Archive for Tag: vocabulary

Friday, September 12, 2008

Head Scratchers, Part 2

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

Awhile back I wrote a piece with the same title as this piece, “Head Scratchers.” I had lots of fun with it, and I must say I enjoyed sharing my amazement with you over the things that people say or write without anybody questioning the logic of what they’ve come up with. I said in that piece that I’d have more little gems to comment on, and the time has come. So let’s get started.

First off, there’s the case of one of my all-time favorite redundancies: Church of Christ. Now really, can there be any other kind of church besides one that deals with Jesus Christ? Or there’s a Spanish version I’ve recently come across: Iglesia Cristiana, “Christian Church.” This is just silly. Jews have temples or synagogues; Muslims have mosques; Hindus and Buddhists have temples ― and Christians have churches. We know who churches are for.

Besides silly things people say or write, there are things in our grammar that make me scratch my head just as much as the kinds of things I talked about in my first piece on this topic. Take, for example, a newspaper headline like “Ice Cream Chain Co-Founder Dies.” (This was a story about Irvine Robbins, one of the co-founders of Baskin & Robbins, Inc.) Yes, I know it’s common to use the simple present in such headlines, but have you ever stopped to consider how silly that is, how funny that sounds, and how this use of the simple present can confuse ELL’s? Here’s a verb form that signifies something done repeatedly or habitually, and it’s being applied to something like dying? Where’s the logic in that? I mean, if you’ve died, you’ve died. You’re not going to do that all the time! If you want to say Ice cream chain co-founder shaves, that’s okay. Ice cream co-founder smokes, that’s okay (grammatically speaking, anyway). But Ice cream co-founder dies? Doesn’t that bother you? There are points of English grammar that do bother me!

And just for the heck of it, how is it that highly is an adverb, but lowly is an adjective? (Just thought I’d throw that in.)

Continuing with more grammatical oddities, let’s talk about teeth whitening. I’m beginning to come across this outrageous creation of advertising more and more. TEETH whitening? Not TOOTH whitening? To begin with, the grammar rule is that when you’re compounding nouns ― which is what’s happening here ― the first element, the descriptive element, is almost always in the singular. That’s why we don’t say *bedsroom or *starslight. The exceptions are when that first element is normally used in the plural, like in the arms race. Why on earth would they think that teeth whitening would be acceptable? Do we say TEETHbrush or TEETH decay? And how about fingers or feet? Have you ever heard anybody say FINGERSprints or FEETprints? Exactly! I rest my case.

Finally, before we all run for some aspirin or blood pressure medicine, there’s the matter of unnecessary mispronunciations. Shouldn’t educated people at least approximate the way a name is pronounced? Not too long ago, the famous fashion designer Yves St. Laurent passed away. That’s pronounced “Eev San Laurón” for those in the know, not like my local news anchor who pronounced it, “Eev Saint Law-rent.” Ugh! And I recently heard the actor Ben Stiller do a public service announcement to help the victims of that horrible cyclone that hit Burma, also known as Myanmar, or, as Mr. Stiller so sophisticatedly pronounced it, “MY-an-mar,” as if the first syllable should rhyme with tie. I must have heard a hundred news stories about that country after the cyclone hit, and in every one of those stories, the reporters pronounced the name more or less correctly, “Myanmar.” But not our Mr. Stiller. I guess he never listens to the news. And along the same lines, another one of my local news anchors called the General Secretary of the United Nations “Ban Kigh Moon” (“Kigh” also rhyming with tie) instead of the right way, “Ban Kee Moon.” That gentleman is the Secretary General of the United Nations, for Pete’s sake!

Am I amazed at these mispronunciations? Yes! I would think that educated or professional people would know better. They don’t have to get the pronunciations exactly native-like, but they surely can come close if they just put a little effort in checking out the pronunciations when in doubt. The problem is, they don’t seem to care.

But that’s not what really gets me. What absolutely flabbergasts me is that those people aren’t working in a vacuum. They’re involved with script writers, producers, directors, videographers, et al., and yet nobody but nobody seems to notice their off-the-wall mispronunciations and think it important enough to save the day by giving them a tip on the right way to pronounce the name. That’s what flabbergasts me. I just don’t understand it.

Here’s one for you that you may not know. There’s a very ancient fish swimming around out there in the ocean that scientists thought had gone extinct about the same time as the dinosaurs. It’s the coelecanth. That’s right, you haven’t read it wrong; the coelacanth. Now don’t you think it would be a good idea to check out how on earth that name is pronounced? I certainly do. Well, it so happens that the name of that ancient fish ― which isn’t extinct after all ― is pronounced “SEE – luh – canth.” So, besides being one of the ugliest fish you can imagine, it’s also got a name whose spelling doesn’t give you much of a clue about its pronunciation. Of course that didn’t stop yet another TV newsperson from calling it ― yes, I’m sure you can guess ― the “koh – ELL – luh – canth.” You can imagine how fast I fired off an email to him! At least he had the courtesy to thank me for the correction.

Of course the example of the coelacanth is kind of understandable. It just boils down to laziness or not having enough curiosity to check the pronunciation out. As far as all the other gems I’ve cited in these two pieces like “Recorded before a live audience” or teeth whitening, I keep trying to come up with scenarios that will explain how such blunders are made, but I can’t. I simply can’t. If any of you can explain this to me, I’ll be very grateful. I’d like to stop scratching my head before my hair starts falling out.

I don’t think I’m being picky in these instances. Some things are acceptable, but some things just aren’t. And yet there they are, for all to hear and read and use. And we don’t have any Academy to rule on such usages, do we, or to tell us what is or isn’t silly. Nope, we don’t. With English, it all seems to be very “democratic,” so to speak. If enough people say it’s okay and use it, or simply don’t react negatively to it whatever it is, it becomes “acceptable.” That certainly doesn’t make our jobs as English teachers any easier, but what can you do? So even though I lowly recommend it, we may find ourselves having to teach our students these odd alternatives to what we traditionally cons
idered “correct logic,” “correct English” or “correct pronunciation.” And, by the way, this piece has been pre-written.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sometimes Reform Can Spell Disaster!

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

Can you spell /pyu-sә-læ-nә-mәs/ the way it’s normally written? I can’t ― unless I look it up in a dictionary. I mean, why should I know how to spell it? I never use the word. Well, okay, it’s spelled pusillanimous, and it means “afraid to take even a small risk” or “cowardly.” Talk about a low-frequency word!

But what about /ne-bәr/ or /saI-ka-lә-ji/? Can you spell those the way they’re normally written? Oh, you feel better now, don’t you. You know I’m talking about neighbor and psychology, right? Did you have trouble spelling those two? I have a hunch you didn’t. They’re high-frequency words, so you’ve seen them and used them many, many times. That’s why you had no trouble spelling them.

So how would you feel if I told you that from now on they should be nebr and sykaluji? How would that grab you? (I think I can see you grimacing.) That first one looks like it could be a kind of phonetic transcription of an ancient Egyptian word, and the other looks like it belongs to some Turco-Mongolian language. They certainly don’t look like English anymore!

And that’s my point. For years and years there have been many people calling for a drastic reform of English spelling. They claim that the majority of even US high school students can’t spell well, and that too much time is spent trying to teach English speakers how to spell their language. I can’t argue with them about that; I’m sure it’s true. I’m also sure that we’re stuck with the spelling system ― if it is a system ― that we’ve got, but I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing.

True, if you look over the history of English spelling, you can’t help but laugh out loud at times when you find out what people did to make the system illogical, awkward, and somewhat inconsistent. Part of the problem comes from the fact that monastic scribes, and later on, printers, had a great deal of influence on how we spell words.

Do you know why so many words contain the combination ck? Some scribes decided that spelling could show it’s necessary to maintain a short vowel sound if that vowel is separated from another vowel by doubling a consonant. That’s why we know how to pronounce pinning vs. pining, or robbed vs. robed. But those scribes didn’t like the look of kk ― it just wasn’t esthetically pleasing to them, I guess ― so they arbitrarily decided to write ck instead. They thought that looked prettier. That’s why we now write picked instead of pikked and won’t confuse its pronunciation with piked. Hah!

And do you know why we spell the word lamb with that silent b? Well, those scribes kept the b in comb and tomb and climb as a reminder of their older forms in which the b was pronounced (camban, tumba, and climban). So when they wrote that word that means a baby sheep, they automatically added that b even though in its original form the word never had a b. We should still be writing it lam, not lamb! And the list of oddities like these goes on and on.

But let’s get serious for a moment. It’s all right ― or alright ― to scream for spelling reform, for a more phonetic way of writing English. But has anybody come up with a system that will work? Not the way I look at it. One big question I have to ask is, with so many variations in the pronunciation of English words, whose pronunciation will we choose to use as the standard for sound/symbol correspondence? If you want to make the system more or less phonetic like we find in Spanish or Russian or German, whose pronunciation will each vowel or consonant represent? Will it be that of the Australians, or New Englanders, or Cockneys, or the British who use “received pronunciation,” RP? Take the word path. If I’m American, I say [pæθ]. If I’m British using RP, I say [pa:θ]. And if I’m a Cockney, I say [pa:f]. So how can we be true to a phonetic way of writing when one word can be pronounced so differently by people who are all native speakers of English? I think you see my point. It just won’t work!

At any rate, we don’t learn to read and write one letter at a time, not after the very beginning. We learn sight recognition, looking at a whole word all at once and recognizing what it is. We don’t sound out each letter of a familiar word when we read it, not if we’re normal readers. To me that’s akin to how Chinese characters are read. They, too, are in a system that relies on reading by sight recognition. So this is one more reason I can’t take those spelling reformers seriously.

And one other thing ― a very important thing ― that they overlook is the personality and unique identification that our spelling system gives to the written language. Take a look again at how I suggested we spell neighbor and psychology. For me there’s something special, almost mysterious, about why those words are spelled as they are. And if I choose to, I can find out the reasons by learning more about the history of the language, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Neighbor comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, neah and gebor, which mean “near farmer.” I like seeing the remnants of those ancient words in the spelling. And psychology is really interesting, too. The p was pronounced in the original Greek word psychos, which means something like “soul.” The Romans incorporated that word into their own language, but they had a problem. Greek had a sound similar to the Scottish or German ch that didn’t exist in Latin, so the Romans chose to represent that sound as ch even though they pronounced it more like a k. Our one word is really from two Greek words, psychos and logos, which mean something like “the study of the soul.” I find there’s a romance in such spellings that I don’t want to lose. Is it impractical? Perhaps, but it adds a character, a personality, a charm to English that I think well worth keeping.

Of course, the most compelling argument for not reforming the English spelling system is this: What will happen to spelling bees? Would you want to take away the fun that so many children have competing in those contests? Would you want to be that spoil-sport? Not I!

Friday, August 15, 2008

And the Answer is . . . Part 2

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

In a few previous entries on my blog, I listed some interesting idiomatic expressions, commonly used terms the origins of which most native speakers don’t have a clue about. I also listed some commonly heard errors that, at least for now, are mostly still considered errors. I’ve already listed some of the answers in “And the Answer is …” Now it’s time for me to list the answers to more of those interesting little bits and pieces that make English so much fun to delve into. The ones listed below are some of the quirks of English that I asked about in rhetorical questions for you to consider. I’m also including those commonly heard errors that may end up becoming acceptable one of these days. As English teachers whose bread and butter is the state of the English language, we should have some knowledge at least of the more commonly used idioms that pop up in conversation so frequently that our students are bound to ask us about eventually, and we should be thinking about changes that are going on right now in how native speakers use this language. So here’s information about some of those quirks and errors I mentioned in those earlier entries. I hope you continue to find them informative and entertaining.

1. Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
On the face of it, these do seem to be contradictory, don’t they? But they’re really not, of course. The particle up isn’t being used in its literal sense here. Up can be used with certain verbs to mean “completely,” so to burn up really means “to burn completely.” Here are some others that work with a similar meaning for up: blow up, clean up, cut up, drink up, eat up, grind up, grow up, lap up, and tie up.

Now down, on the other hand, is used in its literal meaning, so if a tree or a house burns down, we really mean that every part of it has come tumbling down to the ground. Some other verbs that work more or less the same way with down are blow down, bring down (in its literal meaning and one idiomatic meaning, i.e., to kill or disable a large animal), fall down, go down, lay down, lie down, put down (in its literal sense), sit down, and stay down.

2. Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
This is a fun one! Once again, we seem to be looking at opposites as far as those particles are concerned, but they don’t represent their literal meanings here. The difference is that while both phrasal verbs mean that some sort of machine starts functioning, if it goes off, it begins working with an accompanying loud noise or explosive effect, whereas if it goes on, it simply begins working. So I suppose that’s why an alarm clock goes off, but a coffee maker goes on.

In those previous entries, I listed some of the most typically heard errors, which are so common nowadays that at least one has already been raised to the rank of “acceptability.” The others I’ve listed may follow suit, the way things are going. Who knows?

3. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
Even though the more conservative of us grammar wonks still don’t accept lay and lay down as intransitive verbs, but feel that lie and lie down should be the only intransitives in this “contest,” how long can you fight City Hall? I, for one, hear lay and lay down used intransitively more than lie and lie down, so at this point I just sigh and move on. There are even dictionaries that have given in to this change!

4. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
Real easy should be really easily or very easily, and quicker should be more quickly. Although I don’t think these are considered acceptable alternative forms, the two of them tend to be moving in that direction. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is on these.

What’s very interesting to me is that I see a greater and greater trend towards using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain sentence environments and in certain collocations. I know I’ll be getting around to writing a blog entry on this issue at some point in the future, so please stay tuned.

5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.

This seems to be a relatively new trend, unlike the sentence construction that’s been around for a very long time in which people use two conditionals instead of a subjunctive and a conditional. For example when they say, I would’ve helped you if you would’ve asked me.

6. A: Do you know where’s the main office? B: Sorry, I’m not sure where it’s at.
Speaker A is demonstrating an interesting trend in the question above. This may be happening due to the influence of immigrants on the language, but I’m really not sure about the cause. The correct word order is Do you know where the main office is? but I’ve heard this kind of incorrect word order used more and more frequently.

As for what Speaker B says, it’s amazing how many people, usually in less educated groups, don’t feel they’ve uttered a complete idea in a question or statement with where unless they throw in at at the end of the utterance. If you happen to get that popular TV show Cops where you live, listen to how almost every single police officer throws in that at at the end of a question or statement containing where. Of course there’s absolutely no need for using at in an utterance with where.

7. We utilize at least a cord of wood in the fireplace every winter to make the living room warm and cozy.
It’s interesting how so many native speakers mix up use and utilize. I have a hunch they use utilize ― or should I say they utilize utilize ― to sound more “educated” or formal. But in reality they’re just using the wrong word. Our speaker should say We use at least a cord of wood … When you’re talking about the specific, direct purpose for something, you use it. When you’re talking about finding a way to accomplish something by means of using a thing not necessarily designed or planned for that use, then you utilize it. After all, utilize means “to make a use for” something. I ca
n choose to say something like I utilize an old toothbrush to clean the grout on my tiled bathroom walls. Of course, I could opt to say I use an old toothbrush, too. But it would sound odd to say I utilize a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I think you get the idea.

I hope you’ve found this entry informative and entertaining. And I hope it helps kindle that curiosity in you to look into where certain words and expressions come from, see trends that are developing for better or worse in English grammar, and think more about the proper or improper use of certain words. If any others come to mind, please feel free to mention them here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name, Part 2

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

Okay, I know you’re not supposed to do something like this, but let’s eavesdrop on a conversation:

A: I hear your brother’s in a correctional facility. Is that true?
B: Yes, I’m sad to say.
A: What happened?
B: It was all a misunderstanding. He worked for a large clothing retailer. He was let go after he was caught with pilfered goods. My brother didn’t know what they were. The guy who gave them to him said they’d fallen off the back of a truck.
A: Oh, I see. Hmm … And how’s your younger brother doing?
B: He’s between jobs right now. He’s returned to the nest, so that’s good for him financially, but he’s got payments to make on a pre-owned car he bought recently.

Don’t you love the way English can soften reality, or help us avoid directly facing ugly facts, or help us to be more tactful? In an earlier entry also entitled “A Rose by Any Other Name,” we started delving into the wonderful world of euphemisms, and that’s what we’ll continue to do right now.

Speaking of which, how many euphemisms can you find in that conversation? Go ahead, count them. Let’s see what you get. I’ll wait . . .

All done? So how many did you find? I found nine. And here they are:

1. I hear Translation: Somebody – I won’t say who – told me that . . .
2. correctional facility Translation: jail
3. It was all a misunderstanding. Translation: My brother really screwed up.
4. He was let go. Translation: He was fired.
5. pilfered Translation: stolen
6. They’d fallen off the back of a truck. Translation: They’d been stolen.
7. between jobs Translation: unemployed
8. has returned to the nest Translation: living at home with momma and poppa again
9. a pre-owned car Translation: a used car

It says a lot about a culture that uses euphemisms in such a way. Sometimes euphemisms soften a not-so-pleasant truth, as we’ve seen in this conversation; at other times, they can be used to show respect or deference to a group of people. Just look at all the euphemisms English has created ― and I’m sorry to be so blunt ― for old people: the elders, the elderly, the aged, people in their golden years, retired people, mature people, and the ever popular seniors or senior citizens. Why is it, I ask you, that the word old has such a negative connotation? It’s not inherent in the language, is it? It’s a cultural thing, of course. But that’s the whole point: Euphemisms are completely culture-bound.

Sometimes we can see two totally different ways that segments of our population view something by the euphemisms they choose. For example, what about the dead? We can be reverent when talking about somebody who’s dead, or we can be flippant. I wonder which group has the sillier ways of telling you that somebody’s dead.

So let’s be reverent for a moment.

A: Did you hear about poor old Mr. Mertz?
B: No, what?
A: He’s passed/passed away/passed on/passed over/deceased/expired/gone to meet his maker/resting in peace/in a better place/crossed over/defunct/departed
gone/been taken/succumbed/no longer with us/given up the ghost.
B: Oh. Do you mean he’s dead?
A: Yes, poor thing.

And now let’s be a little flippant.

A: Hear about Billy-Bob?
B: No, what?
A: He’s pushing up the daisies/bit the dust/bought the farm/cashed in his chips/

checked out/kicked the bucket.
B: Oh. Ya mean he’s dead?
A: Duh!

I suppose both ways of imparting such news are equally effective in the long run. I just think it’s fascinating that we’d rather opt for one of those euphemisms rather than just come right out and say the poor guy croaked . . . er, died. And then we have this quaint way of letting you know that somebody’s dead by saying the late so-and-so. How bizarre is that? Late? Late for what?? If Mr. Mertz’s time was up, how can we say he’s the late Mr. Mertz? That’s a head scratcher, if you ask me!

Of course my favorite area for euphemisms deals with that always popular sport, sex! In a culture that still has trouble dealing with this topic, euphemisms abound. Just look at some of the ways we can talk about having sex: have carnal knowledge of/have (intimate) relations (with)/make love (with/to)/have an affair (with)/sleep with/sleep together (with)/go to bed with/make whoopee/there was some hanky panky/fooling around/monkey business/playing around. And the beat goes on!

Yes, euphemisms definitely serve a variety of purposes. One thing’s for sure, they certainly enliven the language! But on a more serious note, we also use euphemisms to deal with delicate subjects, especially politically correct ones such as handicaps. People who are sensitive to the handicapped have a lot of credit coming to them, especially those people who insist that proper terminology be used when discussing different kinds of handicaps and the individuals who deal with them. If you’d like to see something very interesting and meaningful, the Life Span Institute of the University of Kansas has set up an online site where you can familiarize yourself with the current terminology that should and should not be used when talking about handicaps. Visit the Life Span Institute and see what I mean. It’s a great way to teach ELL students this very important vocabulary. On that Web site, just click on “Appropriate Terminology.”

And if you’ve got any favorite euphemisms that haven’t been covered here and you’d like to share them with us, please leave a comment for all of us to see. Now that I’m feeling a bit knackered, I think I’ll go to the bedroom to rest ― even though I still think it should be called the restroom! I mean, after all, isn’t that what we do there? Hmm?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Head Scratchers

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

Ever have one of those moments when you hear or read something and do an instant double-take? “Huh? What was that? What did I just hear/read?” And then you wait to see if you’ll hear it again or you reread what you just read so you can check out that you weren’t imagining things? Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had those moments. So have I. And then comes that “aha” moment. You hear it again or reread it, and it was exactly what you thought it was ― nuts! Totally illogical! Downright silly! But then comes the moment of self-doubt. “Am I the one who’s being illogical or silly? Am I perhaps being too picky?”

Okay, so you’d like to know what I’m going on about. Well, here’s an example: “This program has been pre-recorded.” Think about that for a moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that flashed at the bottom of my TV screen or heard it delivered by a voiceover. “This program has been PRE-recorded”? Huh? Does it mean the program was recorded before it was recorded? Isn’t that what it means? Isn’t that totally nuts? Do you react the way I do? I doubt the TV studios that produced those shows got lots of letters pointing out the silliness of that statement. I say that because they’ve kept saying it, year after year. I just end up sighing in utter frustration. How about you?

This is fun. I love to vent, so let’s keep going. Another of these little silly gems created by the same TV studios, one that always cracks me up when I hear it or read it, is “Recorded before a live audience.” You don’t say! A live audience, eh? So they’re reassuring us that the show wasn’t performed in a cemetery or in a morgue full of corpses? Nice of them to let us know. Well, at least they didn’t say “Pre-recorded before a live audience”! How can people actually say such things deliberately? I mean, I can understand if somebody says something silly like that on the spur of the moment without realizing how silly it is, but you’d think that somebody else would catch it or the person saying it would catch it himself and realize how funny it is. But no, statements such as these have been thought out, accepted, and used on American TV shows without anybody so much as blinking when they’re flashed on the screen or said by a voiceover. How amazing is that?

Another gem that used to make me chuckle every time I saw it was a sign in the New York City subway system. It was there for years, and I wonder if it still is. It was at the 14th Street station on the IRT line, and it said, “Use last two stairways for toilet.” Don’t you just love it? I wonder if any literal-minded, inebriated person ever followed those instructions to the letter. Actually, I’m glad I never found out in person. But there you have it. Another example of people not realizing what they’re saying or writing. Sure, I understand perfectly well that it’s an ambiguous sentence, and that’s why it’s funny, but couldn’t somebody have come up with something unambiguous? I mean . . . really. (By the way, if any New Yorkers who ride the IRT read this piece, please let me know if that sign is still there, okay?)

Here’s one more that’s made me scratch my head on more than one occasion: “I’ll try and get back to her before the end of business today.” What’s with that often-heard phrase I’ll try and + base verb? Shouldn’t it be I’ll try to + base verb? Okay, I can just see you making a face and thinking, “Aw, c’mon, now you’re being picky. Lots of people say that.” Yeah, I know they do, but they don’t say it in the past (*I tried and got back to her …) and they don’t say it in the present (*I’m trying and getting back to her …), so how come it’s okay to say it in the future? I just don’t get it! It’s also another one of those gems that don’t make sense when you think about them in detail: You’ll try AND get back to her? You’ll try WHAT? You forgot to mention what you’ll try before you get back to her. Aaaaarrrghhh!

I’ve got to calm down. My blood pressure, you know.

Why does it seem that so many things we teach our students ― even the most basic things ― always seem to get contradicted in real-life English? Every Level 1 teacher goes over such basics as Thank you and its customary response, You’re welcome. You’d think that combination couldn’t be tampered with, wouldn’t you? Well, think again. I listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) most mornings. They give wonderful, in-depth stories that really inform their listeners. More often than not, when a piece is over, the anchor will say, for example, “Thank you, Quil, for that report.” Now you’d expect Quil to say, “You’re welcome, Lisa,” or “My pleasure, Lisa,” or something like that, right? Nope, that’s not necessarily right. What does Quil say? “Thank you, Lisa.” So Lisa has said Thank you and Quil has replied Thank you. And I sit there, making a face and thinking in a whiny sort of way, “We can’t teach our students to say that. Why are those two saying that?” And they’re not alone. It’s amazing how often I’ll hear Thank you repeated instead of a good old-fashioned You’re welcome or My pleasure. (Time for me to sigh.)

I could go on and on about head scratchers like these, but I’ll save the rest for another time. I’d love to know if you’ve got any I haven’t mentioned, ones that make you do a double-take, too. And I’d like to know if any of them have kind of ambushed what you teach your students they should say. So let me hear from you. I promise that your pre-recorded comments will be viewed by a live person.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

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

Whenever I’ve taught an Intro to Linguistics course, one of the things I’ve discussed with my students is the fact that you can’t separate language from culture, that a language is an integral part of the culture of the people who speak it, and that it reflects that culture. In other words, you can’t learn a language in a vacuum.

Which brings me to the topic of euphemisms. Nothing is more telling about a culture than the euphemisms that culture has come up with in its language. Of course, this phenomenon can go a long way to driving ESOL and EFL students nuts. First, they’ve got the arduous task of trying to learn several terms for the same thing, and then they’ve got the daunting problem of learning when some of these terms are appropriate to use and when they aren’t. And, if all of that isn’t tough enough, they’ve got to learn which are considered nice and which are considered nasty. This is some job!

I suppose we all have out favorite euphemisms or favorite categories in which we can find lots of euphemisms to have fun with. I know I certainly do! Two categories that have always been nearest and dearest to my heart are the bathroom (itself a euphemism), including items related to it, and obesity. I like to focus, however, on the nice euphemisms, not the nasty ones.

English speakers have a “thing” about the bathroom. Americans, for example, just love their bathrooms. They beautify them with ceramic tile on the walls as well as on the floors. They install the nicest sinks and faucets and bath tubs or shower stalls. They go all out. And they make these cherished rooms sweet smelling so that they and their guests will walk in, inhale, and sigh with approval as they exhale. But don’t you dare call it what it is, the toilet. No, no! We can’t be so direct and low class about a room where such goings-on occur that we even find this topic difficult to discuss with a doctor, if need be. So English has come up with a bounty of euphemisms for that room which you go to “when nature calls” (also a euphemism): the bathroom, the gents’, the head, the john, the ladies’, the ladies’ room, the lavatory, the little boys’ room, the little girls’ room, the loo, the men’s room, the powder room, the privy, the restroom, the WC (water closet). And, of course, for those in less modern settings, the latrine and the ever-popular outhouse.

And what do we say when someone’s in the middle of doing his business in this famous room? “He’s indisposed.” “She’s on the throne.” Don’t you just love it? I remember the first time I heard my plumber refer to the toilet as “the commode.” How nice! How delicate a term! It’s just as delicate as the term that television advertisers had to come up with when they finally crossed the barrier and were able to hawk bathroom items in their commercials. They couldn’t call it toilet paper. Ugh! How crass! So now we watch commercials for “bathroom tissue.” It just rolls off the tongue (no pun intended): “bathroom tissue.”

Here’s a cute story about the word restroom. One of my students told me this tale about when he first arrived in the US. There he was in his first American airport after a very, very long flight during which he had had trouble relaxing and trying to sleep. He picked up his bags and then noticed a sign that said “Restrooms.” “How wonderful!” he thought to himself. “Americans think of everything! They even have a place where tired passengers can rest before they continue their travels.” So he went over to the one marked “men,” went in, and you can imagine the shock on his face as he realized it wasn’t exactly a place to “rest.” That was his introduction to English euphemisms!

Obesity, as I said, is my other favorite category. I just love the euphemisms we’ve created to protect the feelings of fat people. They’re fat. I’m fat. Lots of Americans are just plain fat. But we’ve got to be psychologically protected from that unpleasant reality, so people who want to be polite and sensitive to our feelings have come up with the following terms, which can even be designated as unisex, male, and female terms. Unisex: big, big boned, corpulent, heavy, heavyset, large, overweight, plump; female: buxom, full figured, Rubenesque, voluptuous, zaftig; male: husky, portly, stout. (I think I’ll be “big boned” today. Yeah, I like that: “big boned.”)

Euphemisms do provide a very important service for a language. They reflect how important speakers of a language consider one topic or another, and show us how those speakers deal with or don’t deal with that topic in their culture. The subject of euphemisms is almost inexhaustible, so I’ll have lots more to say about them at another time.

How about you? Do you have any favorite euphemisms, or are there any that you scoff at? I’d like to know what they are, so drop me a line, okay?

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, May 31, 2008

And the Answer is . . .

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

In a previous entry entitled “Why Do We Say That?” we had fun with some of the odder idiomatic expressions that go a long way to embellish and enrich the language. At the end of that tongue-in-cheek entry, I left five additional idiomatic expressions unexplained to ponder over. I guess it’s time now to reveal their possible, interesting beginnings to explain why we say what we say. Some people call such explanations “urban legends,” but whatever we get out of these little tales, they’re certainly entertaining and may, after all, contain some truth. So here goes . . .

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

In the Middle Ages, people could sometimes obtain pork, which would make them feel really special since all meat, including pork, was considered a luxury item for the dinner table. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of some wealth that a man could bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests, and would all sit around and chew the fat.

2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.

Again in the Middle Ages, bakers customarily divvied up bread among their customers according to their status. Workers got the almost-burned bottom of very large loaves, families got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

3. Good night. Sleep tight.

In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. (I can testify to the veracity of that statement since I myself visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and saw not only the ropes on his bed frame, but also the device used to tighten them.) When you pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase, “Good night. Sleep tight.

4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.

The phrase rule of thumb is derived from an old English law which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb. (Aw, shucks!)

I’ve got to tell you . . . Whether those tales are true or just entertaining, my students have always enjoyed hearing them. And the most important reason for telling them these tales is that it always helps them remember the idioms and use them appropriately, so those tales definitely serve a good purpose!

Moving right along, there are some juicy little sentences I left you with at the end of my last entry entitled “Is it a Change – or is it a Goof?” The idea was to see if you could spot the word in each of those sentences that’s open to debate about whether it represents an actual change in the language, or whether it’s just a mistake some speaker or writer has made. Here’s how I see them:

She’s an alumni of Duke University.

A goof: Here we go again with those Latin plural suffixes! To be technically correct, we should say, “She’s an alumna of Duke University.” For a guy we should say, “He’s an alumnus,” and for both of them we should say, “They’re alumni.” Most people these days don’t distinguish between the Latin masculine and feminine singular suffixes, just lumping them together with alumnus, so he’s an alumnus and she’s an alumnus. But we still distinguish between the singular and plural forms and say, “They’re alumni” or “the alumni association.”

The police found teeth marks on the victim.

A goof: I really don’t understand why this is happening, but some speakers don’t think it odd to say teeth marks. At first I thought it might be because of the irregular plural form (teeth), but I’ve never heard anybody say *feet prints, have you? So, if we don’t say *teethpaste or *a fine-teeth comb, why on earth do some people say *teeth marks? Weird, huh?

The media isn’t reporting this accurately.

A change: Here’s a perfect example of that phenomenon called “accumulation of error.” The singular is medium and the plural is media, but so many educated speakers and writers have continuously made the mistake of thinking that media is a singular noun that now it’s become acceptable to say the media is instead of the media are, so you hear both, although I do think the media is is winning out.

He shouldn’t talk like that about John and I.

A goof: Yes, I know you’ve heard lots of people say such phrases as “… about John and I,” but I don’t think this is considered acceptable ― at least not yet. After all, John and I are both objects of the preposition about in this sentence, and as such, I needs to be in the objective case, me. We all should say He shouldn’t talk like that about John and me. I think people have been making that goof because they think John and I sounds more “educated” or “elegant,” but it’s really just the opposite, if you ask I ― I mean me. This is a case that will prove very interesting in the future as far as “accumulation of error” goes. It remains to be seen whether this goof becomes a change at some point in the future. What’s your guess?

“Do you mind if I sit here?” “Sure.

A goof: This one throws me for a loop. It’s as if the meaning of that question has gotten lost to many native speakers. Do you mind if …? means something like “Does it/Will it bother you if …?” so the polite response should be “No,” which means “It doesn’t/won’t bother me.” The person replying to the question above is really saying, “Of course it will bother me.” Yikes! And yet that’s not what he means at all. Something tells me that if more and more native speakers keep forgetting the true meaning of this polite question which asks for permission to do something, it will become a synonym for saying something like “Is it all right if …?” And then, of course, one proper response will be “Sure.”

They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007.

A goof: I still don’t hear too many native speakers saying something like this. Most people still distinguish between th
e irregular past (hung) used to mean that something has been suspended from something else like a ceiling or tree branch or placed on a wall, and the regular past (hanged) used to mean “executed” with a noose tied around a person’s neck, etc.

So there you have it. We’ve taken a tongue-in-cheek look at the possible etymologies of some idiomatic expressions and scrutinized some oft-heard words under the linguistic microscope. There’s so much more that could be said, but so little time. Oh, well . . .

Friday, May 9, 2008

It’s Just Not Enough!

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

Something there is in human nature that makes us want to be absolutely sure others have understood what we’ve said. Something there is in our nature that makes us want to add unnecessary bits and pieces to our utterances just to make sure enough attention has been drawn to whatever our point is or because we feel an urge to stress our point. It’s a trait that seems to have always been with us and can be traced back even in writing to the ancient Egyptians.

Although most people don’t realize it, the ancient Egyptians actually had an alphabet, but never woke up to the fact that all they needed were the hieroglyphs that represented individual sounds, just as letters do today. One thing they did was add lots of hieroglyphs that worked together with their alphabetical symbols. Here’s a typical example. The Egyptian word for “beautiful” was nefer. They had a symbol for n (water), a symbol for f (a horned viper), and a symbol for r (an open mouth). They even had symbols for the vowels, but rarely used them, much as we see in Hebrew and Arabic today. So if they’d wanted to, the Egyptians could simply have written nefer, but they didn’t. What they did to make sure nobody would get confused was to add one symbol which, by itself, represented the whole word nefer (a heart and windpipe of a animal) and then repeat the f and the r. They didn’t pronounce it nefer-fer, though; they still just pronounced it nefer! They just didn’t feel right about using only the phonetic glyphs. They had to build in a redundancy to feel sure when writing down words.

I get a real kick out of finding all sorts of redundancies in English that basically satisfy the same need that the ancient Egyptians had. Take, for example, that final –s or –es on the 3rd person singular of verbs in the simple present tense. Why on earth do we need that inflected form? We don’t have any endings on the other persons, singular or plural, so why do we persist in keeping that one inflected ending? It’s a mystery to me, especially because it’s totally redundant. As soon as I say he, she, or it, you know who or what the following verb refers to (he like, she need, it go), so that’s why it’s redundant ― and silly.

I’ve got an idea! Can you recognize some typical redundancies you hear all the time? The thing is, most people don’t realize they’re being redundant when they say these things. Even though most writing teachers would consider their inclusion poor writing style, they’re firmly entrenched in how a great many people speak. So look over each of the following sentences, pick out the redundancy or redundancies, and send in your findings:

  • “Krueger National Park in South Africa is a very unique wild animal reserve.”
  • “The reason why he did it was unclear.”
  • “Make sure you remember your PIN number when you go to use the ATM machine.”
  • “Students from other countries who want to study at American universities will need to achieve a certain score on the TOEFL test.”
  • “Scuba diving in the Bahamas was the most unique experience I’ve ever had.”
  • “Let’s have tuna fish sandwiches for lunch.”
  • “The police were able to prove that the car had been stolen by its VIN number.”
  • “Watch an all new episode of Grey’s Anatomy next Thursday night here on ABC.”
  • “The police were able to return most of the stolen clothes back to the store.”

So how did you do? Did you find them all? Please let me know!

Whatever the reasons, it’s apparent that redundancy plays a role in language to satisfy some deep-seated need to make things clearer or to add an extra “oomph” to them. Whether they actually do or not I’ll leave up to you to decide. I’m looking forward to seeing if you find those silly little extras in the sentences I’ve cited. Happy hunting!