Word of the day: atrocity

Like many of you, I suppose, I woke yesterday morning to the appalling news coming out of Manchester. American pop singer Ariana Grande, who’s very popular with teenagers and young people here, had been performing at the Manchester Arena. The concert ended shortly before half past ten at night and as fans started streaming out into the night, a suicide bomber with an improvised explosive device walked into the foyer and detonated the bomb, blowing himself up and killing at least twenty other people in the process, including several children. Given that tweets by pro-Da’esh / ISIS groups celebrating the attack started circulating very soon afterwards, it’s safe to assume that the attacker may well have been acting in the name of the so-called Islamic State.


Of course, this is not the first time that Manchester has been subjected to terrorist attacks. In 1978, the IRA – the Irish Republican Army, an illegal organization that wants Northern Ireland to be politically independent of the UK and united with the Republic of Ireland, and that has in the past fought for this aim using violent methods – detonated a bomb in the city, although no-one was injured. Then again in 1992 they detonated two bombs, injuring 65 people. Finally, in 1996, a huge bomb was detonated near a large shopping centre, injuring over 200 people. So such actions are nothing new.


However, the IRA sent telephone warnings about 90 minutes before the bomb went off, which allowed at least 75,000 people to be evacuated from the area. Their main target was the city’s infrastructure and economy and the bomb caused almost a billion pound’s worth of damage. This latest attack very deliberately targeted civilians, and not just any old civilians, but innocent children! It was an attack less on our infrastructure than on our minds, and our society. It’s an attack designed to spread fear, and to create divisions in society. The fact that it comes in the middle of a very tense general election campaign is also surely significant. As we saw in France, terrorists use violence to try to influence voting patterns and, historically speaking, at least,  it’s been the hard right – the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam groups – who benefit from such attacks.


Given that we all so often hear of terrible violence being committed in so many different places around the world, for so many different reasons, it’s easy to become numb and turn off and lose all feeling. We can all too easily become immune to shock and horror. And as the violence continues, it no longer feels sufficient to call things like what happened in Manchester on Monday night (or in Sinjar in 2014 or in Karrada last year or in Beslan in 2004) an attack. An attack could also be used to describe what happens if someone is kicked and punched outside a pub, for instance. It doesn’t necessarily imply death on a large scale! Instead, we now talk more and more about atrocities and outrages. Politicians and social commentators discuss this fresh outrage, what can be done to prevent further atrocities from being committed, and push people who had nothing to do with whatever mass murder is most recent to condemn the latest atrocity.


Meanwhile, the rest of us down here on planet earth try to get on with our daily lives, to get on with the people we meet every day and to not fall victim to fear, hate or suspicion of others.

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  • Have there been any atrocities committed in your country over recent years?
  • Had you heard anything about the IRA or about the previous Manchester bombings before?
  • Can you think of any other times you woke to shocking news?
  • Have you ever been evacuated from a building or an area? When? What happened?
  • Do you think terrorist attacks are successful in spreading fear and creating division?

Phrase of the day: rule of thumb

My mother turned 70 last month and to celebrate we took her to Majorca for a week-long break. We rented a villa in Puerto Pollensa up on the north coast. It was just about large enough for my mum and her partner, John; my brother, his wife and their adopted kid, Jamie; John’s daughter from his previous marriage, Ailsa; and my own family. It was hot, we were near the beach, and it was only a short walk into town. What more could you ask for? Like lots of people of her generation, my mum isn’t the most adventurous eater, and tends to be slightly suspicious of food she’s not familiar with. Given this, most evenings, we took turns to cook and ate together in the villa. On the actual day of her birthday, though, we decided to eat out in a little place we’d read about on TripAdvisor. After a leisurely stroll along the beach, we went down a lovely little side street and found the place we were looking for. We were early and had the place more or less to ourselves, which was nice. As soon as we’d sat down, John was keen to order a drink. He caught the waiter’s eye and asked what the best way to do things was: should he go to the bar and order and pay there, or could drinks be ordered and brought to the table now? “Well”, the Spanish waiter began, “the basic rule of thumb is order from me, and I’ll bring everything straight to your table and you can settle up at the end!”


After the waiter had taken the drinks order and vanished off to the bar, my mum commented on how excellent his English was and not for the first time, I was struck by the fact that it’s very rarely grammatical accuracy that impresses people. Instead, it’s the ability to use phrases such as the basic rule of thumb (and, in this instance, settle up as well, I guess)! A rule of thumb is a broadly accurate guide or principle that you use when doing (or explaining) things, and it’s based on practice rather than theory. So, for example, the reason my mum’s partner John felt the need to ask in the first place is that the basic rule of thumb in English pubs is that you go to the bar, order and pay for each round. As a result, the idea of being able to order drinks throughout the evening without (yet) paying for them is a bit alien!


Many people may apply basic rules of thumb to the way they approach many everyday activities. For instance, my writing partner Andrew has a basic rule of thumb when he’s drinking: for every pint of beer he drinks, he then tries to drink a pint of water. Very sensible! Anyone who does any kind of practical task like DIY, cooking, fixing or mending things, and so on, will have all kinds of rules of thumb that they use when carrying out their tasks. To give one final example, a tip we often pass on to teachers we work with is that when you’ve asked the whole class a question, a good rule of thumb is to wait a good ten seconds or so before moving on. All too often, we ask questions, don’t get an immediate response and then rush on, worrying about why our students don’t speak much! Waiting slightly longer gives the quieter, shyer students time to put themselves forward, and allows students the chance to gather their thoughts before speaking. If you’re a teacher yourself, try it and see what a difference it makes!


Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take one of out summer courses.

  • Do you have any basic rules of thumb that you apply when cooking, ordering in bars or restaurants, doing DIY or any other areas of your life?
  • Do you know anyone who’s an adventurous eater? Or anyone who’s suspicious of food they’re not familiar with?
  • When was the last time you went for a leisurely stroll? Where did you go?
  • Can you think of ways of doing things you’ve encountered when abroad that were a bit alien to you?

Phrase of the day: go pear-shaped

Last night I was at our local pub quiz. For anyone who hasn’t experienced this, basically it’s an excuse for people to get together and drink, but at the same time it allows ourselves to feel that we are not drunks or layabouts because we are actually proving our great intelligence and knowledge. Never mind that the questions are largely about trivia such as naming Beyoncé‘s last number one single or how many tennis balls would fit in the Millenium Dome if it was turned upside down!


We might also ignore the fact that the winner often only wins bar vouchers, which allow them to buy – and drink – more beer! No, pub quizzes are deadly serious, they are intellectual, and they are an opportunity to show off, when the British usually hate such things.

So anyway, there we were at the pub quiz, and basically we were doing very well indeed. We’d been through a couple of rounds where we were convinced we had got all the questions – or almost all of them – right and we had reached a round called food and drink. We were very confident – we all cook, we were all drinking, we all watch MasterChef. What could possibly go wrong? So we played our joker. Playing the joker meant we would get double points for every correct answer.



First question: rigatoni and farfalle are both types of what? Ha! No problem … pasta! What are the ingredients of a Harvey Wallbanger? Tricky, but as I say, we all drink and one of us makes cocktails. Confident. What did Henry II  have too much of when he died? Hmmm! Tricky. Not a clue. Next question. What dish is named after a famous victory by Napoleon. What? Next. What’s the national dish of Gibraltar? Oh, for God’s sake!

A teammate turned to me and said ‘Oh dear! It’s all gone a bit pear-shaped.

And indeed it had – we came third last in the end!

Basically, if a plan or a strategy or a game goes a bit pear-shaped, then it goes wrong – usually very wrong!. You blow your chances, you choke, you lose your way (often after a fairly successful start!)

So what else has gone pear-shaped of late? Oh yes, Arsenal’s season has gone a bit pear-shaped. There they were, riding high in the table, fifteen matches unbeaten and they’d qualified first in their Champions League group. The players gave interviews about how the hard work was paying off and how the spirit in the team was unbelievable. Two months later and they were thrashed by Bayern Munich – twice, they’d dropped to sixth in the league and were blaming each other as their hopes of a league title had been dashed …. again!

Oh dear.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take our ENGLISH BOOST course this summer.

  • Can you think of a time when something went pear-shaped for you?
  • What other examples of things going pear-shaped in sport and politics can you think of?
  • Are pub quizzes popular in your country? Why? / Why not?
  • Have you ever been to one? How did you do?
  • Can you think of any other examples of a sports team getting thrashed?

Word of the day: ransom

Over the last few days, the news here in the UK has been dominated by the hackers currently holding the country to ransom! It all began last Friday afternoon, when computers in several hospitals around the country suddenly stopped working normally and instead started showing a pop-up message which demanded a $300 (£233) ransom per machine to be paid to a Bitcoin wallet address. Bitcoin, in case you’ve not heard of it, is a virtual currency created to allow online transactions to be made without any middle men and without the need to give your real name, making it very popular with criminals using the dark web. The message not only demanded money, but made it clear that all the files on affected computers had been encrypted – changed into code – and could no longer be accessed. It was now impossible to recover  lost files and there was a warning that unless payment was made within three days, the price would double – and if it wasn’t paid within a week, all files would be permanently deleted.


Obviously, the attack has caused chaos across the whole of the NHS (the National Health Service), as patients were turned away, emergency operations were transferred to hospitals not affected by the hacking and fears grew that private information in the files was now in the hands of criminals. To top it allit now seems that one reason why the NHS was so vulnerable to an attack like this is that recent government cuts had meant that security updates were not purchased!


As the weekend went on, it became clear that this was not only an attack on the NHS. Thousands and thousands of businesses around the world have been similarly hit. Put simply, this is the biggest act of cyber crime we’ve ever witnessed, and a sobering reminder of quite how dependent on the Internet our modern world has become.

The special kind of software that was used in this attack is called ransomware. It’s usually sent via an email that unsuspecting victims open, thus allowing the malware into their computers, where it quickly encrypts files and then demands a ransom. The ransom is the amount of money that needs to be paid before criminals release whatever it is they have taken. The word used to be mainly associated with kidnapping cases, where a gang would kidnap the children of wealthy people – they’d illegally take them away somewhere and hold them prisoner, in order to make their family (or government, in some cases) pay them money. Sometimes a ransom note would be sent – maybe even containing a video of the kidnapped person pleading for their lifeIn some instances, pet dogs have even been kidnapped and held for ransom! As criminals have got smarter and more and more crime has moved online, nowadays it’s more commonly websites that are hacked and held for ransom.


When footballers demand huge wage increases if they are to stay at a club, the manager may well complain to the media that the club wont be held to ransom – and may remind the greedy star that no player’s bigger than the club. It all seems to be part and parcel of the way new contracts are negotiated these days!


Just in case any of you out there are thinking that demanding ransoms sounds like money for old rope, it’s worth bearing in mind the fact that so far the hackers behind the recent attacks have only been paid around £20,000 – but now have security forces from countless countries looking for them! Sometimes crime really doesn’t pay!

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take our ENGLISH BOOST course this summer.

  • Has the recent wave of cyber attacks hit your country? How?
  • Have you heard any other stories about websites or people or animals being held for ransom?
  • What other kinds of cyber crime have you heard about?
  • How much effort do you put into protecting your own online data and your computer?
  • Can you think of any jobs that you think are money for old rope?

Word of the day: landslide

As you’ve probably noticed, France has elected a new president. From a British point of view, the French system is quite peculiar in that not only do the people directly elect the President, but there are also are two rounds of voting – unless one candidate wins an outright majority (more than 50%) in the first round, which, while theoretically possible, has never actually happened. What happens is that all the different candidates, who usually come from right across the political spectrum, face off in the first round and then the two candidates who get the highest number of votes face each other in the second round, which is held two weeks later. After the first round, the two remaining candidates generally hold a couple of final rallies – and there are tough restrictions on what the French media can and can’t mention in the run-up to the final vote. So, for example, media outlets there were not allowed to mention anything about the content of the hacked emails which were stolen last Friday from mailboxes linked to Emmanuel Macron, and dumped online, along with what are said to be numerous fake emails.


The final round pitted Macron, a former civil servant and investment banker who only founded his centrist political movement En Marche! last year, against Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party. Many had been predicting a tight contest, with lots of disillusioned voters choosing not to vote for either candidate, but in the end, Macron won by a big majority. He got around 65% of the vote, while Le Pen only got 35%. In other words, he won by a landslide.


People can win an election by a landslide, and political parties can win a landslide victory. Usually, when there’s such a decisive victory, it gives the winners a clear mandate: it gives them the authority to do the things that they promised to do before the election. It strengthens their hand – it gives them more power, so they can push through new reforms or legislation.

Interestingly, the literal meaning of a landslide is a heavy fall of earth and rocks down the side of a mountain. Landslides can prove fatal. It is, though, a brave person who predicts that this election defeat will prove to be fatal to Marine Le Pen’s political ambitions!


Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take one of our summer courses.

  • How are leaders chosen in your country? Are there any similarities with the French system?
  • Can you think of any other politicians or political parties who’ve won a landslide victory?
  • Why do you think many voters these days feel so disillusioned?
  • Can you think of any scandals that have proved fatal to someone’s political ambitions?
  • Are there any restrictions on what the media can and can’t report in your country?

Word of the day: professional

When I was in Norilsk, in the far north of Russia earlier this year, I was lucky enough to have a free day at the end of the teacher development course I’d been running there. We decided we were going to head off to Dudinka, a town on the mighty Yenisei river that serves as the main shipping port for the local metal factories. It was about a ninety-minute drive each way, and the weather was relatively mild for the time of year – only around zero. Once we left the city, we were basically out in the tundra – the flat, empty land where hardly anything grows, and which covers much of Siberia. There were no barriers on the sides of the road, so as the snow swept in from the tundra and across the road, visibility was massively reduced. It became hard to see more than a few metres in front and almost impossible to see where the road ended and the tundra began. I nervously asked if it was still safe to drive in such conditions and this led to the following conversation:

Don’t worry. Sasha is an excellent driver and he knows the roads very well. Can I say he’s high-end?

> Not really. I guess high-end is usually used to describe the kind of businesses that provide goods or services for really wealthy people, you know, people who want top-quality goods and don’t care how much they cost, so you get high-end stereo equipment and high-end department stores, all targeting high-end consumers. I’m glad we’ve got a good driver, though. WE need one in these conditions.

So how can I best describe him? If he’s really excellent and skillful?

> He’s a professional.

But this is not his job. He’s just doing this as a favour, because he knows the roads so well.

> It doesn’t matter. I’d still say he’s a professional!


If someone does something difficult in an excellent way, we often say they’re a professional, so if you offer me a coffee and then proceed to grind the beans, get the expensive (high-end!) coffee machine going and finally present me with the perfect double espresso, I might say “Wow! And there was me expecting a Nescafé! You’re a real professional, I see!” Professional is often shortened to pro, so for instance, I was round at a friend’s house the other day, watching him change his daughter’s nappy after she’d peed right through it. I commented on the fact that I really didn’t miss this side of parenting, to which he laughed and said “Hey. I’m used to it. I’m a hardened pro by now. Can do it in my sleep!


In the same way, we also use amateur/ˈæmətə(r)/ – in a jokey way to describe people who don’t do things very well. Imagine you go to get your hair cut somewhere and are shocked by what a terrible job they make of it, you may well tell friends “That’s the last time I ever go there. They’re a total bunch of amateurs!” We might describe ourselves as total amateurs if we’re not very good at something, and not very knowledgeable about it, but still enjoy it anyway, so if challenged to a game of table tennis, I may well reply “Yeah, go on. Why not? I’m a total amateur, but what the hell!


If someone doing an important job is truly terrible at it and seems frequently confused and unsure of what they’re doing, they may well be called a bumbling amateur. Depressingly for us, it’s a description often levelled against our current Foreign Secretary, the man leading us into the crucial Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson. What could possibly go wrong?9893663995_4679374bfd_b

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take one of our face-to-face summer courses.

  •  When was the last time you dealt with someone you’d describe as a real pro?
  • And have you ever had bed experiences with people you thought were a total bunch of amateurs?
  • Have you ever had to drive when you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you?
  • Do you know anyone who buys high-end goods or services?
  • Have you ever had anyone make a terrible job of cutting your hair?

Phrase of the day: a big If

We use the phrase that’s / it’s a big if to show that we realise that what we are about to say – or what someone has just been speculating about – is really very unlikely indeed to actually happen. It’s a sign that we’re clutching at straws, which means we’re still clinging on to slender hopes, looking for some small thing that might allow us to escape a difficult situation. Imagine you see a man drowning and you need to find a strong stick for him to hold on to so you can pull him out, but all you have is a bit of dried grass (straw). It’s basically that! You tell yourself that it might work! Maybe ….. but actually probably not! Oh, let’s just face it, shall we? There’s not a hope in hell it’ll work, is there!


It seems that we’re living through times when clutching at straws and big ifs are pretty much all we have left – in my household at least. My son is an Arsenal supporter like Hugh is, and watched his team suffer another loss at the weekend – and this wasn’t just any old loss, but was a defeat at the hands of their deadliest rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. Their hopes of a Champions League place are fading, but as I said to him, if they win all their last games, they could still qualify in fourth place. He looked sceptical and said that’s a big if!  


As a supporter of the Labour Party in the forthcoming election, I receive quite a few emails, one of which was encouraging young people to register to vote. Apparently, Labour has a fifteen-point lead over the Conservatives among 18-to-25-year-olds, so if they all register and they come out to vote, and that’s a huge if, Labour could still win. Or maybe if the polls are wrong and people begin to see that Prime Minister Theresa May isn’t really the strong leader that she claims to be … hey, I’m clutching at straws here, I know.


There are two linguistic things to mention here about a big if. Firstly, I think a big if is probably (though I haven’t done any research on this) more often used with first conditionals, even though we generally associate second conditionals (if young people were to registerLabour would win) with things that we see as impossible. I guess this is because when you clutch at straws, you still have hope it’s not impossible! The second point is the way if is turned into a noun here. English is very flexible in the way words can change word class (verb to noun to adjective, etc.). If is also used as a noun in the phrase no ifs or buts, a phrase which is also useful for an election as it’s often used by journalists who are trying to get a straight answer from politicians – ‘No ifs or buts, are you going to put up taxes or not?’

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take one of our summer courses.

  • How would you translate a big if and clutching at straws into your language?
  • What big ifs are there in your life at the moment?
  • What have you been forced to accept there’s not a hope in hell of?
  • Do many young people vote where you live? What do you think stops them? What could be done to encourage them to vote more?

Phrase of the day: Time is of the essence

Over recent weeks, we’ve been taking a fair few bookings for what will be our first ever London summer school. It’s all very exciting, even if it does involve far more red tape than we’d initially anticipated. In order to be able to invite non-EU students here in a way that allows them to apply for short-term visas, we’ve had to go through an official accreditation process, which meant preparing an insane amount of paperwork. We’ve had to decide what the best way of receiving payments from a wide range of international customers is; we’ve had to find and book a venue for the courses; we’ve had to make contact with a bunch of different accommodation providers; and, of course, we’ve had to get all the courses written! All in all, I think it’s fair to say that we’re earning our money! Another thing we’ve had to do is email round to people who’ve already expressed an interest in certain courses, but haven’t yet booked their places to warn them that there are only a very few places left, so time is of the essence. In other words, they should book now to avoid disappointment.

The London skyline from Alexandra Palace.

If you tell someone that time is of the essence, it’s usually because you want to emphasize that something needs to be done as soon as it can be and so they need to hurry up if they don’t want to miss out. It’s a phrase that’s been used quite a lot in the media here of late because of the snap election that’s been called for June the 8th. Because there’s so little time before election day, that opposition parties really need to get their act together and start getting a clear, coherent message out to as many people as possible, if they’re to stand any chance at all of winning.


Time is also often of the essence in other lines of work, of course. Take police work, for example. As was recently shown in a remarkable BBC Radio 4 series about how police in the north-east of England dealt with a missing child report, in many investigations there’s no time to lose. The situation requires prompt action and every second counts. Incredibly important decisions need to be made in the heat of the moment and it’s crucial that cool heads prevail. All the experts agree that the first 48 hours after a child goes missing are critical and that within that time frame, there’s a lot families can do to facilitate the search.


Mercifully, we’re not in any kind of life-or-death situation. Having said that, though, if you do still want to come and study with us . . . . !

Read more about our summer school courses here.

  • Can you think of a time when time was really of the essence? What happened?
  • Do you have to deal with much red tape in your job?
  • Have you ever had to apply for a visa? How was it? What did the process involve?
  • Have you ever missed out on something you wanted to do because you left it too late?
  • Are you usually good at keeping a cool head in the heat of the moment?

Word of the day: pimp

A few weeks ago, I ran a teacher development course in Norilsk, Siberia. In one session, we were talking about how to give better examples of new language and I was trying to get teachers to think more about not only collocations – words which often go together, like blissfully ignorant, beat an egg and a breathtaking view – but to also think about what we call collocations of collocations. What this means is that if you’re teaching, say, an adjective + noun collocation like heavy rain, it’s also good to think about the verbs and other words that might be used with this collocation, so you might end up with something like They’re predicting really heavy rain for the weekend or The rain was so heavy that we had to pull over to the side of the road and stop driving.

Driving in the rain

Anyway, to demonstrate this, I split the group in two and asked one group to think of collocations for new car, and the other to think of collocations for old car. After a few minutes, I started eliciting ideas from the group and getting them up on the board. We had things like I need to buy a new car, I can’t afford to get a new car this year, and Are you still driving that old car? Someone then asked what the word was if you had everything in your old car changed and improved. Could you call this upgrading your old car? I said no, and pointed out you usually have a computer system upgraded, and that sometimes when new software becomes available, you can get a free upgrade. Like you can with mobile phones too, where the company gives you a better, more modern phone if you’re already a customer.


Then, as I tried to think of how to say exactly what the teacher meant, I found my mind had gone blank. Luckily, another teacher shouted shouted out that you could pump your car, which made little sense to me. She then checked phone and said: “Oh no! Sorry. I meant pimp. Like the TV series Pimp My Ride!” Now, I’m not really into cars, but even I had heard of this show. It was an American series produced by MTV and hosted by a rapper called Xzibit, and each episode consisted of taking one old car in poor condition and both restoring it – cleaning and repairing it so that it looks like it did originally – and customizing it – changing the way it looks or works so that it’s exactly the way that you want it to be. This process of making something look fashionable or impressive by adding things to it has become known as pimping, and people now talk about pimping their iPhones, pimping their burgers by adding all sorts of tasty extra bits and pieces, and some elderly people in care homes here have even started pimping their zimmer frames - the light metal frames that people sometimes use to help the walk more steadily. You can see one of the results below!


The roots of the word are interesting – and also pretty depressing – as a pimp is a man controls prostitutes / sex workers and arranges clients for them, taking a cut of their earnings in return. That the violent, controlling men at the heart of the sex trade have become a byword for fixing things up and making them more beautiful is probably due to the wave of films in the early 1970s such as The Mack, Dolemite and Willie Dynamite that depicted pimps as flamboyant, larger-than-life characters who quite openly advertised their lifestyle and tastes on the mean city streets.


Of course, this emphasis on the flashy and the extrovert hides the brutal reality of what pimping really involves – and perhaps also stops us from thinking quite how weird it is that the word has become such a widely-known verb and a seemingly accepted part of everyday English!

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take a course with us this summer.

  • Has anyone you know pimped any of their possessions at all? In what way?
  • Do you like the look of pimped-up cars? Why? / Why not?
  • Who’s the most flamboyant, larger-than-life character you’ve ever met?
  • Have you ever been upgraded to a better seat in a plane or upgraded to a better room in a hotel? Why?
  • Can you think of a time when your mind went blank?

Phrase of the day: two-fingered salute

At some point during most courses we run, we end up taking whichever students are up for it to the pub. It’s a grand British tradition and the pub is basically where we go to let our hair down, relax and talk. Having spent lots of time over the years in pubs with foreign students, we’ve sadly become all too well aware of the many social faux-pas it’s possible to commit if you’re not au fait with the conventions and norms of pub etiquette. We’ve had to endure the students who, on entering the pub, rush not to the bar, but straight to a table that they proceed to occupy . . . much to the anger of the guy at the bar who’s following the unwritten rule and buying his drink first before trying to find as place to sit and who’d been eyeing the spare table! Then there are the students who buy a half of lemonade which they then sit and share for hours at a table that could otherwise be occupied by serious drinkers! We’ve had to set the enthusiastic, but rather serious young Italian straight when he asked hopefully if a visit to the pub meant we could discuss philosophy and politics. I can still remember the look of deep disappointment on his face when we explained that actually mostly what we do in the pub is just talk rubbish and take the piss out of each other. And we’ve had to quickly discourage students from taking out packed lunches and eating them in the middle of crowded pubs that survive by selling hot lunches!


That said, nothing fills me with quite so much dread as the knowledge that a student is going to go to the bar to try and order two beers, because more often than not, the student unwittingly ends up giving the barman the two-fingered salute! The V-sign, which is made with your first and middle finger, as shown in the photo below, is  one of the most common insulting gestures here in the UK. It’s equivalent to the more American tradition of giving someone the finger, which involves just sticking the middle finger up, and basically means the same thing: Fuck you! Or, to put it rather more politely, up yours!


Its use in British culture is widespread and goes back a long way. In many circumstances, giving someone the two-fingered salute is viewed almost as a comic act. Indeed, friends may well give each other the V-sign in pubs whilst arguing or making fun of each other! The two-fingered salute has also featured in plenty of significant cultural contexts. For, instance, there was the 1990 headline in The Sun, a right-wing British tabloid, that featured an image of the V-sign alongside the headline Up Yours, Delors! The newspaper basically urged its readers to stick two fingers up at then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors, after he’d advocated a central EU government.


In 2009, Scottish footballers Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor were banned from the Scottish national squad for showing the V sign while sitting on the bench during the game against Iceland. The action was considered to be so rude that the Scottish Football Association decided to never include these players in the national line-up again! You start to see why the prospect of students ordering two beers using this hand gesture doesn’t exactly excite me, I’m guessing! Not, I hasten to add, that any bar staff have ever taken offence. Either they’ve been foreign themselves and thus maybe not aware of the cultural significance of the gesture or else they’ve simply made allowances for the fact that the students clearly weren’t British – and so couldn’t be held accountable for their actions in these instances!


One common legend here is that the two-fingered salute (or V-sign) derives from a gesture made by archers fighting against the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The story goes that any archers captured by the French had their index and middle fingers cut off so that they could no longer use their bows and arrows, and so the V Sign started being used by uncaptured and victorious archers as a display of defiance against the enemy.Sadly, there’s no historical evidence to back this story up, but it’s a great one nonetheless!


Just in case you’re now wondering what you CAN do with your hands when ordering two drinks here, why not just do nothing? Or if you really have to use your hands, then go for the V for Victory salute made famous by Winston Churchill, and later popularised as the peace sign which was flashed by hippies the whole world over.

British wartime leader Winston Churchill with his famous V for victory sign. Image from the archives of Press Portrait Service (formerly Press Portait Bureau) 1946 image. Image shot 1946. Exact date unknown.

Want to learn more about British language and culture? Take our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course this summer.

  • What kind of insulting hand gestures are common in your country? Do you know their history?
  • Have you ever committed any terrible social faux-pas? When? What happened?
  • What norms and conventions would it be useful for a visitor to your country to know about?
  • Has anyone ever taken offence at something someone you’ve accidentally said or done? When? What?
  • Can you think of any other sports players who’ve been banned? Do you know why?