Archive for Tag: vocabulary

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.”

“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!

Friday, May 2, 2008

May I Have a Word? Part 2

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

When I first started my blog, I thought it would be fun to delve into some of the challenging offerings of English vocabulary. I shared with you some of the more daunting questions about words and phrases that have caught my attention over the years. As I mentioned in that first piece, “May I Have a Word” (which is included in my first entry, “Welcome to My Blog”), there’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as being ambushed by a question such as “What’s the difference between electric and electrical?” (And please, let’s not add electronic to the mix!)

Well, I’m not finished. I still have lots of words and phrases that make me pause and ponder. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was asked by one of my students why it is that we have two words to distinguish some living animals from their meat, but we don’t do that for all of them. I stared blankly at my student, not quite sure what he was talking about. Recognizing that needy look on my face, the student offered an example: “You know, like cow and beef.” “Oh!” I said. “Now I get it!” So I listed the four most common domestic animals and meats as examples on the board:

  • cow → beef
  • calf → veal
  • sheep → mutton
  • pig → pork

That was all well and good, but could I explain the reason for this? It just so happened that I could! I remembered back to when I had taken a course on the history of the English language. The Saxon peasants served the Norman aristocrats in 12th century England, and the vocabulary from the two languages (Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) started to mix at that time. It so happens that when those animals were slaughtered, butchered, and their meat brought into the kitchens, the Saxon workers called them by their Anglo-Saxon names (cow, calf, sheep, and pig), but that when their meat was cooked and brought into the dining room for the Norman aristocrats to munch on, their Norman French names were used (beef, veal, mutton, and pork). That differentiation stuck through all these centuries, and that’s why we still have different words for those animals and their meat.

But then I got ambushed. Another student with a big grin on her face asked me, “Why is chicken the same word for the animal and the meat?” And another student piped up with “What about lamb and goat? Total silence fell over the room as the students awaited my answers. It was the kind of silence that precedes a great explosion or clap of thunder as a storm begins. I don’t particularly like being ambushed in class, but it’s an occupational hazard, I guess. So there I was, left holding the bag ― which, by the way, was an idiomatic expression I taught the students right then and there. It was one of those “teachable moments” I’d learned about in one of those education courses I’d taken so many years before.
Yes, I was left holding the bag. I had no idea how to respond to those questions. All I could do was fess up to my students and tell them I’d try to find the answers. Well, I still haven’t. If you’ve got the answers, please let me know!

Getting back to more of those words and phrases I’ve pondered over from time to time, here are more that I’d like to share with you, some of which come from my own head, and some from the head of authors such as Richard Lederer*. Please think about them. I think you should join me in wondering about these little gems of the language.

  • How do you distinguish between to die of something and to die from something?
  • Does quicksand really work quickly?
  • We ship by truck, but we send cargo by ship, right?
  • If the stars are out, they’re visible, but if the lights are out, they’re invisible!
  • Why do we recite at a play, but play at a recital?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  • I know what a gate is; that opening in a fence that I can go through. And I know what a door is, too. Well then, why do we call the thing you pass through at the airport when boarding a plane a gate when it’s a door? I’ve never seen a fence there, have you?
  • If there are proper nouns, are there also improper nouns?
  • Grapefruit. A grape is already a fruit, so why is this called a grapefruit?
  • For that matter, if tuna is already a fish, why do lots of people say tuna fish? Does this have any connection by analogy to grapefruit?

Help me out here, folks. If you’ve got any sage responses to my ponderings, please send them in.

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

Friday, April 18, 2008

We’re All Entitled

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

I’ve always found our most common titles in English quite amazing. Have you ever really thought about Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms.? (Come to think of it, does anybody use Miss anymore?)

I’ve wondered why we write those odd abbreviations for the first two I listed, but when we say them out loud, something that doesn’t quite seem related pops out of our mouths. Mr. is “Mister,” but what’s a mister? I’m familiar with a garden gadget that keeps plants moist; that’s a mister. But a man? Is a mister a man who mists plants? Naw, that couldn’t be the derivation. And Mrs. is pronounced “missez,” right? Well, what happened to the r? Maybe we’re really supposed to say “mirsez.”

I don’t like feeling ignorant, so I dug into where these titles came from. Mister is a funny pronunciation for master. So that means I’m really Master Firsten. Oh, but wait a minute. I recall that when I was a kid, some adults put the title master in front of a boy’s first name to distinguish a kid from a grown-up. In fact, I do remember grown-ups sometimes calling me “Master Richard.” So somehow, master got changed to mister and mister got to be used for grown-up men. At least that seems to be what happened.

Moving right along, it turns out that missez comes from “mistress.” Mistress? Wait a minute! So my mother could have been called “Mistress Firsten”? Or maybe “Mistress Tess.” Wow! I think my feisty mother would have liked that. It conjures up all sorts of interesting images!

The thing that rankles is how these nice titles can go from being formal and polite to downright common and even almost vulgar. How, you ask? Use them along with a surname when you address people and you’re nice and polite: “One moment, Mr. Pearson.” “Hold on, Mrs. Longman.” But drop the surnames (maybe because you don’t know these people) and suddenly you’re crude and boorish: “One moment, mister.” “Hold on, missez.” Ah, but you know how to get around that problem, don’t you? You’ve got to substitute those two titles with two other titles if you want to stay polite, so you say sir and madam or ma’am: “One moment, sir.” Ooh, that sounds nice, and so polite! “Hold on, madam.” Uh . . . I’m not so sure about this one. Hmm . . . “Hold on, ma’am”? Yes! That sounds better. So what’s wrong with madam? I think we tend to use madam only when we’re annoyed or angry. To me it sounds exaggerated or overly polite, even sarcastic ― well, that is, unless you’re a butler: “Dinner is served, madam.”

But what if you’re addressing more than one man or woman? Then what? “One moment, sirs.” Nope, that won’t cut it ― unless maybe if you’re in the military. “Hold on, ma’ams.” I don’t even think ma’ams is a word! Now what do you do? Of course! You have to use two more different titles if you’re addressing more than one person: “One moment, gentlemen.” “Hold on, ladies.” (Is your head beginning to spin? Mine is!) Yes, ladies sounds nice as a plural title to use when the singular ma’am won’t do. Oh, no! I just thought of something. What about the singular, lady? “Hold on, lady.” Oh, my goodness! We’re back to crude and boorish ― almost vulgar ― and it can sound angry, too. So that means if you use ladies, it sounds refined, but if you use lady, you get the opposite result. (Are you shaking your head? I’m shaking my head.)

I think we need to recap: Mister comes from “master,” but that doesn’t mean he’s your master, and Master can be used with a boy’s first name if you want to be super-formal, although this title seems to be dying out. Now then, Missez comes from “mistress,” but that doesn’t mean she’s somebody’s mistress; it means she’s married! In addition, if we want to stay polite, we can’t address somebody as mister or missez without a surname, so we switch to sir or ma’am if we’re talking to one man or woman, and we switch again to gentlemen or ladies if we’re talking to two or more men or women. And we’ve got to remember that we can use ladies, but we shouldn’t use lady unless we’re upset and want to sound low-class. Have you got all that? And to think, our students have to deal with this daunting stuff, too!

Oh! And speaking of a married woman or “the missez” as some low-class speakers might say, what about Ms., which we pronounce “miz”? Most people don’t know that it goes back to the 1700s as a sort of slurred way of quickly saying missez. Besides that, it’s always been a common way of pronouncing Mrs. in parts of the American South: “Mornin’, Mizz Davis.” Sheila Michaels, an American involved in the beginnings of the feminist movement, said there should be a title for women that didn’t divulge their marital status, just as the title Mr. doesn’t divulge that about a man. These days Ms. is heard much more often than Miss or Mrs. Does that mean those two titles may be on the way out?

So I was thinking and thinking about these common titles, especially the female ones, and it suddenly dawned on me: When addressing a top politician like a president or prime minister, we say “Mr. President” or “Mr. Prime Minister,” but since we’re so au courant nowadays, if Hillary Clinton becomes the first female American president, how will she want to be addressed? “Mrs. President”? “Ms. President”? “Madam President”? Hmm . . . My money’s on “Madam President.” It strikes me as a cut above the other two options. What do you think? And have your students mastered the use of Mr., Miss, Mrs., and Ms.? I’d love to hear any war stories you’ve got.

By the way, mistresses and masters . . . er, . . . ladies and gentlemen, please stay tuned, because I’ve got lots more to say about titles, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Welcome to My Blog!

By Richard FirstenRetired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Glad you’ve come to visit my blog! I’d like to consider this my cyber-living room, so to speak, where we can have good chats to exchange ideas about any and all aspects of the English language: where it’s been, where it is now, and where it’s headed.

This is our chance to discuss troublesome parts of the language, vent frustrations in trying to teach or learn it, talk about pet peeves concerning how the language is used, and offer amusing, insightful observations on this means of communication we call English. You’ll be able to send me your comments, and that should prove very interesting, too, for me and for other guests. I’ll do my best to give you a stimulating, innovative, anything-but-ordinary experience at The Grammar Guy.

I’ve been wondering what I wanted to start off my blog with, and it suddenly dawned on me: vocabulary! Why vocabulary? Well, I’ve been teaching English for almost 35 years, and one area that never ceases to ambush me is vocabulary. What a daunting feature of the language this is for teachers and students! Just when I think I know what I’m talking about, I’ll either find myself wondering about a word, or somebody will ask me a tricky vocabulary question that makes me cringe. So yes, vocabulary seems to be a good way to get the blog ball rolling.

May I Have a Word?

In his book Crazy English*, author Richard Lederer goes into some of the odder oddities of English. He pointed out something that has always stuck with me: “Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?” Yep, it’s funny, so we chuckle at the cleverness of his question and maybe grin sheepishly, but at the same time, I, for one, feel uncomfortable because I know I can’t answer the question right then and there. We’ll probably find the answer if we dig into the etymology of both words, but to come up with an answer on the spot? Yipes! Anyway, the point is that English vocabulary is always ambushing us like this. Hasn’t it done that to you?

That author’s queries got me thinking about all sorts of curious questions on English vocabulary that can make my job – and yours – much tougher. I figure it’ll be fun to list some of those musings, both Lederer’s and my own, for you to think about. I mean, why shouldn’t I let you go as nuts over words as Richard Lederer and I do? So here are a few of those choicer musings. Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

  • Discounting sibling and spouse, why is it that the only term for a family member that’s genderless is cousin? I mean, when we say father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, etc., we know we’re talking about a male or female. But that’s not the case with cousin. I find that very curious.

What made me think about this is when an EFL teacher from Malaysia happened to mention something about his “cousin-sister” in a thread on the Azar Grammar Exchange. “Cousin-sister”? Huh?? My first reaction, of course, was to correct him and say there’s no such thing as a “cousin-sister.” Ah, but I know better now. I don’t make such broad pronouncements any more, not after all the times I’ve been ambushed. And guess what. In certain areas of Asia, the terms cousin-brother and cousin-sister have evolved to deal with the problem of cousin being genderless. Aha! How creative! It might take a little getting used to, but it works, doesn’t it? Now I wonder if it’ll ever catch on elsewhere. But I digress . . .

Here are some more gems that have preyed upon my poor, addled brain and made me reach repeatedly for a bottle of aspirin. Please think about them, will you?

  • Have you ever tried to explain the difference between electric and electrical?
  • If you can rear children and rear animals, can you rear fish?
  • Can we really rush around during rush hour? Hah! And why is it only an hour?
  • Aren’t wise man and wise guy synonyms?

And then there are words that contradict themselves:

  • Fast can mean either “move or do quickly,” or it can mean “not move,” as in holding fast.
  • Trim can mean “add decoration to” as in trim a Christmas tree, but it can also mean “remove from,” as in trim the shrubs.
  • Why is there no egg in eggplant, or apple or pine in pineapple?
  • Aren’t boxing rings square?
  • How can a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?
  • For that matter, how can flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?!

Have you reached for your bottle of aspirin yet? Aren’t you glad you haven’t been hit with these questions – or have you been? It’s enough to make you want to take up accounting as a career! But since I’m not any good with numbers, I’ve stuck with teaching English. And I’m glad I have. After all, it does keep me hopping – and wondering, and hopping, and wondering.

So let me know if you’ve been ambushed by vocabulary too. I’d love to hear your war stories. I’m glad you dropped by, and I hope you are, too.

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