Word of the day: social mobility

Social mobility is the idea that over their lifetimes or across generations, people from lower-class backgrounds can move to a higher social class. An example of this would be my father, who grew up in relative poverty in Liverpool before the war. He was the son of a factory worker, but he then won a place at a selective school and was sponsored to go to university; he went on to become a teacher and then a lecturer at university, which, in turn, led to his children going to university and doing professional jobs. His family became very clearly middle class.

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Social mobility has been in the news in the UK recently because apparently, it has slowed down over recent years and the new government’s solution to this seems to introduce more grammar schools. These are schools which are free, but are selective, so children have to pass an entrance exam (at the age of 11) to get into them. The government believes that in the past, people were better able to progress up the social ladder because bright poor people like my father were able to get into a ‘quality’ school by passing a test. What we forget, of course, is that the vast majority of people who didn’t pass the test ended up in low-quality schools.


The idea that selection improves social mobility certainly seems like a mixed message  and as a recent BBC article makes clear, people often use the same arguments on both sides of the debate! The question, then, should maybe be what other factors may prevent social mobility or enable it to happen – or even if people want it to happen on a large scale, given that according to this survey so many people still regard themselves as working class!

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  • Do people worry about social class in your country?
  • Is there much social mobility where you live? Why? / Why not?
  • Can you think of anyone or a family who is an example of moving up the social ladder? Any examples of them moving down?!
  • What do you think enables or prevents social mobility?

Word of the day: cowboy

If, like many foreign students, the main image that comes into your head when you think of cowboys involves men in big hats and long boots, riding horses and heading off into the sunset somewhere in America, then you may be wondering what on earth the photo above has to do with cowboys.


You’d probably also wonder what newspaper headlines like those below meant as well:

Calls for harsher penalties for cowboy developers after historic pub demolished.

Cowboy builders jailed after targetting elderly couple.

Clampdown on cowboy car-clampers



At least here in the UK, most of the time when you hear the word cowboy being used, it’s to complain about people in business who provide goods or services that are of poor quality. Cowboy workmen – and they almost always men, incidentally – also often try to rip you off: they try to cheat or trick you in order to get more money from you. In fact, the whole issue of dishonest, untrustworthy workmen has become so big here that there’s even been a TV series – Cowboy Builders - dedicated to tracking down rogue traders who don’t follow the normal rules and regulations and exposing their tricks.


Next, I’ll briefly summarise the stories behind the headlines above: last week, a historic pub in Melbourne, Australia, was knocked down illegally by cowboy builders who didn’t have permission to act, and who want to build on the land. The Planning Minster Richard Wynne has said: “This is a complete outrage! The hotel was 159 years old and two cowboys come along, ignore all of the demolition and planning permit rules and knock the place down.”

The second story involved a gang of three men who tried to charge an elderly couple in Wales over £10,000 for some basic work they’d done on their garage.

Finally, following a flood of complaints, authorities have started getting tough and have decided to clamp down and insist that people who fit locks on the wheels of cars that have been parked illegally have an official license. There have been all sorts of horror stories about people returning to their cars, finding they’ve been clamped and then having to pay hundreds of pounds to have the locks removed.

Of course, there are also horror stories about cowboy language schools and students being ripped off. Not an experience you’d ever have with us here at Lexical Lab!

Check out out summer school courses here.

  • Are cowboy builders common in your country? Have you heard any horror stories?
  • What would you do if you’d been the victim of poor quality work?
  • How do you think you can avoid falling prey to cowboys?
  • Can you think of other things that have received a flood of complaints?
  • Have the police or the authorities recently clamped down on anything where you live?
  • Have you ever been ripped off? When? What happened?

Phrase of the day: raining cats and dogs

We’re joking, of course. This is really NOT our chunk of the day. Only students of English and people who haven’t lived in the UK since about 1950 actually use this idiom – and it probably wasn’t even used that much back in the Fifties either! However, as London has now returned to normal after the freak snowstorms we wrote about last week and the rain is pouring down outside, while the temperature has dropped to 5 or 6 degrees, it seems like a good moment to talk about heavy rain, language learning … and a bit of gentle laughter directed at France!


When we tell our learners that no-one actually says raining cats and dogs, they are often a bit disappointed; you might even say that we burst their bubble! I can understand that because the idea of raining cats and dogs is truly odd. It’s like something Roald Dahl would invent . . . and I guess because of that, it’s easy to remember as a bit of language. This should be a reminder to teachers and students that linking language to images in our head can help us learn.

Apart from raining cats and dogs, there are still plenty of other images you can see in our descriptions of rain. Most involve the idea of someone in the sky: it could be God or a weather fairy, but I think when it comes to British weather, it is probably some evil clown. We say it’s pouring down or it’s bucketing down (imagine someone deliberately emptying a bottle or bucket of water on your head); or we might say it’s chucking it down (picture someone throwing water at you). Of course, we have a more disgusting image – and we have a very common way of saying it’s raining heavily, which is it’s pissing (it) down (literally someone is going to the toilet on us!!). In addition, when we feel a few drops of rain, we sometimes say it’s spitting (down). Of course, after all that, you may prefer to stick with raining cats and dogs!


All this talk of rain should remind you that if you come to the UK at any time of year, you should bring a brolly (umbrella) or a raincoat, because we guarantee it will rain, and the rain can last for hours in a classic British drizzle (light rain), thus allowing the French and others to laugh at our terrible weather.


However, let’s not forget that every now and then it actually chucks it down even more over in France. A couple of years ago, for example, hours, even days, of the French Open tennis were washed out (cancelled because of the rain)! And how pleased some UK newspapers were! That’s because the Wimbledon Centre Court now has a roof, while the French don’t!

il va pleuvoir sur Roland Garros

Given the current state of UK-EU relations, this might be seen as one more example of how useless the Europeans are, but that would be conveniently forgetting that the UK is still waiting for the kind of high-speed rail network that the French have had for forty years – and we’re now asking the French to build our nuclear power plants! And, of course, it’s pouring down here too!!  But hey! At least we have a roof at Wimbledon.

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

  • What idioms for weather do you have in your language?
  • Do you use images to try and remember language?
  • Have you ever planned to do something or go somewhere that was then washed out?

Chunk of the day: adverse weather conditions

Over recent days, the news has been full of dire warnings. We’ve been urged to batten down the hatches and prepare to be hit hard by what’s being called the Beast from the East! Quite what the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Wladimir Klitschko, would make of the fact that he seems to have lost his nickname to a cold front that has swept in from Siberia is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for sure: when it comes to weather, it doesn’t take much of a punch to bring Britain to its knees!


To be fair, I should say that here in London it has snowed more in the last 48 hours than it has done for many years. It’s even dropped below zero for a day or two as well! Of course, given that we’re not exactly a Mediterranean country, you might think that we’d be ready for such eventualities. The sad reality, though, is that the first dusting of snow is usually enough to spark a small-scale national emergency. Add a few extra inches and the whole country grinds to a halt!


To anyone who’s had the misfortune of needing to use London Underground this week, the most frequently heard chunk of language will surely have been due to adverse weather conditions! If weather conditions are adverse, they have a negative – and potentially harmful – effect. In the same way, we can talk about celebrities or organisations receiving a lot of adverse publicity if they do something wrong, or a new drug having an adverse effect on patients.

On the tubes, we’ve been told to take care as the floors are slippery due to adverse weather conditions, dejected crowds have been left on freezing platforms as they wait for severely delayed trains, the delays caused, of course, by bad weather. Yes, even on underground lines! Go figure!

Across the country, countless other things occur due to adverse weather conditions. Flights are grounded, and roads are closed; trains are delayed or cancelled, and (maybe, if you’re lucky!) they lay on an emergency bus service to try and get you home. Cars get stuck in the snow and drivers are stranded overnight in their vehicles.


You can imagine how all of this must seem to a Russian or a Swede or even a German! You could be generous and say it’s further evidence of our national eccentricity – or you may just come to the conclusion that we couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery! Why don’t we have snow ploughs out clearing the road? Why don’t people grit the pavements? Why isn’t all the snow just cleared away?

On the plus side, this time next week it’ll probably be raining again!

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

  • What’s the most extreme weather your country has to deal with? Is it usually handled well?
  • Have you ever had problems travelling because of bad weather? When? What happened?
  • Can you think of anyone in the public eye who’s received adverse publicity recently? Why?
  • Have you ever been stranded anywhere? Why? What happened?



Word of the day: mate

I witnessed a rather entertaining scene yesterday afternoon outside a tube station in north London. The wallet of a middle-aged man somehow managed to drop out of his back pocket as he was leaving the station, and a younger – foreign – man saw this, picked it up and tried to get the attention of the man, who was, by now, walking swiftly away from the exit. “Sir!” he called – in vain. “Sir!” The man carried on walking, totally oblivious to this polite form of address. Seeing this, and realising what the problem was, I shouted out “Oi! Mate! Yeah, you mate. Got your wallet here. You dropped it.” The man came running back at once and gratefully retrieved the dropped item.


The root of the problem for the (incredibly honest!) foreign man was the fact that the only time anyone would ever call anyone else Sir in London is during a very expensive service transaction. In fact, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever been called Sir here in London. If I was in a restaurant and the waiter asked “Is sir ready to order?” or “Would sir care to look at the wine list?“, I think I’d start panicking about quite how much the bill was going to be! I imagine the staff in Harrods would almost certainly refer to me as Sir as well . . . whilst charging me ten pounds for my branded plastic bag!


The word mate is far more widely used – and feels much more informal and friendly, suggesting, as it does, that far less of a power gap exists between the speaker and the listener. Remember that we also talk about our friends as our mates, so I might say I’m meeting an old mate of mine for a drink tonight or We stayed with a mate of mine who lives there. If a man refers to another man – whether it’s someone he knows well or someone he’s meeting for the first time – as mate, it’s basically like saying ‘My friend’, which I know is common in lots of other languages. If you’re studying English in London, you’ll hear it  all the time. here are just a few examples I’ve heard – or said – over the weekend:

Sorry mate. After you. (said to a man carrying a small child, before letting him onto a bus first)

Yes mate. (said by a barman in a pub to a person who was waiting to order a drink)

Move up a bit, mate. (said to a stranger on the underground, to encourage him to make space for me to get onto the train)

Sorry, mate. You dropped something. (said to a stranger who’d dropped his travel card on the street)

Watch yourself, mate! (said – in quite an angry voice – by a cyclist to a stranger who had stepped out in front of him, without looking where he was going)

Hello mate. I need to go to Harringay Green Lanes. (said to a taxi driver)

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After all of this, you might be wondering what other words like this are generally used here. What do women call other women? What do men call women? Or women call men? Well, as interesting as all those questions might be, they’re also questions for another day!

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

  • Have you ever heard anyone use the word mate in English? If yes, when?
  • Do you have a similar word to mate in your language? Do YOU use it? When?
  • Has anyone ever called you Sir (or Madam, if you’re a woman)? If yes, when?


Word of the day: drone

Up until a few years ago, the word drone was most commonly used as a verb. If someone droned on and on, they talked about something in a boring way for a long time, so you might get stuck next to someone at a party who spent the whole evening droning on about work . . . or golf . . . or his mortgage. If something made a continuous low buzzing noise, like a big bee, it also droned, so if you lived near an airport, you got used to the sound of planes droning overhead.


Over the last few years, though, most of the times that I’ve heard the word drone used, it’s been as a noun and it describes small flying machines that are controlled from the ground, and that don’t have pilots. Depressingly, this is because we are now living in the age of drone warfare, where killing enemies in other countries is done by remote control. Just this week, the US carried out a drone attack in the south of Somalia, killing several militants linked to the al-Shabab group in the process.

The use of drones has been very controversial and has divided public opinion. Those who support their use claim they make the United States safer by taking out their enemies and weakening terrorist networks. They also believe that drones allow for precision bombing – they can be aimed at small targets and they cause fewer civilian casualties than traditional ways of bombing. Obviously, they are also cost effective – it’s far cheaper to use a drone than to put troops on the ground or to send manned flights over enemy territory.

Those who are opposed to their use claim they create more terrorists than they kill, that they violate international law and that they cause people to become disconnected from the horrors of war. Quite understandably, Somalia has accused the United States of violating its sovereignty, saying the recent attack will make it harder for the government there to rule their own country.

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Meanwhile, there’s a Hollywood film – Eye In The Sky – that actually treats the whole issue of drone warfare in a very adult way and has a good understanding of all the complexities involved.


Personally, I’m very uncomfortable with the way drones are used and I know for sure that if a foreign country was carrying out drone strikes in England, people here would be both terrified and furious. It’s at times like this that I wish more people here were able to see things from the point of view of other countries.

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

  • Have you heard of any other drone attacks? Where were they carried out? Why?
  • Do you think it’s OK for powerful countries to use drones? Why? / Why not?
  • Has your country put troops on the ground elsewhere in the world? When? Why?
  • Have you ever been stuck next to someone who droned on and on? What about? What did you do?
  • Can you think of anything else in the news recently that’s been very controversial and divided public opinion?

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!


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.


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.


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.


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)


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!


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

  • 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!


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!


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.


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.


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.


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

  • 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?