Archive for the 'Language & Terms' Category
So I wanted to write something about the use of the word “so” to begin a sentence.
Traditionally the word “so” in English has served (been used for) a couple of purposes. You can say “so” as a conjunction to mean “therefore,” as when you are about to announce some conclusion: “I bought a car, so (because of this fact; therefore) I can drive you to school.” In these cases, “so” always refers back to something already said or done.
“So” can also be used when telling a story, usually with the word “then.” You’ll often hear people listening to a story ask, “So then what happened?”
“So” can mean to a very large extent or degree, like the adverb “very,” as in “He is so big for his age!” And it can mean “about” or “approximately” when used in the expression “or so,” as in “He weighs about 150 pounds or so.”
In the last 15 years (or so), it has become more common in American English to use the word “so” to begin sentences that don’t obviously refer back to some previous statement, that are not part of a story or sequence of events, and that don’t mean the same as “very.” An article in the New York Times a few years ago shows where and why this change in English has taken place.
The “new” use of “so” is to start a sentence, replacing “filler” words like “well” or “um,” as a way to introduce what you are about to say. This way of using “so” appears to have started in Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the U.S. located in northern California, where it was used in the late ’90s by engineers and programmers.
Some think that programmers started using it because it sounded more “logical,” as though one had come up with (thought of) the obviously correct response.
While “well” and “um” sound uncertain, “so” sounds decisive. “So” implies you are certain of what you are saying. “Well, I think that…” opens a discussion; “So I think that…” gives a conclusion.
I first noticed this use of “so” two years ago when a real estate agent (someone who buys and sells houses) I was talking to would answer nearly every question I had for him by saying, “So…” I found it a little confusing, almost as though I had missed part of the conversation.
Like a lot of linguistic (related to language) trends (developments; changes over time), this use of “so” has now spread from California to other places. A few weeks ago I was talking to my college-aged nephew who lives in Chicago, and I noticed that he often used “so” to begin a sentence in this “new” way.
So (and here I mean “therefore”), if you want to sound more like a native speaker of American English, you can try starting all of your answers with the word “so.”
Photo credit: Aristotle, Wikipedia PD
People don’t like getting old. People like it even less when they’re called old.
The term “elderly” is used to describe someone who is old, as in “elderly residents (people who live in a place)” or “elderly women.” We also use this term to talk about this segment (part; section) of the population: “the elderly.”
But who defines the age at which one becomes old and should be described as elderly? This is a sensitive question, because some people say that to call someone elderly is to imply (say indirectly) that someone is weaker, less clear thinking, more forgetful, and generally less able than those who are not elderly. That’s why some people don’t want this term used to describe them.
The word “elderly” actually comes from the noun “elder,” which is simply a person who is older than the others in a particular group, and it doesn’t have a negative connotation (connection; implication). In fact, in some Christian churches and in some Native American tribes (groups; cultures), an elder is a leader who is respected and considered wise (showing a lot of knowledge and good judgement).
A recent National Public Radio story focused on the use of the term “elderly” in news stories, and complaints from the general public when the term is used for people who may be on the cusp (on the border; at the edge of) old age. Is someone 70 elderly? How about 65 or 60?
In addition to “elderly,” people in the U.S. use the term “senior” or “senior citizen” to describe older people. Generally, it is used for people who are retired (no longer working due to age). Traditionally, the retirement age in the U.S. is 65, but these days, with people living longer, some people work into their 70′s or even 80′s. You’ll see the term “senior” in many places: many restaurants, movie theaters, and stores have senior discounts (lower prices); colleges and community programs have classes targeted to (intended for) seniors; and there are housing developments and communities built to attract seniors.
While the term “senior” references (is related to) retirement, “elderly” does not, which means it is a more imprecise (not accurate) term. That is perhaps why there is more debate (disagreement) about who is considered elderly.
There was a comedian (performer who tells jokes and makes people laugh) named George Carlin who was popular in the 1980′s and 1990′s. One of his funny observations was this: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot (stupid person), and anyone going faster than you is a maniac (crazy person; person who behaves wildly)?”
I suppose (believe; think) defining “elderly” may work in the same way: it’s always someone older than me.
Are there terms for older people in the languages you know and is there a stigma (negative association) attached to them? At what age do you think someone should be considered or described as being elderly?
Image Credit: Maes Old Woman Dozing from Wikipedia
American cities and towns get their names from many sources. It’s clear where cities like Lincoln, Nebraska; Jefferson City, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; and Jackson, Mississippi get their names — from the names of American presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Grover Cleveland, and Andrew Jackson.
Other city or town names come from the original inhabitants (people who live there) or the origins of the immigrants or migrants (people who move from one part of a country to another) who moved there, such as New York and New Mexico. And still other towns are named for their functions or unique geographical features (special features of the land).
But some U.S. cities have truly strange and inexplicable names. Some of these are very small towns and communities.
In the state where I grew up — Arizona — there is a town called Nothing. Established (created) in 1977, this is truly a small town, with only four residents (people living there) now. However, those residents have a very good sense of who they are and what they represent. One town sign reads (says):
Town of Nothing Arizona. Founded 1977. Elevation (position above sea level) 3269 ft.
The staunch (loyal) citizens of Nothing are full of Hope, Faith, and Belief in the work ethic (the idea that hard work is good and will bring good results). Thru (through) the years, these dedicated (devoted; committed to a purpose) people had faith (belief; confidence) in Nothing, hoped for Nothing, worked at Nothing, for Nothing.
The people of Nothing also have a good sense of humor. The last sentence include several puns, jokes based on a word or phrase having more than one meaning.
“To have faith in nothing” normally means to believe in nothing. ”To have faith in (something)” usually means to have confidence in it and believe that it will do what it says it will do. For example:
- “Julia doesn’t have faith in her car’s GPS system. She prefers to use a paper map.”
- “Ken has faith in his children’s honesty and know that they wouldn’t tell a lie.”
“To hope for nothing” usually means to expect or wish for nothing:
- “Based on her past experience, Mandy knew to hope for nothing from her boss even if she asked for help.”
- “Gil hoped for nothing when he moved to the new town, but has actually made a lot of friends.”
“To work at nothing” means to be aimless and not put your time and energy into achieving anything. For example:
- “After years of working at nothing and living at home with his parents, Don finally went back to school, completed his degree, and got a job.”
- “When Sophie retires, she plans to work at nothing and just enjoy her free time.”
Finally, “for nothing” normally means with no result:
- “I worked on this old car for nothing. I couldn’t get it to work.”
- “Sam cleaned the house for nothing. His family didn’t even notice his hard work.”
Before reading about Nothing, I had never heard of this town. Now, I’m intrigued (interested). If I ever stop there for a visit, I’ll know to expect Nothing.
Are there towns with unusual names where you live?
P.S. The title of this post “What’s in a name?” is a line from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet uttered (said) by Juliet:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Juliette means, of course, that a name isn’t important. If a rose were called by a different name, it would have the same good scent or smell.
Photo Credit: Nothing, Arizona from Wikipedia
Marco from Italy wants to know: “When I listened to the famous song “Forget you” of Cee Lo Green, I heard him say: “… and I’m like forget you … “. What does the expression “I’m like” mean in this case and how is it used normally in (informal, I suppose) conversation?”
In American English, the word “like” has several very different usages (ways it is used). The way that “like” is used in Marco’s example is as a way to informally paraphrase (repeat, but not in the exact words) what you or someone else has already said. Take a look at these two examples:
A: ”Jeff said, ‘I’m buying lunch!’”
B: ”Jeff is like, ‘I’m buying lunch!’”
In the first example, I’m saying that Jeff said the exact words “I’m buying lunch!” at some earlier time. In the second example, I’m giving you the essence (main meaning) of what Jeff said, but not necessarily his exact words. He may have actually said, “Lunch is on me!” or “I’m paying for lunch!,” but the message is the same.
Americans use “like” in this way all the time in informal conversations. Although it started out as something young girls used in daily conversation with each other, today, you’ll hear all kinds of people using it in this way.
Another very common way “like” is used in American English is as a filler, similar to “um” or “er.” We all use conversation fillers to give us more time to think as we’re speaking. Here are a couple of examples of this usage.
- “I, like, don’t know what to say to you when you’re so upset.”
- “Like, are you really going to move to McQuillanland?”
Finally, “like” is often used when we want to indicate that what we are about to say is an approximation, or that it isn’t exactly right, but it is close enough or good enough. Often, this is an exaggeration (saying something is more than it actually is). Here are a few examples:
- “The store is only, like, a mile from here, so there’s no excuse not to go.”
- “I ate too much last night. I’m, like, never going to eat again.”
- “When my parents came home and saw what we did to the house, they, like, died.”
All of these uses are informal and you will almost never see them in writing or hear them in formal conversation. However, you’ll hear Americans use “like” in these ways all the time. These are not the only uses of “like,” but they are among the most common in daily conversation.
There you have it (here is what you asked for), Marco. I hope that answers your question.
By the way, Cee Lo Green’s song “Forget You” was very popular here in the U.S. a few months ago. You can hear it here. This is the “clean” version without profanity (bad words), because there is another version in which the word “forget” is replaced with the four-letter “f-word” that you all know.
I have a question for you.
What adjectives come to mind (what adjectives do you immediately think of) when you hear the word “cool” used to describe someone?
Researchers recently asked a similar question to almost 1,000 people between the ages of 15 and 56. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times newspaper, the research was prompted (make someone decide to do something) by a disagreement among friends. One of them was trying to decide if a certain American actor and director was cool. But the friends couldn’t agree about what makes a person cool, so they designed a research study to find out what people think about when they hear the word “cool” used to describe other people.
Cool, the idea of low in temperature but not cold, has been around (existed) for many years and is a part of standard English. And since 1728, cool has been used informally (casually) to describe large amounts of money, as in “I just made a cool $1,000.”
The New Oxford American Dictionary tells us that using cool to say that people or things were fashionable or impressive began in the 1920s. It was first used by African Americans and became popular, together with jazz, in the 1940s. In the 1950s and ’60s it was popular among beatniks – a group of young people who were non-conformists (didn’t think or act like most people).
Like a lot of popular slang, cool became uncool (unpopular) after a while. But it has returned, and today it’s often used informally to express positive feelings or agreement. Here are a few examples:
- “That’s cool (excellent, impressive, exciting)!”
- “That’s a cool (creative, appropriate, bold) plan!”
- “I’m cool (not upset about or agree) with that.”
- “Is it cool (okay, acceptable) if I sleep here tonight?”
- “How cool (impressive, exciting) is this?” (Can be a question or statement.)
When people use cool to describe other people, the research study discovered that they use it in two very different ways. The first kind of cool person is someone who appears to be confident and successful. They’re attractive (enjoyable to be with), likable, and make people around them feel comfortable.
The second kind of cool person is quite different. We would use it to describe James Dean, an American actor who was killed in an automobile accident when he was 24 years old (see his picture above). For many people, Dean represents teenagers of the 1950s who had become disillusioned – disappointed with life because it was less good than they hoped it would be. He played such a teenager in his famous film, Rebel Without a Cause (a rebel is someone who refuses to do something in the way people want them to.). People who are cool in a rebellious way appear confident, but they don’t usually show their feelings. They often act detached (not connected with other people) and aloof (not friendly).
This idea of cool also appears among jazz musicians. In the LA Times article, the director of jazz studies at New York University says that “[jazz] musicians still want to act cool and act separate, to follow their own path rather than [the path of culture]” and to be individualistic (do things their own way and not worry about other people’s opinions). Miles Davis, a famous jazz trumpet player, is often described as cool in this way.
What adjectives come to mind when you hear the word “cool” – to describe people or anything else?
~ Warren Ediger – English tutor/coach and creator of Successful English, where you can find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.
Photo of James Dean courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Vahid from Iran asks: “I have a German friend. When she wants to ask about time instead of saying “What time is it?” she says “What late is it?” I want to know if this is correct or not.
The most common expression for asking the time is “What time is it?”, followed by “What’s the time?” You can also say, “How late is it?” although you would not use it to ask the time in general, but in situations where you’ve been doing something for a long time, or where you have to be somewhere else at a set time and you are concerned about being late. (We would not say “What late is it?”) For example:
A: “We’ve spent six hours on this report.”
B: “How late is it?”
A: “The party to release Jeff’s new CD is at 8:00.”
B: “How late is it? I need plenty of time to get ready for the party.”
In response, you can give the exact time, or use one of these common terms: “about/ish,” “almost,” and “just past.”
For instance, if it is 6:27, you could say:
- “It is 6:27 (six twenty-seven).”
- “It is exactly 6:27.” (if you want to emphasize the precise time)
- “It is about 6:30 (six thirty).” or “It is 6:30-ish.” (if you don’t need to be precise. In British English and in old-fashioned speech/writings, you may hear “half past six,” but that is not commonly used in American English today.)
- “It is nearly/almost 6:30.”
- “It is just past 6:25.”
We also talked about telling time in ESL Podcast 378, in case you’re interested. Thanks to Vahid for the question and I hope that helps.
P.S. *When we use the expression “a question of,” we mean “an issue related to” or “will be decided by.” For example:
- “Whether I can take a vacation to Asia this summer is a question of money.”
- “We’re not sure who will get the new job. It’s a question of who has the best leadership skills.”
There’s an old saying that “all politics is local,” meaning that all political elections, even for president, depend on the conditions in the city or area where you are living. If the economy is bad in your city, it doesn’t matter that it is good in other cities – you only care about your city, your local conditions, and you will vote accordingly (following that logic or reasoning).
We could also say that “all language is local.” Most Americans speak English, but the kind or variety of English depends on where you live. We all know this, I think, but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves that what we say in our city may not be the same as in other cities, even when we speak the same language.
Slang – informal language used by a particular (specific; certain) group or in a particular context (situation) – is also local, and changes depending on where you live. Researchers have recently studied the kind of language people use in text messages and tweets, or messages on the Internet service Twitter. They analyzed tweets in the U.S. that were geotagged, meaning the person who sent the tweet also indicated their location on their iPhone or Blackberry. They then looked to see how people used language in one area versus (compared to) another.
Using some powerful statistical techniques, the scientists were able to predict the general area where a person lived just by looking at the kind of slang they used. They also gave examples of slang associated with certain cities:
- In Northern California (San Francisco, the Silicon Valley), the word “hella” is very popular in tweets. Hella is an expression of enthusiasm. According to the Urban Dictionary, it can mean “very,” “a lot of,” or “something really good or great.” For example: “People in San Francisco think they are hella (much; a lot) smarter than people in SoCal (Southern California, which includes Los Angeles).” Hella is apparently (it seems) very popular in San Francisco, but not in Los Angeles. (I’ve never used it before writing this blog post, for example.)
- In Southern California, people use an abbreviated (shortened) form of the word “cool” (meaning good, popular, hip), “coo.” In Northern California, they tweet “koo” for “cool,” perhaps using a “k” instead of a “c” due to (because of) their lower level of education (that’s a joke!).
- Southern Californians tweet “fasho” to mean “for sure,” when they are expressing agreement with something.
- New Yorkers use the letters “nm” to mean “not much” in tweets and texts, while people in Boston write “suttin” to mean “something.”
There’s nothing really new in this research, but it does confirm (verify; show again that it is true) that what we say depends on where we live. Every language in every country has similar differences, even if you are not aware of them.
P.S. The scientific article is available here in PDF format.
P.P.S. ESL Podcast has been on Twitter nearly (almost) since the very beginning of the service, back in 2006. You can follow us @eslpod.
Image Credit: Twitter logo (low resolution), Wikipedia PD
This month the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added FYI, LOL, and OMG to their online edition. Previously (before now), OED had added IMHO, TMI, BFF, and others to the online dictionary.
These expressions are examples of initialisms, abbreviations that are made up of the first letters of a name or expression. For those of you who may not be familiar with them, here’s how the OED defines them:
- OMG – “Oh my God” (or sometimes “gosh,” “goodness,” etc.)
- LOL – “Laughing out loud”
- FYI – “For your information”
- IMHO – “In my humble opinion,” sometimes only IMO – “In my opinion”
- TMI – “Too much information”
- BFF – “Best friends forever”
When we pronounce (say) initialisms, we say the letters: for example, O-M-G or C-E-O (Chief Executive Officer, the top manager of a large company) or F-B-I (Federal Bureau of Investigation).
When we pronounce an initialism as a word, we call it an acronym. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) are familiar acronyms.
In making the announcement, the OED noted (mentioned something interesting or important) that the intention (goal or purpose) of an initialism is usually to signal (show or express) a very casual (informal) mood or feeling. They have become popular because they are short and easy to type in an e-mail, tweet, or text message. The OED says that these initialisms are used sometimes to parody the way people act and write online. Parody means to copy (repeat) someone or something in a way that makes people laugh. A good example of parody on television is Saturday Night Live, where the actors parody politicians and popular entertainers to make the audience laugh. Sometimes we call this “making fun of” someone or something.
During the process of approving these initialisms, the OED discovered (found) that all three of them have been used for many years, long before the beginning of the Internet. OMG was first used in 1917, during World War I, in a personal letter. FYI originated (began) in 1941, during World War II. And LOL started in 1960, but then it stood for (meant) “little old lady,” an elderly (older) woman!
This brings up an interesting point, one that may surprise you. The editors (people who decide what goes into a book) of a dictionary don’t determine (decide) the meanings of words. Rather, they report (describe) how the speakers and writers of a language use words. The editors’ job is, first, to collect examples of different word uses or meanings and, then, to decide whether or not a word meaning is used often enough to be included in the dictionary. So we could say that a dictionary is a collection of descriptions of how the words of a language are used.
If you are a more advanced reader, you might enjoy the story of how the OED started. It’s in a book with the curious (strange or unusual) title The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
~ Warren Ediger – English tutor and coach and creator of Successful English, where English learners find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.
Photo by emdot used under Creative Commons license.
Elena from Russia asks: “I’ve been listening your podcasts since last spring and I have a question about the word “horse.” Why do you use this beautiful harmless animal in some kind of, I suppose, insulting phrases? For example, you have a phrase “get off your high horse” and another, “clothes horse,” which is also very unpleasant for women. And maybe you have some others with “horse”? Could you tell about them plus the meanings, of course.
It’s certainly true that “horse” appears in a number of idioms and phrases that are not complimentary (showing praise or approval), and Elena has pointed out two we’ve included in our podcasts: “to get off (one’s) high horse” (ESL Podcasts 324 & 615) and “clothes horse” (ESL Podcast 619).
When I did a search of our past podcasts, I found that “horse” actually appears in a quite a few of the phrases we’ve used and explained. Either we have an usual love for horses here at ESL Podcast, or there are simply a lot of phrases and idioms that include horses. Since I’ve only ridden a horse twice in my life and Jeff tells me he’s never been on a horse, I’m inclined to (tend to) think that it must be the latter (second) explanation.
You may be interested in these other horse-related idioms:
“to put the cart before the horse” (English Cafe 211)
“a wild horse couldn’t drag (one)” (ESL Podcast 370)
“to look a gift horse in the mouth” (ESL Podcast 489)
“I could eat a horse” (ESL Podcast 629)
These are not all of the horse-related idioms in the English language by any means (at all), but they’re some of the more commonly-used ones. Depending on the context (situation), most of these are neutral (not good nor bad). Let’s see if I can use all six idioms in a little story:
For three days and three nights, Jeff didn’t return home.
On the fourth night, he stepped through the front door of his house and his wife, a clothes horse, said, “Where have you been and why are you wearing my new dress?”
“Hold on (stop) a minute,” Jeff responded. “Let’s not put the cart before the horse. I haven’t eaten for three days and right now, I could eat a horse! Go make me some dinner.”
Jeff’s wife looked at the ripped (torn; damaged) dress and said: “A wild horse couldn’t drag me into the kitchen to make you dinner before you’ve explained why you’ve been missing for three days and why you’re wearing my dress.”
Jeff, looking tired and frustrated, said: “You’re looking a gift horse in the mouth. Isn’t it enough that I’m home and I’m not hurt?”
“You’ve been missing for three days. You haven’t called me or texted me, and now you’re behaving like I should just be grateful that you’re back. You need to get off your high horse, Jeff, and explain yourself!”
Okay, it’s not really a story, but you get the idea. Are there phrases or idioms in other languages involving horses? Are they positive, negative, or neutral?
By the way, I don’t know where Jeff has been. Maybe we should ask him, or perhaps you can guess?
Levent from Turkey had the following the question: “I want to ask about the verb which you used in your podcast about the museums: “I can’t name all of the museums in this city.” I understand this verb “name.” I guess you mean that you don’t know the exact number of the all museums?”
It’s not surprising that Levent isn’t clear on the meaning of the word “name.” In fact, as a verb, “name” has several meanings.
In the sentence Levent mentioned — “I can’t name all of the museums in this city.” — “name” means to identify by name, usually by saying it aloud. When someone asks you to name something, they are asking you to provide a list aloud. They are not asking you for a number, but rather, the names of each item on the list. So, a conversation may go like this:
A: “I’ve been to New York City a lot of times. I know everything about that city.”
B: “Okay, then, how many museums are in that city?”
A: “I think there are 22.”
B: “Okay, name them!”
A: “I’m not sure I can name all of them.”
Another meaning of “name,” used as a verb, is to appoint or assign a job to someone. You probably know the verb “hire,” which means for you, your company, or your organization to give someone a job. We use “name” in a slightly different way, usually for a position that is important or that carries (includes) some level of honor. For example, Jeff may be named by the President to be the new ambassador (most important political representative; diplomat) to Ireland. Jeff is being hired for this job, that’s true, but the job is also an important position that is an honor to receive.
A third way we use “name” as a verb is to mean to specify an amount, a time, a place, a price, or another thing. If the President offers Jeff the job as ambassador, Jeff may say, “I’ll accept the job only if you will give me a few things.” Of course, President Obama will say, “Name it!,” meaning that Jeff should simply tell him what he wants and he’ll get those things. Another example would be if you really wanted to buy your friend’s car, but she is reluctant (not completely willing) to sell it. You may say to her, “Name your price and I’ll pay it.”
So, you can see that “name” has several meanings as a verb and the way to know the difference is by the context (situation; the words around it). Thanks, Levent, for the question and I hope this is helpful.