Phrase of the day: to all intents and purposes

I was lucky enough to spend all of last week in Norilsk, the most northerly city in the world. I was running a course there, and as is always the case when I’m in Russia, I was struck by the enthusiasm, dedication and motivation of the local teachers of English. I was also struck by the way that everyone referred to the rest of Russia as ‘the mainland’. For instance, when talking about the planned closure of the airport that’s due to take place this summer, people would say things like “We’ll be totally cut off from the mainland.” Usually when people talk about the mainland, they mean the main part of a country – not including the islands around it, so if you live on a little island off the coast, you might talk about getting a ferry over to the mainland. In England, people often talk about mainland Europe – meaning the large part of Europe that lies across the Channel from us! This was the first time I’d ever heard anyone talk about land they were physically connected to as the mainland.

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“But can’t you drive south and get down to the rest of Russia that way?” I asked, naively. They patiently explained that there simply aren’t any roads. The basic infrastructure just stops. The roads peter out into little dirt tracks and then nothing – just hundreds and hundreds of miles of tundra, the large flat empty areas of treeless land common in northern parts! Someone added that in the depths of winter, you could drive special cars down the frozen Yenisei River, but you had to drive in convoy – with lots of vehicles, all following each other, ready to help in case one gets into trouble on the ice! At this point, I came to understand the use of the word mainland. Norilsk really is incredibly isolated. To all intents and purposes, the place is basically an island.

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If you say that one thing is to all intents and purposes another thing, it means that even though it’s not exactly the same as that thing, it might as well be. In other words, it’s the same in all important respects. So you might say of a couple who’ve been living together for years and years and have kids together that to all intents and purposes, they’re basically married. In the same way, people who see the open use of cannabis on the streets of London might complain that the anti-drug laws are to all intents and purposes useless – and that the drug has to all intents and purposes been legalised – simply as a result of police inaction!

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As for Norilsk, the city that was built as a holding pen for gulag prisoners during the 1920s and 1930s (and that suffered terribly during the crisis of the 1990s) is today to all intents and purposes thriving. The population stands at around 180,000, the healthcare is second to none and workers get extended holidays. Oh, and the teachers are incredible!

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

  • Can you think of any places that are to all intents and purposes an island? In what way?
  • Do you know any couples who are married to all intents and purposes?
  • Can you think of any laws that are to all intents and purposes useless?
  • What’s the most isolated place you’ve ever been to? Did you like it?
  • Can you think of anything in your town / city you’d describe as being second to none?

Word of the day: vanilla

These days, there’s no shame in looking online for a partner. Indeed, it’s all the rage in certain circles. The online dating scene has come a long way in a short period of time and there’s been an incredible diversification of products available,  with users now able to access everything from Muslim dating to S&M one-night stands!

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A friend of mine recently signed up for one of the more conventional types of sites and was pleasantly surprised by the range of men she was matched with. She hit it off with one guy in particular and they started chatting online using the backroom messaging service. Things all seemed to be going swimmingly so they decided to escalate things and arranged a Skype so they could see each other face to face. Her impression thus far was of a fairly normal guy with two kids from a previous marriage, a good job and an enthusiasm for travel and cooking . . . so imagine her surprise when she called up and found him sitting waiting for her – in a full bra and suspenders outfit! As she put it, “Whatever it was he was into, I knew it wasn’t my bag! I suddenly felt very vanilla. I mean, since when has THAT been a thing?!”

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Vanilla, that most boring of all ice-cream flavours, has recently become a synonym for the commonplace and the ordinary. It’s often used to describe things of a plain and basic type, with no special features – and it’s used in particular – but not only – with reference to your sexual tastes and habits!

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If someone describes you as vanilla, it may mean they think you’re unadventurous – both in life AND in bed; or that you only follow the mainstream or whatever’s currently in with your circle of friends – rather than making your own mind up about things and having individual tastes of your own. In this latter sense, it means you’re overly concerned with not being seen as a loser to their outside world and so you never admit to having any kind of flaws, you only buy what you think are the right brands and try to be seen in the “right” places in the “right” clothes with the “right” face for the surroundings and their friends. In other words, you’re shallow and superficial and a bit of a sheep!

Anyway, going back to my friend, after a couple more similar shocks, she ended up deleting her account on that site . . . and is now back trying to meet new people the hard way – in the real world!

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

  • Have you ever met anyone who made you feel rather vanilla?
  • Do you follow the mainstream or are you more interested in underground / altenrative culture?
  • Have you ever deleted an account or an app? Why?
  • Can you think of anything that’s all the rage at the moment where you live?
  • How do you feel about online dating? Why?

Phrase of the day: get (back) in the swing of things

I hate goodbyes. Always have done, and always will do. I’ve certainly never understood where there’s a good in goodbye, that’s for sure. Still, just as you need sad to understand what happy is, cold to understand hot, and so on, so I have come to accept the wisdom laid out in one my favourite-ever songs, which notes that “for every happy hello, there will be goodbye.”  After my course in Saratov ended last Sunday, I had a final night in the city and then early the next day I was picked up from my hotel and driven to the tiny little local airport, which is quite high up on the outskirts of town, looking out over the Volga River. I said my goodbyes to the organisers, gave everyone a few big hugs, started to well up a bit, wiped a tear (or two) from my eye and managed a final bit of conversation.

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I knew how much work the organisers had put into making sure the event went well, and I knew that the following day, they’d all be back to their normal, everyday lives, so I finished off by asking: “Looking forward to everything getting back to normal?” Someone replied, “It’s going to be very weird being back at work after these last few days”, and wanting to end on a high note, rather than a low, I turned back just as I was about to go through security and tried to reassure everyone: “Don’t worry! You’ll be fine” I stated, “once you get back in the swing of things!

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If you’ve had time off work, or time away from your usual day-to-day routine, it can sometimes take a bit of time for things to get back to normal and to feel that you’re performing at full capacity. You might be a bit rusty because you haven’t used your skills recently. Sometimes when you return to work after a long holiday, it takes a while to get back in the swing of things. You may have been dreading getting back to the daily grind and you may need to ease yourself in gradually and not rush things. You may feel that your mind’s not really on it just yet  and that you’re just going through the motions the first few days you’re back. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes you just have to get through the days and hope things start to get easier sometime soon.

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Of course, all of this is easy for me to say! Since I left Saratov, I’ve not had time to get back into the swing of anything resembling normal life! I had a day of publishing meetings, a day of writing, a day of getting ready for another trip to Russia . . . and now I’m spending the week way up past the Arctic Circle in the amazing city of Norilsk, working with local teachers! We’ve just finished day two. Hopefully, I’ll start getting into the swing of it by Wednesday. Just in time for it to end!

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

  • When was the last time you felt yourself starting to well up a bit? Why?
  • What would you like to try and get back into the swing of? Why haven’t you done it for a while?
  • Do you ever feel like you’re just going through the motions? When? Why? What can be done to prevent this feeling?
  • Do you know anyone who you think is sometimes a bit too hard on themselves?

Phrase of the day: hair of the dog

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to see the world. It’s been one of my burnings ambitions since I was maybe 15 and 16. I guess that the first time the travel bug bit me was when I read On The Road by Jack Kerouac, and found myself hypnotised by his descriptions of bumming around the States in the post-war years. As a teenager, I hitchhiked all over the place and then the band I was in got to tour Europe a bit as well, which was great. However, it’s been teaching and teacher training that have really allowed me to see places I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid. As far as humanly possible, when I travel I try to follow the old adage that when in Rome, do as the Romans do! If this means trying deep-fried grasshoppers as a bar snack because that’s what the Thai guys you’re with fancy eating, I’ll do it. If it means not eating your evening meal till eleven or twelve at night, I’m willing to give that a go. And when I’m in Russia, as I was over the weekend, it means accepting the inevitability of vodka!

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Vodka occupies a really important place in Russian culture. It helps group bonding, it oils the wheels of business and offering a shot or two is a gesture of hospitality and part and parcel of the warm welcome often extended to visitors. Indeed, it can sometimes be nigh-on impossible to turn down the offer of a drink! However, as I’ve learned the hard way, one shot can lead to another. And then another. And then maybe a beer, a cigarette, five more shots and then who knows what else! You crawl back to your hotel at some ridiculous hour and wake up feeling somewhat the worse for wear! Your head is throbbing, your throat is dry, you’ve lost your voice and you’re swearing that you’re never going to drink again.

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Often, the hangover gets worse as the morning wears on. Nothing you try seems to work: coffee, Red Bull, soup, cigarettes. By the early afternoon, you’re feeling like death warmed up – and you still have four more hours of work to get through. It’s around this time that the idea of hair of the dog starts to seem like a good one – and it’s quite possible that someone will suggest that a shot of vodka may help to take the edge off things!

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Hair of the dog is short for the hair of the dog that bit me – and we usually use it to refer to an alcoholic drink that we have to make ourselves feel better when we had a few too many the night before! In other words, it’s a hangover cure. The phrase originally referred to the practice of treating a bite from a rabid dog by placing hair from that same dog inside the wound! I’ve no idea if this was an effective cure and somehow prevented rabies, but a shot of vodka taken within a few hours after waking up does certainly straighten you out a bit. So they tell me.

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Of course, it’s a very slippery slope – and one that ends in alcoholism if you’re not careful! It’s a fine line between enjoying a drink and needing one, and if you’re looking for a definition of when liking a drink stops and being an alcoholic starts, the exact moment could well be when you start craving hair of the dog in the morning!

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One thing’s for sure, though. I’m never going to have another shot of vodka again for as long as I live. Honestly!

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

  • Are any drinks particularly important in your country?
  • Do people have any speical ideas about how to prevent a hangover – or how to cure one once you have one?
  • Have you ever had to resort to hair of the dog? When?
  • What things would you say occupy a really important place in your culture?
  • What would your definiton of alcoholism be?

Phrase of the day: forewarned is forearmed

I’ve spent the last few days working with some wonderful Russian teachers in the city of Saratov, which is on the mighty Volga River, about 850 kilometres south-east of Moscow. The day before I was due to fly out last week, I exchanged a flurry of emails with Tatyana, who had been instrumental in organising the whole event. In one, she told me that there wouldn’t be a beamer in one of the rooms I’d be using on the first day. Now, this meant I wouldn’t be able to use the Powerpoint I’d been planning to use that day, but having been warned about this potential problem in advance, I was able to come up with a different plan and work round the problem. In response to her initial email that broke the bad news to me, I replied: No worries. Thanks for the heads-up. (= thank you for the advance warning). I’m sure I’ll be able to live without one. Forewarned is forearmed.

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This is a phrase that’s often used when you want to say that knowing about something that could be bad before it happens allows you to prepare for it; it gives you time to think of different ways of approaching things.The phrase could possibly be military in origin as it suggests that if you have advance warning of something that your enemy is planning, you can arm yourself – get weapons ready and prepare for battle. Nowadays, though, we use the phrase simply to mean it’s good to know about potential problems before they happen.

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As such, when someone tells you they’re reading 1984 by George Orwell, they might add that forewarned is forearmed – to suggest that the novel’s depiction of life under totalitarian rule bears a disturbing resemblance to the world many of us are living in today, and that if we have a clear idea of the worst that can happen, we may be better able to fight back! In the same way, public service adverts aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of climate change and encouraging senior citizens to avoid extreme heat or cold may state in their advertisements that forewarned is forearmed, meaning that now everyone knows about these risks, they can take action to reduce them.

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In the end, by the way, Tatyana managed to dig up a beamer from somewhere and I used the Powerpoint I’d originally prepared for the session! The important thing is, though, that I had a decent plan B up my sleeve just in case!

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Check out our face-to-face summer courses.

  • Can you think of a time when you were glad to have been forewarned? How did it help you prepare?
  • Can you think of three different situations in which being forewarned would allow you to be forearmed?
  • Have you ever read 1984? What did you think of it? Do you think the world it depicts bears any resemblance to our world?
  • Can you think of any public service advertising campaigns? What were they trying to raise awareness of? Do you think they were effective?
  • Are you good at coming up with decent plan Bs and working round problems?

Phrase of the day: damn with faint praise

I was chatting to a friend of mine the other day about the school he’s recently started working at. I asked him how it was going there and then tried hard to keep a straight face and not burst out laughing as his answer became less and less enthusiastic with every single sentence he added to it! “Oh, I’m loving it there. It’s great”, he began.  This was then followed by a bit of a pause and then: “Well, it’s OK, at any rate. And I’m sure there are plenty of worse places I could be working, anyway!” As I pointed out, this wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his new place of employment. Rather, he was basically damning the place with faint praise!

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If you damn a thing with faint praise, you say things that are just about positive – and you say them with such a lack of enthusiasm that it’s obvious you don’t think they’re any good! In other words, you express a compliment that’s so feeble that it basically amounts to no compliment at all. Imagine, for example, that last year a friend of yours had a terrible experience at the hairdresser’s and came out with a truly shocking haircut that made them a bit of a laughing stock for a while. You see them again and they’ve had another haircut, this time one that’s slightly less disastrous than the last one. The following conversation could then easily occur.

Oh! You’ve had your hair cut.

> Yeah. What do you reckon? Do you like it?

Yeah. Um . . . it’s . . . um . . . well, it’s much nicer than the last time you had it done.

> Right. I see. So that’s what you think, is it?

No. I didn’t mean it like that.

> Yeah, you did. You’re just damning it with faint praise!

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As with many things, the idea of damning with faint praise can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Almost two thousand years ago, a philosopher called Favorinus observed that faint and half-hearted praise can often be more harmful than loud and persistent abuse. And, of course, there are examples of just this all over the place. I was reading an interview the other day with the president of Encyclopedia Britannica and he was asked about Wikipedia, a site which has obviously had a huge impact on sales of his product. “There’s a big problem”, he noted, “because many users consider Wikipedia to be ‘fine’ or ‘good enough'”! The implication is clearly that a truly reliable source of information should aim to be much much better than simply fine or good enough!

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One final story springs to mind. A foreign friend recently posted on Facebook that a visiting English teacher in her city had praised her level of English (which is remarkable!) and had even said she spoke as well as many natives. I playfully suggested that he was damning her with faint praise, which led to a bit of a misunderstanding as this was taken of a criticism of her as opposed to a criticism of the language level of many natives, which is how it was intended! We got there in the end, and all’s well that ends well. It does show you, though, that even the most fluent speakers can get tripped up when it comes to idiomatic usage – which is obviously something natives like me also need to be aware of!

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Check out our face-to-face summer school courses.

  • Can you think of any examples when someone damned something with faint praise? What did they say?
  • Do you agree with Favorinus that damning with faint praise can be worse than harsh criticism?
  • Can you remember a time when you struggled to keep a straight face?
  • Which sites do you think provide the most reliable source of information? And which don’t you trust? Why?
  • Has anyone you know ever had a haircut that made them a bit of a laughing stock?

Phrase of the day: anything but

I was flicking through the in-flight magazine on the plane home from Spain last Sunday evening and came across an article about Coco Chanel. Now, I’m certainly no expert on the life and times of the French fashion designer and businesswoman, and basically only knew what most of you probably do: she was French, she created some timeless designs that remain popular to this day, and that she launched a range of perfumes, including the iconic Chanel No. 5, one of the best-selling scents in the world. What I didn’t know – and what the article focused on – was the fact that her early years were anything but glamorous! She was born to an unmarried mother – a scandalous thing back in those days – in what was basically a hospital connected to a poorhouse – a place that provided food and somewhere to sleep for very poor people who couldn’t afford to feed themselves. Her father was a travelling salesman who moved from town to town selling clothes in markets, and her mother died when she was just 12. She was then sent to live in an orphanage – a place where children whose parents have died are looked after – and it was there that she learned how to sew (/səʊ/) and started making clothes. Of course, it may well have been the case that this tough start in life gave her the drive and determination to succeed.

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Anyway, as well as teaching me a bit more about Coco Chanel, this article also got me thinking about the phrase anything but as I don’t think I’ve ever actually taught it before. It’s a phrase usually used to mark a contrast, to emphasise that a particular word really doesn’t describe a thing and that actually the opposite is true. A few examples from recent news stories may help to give you a better idea:

We’re now over a month into President Trump’s term, it is becoming increasingly clear that this administration will be anything but normal.

This winter has been anything but typical. In fact, it appears that Mother Nature forgot it altogether.

This recipe is conclusive proof - if it were needed – that broccoli is anything but boring.

In other words, there are lots of weird goings on in the White House, it was a very mild winter and, contrary to popular belief, broccoli is great!

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One final way we also use anything but is in everyday conversation to refer back to an adjective that’s just been used, so for example:

Hey, good to see. It’s been ages. You’re looking very well.

> Yeah? I’m feeling anything but! (=I’m not feeling very well! In fact, I’m feeling pretty terrible at the moment)

And that’s all for today, I’m afraid. Anything but inspiring, I realise, but the best I could come up with.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Have you seen our summer school courses?

  • Do you ever flick through magazines? When?
  • What do you think gives successful people their drive and determination?
  • Can you think of anything in your country that you’d describe as anything but normal – or anything but boring?
  • Think of three ways to complete this sentence: Contrary to popular belief, people in my town / country . . .

Phrase of the day: on the town

As you may have read in yesterday’s post, I spent the weekend in Elche in Spain. I flew out to Alicante from London Stanstead on Friday morning at 6.30am and, as is often the case, my flight was depressingly full of people going away for a weekend on the town. There were two stag parties – groups of guys going away to celebrate because one of them is getting married sometime soon – and one big hen party – the female equivalent. I guess you might be wondering how I know this, right? Well, these groups are always easy to spot as the groom – the man who’s getting married soon - is usually dressed up in some ridiculous costume (one husband-to-be was in a large adult nappy, the other was in a shiny pink catsuit!) whilst his friends usually have matching T-shirts of some kind or are wearing some other kind of outfits that make them easily identifiable. With the hen parties, the bride-to-be usually wears some kind of white wedding costume and her friends often have matching pink T-shirts with their names – or nicknames – printed on the back; they’ll also often be wearing pink bunny ears on their heads as well! Oh, and the other way to easily spot these groups is by how drunk they’ll be . . . even first thing in the morning!

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Now, this isn’t to say that every stag or hen party that happens here involves this kind of alcoholic excess. Far from it. I mean, a friend of mine recently had a stag party  that involved a visit to a comedy club, a very civilised evening meal and then a few cocktails in an upmarket bar. Oh, and no silly costumes or hooligan behaviour! However, it’s also fair to say that there are plenty of English people who do love a weekend away somewhere on the continent drinking cheap booze and getting messed-up! They’ll check in to their hotels, maybe have a kip – a little afternoon sleep – for an hour or two and then go out and hit the town! Technically, a night on the town could involve things like going to a show – a musical or a play at the theatre – but even if it does, it will also involve drinking. It’s just the way things are here!

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I suppose it’d be more accurate to say that all of these people were going to Spain for a weekend on the piss – or on the lash. In other words, they’re basically going to spend their entire time in the bars and clubs of Benidorm, drinking as much as is humanly possible and getting incredibly drunk. Of course, you don’t need to go abroad to have a night on the piss / on the lash – as anyone who’s ever survived a Friday night in any small English town will tell you! Perhaps because of our peculiar licensing laws, which mean most pubs still close at around 11 o’clock, we’re socially conditioned to get as much booze down as we can before last orders is called at five minutes to eleven! It often results in total carnage in the high street as all the pubs kick people out at the same time and the streets are full of drunk, angry, frustrated people!

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Anyway, as I was cursing my fellow passengers on the early morning flight to Spain, and getting increasingly annoyed at the fact their shouting and screaming and laughing was stopping me from sleeping, I started wondering how Brexit will affect all of this. If Brits have to pay to get visas to visit Europe, will they still flock to places like Spain in such large numbers or will they turn to the fading seaside towns of their own country and go and destroy Blackpool or Brighton instead? I suspect the residents of many European cities can’t wait to find out!

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

  • Are stag parties and hen parties common in your country? What do they usually involve?
  • What does a normal night out on the town involve where you live?
  • What do you think of the licensing laws in your country? Would you change them in any way?
  • Do you ever have an afternoon kip?

Phrase of the day: even if I do say so myself

I’ve been lucky enough to have spent this weekend in the beautiful city of Elche on the south-east coast of Spain. The town was the venue for this year’s Spain TESOL conference, an always-excellent gathering of English language teachers, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect location for such things. Home to a UNESCO-protected orchard of over 200,000 palm trees, a castle that dates back hundreds of years and plenty of Roman ruins, it really is a lovely corner of the world. I ran a 90-minute workshop on Saturday morning and then gave an hour-long talk later on in the day. On Saturday evening, I went out with some teachers and various old friends and as is usual at such events, we started off by chatting about our day. A German friend of mine who was also talking at the conference asked me how my sessions had gone, to which I replied I think they both went pretty well ….. even if I do say so myself. On hearing this, he rolled his eyes, laughed and told me this was such a British way of saying things! “Why can’t you just do what  normal people would do and say they went well? You know they went well. You know that I know that they went well. Why this false modesty? Why do you add even if I do say so myself?”

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It’s a good question – and not the first time that fluent foreign friends have asked me about this strange phrase, so I’ve had the chance to think about what is wrong with us and why we can’t just say something was good if we think it was good! I think firstly there’s a very English dislike of boasting: Nobody wants to hear others talking too proudly about their own achievements! It’s just seen as being a bit vulgar, a bit undignified.

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Coupled with this is a love of understatement – of saying things in a way that makes things seem less important, big or serious than they really are. This is maybe best exemplified by a conversation I once had with a Colombian student of mine. He passed me on the stairs at work and asked how I was. “Not bad, thanks” I replied, as I often do. Little did I know that this one short phrase would act like a red rag to a bull! “Not bad! Not bad!” he snorted. “Always not bad! You eat a delicious meal, it’s not bad. You see a beautiful woman. Not bad! You feel amazing, incredible. You say not bad! Crazy people, you English!”

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So there’s a deep-rooted cultural fear of sounding too enthusiastic, but there’s else as well: a knowledge that if you start blowing your own trumpet and singing your own praises, someone else will stop you getting too big for your boots and will cut you down to size. Given our unhealthy obsession with class and our fear of anyone appearing to be better than we are, it’s very common for friends to stop each other from sounding too big-headed. As such, this kind of exchange is very common:

How did the talk go?

> Really well. It was great.

Even if you do say so yourself!

The idea here is that it’s not for you to say you were good. It’s for others to praise you instead. If you deserve it. Which you probably don’t! It’s a quick and easy way of keeping everyone at the same basic level and of preventing anyone in the group from getting ideas above their station. Given that we know our friends are likely to do this kind of thing to us if we are too enthusiastic, it makes sense to get the dig in first and put ourselves down . . . before someone does it for us!

Of course, you could argue – and trust me, friends of mine have over the yearsthat actually using the phrase even if I do say so myself is a form of arrogance in itself. It could be seen as basically saying that you’re so sure your talk was good – and are so sure that everyone else knows it too – that you don’t feel the need to make a big song and dance about it, but instead you play down your achievements in a way that only the truly confident can. Who knows? This may well be the correct interpretation.

Personally, of course, I couldn’t possibly comment.

It would be far too vulgar of me to do so!

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

  • Are there any phrases like even if I do say so myself in your language? Why do you think that is?
  • What would you say people in your country have a deep-rooted cultural fear of? Why?
  • Is it normal in your country for friends to put each other down and cut each other down to size?
  • Have you ever spoken at a conference? How did it go?
  • Can you think of any buildings near you that date back hundreds of years?

Phrase of the day: make a (right) meal of

Some people have sensible hobbies that help them relax in whatever time off work they manage to get. Maybe they go fishing or do yoga or paint. Me? I watch football . . . and in particular my local team here in north London, Arsenal. As any football fan will tell you, for every high there are many many lows. For every moment of joy that’s provided by a remarkable goal or a victory in the local derby against your team’s bitter rivals, there will be hours of frustration, stress, anger and downright misery! As my wife often observes when watching me watch football, “it can’t be good for your heart, all that!” When I can’t watch games, I try and catch them on the radio, and on those occasions when I’m driving, my long-suffering family are forced to witness me screaming and shouting over the top of the live commentary.

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As we were driving back from a weekend away recently, I had a game on and was quite enjoying the fact that Arsenal weren’t losing when suddenly my daughter, who’s seven, asked “What it does mean? He made a right meal of it? I thought it was football – not cooking!” The commentator had just seen what sounded like a very poor passage of play – an Arsenal player had spent too long on the ball, had missed a good opportunity to launch an attack and had then lost possession – and had noted that the player had made a right meal of that! As I explained that it meant that player had taken more time or care than he needed to and that it was a criticism, implying he should’ve acted faster, my (Indonesian) wife laughed and added that only the English would have a negative expression connected to the idea of cooking a decent meal and that presumably cooking’s too much effort when you could just go to a McDonald’s instead!

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As the phrase is used quite a lot in football commentary, I’d never really stopped to think about it, but when I did, there were interesting aspects to it. Firstly, there’s the use of right an adjective to mean complete. This is quite common in informal spoken English, especially when talking about negative things, so you might hear sentences like You must think I’m a right idiot and The house is in a right mess! Secondly, there’s the inescapable fact that when we talk about people making a meal (out) of things, it does mean we think they’re putting in more time and energy than is strictly necessary (I only asked for a summary of the main points, but she’s making a real meal out of it!) and that this may well say something – and not anything nice – about the national distrust of fancy cooking!

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There’s also the fact that there are two connected expressions which both use the idea of creating an unpleasant dish as a metaphor for not doing something well. If you say someone has made a pig’s ear of something, it means you think they’ve done it badly or wrongly, so if you’ve paid a carpenter to put up some shelves and aren’t impressed with the results, you might complain that they’ve made a real pig’s ear of the job. In the same way, you could also accuse the carpenter of making a right dog’s dinner of the shelves!

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Anyway. to get back to the football, moments after this little discussion, Arsenal conceded a goal – and went on to lose 2-1, meaning I spent the rest of the drive sulking . . . much to the amusement of my wife and kids! Typical!

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  • What do you usually do in your free time? Does it help you relax?
  • What are the big derby matches in your country? Do you usually support one or other of the teams when they’re on?
  • Can you think of anything people you know made a right meal of? What happened?
  • Have you tried to do something practical, but ended up making a right dog’s dinner / pig’s ear out of it?