Word of the day: baby boomers

Over 400,000 British people people died during the Second World War, the vast majority of them men. Now, while this pales into insignificance when compared to the tens of millions who died in the Soviet Union, it still led to a serious lack of manpower in the immediate aftermath of the war. This had several major consequences. For instance, as the work of rebuilding the country got underway, the government of the time realised that more people were needed to help rebuild roads and bridges and to staff the new hospitals and schools that were being funded. To tackle this problem, they actively encouraged immigration from Commonwealth countries like Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados in the Caribbean and India in South Asia. Given that over the centuries, Britain has absorbed Romans, Vikings, Normans, and northern European Angles and Saxons, it’s safe to say that we have always been home to immigrant communities, but the post-war years marked a major step towards the nation becoming the global multicultural place it is today.

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Another result of the war was a huge boom in the number of babies born. As the historian Landon Jones has pointed out, almost exactly nine months after the war ended,  the cry of babies was heard across the land! More babies were born in 1946 than ever before, and this trend continued for at least the next ten years. The children born during the post-war years were the generation that came of age in the 1960s and that helped create such a powerful youth movement and a counterculture that opposed the Vietnam War, the military-industrial complex, colonialism, racism, and so on. Born in 1947, my own mother is very much part of this generation, many of whom are now reaching their 70s. The baby boomers are getting old!

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And as this generation ages, the pressures it places on society increase as well. There are predictions of an economic slowdown once the majority of baby-boomers have retired. There’s also the problem that all countries with an ageing populations faces: fewer people of working age having to support more and more people of retirement age. This obviously breeds resentment, with the younger generation – my generation – feeling cheated and feeling that the baby-boomers have had the best of both worlds: they were young at a time of economic growth and growing freedom and now they’re old, they benefit from what’s left of the National Health Service and they get state pensions . . . leaving us to pay the price as we get older and the age of retirement gets ever later as we’re all forced to pay into the system for longer!

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Given all of this, it wasn’t easy to feel the required sympathy for baby boomers this week when I read that they’re hitting the bottle harder than ever - drinking a lot more alcohol than their parents (or grandparents) did at their age. The reasons why baby boomers seem to be drinking to excess are numerous, but include drinking at home being more common than it used to be; more and more older people living alone; increased pressure to stay youthful, playful and fun; companies getting more adept at marketing to older drinkers, who, in turn, now have more disposable income available to spend on booze! Given the terrible side-effects that can accompany heavy drinking later in life, I know I should feel some sympathy.

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However, when I ponder the added burden all of this will place on the NHS coupled with the fact that older people are apparently having so much fun, I find myself instead wishing – not for the first time – that I’d been born twenty years earlier than I actually was!

Oh well. Only thirty more years till retirement.

If I’m lucky!

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  • Has there been a baby boomer generation in your country? When were they born? Why?
  • Does your country have an ageing population or is the average age quite low? What’s good / bad about this?
  • Is your country experiencing a time of economic growth, economic slowdown or economic decline at the moment? Why?
  • Do you ever wish you’d been born at a different time? Why?

Phrase of the day: in a home

The initial spark for this word of the day came from a discussion we had with a user of our coursebook series, Outcomes, about our (lack of) focus on articles (a, an, the – or nothing) before nouns. My first thought was that most of the time the correct use of articles has little or any impact on understanding (which is presumably how some languages exist quite happily without them at all!), but then over the last two days the phrase in a home came up again and I started wondering if there was any other use of the indefinite article that carries greater weight in English or brings such different meanings and connotations to a word? A home is usually an institution, a place where people who can’t live or stay in their own home are cared for. We talk about a children’s home, a boys’ home, a care home, an old people’s home, a nursing home, but very often we just state that someone is or was in a home.

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The use of the word home in these contexts essentially came about as a marketing exercise – as can be seen in this short history of American care homes. In the past, old people and children often found themselves in almshouses (alms = charity) or poorhouses or asylums which provided shelter for all kinds of people – the disabled, the poor, the insane and the orphaned. These institutions developed a very bad reputation for a lack of care to their residents, so as they became commercial businesses focused on particular groups, like the elderly, renaming themselves ‘homes’ in a bid to gain greater acceptance.

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Unfortunately, while the name may have changed, the reputation and reality have not always kept pace. Take, for example, the current news story about homes that relates to an inquiry which has been set up in the UK into allegations of historical child abuse. It’s starting its public hearings today and the first people who will be talking are people who grew up in children’s homes in Australia. They were kids who had lost their parents in the war and were sent to Australia to start a new life. Very sadly, this new life was often in homes run under very strict and abusive conditions, conditions that continued for many years for other children who followed them – despite warnings from government inspectors. In more recent times, there have also been scandals about mistreatment in other homes for disabled and old people, but even where care homes are of good quality, few people would wish to end up in a home. Being something you want to avoid isn’t really what you would normally associate with the word home, which is usually connected to comfort, safety, personal space and warmth! Think of the normal home idioms - make yourself at home; it’s good to be home; home at last; it’s not much, but it’s home; home is where the heart is.

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Of course, for many people, there’s no alternative to ending up in a home. What happens when the children move away from their hometown? Or if they live in a small flat with no room for sick parents? Or they can’t afford to give up work to look after parents or don’t have the nursing skills or can’t afford to pay a carer to stay with them? The modern world is not really set up for life to end in your own bed in your own home as most of us would like, so we have to create these strange new ‘homes’.

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If you detect a personal edge here, there is one as both my parents are in a home (due to a stroke and dementia). Their place is decent enough, and those who look after the residents are remarkable people who manage to maintain a level of good humour and respect whilst working in a tough environment. Because it is tough and it’s not home and even the adding of an indefinite article can’t hide that fact.

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*You might not want to discuss this issue in your classroom, but I kind of think we should all be more open about such things and try to look for better solutions. So, here are some questions and I promise to be more cheerful on another day!

  • Do you have a direct translation for ‘home’ in your language? Is it used for places like care homes? What idioms do you have about home?
  • Have you heard of any scandals around homes in your country?
  • What do you think is the best solution to providing good care in old age? How might more people be able to stay in their own homes or how could other facilities be improved?

Phrase of the day: get the hang of

Yesterday morning, I took my four-year-old son trampolining. It was the first time he’d ever been and even though he was very clearly having a whale of a time bouncing around, it was also pretty clear from the rather clueless way he was throwing himself around that he wasn’t exactly a seasoned professional! When the instructor told the kids to do star jumps – where you jump upwards and outwards, opening your legs wide and moving your arms out, creating a star shape while in the air – he fell onto his back and rolled around a bit . . . and when he was told to fall onto his bum and bounce back up, he started doing a strange hopping thing that nearly made him fall off the edge of the trampoline! Ten minutes in, my wife turned round to me and – in a perfectly understated way – said He’s not really got the hang of this yet, has he! Never was a truer word spoken!

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If you get the hang of something, you learn how to do it and become better and more skilled at it. It’s a phrase particularly used to talk about activities that you’re initially not very good at and that may take time and effort to improve at. For instance, my daughter, who’s not one of life’s natural mathematicians, has been doing a little bit of extra work on her maths after school most days and it’s lovely to watch her slowly getting the hang of multiplication and division.Where once the mere sight of a multiplication sign caused anxiety, stress and tears, she now races thought exercise after exercise, rarely making any mistakes at all.

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Getting the hang of things takes time and this is often reflected in the way we talk about the process. Let’s look at a couple more examples that illustrate this. When I was a kid, I was forced to take violin lessons for a while, and even though I did drag myself along to classes for quite some time, I was never especially interested and never really did get the hang of the stupid instrument, soon switching to harmonicas instead – much to my mum’s annoyance and disappointment!

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My dad, who turns 87 in a couple of months, got his first-ever mobile phone for Christmas last year, and last week managed to send me a text message for the first time. I called him to congratulate him on only taking eight weeks to work out how to do this (!!) and he replied enthusiastically that he thought he’d finally got the hang of the thing! The fact that the next day, he sent me a random photograph of a corner of his kitchen suggests he may have further to go than he realises, but at least it was a start! These things take time, and after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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  • Can you think of anything that took you quite a while to get the hang of?
  • And anything that you tried to learn how to do, but just never really got the hang of?
  • When was the last time you did something for the first time? How was it?
  • Complete these sentences in ways that are true for you: I’m not exactly . . . . / I’m not really one of life’s natural . . . .
  • Who’s the oldest person in your family? Are they good with technology?

 

 

 

Phrase of the day: can’t get the staff!

We’ve had quite a hectic week this week. We’re putting the finishing touches to a high school book we’ve been working on; we’ve been catching up with our email backlog; and on Monday we were inspected as part of our bid to get official accreditation for our summer school programme. Now, official accreditation is crucially important for a small set-up like ours because without it we’re unable to issue the kind of invitation letters that non-EU students need when applying for short-term study visas. We’d been preparing for the inspection for a good few weeks, as it’s a rather bureaucratic process and there was a lot of paperwork that we needed to get ready. In the middle of the meeting, and at the request of the inspector, my colleague Andrew produced a document he’d finished the night before outlining the ways in which we communicate with potential students. Noticing that it hadn’t been spellchecked and contained a few glaring errors, I pointed this out, rolled my eyes and announced that you just can’t get the staff these days!

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I should explain at this stage that this is most definitely not because I have any doubts about Andrew’s competence or skills. In fact, quite the opposite is true. He’s one of the most competent people I know and I can’t imagine not working together with him. Instead, the phrase is one that’s often jokingly used when little things go wrong – even when no-one is at fault. As with many phrases in everyday use here in England, its roots lie in our awareness of the class system. In the old days, when members of the landed gentry – wealthy land owners who didn’t need to work for a living, and who lived in grand country homes –  were entertaining friends and were upset that the knives and forks were laid out wrongly or that the soup wasn’t served at the right temperature, they would (at least in the popular imagination) complain about how hard it was to find decent domestic staff . . . and then presumably go downstairs to where the servants lived and fire a few people! This idea has mutated into the joke we now crack when things go wrong to suggest that the root cause of the problem was the fact that the person responsible wasn’t well trained – even when that person is actually you!

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England being England, and the class system still being very much alive and well, the phrase is of course still used by the kind of more traditional right-wing newspapers that cling on to the past. Indeed, a recent Daily Mail article about what life is like for 21st century servants used it in its headline. There was also a recent TV series called You Can’t Get The Staff, which claimed to provide a “behind-the-scenes look at how the cream of society handle their domestic staff”. However, the phrase is far more frequently used the kind of friendly joking way described above.

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And, of course, when someone on Facebook points out the typos – usually spelling mistakes I’ve failed to spot – in this post, I shall simply shrug my shoulders and comment Oh well! You just can’t the staff anymore!

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  • Can you think of a time recently when you could’ve said You just can’t get the staff?
  • Do you ever have to get lots of paperwork ready? What for?
  • How often do you have really hectic days / weeks? Why?
  • Have you ever failed to spot any glaring errors in something you’ve written?
  • Would you say the class system is alive and well in your country?

Word of the day: endorse

Like many of you out there, I suspect, I’m a rather reluctant user of LinkedIn. The site bills itself as “the world’s largest professional network, with hundreds of millions of members” and promises to “connect the world’s professionals … and make them more productive and successful.” However, my experience of using the site suggests it doesn’t live up to its own hype. In fact, I’ve always found it to be a rather depressing experience. This is mainly down to the fact that I’ve never actually managed to get any offers of work through LinkedIn. Instead, I get lots of people asking to be added to my network and whilst it’s great to be connected to other EFL teachers, I can’t help noticing that a fair number of requests are from cleaning companies, SEO specialists, and various other firms all keen to sell me their services. Then I get lots of emails telling me to write and congratulate someone I don’t know on a work anniversary somewhere I’ve never heard of . . . and finally I get asked to endorse people. Messages pop up asking whether or not I’d say someone I can’t remember ever connecting with is good at teaching. Or training. Or gardening. Or something! Sometimes people message me saying they’ve endorsed me, so could I please endorse them. LinkedIn seems to encourage this kind of mutual backscratching so I always feel like a bit of killjoy when I write back explaining that I don’t really feel I can write nice things about someone I’ve never even met, let alone seen teach. Or train. Or garden!

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I mention all of this because while I was doing a Facebook Live Q&A session on our Facebook page last Saturday morning, a Brazilian teacher asked what ‘endorse someone’s skills’ means – and I suddenly realised I’d never heard the words used together away from LinkedIn, and that more commonly you hear about celebrities endorsing products. Well, to be more accurate, celebrities being paid to endorse products. In fact, the sums that stars receive to promote particular products are often astronomical! For instance, Samsung recently paid Jay Z $20 million to tell you how much he loves the Samsung Galaxy phone, while David Beckham signed a lifetime deal with the sportswear brand Adidas that’s worth more than $150 million! Nice work if you can get it!

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Celebrity endorsements may just mean celebs allow their images to be used in adverts for certain products, or it may mean they mention things on social media. There may even be covert product placement in promo videos. That perfume you saw a famous pop star dabbing on before a hot date? Look closely and you’ll see they use – or at least pretend to – Chanel No. 5! Marketing has become so sophisticated that nowadays it’s safe to assume that almost any time someone famous mentions a particular brand or product, they’ve been paid to do so!

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In the run-up to an election, celebrities also often endorse particular candidates. The 2008 US presidential election was notable for the fact that so many people from the worlds of sport and entertainment lined up to endorse Obama, in the hope of getting more young people to vote. Last year’s election was also quite remarkable in that hardly anyone you’ve ever heard of publicly endorsed Donald Trump! Not that that seemed to make any difference to things, of course. And I’m sure that if you asked him, he’d tell you I was spreading fake news and that really hundreds – and I mean HUNDREDS – of stars endorsed him!

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Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Come and take a course with us this summer.

  • Do you use LinkedIn? Why? / Why not?
  • Would you ever endorse the skills of someone you didn’t know? Why? / Why not?
  • Can you think of any recent celebrity endorsement deals? Or celebs who endorse particular brands?
  • Can you remember the last time you felt like a bit of a killjoy?
  • Have you heard any examples of fake news recently?

Word of the day: mecca

As you probably know, the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is of vital importance in Islam. It was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the site of his first revelations of the Holy Quran. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims. A pilgrimage is journey that a religious person makes to a holy place and the Islamic pilgrimage to mecca is called the hajj /hædʒ/. Every year, around three million people from all over the world complete their hajj, making it the largest annual gathering of people anywhere in the world. Mecca is also home to the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, and is considered by Muslims to be the House of Allah. Wherever they are in the world, Muslims are expected to face the Kaaba when praying – and you can buy prayer mats with compasses to help you point in the right direction . . . and even hi-tech ones that light up when facing Mecca!

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However, in English, we can also talk about a place being a mecca if it’s somewhere that lots of people visit because it’s famous for something they want to see or do. I mention all of this because yesterday I was chatting on WhatsApp with a Japanese friend of mine called Hiro. He used to be my student back in the late 1990s, and we used to play football together after class every Friday. As a result of my evil influence, he ended up developing a passion for Arsenal Football Club that has not only stayed with him, but that he’s also passed onto his kids (as one does)! Anyway, he told me he’s planning to bring his family over to London this summer and that he wants to make a pilgrimage to the Arsenal stadium. It is, as he quite rightly noted (he learned from the best!), a mecca for all Arsenal supporters.

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Obviously, there are plenty of other places here in London that people make pilgrimages to. Over the years, various students of mine have made pilgrimages to the tree in south London that killed 70s pop star Marc Bolan, when he drove his car straight into it; the skateboard park under the South Bank that’s produced plenty of world-famous skaters; and various sites in the East End where works by legendary graffiti artist Banksy could be found. And London itself remains a mecca for everyone from design lovers to clubbers, from musicians and clubbers to foodies and theatre lovers.

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One final strange fact worth mentioning here is that there’s also a large chain of bingo halls here called Mecca! Of course, given that bingo is basically a form of gambling and that this chain have decided to name themselves after the holy city, I suspect this would be seen as haram – against Islamic law – by many Muslims. I guess the idea behind the name must’ve originally been that the company hoped their bingo halls would become a mecca for bingo lovers! To conclude, it’s interesting to note that no other religious centre that people make pilgrimages to are ever used as metaphors in English, so, for example, even though millions of Catholics visit the Vatican every year, we never refer to something as being a vatican for anyone. Perhaps this, then, despite the bingo halls, is testament to the remarkable pull of Mecca.

 

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If you enjoyed this post, why not take our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course in London this summer.

  • Is your town or city a mecca for anyone?
  • Have you ever made a pilgrimage – religious or non-religious – to a place of personal importance? When? Why?
  • Do you know anyone who has done their hajj? What did they tell you about the experience?
  • Have you ever developed a passion for anything because someone else has pushed you to?

Phrase of the day: You wait ages for a bus . . .

London has much to to be proud of, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone willing to praise the punctuality of our public transport. Whatever else it may be, London is certainly not Tokyo. In Tokyo, if a sign says a train will be along in three minutes, then you can bet you bottom dollar that it will arrive one hundred and eighty seconds from now at the latest. In London, though, time works differently, especially on public transport. Buses can stay due in three minutes for ten minutes or more, and the 11:15 to Victoria sometimes arrives closer to 15:11!

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I was reflecting on this last Thursday, when the band I sing in played a gig in Hackney. After the show, I popped out for a cigarette and in the smoking area I got talking to an Italian guy. He said how much he’d enjoyed the music, which is always nice to hear, and then went on to explain how he’d recently taken up the guitar again after more than thirty years! When he was a teenager in Napoli, he’d had a guitar, but he used to spend the money his mum gave him for lessons on records and never really made any progress. Now he’s decided it’s time to try again. He’d recently bought an acoustic guitar and was using YouTube video tutorials to help him get started again. He then told me about a weird thing that’d happened the day after he’d bought this new guitar: he’d been walking home from work when he saw the neck of a guitar sticking out of a skip. Curious, he dug into the rubbish and pulled out a whole guitar – a small Spanish one, about the size of a kids’ guitar. He dusted it down, and took it home. “It was funny”, he told me, “like the buses!” “What?” I asked in bemusement. “The buses. I wait and then there are two.” “Right, right”, I responded, now getting where he was coming from. “You wait ages for one – and then two come along at the same time!

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For Londoners, the experience of waiting ages for a bus only to find two – or three or four – all arriving at the same time (presumably because the drivers were all busy chatting and enjoying a tea / cigarette break together at the bus garage before they realised they were running late and so all set off together!) is so common that the phrase has become a pretty normal way of expressing the idea of suddenly finding a surplus of something after a period of not finding any at all! For instance, recently a friend of mine who’s as much of a keen record collector as I am sent me a link to a website offering a buy-it-now option on a rare 45. As it happened, I already had the record i question, but noticed that in his explanation he said “It took me ten years to find a copy of this, and I was dead chuffed (=very pleased) to pick one up in January for only three bucks ($3). Typically, though, like buses, another one has just come along. Saw this and thought of you.”

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The idea is used in informal everyday conversations, in emails, and even in journalism, as the examples below show:

These days, government policy papers are like London buses. You wait ages for one, and then three come along at once.

You wait ages for a new series to fall in love with and then three come along in the same week!

Gold medals for Britain in Olympic gymnastics are like London buses: you wait 120 years for one and then two come along at once!

and my own personal favourite:

You wait your whole life for a cat cafe in Newcastle and then two come along at once!

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  • What’s the public transport like where you live? How punctual are trains and buses?
  • Do you know anyone who’s taken up any new hobby or interest recently?
  • Can you think of anything you waited a long time for and then suddenly found more than one of?
  • Do you ever watch YouTube tutorials? Why?
  • What was the last thing you were dead chuffed about?

Word of the day: bugbear

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A bugbear is a pet hate – a small thing that annoys you and that you probably moan about to other people. In less polite terms, we might say that a bugbear is something that gets on your tits (strangely, a phrase that seems to be said more often by men than by women!) or that pisses you off! The opposite might be a delight or a curiosity that appeals to you. One of my own personal bugbears is one of the dominant myths about lexical teaching: the idea that as lexical teachers, we’re obviously not interested in grammar and don’t believe it has a role in learning. This is complete and utter nonsense! It’s just that as lexically-minded teachers, we see grammar on the one hand as coming out of vocabulary teaching and the examples we give, and on the other hand, we believe that when you’re setting out to teach grammar, you need to recognise the limits that vocabulary and real usage place on the grammar ‘rules’ you teach. A real understanding of these restrictions and of how grammar and vocabulary work together are what might be termed ‘accuracy’. This can, I think, only be acquired over a long period of time from plenty of exposure to natural examples and from practice in different contexts. However, teachers can help students along the road to accuracy in a number of ways: firstly, by teaching them some useful chunks (including those containing grammatical structures which they may not yet have mastered) that they can use in the same way as they’d use items of vocabulary; secondly, we can help by resisting the urge to respond to student mistakes by giving more detailed explanations and setting more massed mechanical exercises; thirdly, when we do do practice exercises, we can make sure that they reflect likely usage; and finally, we can recycle grammar more frequently by giving fuller examples when we teach vocabulary.

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This wish to ground grammar teaching in natural-sounding examples can make you more sensitive about the rather forced examples and repeated half-truths often found in ELT, much of which seems to get passed down from teacher to teacher and from writer to writer. And often, it’s not just the examples, but also the way grammar is presented and practised too. In response to this, we are going to start a series on grammar. Most of the posts will be exploring our grammar bugbears – the nonsense which has frustrated us over the years: it’s good to get these things off your chest! Some will be grammar curiosities: aspects of traditional ELT grammar or of common patterns that don’t seem to get taught much (or at all). We’re not sure how long the series will run for, but we will be featuring it from time to time in place of our words of the day.

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We’ll be kicking off tomorrow with a biggie: reported speech. I’ll leave you to anticipate whether this might be grammar nonsense or grammar curiosity, but in the meantime do you have any particular bugbears or delights? Any examples that spring to mind when you think of grammar nonsense or grammar curiosities?

Want to learn how to teach grammar better? Try our TEACHING LEXICALLY summer course.

Word of the day: snowflake

London had its first real sprinkling of snow last weekend. It wasn’t that exciting, to be honest: a couple of inches fell on Friday night, which is nothing compared to the kind of snow I’m sure many of you get every year, but it was enough to bring the city to a standstill. As always happens every year, flights out of Gatwick and Heathrow were cancelled, commuters trying to get home went into panic mode and social media was full of typically dry jokes and hashtags like #prayforLondon! However, much as I love a bit of snow, this isn’t what I’m here today to talk about. Instead, it’s a new use of the word snowflake that has been trending over recent months.

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I think I first became aware of the use of snowflake as an insult when a Conservative politician called Michael Gove, who’s perhaps best known for his disastrous time as Secretary of State for Education, used it in a response to the wave of outrage that had greeted our Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s so-called ‘joke’ comparing the French President François Hollande to a Nazi prison guard (despite the fact the French were occupied by the Nazis during the war and that Johnson would soon be having to sit down and negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union with Monsieur Hollande, among others!). Gove smelled blood and tweeted that anyone ‘offended’ (yes, he really did use scare quotes around that word – to suggest that people weren’t really offended; they were just pretending to be!) by these comments was “humourless” (one of the worst things you can ever accuse anyone here of!) and was also clearly a snowflake! The implication was that they’re delicate and fragile, and, of course, by using the term snowflake, he was also trying to not only shut down their opinions, but to insult them for being offended that he was trying to do so! It was a classic example of how nasty much debate on social media has become . . . and how intolerant of other opinions many of those in the public eye have become as well.

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Steve Bannon, who is now Donald Trump’s chief strategist, has been throwing the term snowflake around very liberally over recent months as well, using it against any journalists, celebrities and young people who objected to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. Interestingly, much of the recent use of the word has been directed at the young and the more liberal / left-wing by older, more right-wing people. The suggestion is always that the young and those on the left are easily offended, too thin-skinned, too sensitive. They need to man up and face up to the harsh realities of the world, the old guard keep telling them. However, more recently, the left has attempted to claim the word and Trump himself is often accused of being a snowflake – very quick to take offence and unable to handle dissent or differing points of view.

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So we now have a situation where the left are calling the right snowflakes whenever they express offence, the right are calling the left snowflakes for being too liberal, the old are calling the young snowflakes for being too sensitive, and the young are pointing out that the older generation seem to be far more easily offended than they are! The real winner here, of course, is the word itself. There’s no obvious response to it – and, of course, if you do get offended by someone calling you a snowflake, then you’re simply proving that they were right about you all along!

Perhaps the best comeback to the insult that I’ve seen is the Facebook post below:

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A fruitcake is an informal word for someone you think is basically mad. And, of course, flake and cake rhyme, which is nice.

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  • Do politicians in your country use social media much? Is it reported on? How do you feel about it?
  • What kinds of things do you usually get offended by?
  • Do you ever get involved in debate on social media? Why? / Why not?
  • How would you respond if someone called you a snowflake?

Word of the day: crush

It’s Valentine’s Day today, the one day of the year when married men panic buy the last sad bunches of flowers from garages on their drives home, restaurants double their prices and still end up fully booked weeks in advance, suicide rates soar and emotionally-stunted teenagers send anonymous cards (often written using a range of different letters cut out from newspapers) to boys or girls they’ve fancied from afar for far too long. It seems as good a day as any to tell you about the sudden passionate interest in history that I developed when I was fifteen. So obsessed with the subject did I become that I ended up sailing through my O-level exam with an A grade. You may be wondering what sparked this sudden interest. Was it a sudden realisation that those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them? Was it a growing awareness of the way in which many of the major events of the twentieth century were shaping the strange and violent era I was growing up in?

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I’d love to say it was both of these things, but it wasn’t.  It really wasn’t.  Instead, it was my teacher. Miss La Porte we called her. And while she no doubt had many excellent qualities as a classroom practitioner, it was less her grasp of pedagogy that entranced me – and more just her appearance. As a newly-qualified teacher aged 23, she was only a few (well, eight, in fact … which was, looking back on it, more than half my life, but I didn’t let little details like that get in the way of things back then) years older then me and as a French-Moroccan with a slight (but very sexy) accent, she was impossibly exotic. She was also the only teacher I ever had a terrible crush on.

Office Woman Teacher

Having a crush is quite often a fairly unpleasant experience. It’s something we rarely share even with close friends – and most people certainly don’t tell the object of their desires how they feel. Almost by definition, crushes are mostly unrequited – the object of your affections does not return your feelings. In the case of Miss La Porte, that’s probably just as well (and, of course, I certainly never dreamed of sending her a Valentines’. I mean, imagine if she’d found out who it was from!) but it can be agonising if you have a crush on someone in your class that you have to see each and every day. You get butterflies – that awful nervous / excited feeling in your stomach – every time you see them; when you try and talk to them, you get all tongue-tied and find the words come out all wrong; and you end up making a complete fool of yourself every time you go near them! Horrendous!

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Fortunately, though, crushes also tend to be transient. When you’re a teenager, they come and they go, often with remarkable regularity. My interest in Miss La Porte (which was dented, but not completely destroyed, when she revealed to the class one day that she lived with her boyfriend) was intense and obsessive, but also mercifully brief – and it vanished into thin air once I hit 16 and got my first serious girlfriend.

These days, it’s also common to hear crush used as a noun, so you might admit that some famous person or other is your celebrity crush, or you might say that when you found out your crush was already seeing someone, you were absolutely devastated. There’s also a connected phrasal verb, as there often is. Malia Obama recently admitted that she’s been totally crushing on the rapper Drake of late, or your friends might warn you that the guy you’ve been crushing on all year is coming to a party – with his new girlfriend! Finally, because advertising is always trying to equate sex and shopping, it won’t surprise you to learn that people sometimes talk about crushing on things they’d love to buy, but maybe can’t yet afford to. You know, as in I’ve been totally crushing on these amazing shoes I’ve seen, but they’re way out of my price range . . . . unless of course you’d like to buy them for me. As a Valentine’s. You know, to prove you really love me!

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Love learning with Lexical Lab? Why not treat yourself this Valentine’s and book a place on our summer school?

  • Have you ever had a crush on someone you couldn’t tell anyone about? When?
  • How do you feel about Valentine’s Day? Why?
  • Do you ever panic buy things? When? Why?
  • Is there anything you’d really like to buy at the moment, but know that it’s out of your price range?
  • Can you think of a time when someone completely made a fool of themselves? What happened?