Word of the day: Cheers

Following on from our previous post on the phrase bon appetit, it’s perhaps a reflection of the priorities here in the UK that it’s far easier to come up with a single English word for what we say before we drink – Cheers! Typically, when you and the people you’re drinking with have new, full glasses, you say Cheers and then raise your glasses to each other or sometimes touch glasses (though this isn’t essential). Drinking remains a fairly central part of British culture, as anyone who visits London after 5 o’clock in the evening will see!

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One of our summer school students commented last year that she was amazed to see the pubs full on a Monday or Tuesday evening, all full of office workers (or suits as they’re often called!) who seemed happy to drink several pints or glasses of wine without feeling the need to eat anything other than a bag of crisps or nuts! This is reflected in an interesting report by Demos on drinking and youth culture, which found that nearly half of those interviewed drank with colleagues and clients. They said it was seen as an important part of group bonding and getting to know colleagues and they believed that not drinking (alcohol) could be a barrier to getting on at work.

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However, the report also points out that at the same time, the actual numbers of young people who drink and the amount they drink has been falling quite significantly, so it’ll be interesting to see if our drinking culture changes over time and whether not drinking will become the norm. Still, for anyone studying English in the UK, cheers will continue to be a useful word to learn because it’s also very commonly used to mean ‘Thank you’. For example:

A: Could you open the window?

B: Sure

A: Cheers.

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So, cheers for reading. Hope to see you next time.

Want to study with us this summer? Check out our courses here.

  • What do people in your country say when they drink – if, of course, they do drink?
  • How important is drinking and alcohol in your country?
  • What are the trends for young people and alcohol?
  • If people don’t drink in your country, what do they do to bond with colleagues and clients.

Phrase of the day: bon appetit

You probably don’t need me to tell you that food culture here in England is (and yes, I am using the classic English art of understatement here!) slightly different to much of the rest of the world. We seem to have developed a reputation for being a bit backwards when it comes to cuisine. As Londoners, we’d naturally dispute this view of things and – as we like to show our students who study English with us – we believe that one of the joys of the city is that you can easily eat your way round the world here – as this blog demonstrates so well.

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However, one obvious example of how eccentric we are here when it comes to eating connects to a question we’re often asked: what do you say before eating with English people? Or, in other words, what’s the English for bon appétit?

Now, most languages that I have any experience of have fixed expressions that are used in this particular situation. And you could argue that the English for bon appétit is … well, bon appétit. As so many of our food-related words (like cuisine itself, of course) come from French, the term does exist and it is used in English. However, as with many words derived from French, it also has a whiff of social climbing about it and can seem pretentious and self-aggrandizing.

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In reality, the phrases people use both to announce the fact that food is on the table and ready to eat AND the phrases that people use before eating vary wildly – and, as with so much native-speaker usage – depend on age, region and class. I decided to ask Facebook friends what was said in their households before meals and here’s a selection of what they told me:

To announce to the family food was ready:

Wash your hands.

There you go. Enjoy your meal.

Grub up! (= the food is ready . . . grub is an informal word for food)

Dig in everyone! (= start eating now!)

Don’t wait. Tuck in. (= start eating)

Enjoy!

And when someone else has prepared the meal for you:

This looks great / delicious / wonderful / nice/ very good. Thank you!

My favourite answer of all, posted by an American friend, was this: “In the States, we’d say ‘Don’t change the channel. I am watching that!!'”

In my experience, most students expect there to be some kind of formal phrase like they have in their own countries, but if you’re eating at someone’s house, the most important thing is to compliment the cook at some point during the meal (even if the food is awful!). In restaurants here, it really is OK just to say nothing. Honestly!

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  • Does your language have a fixed phrase that’s usually said before meals?
  • What was said before meals in your house when you were growing up – by both parents and children?
  • What do you know about English food? What have you tried? Where? What did you think of it?
  • Do you eat much foreign food? What’s your favourite? What would you like to try, but haven’t yet?

Word of the day: wide boy

Every big city contains certain kinds of characters who come to represent some deep and fundamental truth about the place. They capture some timeless essence of their being. One of the most enduring social types familar to anyone who’s spent much time in London is the wide boy.

Wide boys are working-class, exclusively male, and survive on the margins of society by basically using their wits – their ability to think quickly and make good decisions. Wide boys are the characters you may see in Oxford Street selling knock-off (fake) botles of brand-name perfumes out of a suitcase that can easily be packed up should the seller need to run when the police turn up. And they’re the guys in the warm sheepskin-coats who’ll do a great job of selling you a dodgy second-hand motor (a car that’s had at least one previous owner and may well not be working properly and may even be stolen!) . . . but not remember this ever happened when you take it back the next week after it dies a slow and painful death! Basically, everything about wide boys is a little bit dodgy: they are not to be trusted!

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You might think that such characters would be hated and made into social outcasts, but actually there’s a strong tradition of people having grudging respect for them. Partly, this is a recognition of the fact that they’re frequntly charming. Most wide boys have the gift of the gab – they’re able to talk a lot without feeling shy, especially when it gets them out of potentially awkward situations! They’re often quick-witted and able to think on their feet – and, above all, they’re survivors, and one of the myths Londoners tell themselves about the city is that it’s a survivor. It’s survived the Great Fire of London, the Plague, the Blitz (when the Germans dropped countless bombs on the city during the Second World War), terrorist attacks, and so on. We endure!

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Wide boys survive by wheeling and dealing and ducking and diving – using clever (and often slightly dishonest) methods to gain advantages in business situations. They buy from here, and sell there, always looking to make a profit in the process. It’s this base-level raw capitalist instinct that has won them admiration and there have been countless depictions of wide boys as loveable rogues – people who behave badly, but are still liked by others – on TV. There was Arthur Daley, the dodgy second-hand car dealer in Minder (a show so named becuase he had to employ a minder – a bodyguard – to look after him!), the south-east London market trader Derek Trotter – better known as Del Boy – in Only Fools and Horses, and there was this comic character in The Fast Show, to name just a few.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the idea of being a wide boy comes from the fact they’re seen as always being wide awake, sharp-eyed, always alert for the moments still to come.

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  • Do characters like wide boys exist where you live? How are they generally seen by the public?
  • What other kind of social types do you think represent the timeless essence of where you live?
  • Would you know where to get knock-off brand name products if you wanted them? Have you ever bought any?
  • Can you think of any dodgy areas / bars / clubs where you live?
  • Do you know anyone who’s got the gift of the gab?

Chunk of the day: mass brawl

Twice in two days now, I’ve seen the words mass brawl appear in news headlines. First there was a story about up to a hundred schoolchildren, many still wearing their school uniforms, being involved in a mass brawl – a big fight in the street – in Erith, a rather grim and depressing suburb on the outskirts of south-east London. Then today came reports of a very similar disturbance in Manchester, where again around a hundred kids from different schools were involved and fighting raged for several minutes before riot police arrived to break up the fight. In both cases, there seems to have been some kind of long-standing problem or bitter rivalry between two schools; both girls and boys were involved in the fighting – and witnesses were shocked by the level of violence. Reports say that many children were armed with baseball bats, table legs and concrete blocks. In both instances, several children required hospital treatment and several others were arrested.

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Before mass brawls break out, there’s usually some long-running tensions between two different groups: it could be groups of kids from different schools or supporters of different football clubs or different groups within society; something then happens that sparks the violence – someone insults someone else in public by calling them names or saying bad things about them, or someone is attacked by a group and this then results in friends being intent on revenge. The first punch is thrown and suddenly everything kicks off – everyone starts fighting.

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Sooner or later, someone calls the police, who arrive and try to break up the fight. Sometimes, the brawl is so out of control that they have to call for reinforcements – more police officers – to help them regain control of the situation. At other times, those involved in the fighting flee the moment the police arrive. Those injured in the fighting may be taken to hospital suffering from cuts and bruises - and anyone caught by the police will be arrested and charged with assault.

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  • Have you heard of any mass brawls happening where you live? If yes, what sparked them?
  • What do you think the root causes of these kinds of problems are?
  • And what should be done to prevent them from happening again in the future?
  • Can you think of any other times that riot police might be called in?

Phrase of the day: on the cheap

Some of you may have heard on the news this week that dozens of people were injured when a floor overlooking the main lobby of the Indonesian Stock Exchange building collapsed. You may even have seen the shocking video of a happy group of students and office workers who one minute were waiting for the lift, the next were falling into nothingness as the ground beneath them gave way. Incredibly, nobody seems to have died in the accident, though there are reports of at least 75 people being hurt, some seriously.

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How could such a tragic accident happen? The first thought I had was that perhaps it was caused by a bomb. The building, which is also home to the offices of the British Council, was hit by Islamist militants in 2000, remains a prime target. However, officials soon ruled terrorism out. As I watched this story unfold with my wife, who is originally from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, I noted grimly that the reconstruction work in the early 2000s must’ve been done on the cheap.

If something is done on the cheap, it’s never of the highest quality. Maybe the contractors who carry out the work skimp on materials and use the cheapest stuff they can find; in other words, they cut corners: do things in the cheapest, easiest and quickest ways, and ignore rules put in place to protect people. It’s exactly this kind of approach that led to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed so many people in London last summer.

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Of course, building work is always subject to inspections, but in many parts of the world, there are ways round these complications. Someone can be slipped a backhandergiven a bribe, an amount of money paid to someone in power to ensure they do what you want them to do. Some of the money saved on construction costs can be ‘reinvested’ in paying off corrupt officials.

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Now, of course, at the moment we have no idea why the accident in Jakarta happened, so this is all just speculation. The truth will hopefully come out in the fullness of time. As with Grenfell here in London, one hopes that any guilty parties are brought to justice and people are held accountable for their actions. However, given how common official cover-ups are around the world, it’s hard to feel too optimistic. Time will tell, I suppose, but in the meantime, my thoughts and sympathies are with the victims, as always.

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By the way, on the cheap isn’t always negative. While many things done on the cheap are examples of shoddy workmanship, there are also countless books written to help tourists on a tight budget – travelling without much money – do Europe (or South-East Asia or Latin America) on the cheap. You can pick things up on the cheap if you know where to look. You can eat on the cheap if you do your research and find out in advance which places offer best value for money.

How do we know all this? Well, as teachers living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, we’re both experts at doing all of these things ourselves!

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

  • Can you think of any stories of accidents caused by things having been done on the cheap?
  • Is it common where you live for officials to take backhanders? In what situations? is it getting better or worse?
  • Do you ever cut corners? If so, when?
  • Have you any other news stories recently about tragic accidents? What happened? What caused them?
  • Can you think of anything that was covered up by officials?

Intermediate word of the day: depression

Today’s word is depression. Depressions are all to do with being low and down. So when you are suffering from depression, you have low energy and emotion and are very unhappy. When the country is experiencing a depression, there is very long period of low economic activity. There might even be bad weather caused by a depression – which is low pressure in the atmosphere. It would be fair to say that whether it’s a severe depression or a mild depression, there’s nothing much good about depressions!

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The adjective that comes from depression is depressed. Someone might get depressed after losing their job – and a lot of people suffer from depression during an economic depression! You might be depressed by the lack of something – maybe because you don’t have enough of something; for example, you may find a lack of money or even your lack of progress in your English depressing. I hope not, though!

We also often say we find it depressing if something makes us unhappy. So, for example, a lot of people find the news depressing because it’s full of stories about people killing each other or about the economy being in recession or crimes that have been committed.

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So depression clearly isn’t a cheerful subject, but let’s think a little more about these words. What other things can cause someone to become depressed? Pause for a moment and think about your answer.

There are a number of possible causes of depression. To begin with, it might be partly genetic. Some people have a history of depression in their family. For example, apparently both the parents and children of the American writer Ernest Hemingway suffered from severe recurrent depression and several members of the family committed suicide – they killed themselves. People often suffer from bouts of depression because of terrible problems during their childhood; for example, maybe they were physically or sexually abused, or they were rejected by their parents in some way. People may also get depressed after particularly traumatic events. For example, someone might become depressed following an accident or after their mother dies – this depression after someone dies is also called grief.  Finally, someone might get depressed because of an illness – maybe because it stops them doing the things they want or maybe because of the side effects of the drugs they’re taking.

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OK – still with me? Not got depressed yourself yet, I hope! Now think about what happens when someone’s suffers from depression – and what might they do to come out of depression . . . what might make them better? Pause again for a moment and think about the answers.

Well, usually when someone’s depressed, they feel very low or they feel down. They often lack energy and don’t want to get out of bed.  They might avoid talking to people or avoid going out and maybe just sit around all day in their room. Sometimes people might burst into tears – they start crying a lot often for no apparent reason. Some people might self-medicate – in other words, get drunk or get out of it on drugs as a way to avoid thinking about their problems. Mild depression might lead to people eating too much – particularly sweet things like cakes. Of course, all of these things may lead to further depression. It can become a vicious circle which is difficult to escape. The worst could be that they finally commit suicide.

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But most people don’t go that far. Most people will have at least a mild bout of depression at some point in their lives, but the vast majority of us get over it. Many will get over it on their own over time or circumstances change – like they find a job or recover from illness and the depression just sorts itself out. Other people may have therapy – they talk to a professional person and through that – they come to terms with problems from their childhood, or with grief. Some people take prescribed medication; in other words, the doctor put them on anti-depressants. In the UK today, there are apparently around 4 million people on anti-depressants such as Prozac. How shocking is that?

Cover the text. What do you remember?

  • Say three different kinds of depression.
  • Say four possible reasons why people suffer from bouts of depression.
  • Say four things people might do if they suffer from depression.
  • How might people get over depression?
  • What does someone do if they self-medicate?

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Related stories in the news

In a remarkable story, two major investors in Apple recently wrote a letter to the company asking it to look into the impact that iPhones have on teenagers and to find out whether the phones lead to depression ion young people. They expressed fears that iPhones are distracting kids, depriving them of sleep, addicting them to screens and, most worryingly, contributing to teen depression and suicide risk. They also want Apple to offer parents more tools to help kids use their products.

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Because it’s the middle of winter here, and the days are cold and short and dark, there have been plenty of news stories about SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, or depression caused by the weather. A recent study has found that woman are more likely to be hit by SAD than men. Why this might be is not yet clear, though.

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Finally, there was a story about the fact that last year stressed British workers took around 12.5 million days off work as depression and anxiety hit. Across the year, more than half a million people suffering from depression, stress or anxiety were unable to turn up for shifts as planned. This shows the enormous scale of the damage that mental illness does to individuals and the wider economy.

Discuss

  • Does anyone you know ever suffer from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder? What can be done to tackle this problem?
  • Do you think mobile phones can contribute towards depression in young people? Why? / Why not?
  • When did your country last suffer an economic depression? What happened? How / why did it end?
  • What kinds of things do you find a bit depressing? Why?

Word of the day: handsy

Just before Christmas, Oxford dictionaries announced their word of the year for 2017: youthquake. For some reason, these annual announcements always attract a lot of media attention here and this time was no different. Articles in a wide range of newspapers explored the reasons why the word, which is defined as ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people,’ had been chosen, and looked at the role that the young had played in politics and elections around in the world, including the UK, where the left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has become incredibly popular with younger voters.

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One obvious effect of these announcements is the public debate they provoke, and – predictably – one evening in the pub, Andrew and I ended up discussing what we felt the word of the year should’ve been. Now, while I recognise the importance of choosing a word that has a positive connotation, I felt that youthquake wasn’t exactly new.  Perhaps it’s because I grew up obsessed with the 1960s, but I’d often encountered the word in articles about the youth explosion that rocked the world in that remarkable decade.

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For my money, the word that kept on popping up last year and that seemed far more symbolic of the current cultural climate was handsy. In October last year, news leaked out about a secret file – a ‘dirty dossier’ – that women who worked in Westminster had compiled and were sharing via WhatsApp. The list named and shamed male MPs who had a history of sexually harassing female employees, and was soon widely available on the Internet. Well-known Members of Parliament were accused of all manner of bad behaviour, and one recurrent complaint was that men had been handsy: handsy with women, handsy at parties, handsy in lifts and handsy in taxis! In other words, they didn’t know when to keep their hands to themselves and were liable to make unwanted sexual advances – and to try and grope women when in enclosed spaces with them.

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If you grope someone, you touch them sexually in a rough way, especially when the other person does not want to be touched. Countless women have horror stories of being groped by strangers on public transport or groped by bosses at office parties, and the stories about handsy politicians came in the wake of the revelations about sexual predator Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo phenomenon, wherein thousands of women shared stories about their experiences of harassment via social media.

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While it’s obviously pretty depressing that in this day and age powerful men still seem to think it’s fine to grope women they work with, the fact that women are fighting back – and coming up with new words in the process – must surely be a good thing.

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

  • Can you think of any public figures who’ve been accused of being handsy – or worse?
  • Do you think groping is a problem where you live? What can be done to tackle it?
  • Can you think of a time in your country’s history when there was a youthquake? What happened?
  • What’s been attracting a lot of media attention where you are recently? Why?
  • Have you noticed any other words or phrases popping up a lot in the last twelve months?

Word of the day: resolution

The tradition of starting the new year by making New Year’s resolutions is an ancient one. The Babylonians used to promise their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed goods and pay their debts, while the Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, after whom the month of January is named. Over the last hundred years or so, it’s become increasingly common for people in the UK to decide that from New Year’s Day – January the First – they’ll try their best to change their lives in some positive way.

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Given that Christmas is often a time of over-indulgence, when people eat and drink way more than they probably should, it’s no surprise that the most common New Year’s resolutions involve losing weight, stopping smoking, getting fitter or cutting down on how much red meat or chocolate you eat, or on how much you drink! Gym membership soars in the first few weeks of the year, but lots of people only go once or twice before slacking off and eventually giving up. In the same way, by spring, lots of people are back on the fags – they’re smoking again – and if anyone asks them what happened to their New Year’s resolution, they’ll trot out the annual joke about how giving up is easy – they’ve done it hundreds of times!

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The truth is, it can be hard to stick to our diets or exercise regimes. We often set ourselves unrealistic goals that we can never hope to meet, or else we start off  really well, but then get complacent – we feel so pleased with what we’ve achieved that we stop trying and before we know it, we’ve lapsed back into bad habits.

However, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make resolutions. Studies have shown that we’re up to ten times more likely to have at least some degree of success if we set goals for ourselves than if we don’t make any resolutions at all!

I guess you might be wondering about me, right? Well, having spent time back in Indonesia over Christmas and being shocked and slightly depressed by how much I’ve forgotten over the years, I’ve resolved to spend at least fifteen minutes a day brushing up on my Indonesian! And, of course, I’m going to lose weight and stop smoking and get healthy again. As usual!

Want to brush up on your English? Come and take a summer course with us!

  • Have you made any New Year’s resolutions this year? If yes, what have you resolved to do? If not, why not?
  • Do you ever find it hard to stick to plans you’ve made? Can you give examples?
  • Is there anything you’d like to cut down on? Why?
  • Do you have any skills you’d like to brush up on?

Phrase of the day: Christmas cheer

Despite my mutterings of Bah humbug! in the last post, I do actually like a bit of Christmas cheer. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been out quite a bit catching up with friends who I haven’t seen for a while, which is always nice. Yes, we should meet up more often, but sometimes you need an excuse like a birthday or Christmas to force the issue and make sure you get together. Of course, this may mean having to put up with some crowded bars and Christmas music, but then among the dreadful songs and carols, there is a good chance you’ll hear Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, which is proper Christmas cheer.

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When my kids were younger, I did enjoy leaving them presents as Santa. They would leave a pillowcase out at the end of their bed (stockings are bit too small, aren’t they?), a glass of something – “Yes, son, Santa definitely prefers beer to Coca Cola” – and a mince pie (a small cake made of pastry filled with dried fruits). I know that when you encourage your kids to believe in Father Christmas, you’re basically telling them lies, but hearing the excitement of kids waking up to find that Santa has been and then unwrapping their presents ….. well, it can’t help but bring a smile to your face.

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I know for some making Christmas lunch is a bit of a burden involving hours in the kitchen, but personally I like cooking so making Christmas lunch with all the trimmings is pretty enjoyable. I prefer goose  to turkey, served with something like red cabbage and apple, crispy roast potatoes and maybe some mashed carrots and swede (something my mother always did, though I mix in a bit of coriander).

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After lunch, because you are usually stuffed and basically unable to move, you then slump on the sofa to watch the big film or the Christmas day episode of the soap, EastEnders. EastEnders is notoriously miserable, and pretty much every Christmas day episode ends up with a screaming match over lunch. Here’s a classic example. It’s not exactly Christmas cheer, but it certainly makes you happy to know that your family are nowhere near as bad as them.

For us in the UK, the day after Christmas (Boxing Day) is also a holiday here. For some, that means the Boxing Day Sales and more shopping, which is my idea of hell. For those of us who prefer a different kind of Christmas cheer, it means going out for a walk with friends – maybe on Hampstead Heath or in one of the other great parks in London. What could be nicer?

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Want to learn more about British language and culture? We have just the course for you.

  • What do you cook for Christmas dinner / lunch? Do you like it?
  • When was the last time you were absolutely stuffed?
  • Are there any traditional TV programmes on at Christmas?
  • If you have a different religious festival, how is it similar / different to the British Christmas?

Phrase of the day: Bah humbug!

The phrase Bah, humbug! comes from the Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol and is said by the main character Scrooge, who doesn’t like anything about Christmas. People can be called a scrooge when they don’t like spending money. You might say ‘Don’t be such a scrooge’ or ‘He’s a right scrooge’ (and let’s face it, these people usually are men!). These days, Bah humbug! is used more as a joke when you know you are basically complaining about things other people enjoy, or you are refusing to join in the fun. You might call someone like this a party pooper (if you are talking about parties) or more generally, you can say they’re a whinger or (my personal favourite, though some may think it’s bit rude) a miserable git.

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Of course, there is a lot about Christmas that does bring out the miserable git in me and makes me proclaim Bah humbug!

Here are just a few of my pet hates at this time of year:

  • Christmas shopping! Hordes of people in the streets desperately searching for that perfect present, which recent research suggests most recipients won’t actually want anyway! Bah humbug!
  • People decorating their houses with thousands of lights and tacky Christmas tat. Think about the electricity bills! Think about global warming! Bah humbug!

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  • Having to wear paper hats and other forced fun at Christmas parties. Bah, humbug!
  • Endless terrible Christmas music played 24-7. Everywhere. Bah, humbug!
  • Turkey. An over-sized, bland variation on the theme of chicken that you end up having to keep eating until the New Year in order to finish it off! Bah, humbug!
  • Mulled wine. There is a reason no-one drinks this stuff at any other time of the year. Personally, I think one glass is enough for a lifetime. Bah humbug!

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I  don’t think that the message of A Christmas Carol was that at Christmas we should all embrace rampant consumerism and stuff ourselves stupid all holiday, so I wouldn’t say I am a complete scrooge here. I do actually like some things about Christmas, but I shall leave that to our next post: Christmas Cheer.

Want to learn more about British language and culture? We have just the course for you.

  • Do you have any pet hates about Christmas or things that might make you go Bah humbug!?
  • Do you know anyone who’s a bit of a scrooge when it comes to money?
  • Do you share any of the pet hates mentioned above? Why? / Why not?
  • What do you usually eat during your main festive days of the year? Do you like it?