Archive for the 'Language & Terms' Category
One of the difficulties in learning a second language is the fact that, in most languages, there are different words for the same concept or idea. People in the United States, for example, often use different words to describe the same thing, depending on where they live. Most Americans know the meanings of these different words even if they don’t use them themselves, but these variations can be very confusing for a non-native speaker (someone who didn’t grow up speaking the language).
For example, the photo you see here is a pair of shoes that have rubber soles (bottoms) on them, usually used for athletic events or exercise. What are they called? In most states in the U.S., they are called “tennis shoes,” even though we use them for more than playing the sport of tennis. However, if you live in the northeastern part of the U.S., in a region called New England, they’re called “sneakers.” Oh, and if you live in Chicago or Cincinnati (both in the Midwest), you would call them “gym shoes” (gym stands for gymnasium, a place indoors (inside a building) where people play sports). Same shoes, three different terms.
Figuring out (discovering) these variations in language use has become much easier with the Internet. Linguists can ask people from different parts of the country what they call various items, and then map these differences and see which words are used in which region or area.
A couple of researchers at Harvard University collected responses (answers) to dozens of questions on language use from more than 350,000 Americans last year. Here are some of the things they found:
- A large motor vehicle used to carry freight (goods (things to be sold) moved from one place to another) (see photo below) is called either a “semi” or a “semi-truck” in most parts of the U.S. (the “i”of “semi” is long, pronounced like “eye”). But if you live in Louisiana (in the central, southern U.S.), you would call it an “18-wheeler” (the number of wheels that many of these trucks have). And in New England, they’re know as “tractor-trailors.”
- When you have a sale of old things you want to get rid of at your house, you would call that a “garage sale” in large parts of the U.S., including the central regions of the country (a garage is an enclosed (with walls and a ceiling) area to keep your car). In most eastern states, “yard sale” is the preferred term, except in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, where it is called a “tag sale” (a tag is normally a small piece of paper that has the price of the thing being sold). In the West, both “yard sale” and “garage sale” are used, depending on which city you’re in. Here in Los Angeles, most people would call it a “garage sale,” but in Tucson, Arizona, 500 miles west of here, it’s more commonly called a “yard sale.” “Yard sale” is popular in Salt Lake City (Utah) and Fresno (central California), but “garage sale” is used in San Francisco, Seattle (Washington), and Portland (Oregon).
- One of the clearest and easiest differences to detect (notice) in American dialects (different ways of speaking the same language) is the term used to address or get the attention of a group of two or more people. In the South (which is actually the southeastern part of the U.S., including Texas), the term is “y’all.” In every other part of the U.S., it is “you guys” (“guys” here meaning both males and females). If you meet someone who says “y’all,” you can be pretty sure he or she is from the South.
Sometimes dialectical differences are found in one small area of the country. In Minnesota, for example, you say “you betcha” to indicate that you agree with the other person, or simply as an informal way of saying “yes.” In other places in the U.S., you would probably say “you bet” or “sure.”
Is all of this very confusing? You betcha!
Photo credits: Athletic Shoe, Woolworth’s Truck
One of the most offensive (insulting) phrases that Americans still use today is, “Don’t be an Indian giver.” This refers to the idea that Indians (“Native American” is the term we use most often today) give gifts and then take them back. You may hear children calling their playmates (children they play with) “Indian givers” if they argue and take back toys they’ve shared or traded, and you may even hear the phrase in the media (such as newspapers and TV news) when talking about a divorcing couple where one side wants its expensive gifts back. This phrase is rooted (based) in negative and offensive stereotypes (images or beliefs about an entire group that are usually untrue) about Native Americans and it may have all started with a cultural misunderstanding.
When white explorers (people who travel to a place few have traveled to before) such as Lewis and Clark, two of the first people to travel to what is now the western part of the United States, met Native Americans for the first time, Lewis and Clark were offered gifts. When the explorers, and later the white settlers (people who move to a place where few people live), were given gifts by Native Americans, they may have thought, “Oh, that’s nice. They’re giving me a present.”
However, from the Native American’s point of view, they weren’t just doing something nice to welcome a new visitor. They were doing business, the business of trading. They were bartering, which is when you give something of value to someone in exchange for something of value in return (not money).
For the whites, a gift was a gift. You don’t have to give anything in return, at least not immediately, and personal gift-giving was not mixed with business trading. The two were entirely different things.
To the Native Americans, they were beginning a business transaction, with the expectation that they would get something in return of value. When they did not, they did what any business trader would do: they took back their “gift.”
By doing this, the Native Americans, from the whites’ point of view, were being deceptive (saying something but doing something else). To the Native Americans, the whites were not holding up their end (doing what is expected or required) of the business deal. That’s the cultural misunderstanding a recent National Public Radio story explains is at the root of (underlying; behind) this phrase.
Are you aware of any cultural misunderstandings that have given rise to (started; been the source of) terms or phrases people use today to describe different people or groups?
Let’s talk about a business headline today. This one comes from a recent issue of Bloomberg Magazine, one of the largest business magazines in the United States. Here’s the headline:
A Modest Step Toward a Grand Bargain
The news story is about the president of the United States trying to negotiate (work out; come to an agreement over) a deal (agreement) with Congress. In the U.S. political system, as you probably know, Congress is a group of elected representatives in charge of (responsible for) passing or approving laws. After Congress approves a new law, the president has to sign or agree to the law. (It doesn’t always work exactly that way, but that’s the normal process.)
Now, one of the problems that we have in our modern American economy is the same as in many economies: how much should people pay in taxes? That is, how much money should businesses and individuals have to pay the government for the government to do its job?
The headline is about negotiations between the president and Congress. It begins with the words “a modest step.” The adjective modest usually refers to a person who is humble, a person who doesn’t brag, a person who doesn’t like to talk about himself or herself. If someone compliments (says something nice about) a modest person, that person might say, “Oh no, that’s not really true. I’m not very good at that.”
In the headline, “modest” is used to mean something slightly different. It means a very small amount of something. In this case, we’re talking about how much progress is being made toward a certain goal. A step is normally a movement of your feet, moving one leg in front of the other to walk. You have to take steps in order to walk, but we also use that expression, “to take steps,” to mean to make progress, to do things.
So, a modest step is a small amount of progress toward some destination, some goal. The goal in this case is a grand bargain. The word bargain can have a couple of different meanings. One meaning for bargain is a good deal, a cheap price for something that you’re buying. But a bargain can also be an agreement. To make a bargain is to agree to do something. That’s the meaning that is used in the headline.
Finally, we come to the word grand. “Grand,” like modest and bargain, has a couple of different meanings. Here, it means something important, something large, something that is very complex and complicated that is going to solve a lot of different problems at once.
This phrase, “a grand bargain,” is actually quite common in American politics. You will see it in reading about American history, usually to describe how different political groups come to some agreement that solves a lot of important problems.
In our story, the president and Congress are trying to come to a grand bargain about how much people should pay in taxes. I’m not sure how exactly it will all work out (what the specific result will be), but I’m guessing that whatever they agree to, it won’t be a bargain (good deal) for American taxpayers.
Photo credit: Peaceful Resolution by Nomadic Lass, Flickr CC
We all know the importance of punctuation. Periods (.), commas (,), quotation marks (” “), semicolons (;), colons (:), question marks (?), and other punctuation marks in the English language give clarity (being clear, not confusing) and meaning to a phrase or a sentence.
On a recent airplane flight, I was reminding of just how important punctuation is in conveying (communicating) meaning. Before take-off (when the airplane leaves the ground) while waiting on the tarmac (road covered with a black material, like on an airplane runway), I took out one of the airline magazines to look at.
This magazine was actually a copy of Sky Mall, which is a catalogue (magazine with things to buy) that tries to sell things to passengers while they suffer from diminished capacity (with weakened mental powers) from having too little oxygen (substance in the air needed by humans to breathe) in the airplane.
Near the back of the magazine, I saw a picture of a T-shirt for sale that read:
LET’S EAT GRANDMA.
LET’S EAT, GRANDMA.
COMMAS SAVE LIVES
If the T-shirt’s message isn’t clear, let me explain.
1) LET’S EAT GRANDMA: We will bake Grandma in the oven or cook her on a barbeque and invite Dr. Hannibal Lecter to join us for dinner (from the movie Silence of the Lambs).
2) LET’S EAT, GRANDMA: We want to enjoy Grandma’s company while we eat a meal together.
And, yes, in this case, commas save lives. I know which sentence Grandma thinks has the correct punctuation.
Graphic Credit: Achtung from Wikipedia
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.”