones, like ceramic tile, can get very slippery when wet and therefore pretty treacherous. In the wintertime, it was hard not to have their floors constantly getting wet when people would track in the snow and ice that clung to their boots. To counter that, they spread a light covering of straw, also known as thresh, on the floors so people wouldn’t slip and fall. During the winter, they’d keep adding more and more thresh until finally the thresh would spill out the doors when they were opened. To stop the thresh from spilling out every time a door was opened, they started placing a strip of wood along the opening at each door, and that may very well be how we get the word threshold; it “held the thresh” from spilling out the door!

I just eat this stuff up, and I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do. Now let’s see if you can do some linguistic sleuthing of your own. Take a look at the following goodies and see if you can discover some possible tales to explain why we say what we say. I’d love to get your results and post them!

1. Ah, poor old Mr. Riley. I hear he’s passed on. So when is the family going to hold the wake?
2. It’s wonderful how successful Karen’s been in business. Good for her! You know, I understand that her family was dirt poor when she was a kid.
3. Is that a bottle of tincture of violet I see on your bathroom counter? Isn’t that used to cure trench mouth?
4. I know my brother needed a new car, but I can’t understand why in the world he decided to buy a Jeep.

There you go. Four commonly used expressions or names that may have really interesting stories behind them. Here’s your chance to become a part-time etymologist and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised at how these goodies may have come about!

Friday, June 6, 2008

It’s Kind of Self-ish

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I’ve noticed there are two little words in English that people don’t feel have enough oomph unless they add something to them. Those two little words are the pronouns me and you. Many people have just got to use the reflexive pronouns myself and yourself instead. The odd but common use of these reflexives appears to come from a deep-seated need to add to those one-syllable pronouns me and you, which don’t seem to be long enough to show some desired importance (me) or some desired deference (you). Look at these two conversations and you’ll see what I mean:

A: What are your plans for New Year’s Eve?
B: We’re going over to the neighbors. This is the first time they’ve invited Helen and me. We’re looking forward to it. So how about you? Any special plans?

A: What are your plans for New Year’s Eve?
B: We’re going over to the neighbors. This is the first time they’ve invited Helen and myself. We’re looking forward to it. So how about yourself? Any special plans?

Interesting, isn’t it? Oh! By the way, has it dawned on you that we only tend to do this for the singular yourself and not the plural form, yourselves? When the plural is involved, we say something like, “So how about you two?” or “… the two of you?” or “… you guys?”

I have a hunch that this interesting use of those two reflexive pronouns is related to a habit in Irish English of using himself or herself as a substitute for a person’s name as a way of showing a kind of irreverent respect for an individual:

Maid to Butler: Is Himself comin’ down for dinner this afternoon?
Butler to Maid: I t’ink so. Tell Cook to have everyt’ing prepared.

And then we’ve got the other extreme, when we should use those reflexive pronouns, but don’t. This time it seems that when we clearly want to emphasize myself or yourself and stress that element of a sentence, we can’t get the “oomph,” the “punch” that a one-syllable word affords us, especially when we’re juxtaposing the two elements. Just compare these two conversations:

Husband: A nice, relaxing vacation in some tropical location would be so great, honey.
Wife: Hmm… with you surrounded by Polynesian beauties, right?
Husband: I wasn’t thinking of myself; I was thinking of you! You’ve been working way too hard lately.

Husband: A nice, relaxing vacation in some tropical location would be so great, honey.
Wife: Hmm… with you surrounded by Polynesian beauties, right?
Husband: I wasn’t thinking of me; I was thinking of you! You’ve been working way too hard lately.

See how much more nicely me/you works in the second version than myself/you does in the first? Let’s listen in some more:

Wife: Oh, please! You want that vacation for yourself, not for us!
Husband: Nothing could be further from the truth!

Wife: Oh, please! You want that vacation for you, not for us!
Husband: Nothing could be further from the truth!

What do you think of these uses of myself and yourself, which many grammar books don’t include, or the omission of their use when grammar books say they should be used? Do you consider them correct, acceptable options, or just downright wrong?

It’s little things like these that can be so important to take into account when planning realistic grammar lessons for our students. I’d like to know your opinions about these quirks in the language, so please join in the conversation.