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Archive for the 'News and Current Events' Category

Tuesday - August 9, 2016

A Gold Medal in English

unevenbarsThis week much of the world is, like I am, watching the Olympic games in Rio. It seems like every Olympics has its own problems and scandals (doing something wrong that causes the public to have strong negative reaction). But somehow, when you actually start watching the athletes compete, you forget about all of that and just enjoy the magic of our fellow (similar to us) human beings doing some really extraordinary things.

My favorite sport to watch is gymnastics, perhaps because my father was a gymnast (a person who competes in gymnastics) when he was in high school and so he loved watching those events on television. Gymnastics involves lots of different activities, including swinging on the uneven bars (see photo) and moving and jumping on top of a balance beam (a long piece of narrow wood about four feet (125 cm) off the ground).

If you need a reminder of some of the English vocabulary used to describe the Olympics, check out (take a look at) our episode on that topic from a few years ago. (And if you want to learn a little Portuguese from our very own webmaster, Adriano Galeno, take a look at his Brazilian PodClass.)

Lucy described some of the more popular sports during the 2014 Sochi Games, so I thought I would talk a bit about the two “new” sports for this year’s games, sports that are actually returning to the Olympic games after a long absence (time away from something).

Golf is returning to the Olympics after being dropped (removed) after the 1904 Games in St. Louis, Missouri. We spoke about golf briefly here, but as you probably know, it is a game that uses long sticks called clubs that are used to hit a small ball (called, logically, a “golf ball”). The ball is placed on a tee, a small piece of plastic or wood that holds the ball up in the air, a few inches from the ground. The object (purpose) of the game is to hit the small balls into a hole that is located several yards from where you begin hitting the ball.

The other sport returning this year after many decades (a period of 10 years) is rugby. Rugby is not popular in the United States, and I would guess that most Americans have never even seen a complete game of rugby (that would include me). From what I understand (which is very little), it involves a bunch of men and women (but not together) running around a field with a ball that looks like an American football. From the photos I’ve seen, it seems like there is a lot of hugging (people putting their arms around each other), but I could be wrong about that part. Technically, there are different kinds of rugby: the one being played in this Olympics is called “rugby sevens” since there are seven players on each team who play for periods of seven minutes. If you want to know more, don’t bother asking the average American, who I’m sure doesn’t know any more than I do.

What are your favorite sports to watch in the Summer Olympics?

~Jeff

Image credit: Pinterest

Tuesday - August 2, 2016

Danger! Dumpster Fire!

25440096000_d166951dbb_z-2In the U.S., our national elections are less than 100 days away. For the next three months we’ll read and hear a lot of what some call “politalk” – political talk – in news stories, TV ads, speeches, and interviews.

We’ve heard a lot of this before, but occasionally some words become part of the news. Here, for a little election year fun, are a few interesting and unusual political words that people have been talking about.

Let me begin with a handful of (a few) ordinary, everyday political terms. A candidate is someone who wants to become a mayor, governor, member of Congress, president, or something else. Candidates belong to parties – groups of people with similar ideas about what to think and what to do. Candidates and parties campaign – say and do things to try to get people to vote for them. You can use campaign as a verb and a noun.

Dumpster fire” is a meme – a word, idea, fashion style, etc., that quickly spreads from person to person, often through the Internet. It appeared a few years ago in stories about sports and politics and has already been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A dumpster – see the photo – is a large metal container used for trash. “Dumpster fire” describes a very confusing situation, especially one that is handled (managed) very badly. We might say of a sports team that “their season began as a dumpster fire and never got any better.” More than once this year, people have said about one or two candidates: “His campaign is a dumpster fire!”

In the U.S., Supreme Court justices (judges) don’t usually say anything about politics. This year one did, and many were upset by it. One of those people said that the justice’s comments went “beyond the pale.”

“Beyond the pale” is an old idiom. Many years ago, pale was used to refer to a wooden stake, or pole, used to hold up grape plants. It came to be used as a fence of pointed stakes and, from that, to refer to a boundary, a line that marks the edge of a state or country or an area of land that belongs to someone.

The person who said the justice’s comments went “beyond the pale” meant that the comments went over, or beyond, the boundary of what was acceptable. In other word, a Supreme Court justice should not do something like that.

A short time ago, a well-known American businessman got very angry with a candidate and called him a “jagoff,” but almost no one knew what he meant. Those who did probably live in or come from western Pennsylvania, especially around the city of Pittsburgh. It is local slang (informal language used by a small group of people) that describes a person who is stupid and inept (not good at doing anything) and it’s been used in that area for many years. No one is sure how it got started.

Vice President Joe Biden recently polished off (made clean or shiny; prepared for use) one of his favorites descriptions and called a statement (something said) by one of the candidates “a bunch of malarky!” Malarky is a 100-year-old word that means lies (untruths) and exaggerations (statements that make something seem better, larger than it really is) or nonsense (statements that aren’t true or that seem very stupid). Our vice president is one of the few people who still use it.

Are there any interesting or unusual words used during political campaigns where you live? Or have you seen or heard any other English political words that you’re curious about?

A final note, a reminder: this blog post has been about political language, not politics. It’d be kind of cool if the comments were, too.

~ Warren Ediger – creator of the Successful English website: I help business and professional people improve their English and help students prepare to succeed in an English academic environment.

Photo by Goat4421 used under Creative Commons license.

Tuesday - July 12, 2016

Today is National (Something) Day!

Pecan_pie_slice_(cropped)Today is National Pecan Pie Day. Personally, I hate pecan pie (see photo), so I’m not going to celebrate it.

You may be wondering, as I am, why there is a National Pecan Pie Day and why it is on July 12th.

Apparently (It would seem), the companies that grow and sell pecans want to remind everyone to buy their product (what they sell), although I was unable to find the history of this “national day” or what is so special about July 12th that we have to celebrate it today.

Of course, most Americans have no idea today is National Pecan Pie Day, because it is not a “real” holiday.

Over the last several years, nearly every day of the year is called “National Something Day,” often as part of some marketing (attempts to sell something) scheme (plan) by companies to sell more of their products.

Did you know that July 9th was National Sugar Cookie Day? Neither did anyone else, but according to this website, which lists all of these bogus (false; not real) “national days,” it was.

Sometimes these silly (stupid; foolish) national days are supposed to be fun. For example, according to one website, August 11th is “National Presidential Joke Day,” when (I think?) the president is supposed to tell a joke. Or perhaps we’re all supposed to tell a joke about the president. No one really knows.

Not satisfied with a single day, some companies and causes (groups of people in favor of certain ideas or policies) have taken over entire months, so we get things like “National Heart Month” (February),  “National Novel Writing Month” (November), and (my favorite) “National Sarcastic* Awareness Month” (October).

Yes, there’s even a National Cat Day. It’s on October 29th.

~Jeff

*Sarcastic means to say one thing when meaning the exact opposite in order to be funny. An example (for me) would be: “I can’t wait for National Cat Day this year!”

Image credit: Wikipedia

Tuesday - April 26, 2016

Your Guide to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections: Part 4

Icons of politics and American ElectionsHere’s another post in our continuing series on the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. If you missed the first three, go here.

Buzzwords

Every presidential election campaign brings with it (creates or makes popular) certain buzzwords, terms or phrases that are used frequently by politicians and the media (newspapers, magazines, Internet news sites). Today’s buzzword is . . .

YUGE!

“Yuge” is just an alternate pronunciation of the word “huge,” meaning big, important, or very large. It is a favorite word of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Trump has a very distinctive (easy to recognize because it is so different) New York accent, so the letter “h” is pronounced more like the letter “y” as in “you.”

People now use the word as a joke, as in “The movie Batman v Superman is gonna (going to) be YUGE!”

As Seen On Twitter

This is one of the first American elections where Twitter has played a major (YUGE!) role or part. In particular, Donald Trump has used Twitter to communicate to his supporters and to criticize other candidates. Trump’s criticisms are often personal, meaning he doesn’t argue about policies (plans for how government will work) but instead attacks the other candidates for what he sees as their failures of character.

For example, he often refers to Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” – “lyin'” is just an informal way of saying “lying” (not telling the truth). Trump recently started to call Hilary Clinton “Crooked Hilary” – “crooked” refers to a government official or politician who takes bribes (money) in exchange for doing favors for other people.

Perhaps this name calling (criticizing people by insulting them) is one reason why Trump is now among the least popular politicians in recent memory (in the past several years). Yet, among a certain group of people, he is still very popular and continues to win elections. How is this possible?

Remember that Trump is winning elections only among Republican voters (who are less than half of the population), and even among Republicans, most voters don’t like him. But the way our nomination process is set up (arranged; organized), it is possible to win elections with a minority (less than 50%) of the votes (see a more detailed explanation in Part 3 of this series).

Those opposed to Trump are using the #NeverTrump hashtag on Twitter. The #NeverTrump group consists mostly of Republicans and conservatives who say that even if Trump wins the Republican nomination, they will never vote for him in November. (Most #NeverTrump people say they won’t vote for Hilary Clinton, either.)

Questions and Answers

Here are some questions that were asked in the last post in this series:

Can Americans vote for someone other than the Democrat or Republican nominee?

Yes, there are other candidates besides (in addition to) the ones nominated by the Democrats and Republicans. But the truth is they rarely get enough votes to get elected, even for state-level offices. But if the presidential election this year is between Trump and Clinton, two very unpopular candidates, anything is possible!

If one candidate has enough delegates for the first ballot, why even vote at the national convention?

Even if one candidate has enough delegates to win on the first ballot (vote) at the national convention, technically (according to the rules) you still have to have a vote. You cannot just “skip” (not do) the voting part!

If I don’t want to follow the U.S. elections and instead want to watch baseball, can you recommend a team to me?

Yes! The Los Angeles Dodgers are my favorite team, and everyone in the world should support them (although Warren would disagree).

Have additional questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them in a future post.

~Jeff

P.S. If you really want to learn more about the U.S. and its history and politics, check out our Introduction to the United States course.

Tuesday - March 29, 2016

Your Guide to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Part 3

Icons of politics and American ElectionsTo help you understand the presidential elections in the United States this year, I’m going to attempt to explain some of the events of the election in an ongoing (continuing; series) “guide.” I am not an expert on politics, but I’ll do my best. No doubt both Warren and Lucy will have things to add on this topic as well.

This post is called “Part 3,” but don’t worry if you think you missed the first two parts. I didn’t actually call them Part 1 and Part 2 when I published them!

The first part was published back in 2008, and explains the primary nomination process.

The second part was last month, when I described Super (Crazy) Tuesday.

If you haven’t read those yet, you should do so before continuing on with this series.

The Latest: A Contested Convention?

There’s been a lot of talk (discussion) in the media (newspapers, television, radio, and Internet news sites) recently about the possibility of the Republican Party having a “contested convention.”

What exactly is a contested convention?

In order to win a political party’s presidential nomination (the right to represent the party in the main or general election in November), a candidate (a person trying to get elected) must have a majority (50% + 1) of the delegates to the party’s convention.

A delegate is a representative from a state or territory who gets to vote in the party’s big meeting or convention this summer. As I explained in Part 1 of this series, during the spring of each election year, each state and territory (places like Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam) votes in a primary for their favorite candidates. Then delegates are chosen from that state or territory to represent the state/territory at the national political conventions during the summertime. The number of delegates from each state/territory is determined by the population of that state (well, approximately determined – it is actually a bit more complicated than that).

But – and this is really important – the actual people who will be the delegates to the national convention from the states and territories are usually chosen by the political organizations (Republican and Democratic) in each state, not directly by the voters. These are often people who have been involved in the politics of that state for many years, and are usually not “newcomers” (people new to a place or an activity).

At the convention, the delegates usually have to vote the candidate the voters in their state selected during the primaries. We say the delegates are “pledged” (promised or committed) to that candidate. They must vote for the person their state voted for.

For example, if you are one of the 99 Republican delegates from Florida, you will have to vote for Donald Trump, even if you personally don’t like Donald Trump. That’s because Trump won the primary election in Florida this year, so all of Florida’s delegates have to vote for him.

Seems simple, right?

Now here’s where it gets tricky (difficult or complicated): a delegate typically is pledged to that candidate only for the first ballot (the first vote at the convention). After the first ballot, delegates are usually free to vote for whomever they want.

So if you don’t really like Donald Trump and you are a delegate from Florida, you may (depending on the rules in your state/territory) be able to vote for someone else on the second ballot (or third ballot etc.).

Why is this important? Because many of Trump’s supporters are newcomers to politics, and therefore they are less likely to have been selected as delegates to the convention. This means that many of the Republican delegates currently (now) pledged to Trump may not actually want Trump to win the nomination.

If those delegates get a chance to vote on a second ballot, they could vote for another candidate.

In the past 40 years, there has never been a second ballot at a presidential convention. That’s because someone has always entered the convention with a majority (50% + 1) of the delegates. When no one has a majority of the delegates on the first ballot, then we have what is called a contested or open convention.

This year, a candidate for the Republican nomination needs 1,237 votes at the convention to win. If no candidate has majority on the first ballot, there will be a second ballot (and perhaps more), and many of the delegates will be able to vote for a candidate other than the one they were pledged to on the first ballot.

So even if, say, Donald Trump has 1,236 delegates pledged to him on the first ballot, if he doesn’t win that ballot, the delegates can select someone else (such as Ted Cruz or John Kasich or ??).

In other words, just because you have a plurality (more than anyone else, but not a majority) of the pledged delegates on the first ballot does not mean you will be nominated.

The possibility of a contested convention is very real at the Republican convention this summer; it is less likely at the Democratic convention, where Hillary Clinton is expected to have a majority of delegates on the first ballot. It all depends on whether the current front-runner (the person who currently has the most pledged delegates), Donald Trump, can win a majority of the remaining primaries.

Have a question about the U.S. elections or politics? Put them in the comments section and I’ll try to answer some of them in a future post.

~Jeff

P.S. If you really want to understand how the American government works, get our Introduction to the United States course. It will give you the background you need to understand the basics of U.S. history and the American political system.

P.P.S. If you haven’t subscribed yet to our magazine, go to Learn English Magazine and download our free iOS or Android app. I’ll be adding more commentary on U.S. politics in the upcoming (coming; future) issues.

Tuesday - March 1, 2016

Super (Crazy) Tuesday

Icons of politics and American ElectionsThis year’s election of the next president of the United States has been one of the strangest – perhaps “craziest” is a better word – in the past 100 years.

Today is called Super Tuesday, a day when several state elections take place that will help determine who will eventually be our next president. (If you want to understand more about how we elect our president, I strongly suggest you read my explanation from the 2008 election here and listen to English Cafe #118.)

Instead of trying to explain this year’s race (competition; election) in detail, I’ll attempt to define a few key phrases or terms you might read in articles about the election in American newspapers and websites.

Exit Polls – These are opinion polls (questions; surveys) that are given to people on the day of an election. Many newspapers and TV channels try to find out who people voted for (and why) after they have actually voted (and therefore when they are “exiting” or leaving the place of voting). This allows them to declare (announce; tell people) the winner before the official (actual) votes have all been counted, and to understand the reasons people voted the way they did.

Super PACs – These are large (“super”) political action committees, which are independent groups that run (pay for) political advertisements on behalf of (for the advantage of) some political candidate or cause (idea). Super PACs can spend much more money on advertising than most political candidates can themselves, often millions and millions of dollars.

Some people think these organizations have too much money and too much power. Others think that they don’t really matter very much this year, since some candidates whom the Super PACs have supported have done very poorly (such as Jeb Bush), while other candidates who have received almost no support from Super PACs have done very well (such as Bernie Sanders).

Firewall – Normally, a firewall is wall or section of a building that is built to prevent fire from moving from one part of the building to another. In this election cycle (period of elections), it has been used to describe a state or set of states in which a candidate thinks he or she has very strong support and therefore will not lose.

For example, Hillary Clinton has received a lot of support from African American (black) voters, so states in which there are many such voters (such as South Carolina and others in the Deep South) are part of her “firewall” that will protect her from “’burning” (Bern-ing?) down – that is, losing the election.

The Establishment – These are the (usually paid) leaders and organizers of the Republican and Democratic parties, along with other political “professionals” who run and control the party organizations. Most work and live in Washington, D.C.

Many people believe that the success of some of the candidates this year, especially Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, is because people want someone “outside” of the Establishment. They want someone who will “blow up” or destroy the normal way of doing politics in the U.S. and try something different.

The Base – These are the most loyal voters for each political party, the ones who will usually give the most time or money to the party to ensure (make sure) it will win. In the Democratic Party, these are those who are mostly on the political Left; in the Republican Party, those most on the political Right. In order to win the nomination (the right to represent the party in the main or “general” election in November), a candidate has to win the base of his or her party first, since they are the ones who normally vote in the elections that decide who represents the party (that is, the elections going on right now, called the primaries).

Front-runner – This is the person who is currently the most popular candidate. Right now, Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republicans. However, all of that could change in the next few months, and of course the Americans who do not support either Clinton or Trump hope it will.

~Jeff

Tuesday - January 19, 2016

Why Jeff is So Funny

Week_z00Humor (being funny or amusing) is sometimes difficult to define and to understand. What you may find funny, I may not and vice versa (the reverse is true). A group of Canadian researchers, however, may have an explanation for why we find some words funny and other words not.

A psychologist (scientist studying the mind and how it works) named Chris Westbury was actually studying a condition called “aphasia,” problems with speech due to brain damage, when he observed something interesting. He found that each time the subjects (research participants) saw the word “snunkoople,” they thought it was funny. “Snunkoople” is not a real word. It is a nonsense word, or a made up (not real) word with no meaning. This got him thinking. Why are some nonsense words funny while others are not?

He and a group of researchers at the University of Alberta set out (planned and began) to find out. They showed people in this new study pairs of nonsense words and asked people which was funnier, the one on the left or the one on the right. Here are a few of these pairs of words:

Quingel or Heashes

Prousup or Mestins

Finglam or Cortsio

Witypro or Octeste

If you’re like the people in the study, you would say that the first word in each pair is funnier. Why? The researchers believe the answer is in something called “entropy,” a term they borrowed from other fields, including physics (the field of science concerned with matter (physical substance) and energy). Entropy, as they define it in this context (situation), relates to how much disorder (confusion) there is in a word. In other words, if a word looks like it could be a real word or is similar to real words, there is less disorder, less entropy. If the words are not similar, not expected, or strange-looking, there is more disorder or entropy and people think they’re funnier.

This is not a new idea. In the 19th century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proposed that things are funny to us when expectations (what we think will happen) are violated (failed to meet expectations). That’s why 20 clowns climbing out of a very small car may be funny to us, or you may laugh when Jeff sings like Celine Dion.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the daily applications (usefulness) of research, but not in this case. Not only does this general idea help us understand the brilliance (great talent and intelligence) of Jeff’s humor, but it may also save us some embarrassment. You may not want to name your child “Lnikproop” or your new product “Umhwegeegi.”

~ Lucy

Image Credit:  From Wikipedia

Wednesday - November 11, 2015

When They Moved Veterans Day (Then Moved It Back Again)

WWISoldiersToday is a public holiday in the United States called Veterans Day. A veteran is someone who was once in his or her country’s military (army, navy, etc.). Today is also a day of remembrance in many countries, since it is the anniversary of the end of World War I, what was once called the “war to end all wars” (sadly, of course, it didn’t).

But for a short period in American history, Americans didn’t celebrate this day on November 11th. Here’s the story why.

World War I officially (formally; legally) ended on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting actually ceased (stopped) seven months earlier when an armistice (temporary cessation (end) of hostilities (fighting)) between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect (began) on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – that is, at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918.

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed (officially announced; determined that) November 11 as the first commemoration (remembrance; celebration) of Armistice Day. Yet it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, in 1938, that the 11th of November was made a federal (national) holiday.

At first, November 11th was a day to honor veterans of World War I. But in 1954, after World War II,  “Armistice Day” was changed to “Veterans Day” to remember all of those who served in the the United States military, both during war and in peacetime (when a country is not involved in a war).

For a few years during the 1970s, however, Veterans Day was not celebrated on November 11th. That’s because the federal government changed the law in the late 1960s to “move” certain holidays from the dates they were traditionally celebrated to a Monday, in order to create a “three-day weekend” for government workers and others who had the day off (didn’t have to work). The other holidays moved were Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day.

Many people, including millions of veterans, didn’t like the fact that the government decided to move Veterans Day, since it is so obviously connected to the date of November 11th. So another law was passed a few years later that changed Veterans Day back to its original date, and that’s the date we use today.  

The other holidays that were moved by the 1960s law, however, are still celebrated on a Monday, even though two of them are also connected to specific historical events: Washington was born on February 22nd, which is only occasionally the third Monday in February, the day we celebrate it now; and Columbus Day is in honor of the day Columbus arrived in the “New World,” October 12th, which does not normally fall on (take place on the calendar) the second Monday of October. It seems Americans prefer their three-day weekends over historical accuracy in these cases.

Is this day celebrated in your country in honor of veterans? If not, do you have another day that you celebrate those who served your country in the military? Have certain public holidays connected to specific dates been “moved” to create three-day weekends?

~Jeff

P.S. I’ve adapted (taken and changed) part of this brief history from a U.S. government website.

Image credit: Officers of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I (Wikipedia)

 

Tuesday - October 13, 2015

Headline English: Double Meanings

Today’s episode of my little video experiment, Headline English, talks about how newspaper headlines often use phrases and words with more than one meaning as a way of grabbing (getting) your attention.

-Jeff

Tuesday - September 29, 2015

Comparing Countries the Easy Way

Map_of_USA_with_state_names_2.svgIf you read the news, you’ll often see one country compared to others using many different indices (measures; the singular is “index”). Many times, these indices have to do with political, economic, and social comparisons (looking for similarities and difference between two or more things).

I’ve come across an easy way for each of us to compare countries for a rough (approximate; not precise) idea of what it would be like living another country. If you visit the ifitweremyhome.com website, you can compare your country with another country using several common indices. First, look at the thin blue box in the center of the homepage to make sure the website has automatically determined (found; decided) that you’re in the correct country. Then, click on the name of any other country you see below.

The first thing you’ll see is a size comparison. For example, when I compare the United States with Japan, the outline (shape without the details) of Japan is superimposed (visually placed on top of) over a map of the United States, showing its relative (compared to each other) size. Then, I see a list of comparisons using several common factors.

The website uses several different sources of information for its data (information in numbers), but here are some definitions for common indices.

Unemployment rate: The number of adults who don’t have jobs out of the total workforce (total number of people who can and are available to work).
Infant mortality rate: The number of deaths of children under one year old out of every 1,000 live (not dead) births.
Rates of incarceration: The number of people in prison out for every 100,000 people.
Resource consumption: The amount of electricity, oil, and other resources people or households (everyone living in one home) uses.
Murder rate: The number of people killed out of every 100,000 people.
Birth rate: The number of live  babies born for every 1,000 people.

There are others, but these are the main comparisons.

Try doing a few comparisons yourself. If nothing else (even if you don’t benefit any other way), the size comparisons between countries are interesting, at least they were to me. Are you finding any surprising results?

~ Lucy

Image Credit: From Wikipedia