Word of the day: snap

For many years, Britain had a reputation around the world for stability. Rightly or wrongly, it was widely believed that things here happened as they should and there were no sudden or harmful changes. Over the last couple of years, though, all that has changed. There’s an oft-quoted curse – “May you live in interesting times!” – that dooms people by wishing they no longer have the luxury of boring old stability, and instead get to experience chaos, instability and extreme change. Britain seems to have fallen victim to just this of late!

Following the general election two years ago, which saw a Tory government (Tories are members of the Conservative Party, the traditional right-wing party of British politics) returned to power, the then-Prime Minster David Cameron decided it would be a good idea to hold a referendum on our membership of the European Union. On the surface, this decision was made in order to win a decisive majority for the Remain side and thus settle the EU issue once and for all. Cameron obviously thought that a decisive victory would decapitate the threat from the hard right wing of his party and from the rabidly anti-immigration party, UKIP. To say that his plans backfired would be an understatement! To top it all, following his defeat, he simply walked away from his job, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, leaving others to try and clean up the mess!

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His successor, Theresa May, had campaigned to remain in Europe, but once she came to power, she performed a remarkable U-turn and caved in to the demands of the hard right, insisting that we not only had to leave the European Union, but also the single market (something we were all explicitly promised would not happen during the campaign!) and the EU customs union. Rather than healing the nation and bringing people together, politics was becoming increasingly heated and divisive.

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It’s against this backdrop that the nation was hit with the surprise news that Theresa May is calling a snap election for June the 8th. A snap election is one which is called earlier than expected. In this case, it was expected that the next election would be held in 2020, especially as in 2011 the government passed what’s called the fixed-term parliament bill, which insisted that elections be held every five years. This seems to have been either forgotten or else just conveniently overlooked!

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Usually when we talk about snap decisions, it means decisions that are made very quickly, without much thought or preparation. People rush into snap decisionswithout thinking about the consequences of their actions. Alternatively, they resist being forced / pushed into making a snap decision because they know they need time to think things through and weigh up all their options. In short, snap decisions come with associated risks!

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Many people fear that this decision is far more calculated. One theory is that it’s a way of diverting attention away from the fact that many Conservative MPs are currently facing investigation by the police for electoral fraud – for breaking the rules about spending in the last election to gain an unfair advantage. One thing’s for sure: the announcement that we’re to have our third important vote in twenty-four months has caused widespread anxiety, uncertainty, anger and instability. And, for some, just a faint hope that June may possibly be the end of May!

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Why not study with us and find out more about British culture on our Advanced English and Culture or English Boost courses this summer?

  • Can you remember any snap elections in your country? Why were they called? What was the result?
  • Have you ever been forced into making any snap decisions? When? What was the result?
  • Do you ever have referendums in your country? If you do, what was the last one about? If do, would you like to? Why? / Why not?
  • What’s the best / worst law that your government has passed recently?
  • Have any MPs in your country been investigated by the police? What for?
  • Do you have any parties or politicians who are rabidly anti something? Anti what?

Word of the day: allotment

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Is it a sign that I am fully middle-aged, not to say old, that I have just nipped down the allotment? Probably – although, as we shall see, the nature of allotments and gardening has been changing in the UK. But first, what is an allotment? Basically, it’s a small area of land usually owned by the council (local government) or parish (local church) that has been set aside for people to grow vegetables on. There’s normally an allotment in every local area of a town or city, although you might not see them because they are often hidden away behind a group of houses and might only be reached through a narrow path and a gate. Each allotment is divided into a number of different sections – or plots - which people rent from the council for a relatively small amount of money. The one I have costs about £40 a year. And on each plot, there may be several beds with rows of vegetables.

Originally, allotments were provided for the urban poor to help them survive. People were literally allotted a piece of land – given it for a specific purpose. Since the early twentieth century, local governments have been legally obliged to provide land for people to grow food on, where there is a need. Allotments were also expanded during the war as part of the ‘Dig for victory’ campaign, to grow food for the whole nation.

For many years, the typical image of an allotment holder was a working-class man who would go down the allotment as much to avoid ‘the wife’ – or ‘her indoors’ – as to do gardening. The man would have his shed – a small wooden house that he’d keep his tools in – where he might sit and drink tea, smoke and read the paper – occasionally going out to do a bit of digging or talk to fellow allotment holders about their onions. Incidentally, someone who ‘knows their onions’ is someone who is skilled and knows their stuff! The allotment also was the place where competitive veg growing started – most holders were men, after all – and being men, the competition was very much ‘Mine is bigger than yours! Look at the size of my carrots!’

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These days, the image of both allotments and gardening is changing. With the growing interest in foodie culture and the focus on organic food and knowing the provenance (exactly where it was grown) of what you eat, home-growing and allotments have come back into fashion and are increasingly being taken over by the middle classes. I would like to say that these days young hipsters are as likely to be found digging potatoes as serving up coffee by the ounce in some trendy cafe – as this article suggests. Sadly, that would be stretching the truth. There are certainly no bronzed, muscly hipsters on our allotment, but maybe they are all on the waiting list, because allotments have become so popular that there are now thousands of people waiting to get a plot – and that could be a long wait as people don’t generally retire from allotments – they go there to retire!

As well as the changing class of people growing veg, allotments have also become much more female over the years as women have also discovered the pleasures of getting into a shed and escaping family life. It’s just that these sheds now have curtains and look a lot nicer!

Why not study with us and find out more about British culture on our Advanced English and Culture or English Boost courses this summer?

  • Are there any equivalents of allotments in your country? How popular are they?
  • Is foodie culture and organic food a big thing where you are? Why? / Why not?
  • Do you have a shed? What’s in it?
  • Where would you go to escape family life – or is that just a weirdly British idea?

 

Phrase of the day: deeply divided

Last Sunday, Turkey went to the polls to vote on whether to approve 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution that had been put forward by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). If implemented, the proposals would see the office of Prime Minister abolished and the existing parliamentary system replaced by a presidential system, with the president also being given more control over the appointment of senior judges. Those in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote argued that the changes were necessary for a strong and stable Turkey, and believe that an executive presidency – a president able to make important decisions independently – would bring an end to the unstable coalition governments (governments formed as a result of the temporary unions of different parties) that dominated Turkish politics from the 1960s up until 2002. The ‘No’ campaign have argued that the proposals would concentrate too much power in the hands of the President and that the proposed system would resemble an ‘elected dictatorship’ with no ability to hold the executive to account, basically leading to a form of ‘democratic suicide’

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Both sides of the campaign have been accused of using divisive and extreme rhetoric, with President Erdoğan accusing all ‘No’ voters of being terrorists siding with the 2016 failed coup plotters. The campaign was marred by allegations of state suppression against ‘No’ campaigners, while the ‘Yes’ campaign were able to make use of state facilities and funding to organise rallies and campaign events. Leading members of the ‘No’ campaign, which included many high-profile former members of the MHP, were subjected to both violence and campaign restrictions.

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The final result of the referendum was almost too close to call, with the ‘Yes’ campaign claiming a narrow victory having won slightly less than 52% of the vote. However, even before the official result, the opposition was crying foul play and alleging vote rigging. There have been calls both from international observers and from within Turkey for an official inquiry into the allegations and even for a re-run of the vote.

The sad truth of the matter is that the vote has revealed a deeply divided society, split along partisan lines and no longer able to find common ground. In this sense, Turkey is simply the latest in a long line of countries split down the middle by politics. The deep divisions caused by last year’s Brexit vote here in the UK have yet to heal, while the United States seems to be existing in a state of cultural civil war at present. The Netherlands, France, Germany, Russia and many other countries are suffering similarly and it’s at times like this that you need leaders to strike a note of reconciliation and to try and build bridges by reaching out to their opponents. Sadly, however, they rarely do.

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This result of all of this is that we all end up picking up the pieces. Families fall out and stop talking to each other; tensions rise on the streets and sometimes violence erupts. For the sake of all my friends in Turkey, I hope with all my heart that that’s not what happens there.

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  • Which other countries do think are deeply divided at the moment? Why?
  • Why do you think it has become so hard for so many people to find common ground?
  • When did people in your country last go to the polls? Why? What was the result?
  • Have you ever fallen out with anyone in your family? Why?
  • Have you ever heard any stories of vote rigging? When? What happened?

Phrase of the day: the mother of all

Last week, the US military dropped the largest conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) bomb it has ever used in combat on an area in eastern Afghanistan that contained a complex of tunnels and bunkers used by militants connected to Daesh, the group often referred to in the West as Islamic State or ISIS. After the bombing, US and Afghan forces conducted clearing operations and air strikes in the area and also assessed the damage. The bodies of over 80 militants were found around the blast site and several mid-level Isis commanders are said to be among the dead.

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The bomb used was a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (Moab), one of the most powerful conventional weapons in existence. It was 9 metres long, weighed 9,800kg and contained 8,164kg of explosive – and it left a crater more than 980ft wide. Local villagers had their windows blown out, felt their walls shake and even crack, and said they ‘felt like the heavens were falling in‘. In other words, the attack was an extreme example of the shock-and-awe tactic favoured on occasion by American governments and presumably designed to send a message to any other potential enemies around the world. The cynic might also add that the bombing just happened to coincide with President Trump’s historically low approval ratings at home – and that such attacks are guaranteed to generate a positive response in the ultra-patriotic media!

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The bomb, which is estimated to have cost around $150 million, has been widely described in the media as the mother of all bombs. This means it’s an extreme example of a bomb; it’s something regarded as the biggest, most impressive or most important of its kind! Indeed, one headline I saw claimed that Trump’s mother of all bombs is the mother of all messages, whilst another felt that the mother of all bombs is actually the mother of all warmongering – it was basically an extreme attempt to start a war!

Perhaps the most disturbing fact about the use of this phrase to describe this horrific weapon of mass destruction is that we often use the mother of all in a humorous way, so you might claim to be suffering from the mother of all hangovers after the party last night or explain that you’re late because you got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams; you might go out for a run and get caught in the mother of all storms and come home soaking wet or during a particularly cold winter, you can have the mother of all snowball fights! That such a comic phrase is being used to normalise mass murder should scare all of us.  

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If any of this is making you feel uncomfortable or anxious, you probably won’t want to know that the day after the Afghanistan bombing, the press were busy reporting that the Russians have a bomb four times more powerful, which journalists – in an act of macho sexism – have dubbed the father of all bombs!

Sleep well – and sweet dreams!

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  • Why do you think the shock-and-awe tactic is used? Do you think it’s effective?
  • Can you remember a time when you had the mother of all colds / headaches / hangovers? What happened?
  • Have you ever been stuck in the mother of all traffic jams? Or caught in the mother of all storms?
  • Does the increase in these kinds of attacks around the world make your feel uncomfortable / anxious?
  • Do you have any sympathy with the cynical viewpoint about the timing of this bombing?

Phrase of the day: second wind

I spent last week at the annual IATEFL conference, which this year was held in Glasgow. I’ve been speaking at the conference for almost twenty years now, and it’s always an amazing experience. You get to meet loads and loads of people who do basically the same kind of job as you do; you get to catch up with old friends – and make plenty of new ones; you get to find out what’s going on in your field . . . . and, of course, there’s loads of after-hours socialising. Now, most of this takes place in restaurants and bars and it can go on well into the night! Sometimes you even find yourself out with someone who’s in possession of a corporate credit card which gets put behind the bar, meaning there are free drinks all night.

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There’s a lot of shop talk – talk about work, which could possibly be boring for others not in the same line of business – and plenty of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that usually involves people touting their wares and looking for work or else trying to poach people from other companies – to persuade them to leave their present job and join your team instead, especially using secret and maybe even not entirely honest methods! Anyway, by about midnight most people have had enough and decide to call it a day. The pubs close, and the sensible people head home to get some sleep ahead of another long day, leaving the hardcore to go on somewhere and drink themselves stupid.

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On more than one occasion last week, in late-night dive bars I ran into people who I thought had already gone home. When I questioned them as to what they were still doing out on the town, they’d smile guiltily and claim they’d found second wind. Often, this wind seems to have been delivered in the form of a shot of tequila or vodka!

If you find – or get – (a) second wind, you find new strength or energy to continue something that’s an effort! You find the strength to keep going! The phrase seems to come from long-distance runners, the kinds of people who do marathons and who often report finding themselves dead on their feet, totally out of breath and on the verge of giving up when they suddenly find the strength to press on at the same level of performance, but with slightly less effort.

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It’s not only runners and drinkers who can get second wind, though. In the wake of the Westminster government’s push for a hard Brexit, which will force the UK out of the EU single market, the desire for a second independence referendum has found a second wind up in Scotland, as became very clear last week. Sometimes products start off selling quite well, then experience a dip in sales before getting second wind and going on to sell better than ever. And, of course, the phrase itself gives newspaper headline writers something to play with, so recently I read that wind farms have got a second wind – there’s renewed enthusiasm and government support for the idea of using wind farms to generate electricity.

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Unfortunately, since returning home, I’ve not personally managed to find any second wind at all. In fact, the opposite seems to be true as I’ve spent much of this week trying to get over a cold and just simply recovering! I guess I’ve only myself to blame!

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

  • Can you think of a time when you suddenly got second wind? What were you doing?
  • Can you think of any products that suddenly experienced a second wind? Why?
  • Do you ever go to conferences? To speak or just to attend? What do you like most about them?
  • Does your line of work involve much after-hours socialising?
  • Do you know anyone who’s been poached by another company? What happened?
  • Can you think of a time when you had only yourself to blame for how you felt?

Phrase of the day: do time

I was chatting to a Spanish friend of mine the other day and she was telling me the sorry story of her ex-husband. Apparently, after they separated, he drifted into a life of petty crime and started dealing – mostly just grass, and not in large quantities, but enough to attract the attention of the local authorities. He was arrested a couple of times and eventually his flat was raided, whereupon the police found over a hundred marijuana plants being grown in the utility room. He had all the equipment – the special lights, the air filters, the grow boxes, everything – and was clearly growing in order to sell, not just for personal use.

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Even though they split up a couple of years ago now, she was clearly upset and worried about what this might mean for him. She tried to explain her fears by saying something along the lines of “He’ll now go to court and I think they will see . . . or decide . . . he’s guilty. He’ll be convicted for this . . . convicted of this . . . and then he’ll go to the prison for some time.” I instinctively rephrased this and said “You think he’ll do time” to which she replied “Ah! So that’s how you say it! It’s so simple . . . if you know the expression!”

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And, of course, this is one of the main problems when learning a language. If you don’t know the most normal way of saying something – the typical phrase or collocation that fluent users would turn to when expressing a particular idea – then you have to resort to the fallback plan of using words and grammar, which is harder, takes more time, and means you’re more likely to make more mistakes. And, of course, at teacher listening may be tempted to correct those basic surface errors and may not realise that the problem isn’t really one of grammatical inaccuracy, but of a lack of lexical items. This is one of the key reasons why it’s so important to try and learn the normal, natural shortcuts fluent users take to save themselves time and effort!

Anyway, going back to my friend’s ex . . . he’ll almost certainly be found guilty when his case comes to court and becuase he has previous (=because he has already been in trouble with the law), he’ll probably get a year or two in prison – maybe more. Terrible news for all who know him.

When we describe the punishments people receive from judges, we often use the verb get, so you’ll hear things like:

He got the death penalty.

She got life.

He got ten years.

She got four years, but she’ll probably be out in three if she behaves!

He got off with just a caution. (=a warning telling him that he’ll be properly punished if he does anything bad again)

She got off scot-free (=without any punishment at all, even though I think she deserved to be punished!)

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And when we talk about doing time, it means spending time in prison. People who have already spent time in prison and have been released will often say they’ve done their time . . . and we also sometimes use the phrase in a jokey way to talk about the time we’ve spent in a particular job. For instance, we might say I’ve been here for eighteen years. I’ve done my time! I need to move on and do something different!

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Unsurprisingly, you often hear talk of doing time in TV crime dramas and gangster movies as well, where lines like these are common:

I can’t do time again. It’d kill me!

He’s going to plead guilty and do his time.

Just keep your mouth shut, do your time and we’ll do right by you once you’re out, OK!

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While I have done my time in some terrible jobs over the years, I can only count my blessings that I’ve never done any time in jail – and pray I never will in the future! I can’t imagine how hard it must be!

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

  • Do you know anyone who’s ever done time? What for?
  • Is there much petty crime where you live? What kind? What impact does it have on your life?
  • Is dealing common where you live? What kind of punishments do people usually get if they’re found guilty of dealing?
  • Have you heard any stories of people getting off scot-free when they should’ve done time?
  • Do you like wathcing TV crime dramas / gangster movies? Do you have a favourite?

Phrase of the day: have a good innings

In one of my classes recently, we were looking at vocabulary connected to illnesses and there was a sentence about how diseases spread. I mentioned that they can spread around the world – from person to person – but also within the body. So, for instance, certain kinds of cancer often spread quite quickly. A student then asked what the opposite was, and I said that sometimes after people undergo chemotherapy (or just have chemo, as we often say in spoken English), the cancer often goes into remission. If you’re lucky, after a while, you might be given the all clear, but of course, cancer does sometimes come back again.

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Later on in the class, students were discussing their own experiences in connection to the vocabulary we’d studied, and someone mentioned that their mum had died of cancer a few years ago. At the students’ request, we ended up looking at how to have the conversation they were attempting in better English. We ended up with the following on the board:

My mum died of cancer a few years ago.

> Oh, I’m so sorry.

That’s OK. What can you do?

> How old was she when she died, if you don’t mind me asking?

53.

> 53? That’s no age at all.

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Another student then asked what the opposite was . . . what you’d say if someone died at an old age, which led to the following going onto the board:

How old was he when he died, if you don’t mind me asking?

> 93.

Really? Wow! OK. Well, he had a good life / he had a good innings, then.

This, in turn, led to the predictable comments about what an innings was. I tried to say that he had a good innings was a common way of saying that someone lived for a long time, had a good life, and died at a ripe old age, and that we can also use the phrase to say that someone’s had a long and successful period of time in a job, but one student had already dived into their dictionary and was looking bemused. “It’s from cricket?” she asked!

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Now, I always dread it when classroom conversations turn to cricket, because I’m all too well aware of the fact that most students around the world view the game as yet another example of English eccentricity! “You drive on the left, you use miles instead of kilometres AND you play cricket!” they exclaim, “You’re very strange people indeed!” It’s hard to argue with this observation, and – like many English people – I do, of course, take a peculiar pride in the fact that so few people understand (and even fewer like!) one of our main national sports!

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And, of course, cricket has given the English language several phrases used in everyday conversation. Indeed, if we think something isn’t being done in a fair and decent way, we often say (sometimes slightly ironically, of course!) that it’s just not cricket! The literal meanng of an innings is the period in a cricket match during which one player – or team – tries to score runs (points) and if one player scores a century – 100 runs – it’s generally seen as being a very good innings. Hence the idiomatic usage!

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  •  Do you know anyone who lived to  a ripe old age / had a good innings? How old were they when they died?
  • Do you know anything about cricket?
  • Can you think of any other examples of English eccentricity?
  • Can you think of any illnesses or diseases that spread quickly? What happened?

Word of the day: palaver

During my trip to Norilsk last week, I managed to squeeze in a day trip to Dudinka, a small port town situated on the mighty Yenesei River that’s mainly used to ship out the nickel which is found in such abundance in the area. We had a brief guided tour of the town and then went to a pizza place for lunch. I liked the look of the salads and asked if it would be possible to get half a plate of one and half a plate of another. What then followed was a remarkable lesson in how to make something that you’d imagine should be very simple into something very complicated indeed. A plate was found and half-filled with salad, which was then tipped off the plate and into a plastic container, which was weighed. A small receipt of some kind was then generated and stuck on the side of my tray before the whole process was repeated all over again. What I’d expected to take a matter of seconds ended up taking almost five minutes. “What a palaver!” I exclaimed to no-one in particular, as I finally got my lunch back after all of this!

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A palaver – /pəˈlɑːvə(r)/ – is how we often describe a situation that you expect to be simple, but which ends up involving an insane amount of fuss and bother. It becomes a right faff – a lot of unnecessary trouble!

It’s a word I often end up using on my travels. For instance, I’m due to give a talk somewhere which involves showing a video clip. Not, you might think, something that should be too much of a challenge in this day and age. On arriving at the venue, though, I learn that there are no speakers I can plug my laptop into. There’s a cable that links the TV screen we’re using to project the PowerPoint to the video recorder, but the plug is incompatible with my computer. A mild panic starts setting in and I start thinking about how I can improvise and work round the problem – a skill that I’ve become pretty good at after years of teaching in a range of quite complicated environments. Various people appear and prod the computer, turn things off and on again and unplug cables before plugging them in again. They then quietly sneak out of the room, looking slightly embarrassed about their inability to fix things. With only minutes to go before I’m supposed to start, someone suddenly produces a microphone from somewhere and we work out we can amplify the clips by holding it next to the small speaker on the laptop and plugging it into an ancient amplifier that has been gathering dust in the corner. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. And it means the audience can more or less hear the videos!! What a palaver, though, eh! Things really shouldn’t be this difficult. Ah well. Such is life! Put it down to experience and get on with things! There’s no point letting it get you. After all, worse things happen at sea! Don’t they?

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

  • What was the last experience you had which was a right palaver? Why?
  • Can you think of other things you’re surprised still happen in this day and age?
  • Are you good at improvising and working round problems?
  • Do you have any things that are currently gathering dust in the corner?

Phrase of the day: pots and kettles

Going dutch and other negative traits

So last week I was in the Netherlands and I was chatting with a group of teachers when someone asked why we have the phrase ‘’We can go Dutch’ in English. Actually, I personally don’t use this phrase very much myself, preferring to say instead ‘Shall we just split the bill’?, but I’ve heard it used and I didn’t have any idea where it comes from. Fortunately, a Dutch Professor of English was present! He told us that all these phrases, such as go Dutch, speak double Dutch and Dutch courage (which are nearly all negative), basically date back to the 18th century when Britain and the Netherlands were at war and  the English spread propaganda about those terrible Dutch people. So the Dutch were proclaimed to be tight (don’t like to spend money); to talk nonsense or speak an incomprehensible language (he might as well have been talking double Dutch for all I understood!); or being cowards and having to rely on alcoholic drinks to help them get through something they’re too scared to do otherwise (I need a bit of Dutch courage)!

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The pot calling the kettle black

My response to that, apart from ‘Well, you learn something new everyday, was ‘Well, that was the pot calling the kettle black!’, which basically means we were being hypocritical. We might also say ‘Well, it takes one to know one’ – in other words, someone’s accusing someone of having a bad trait, of being something bad, such as being tight, when they are actually also tight themselves. I mean, let’s face it,  the British aren’t necessarily the most generous people in the world. Just take a look at the suggestion among some UK politicians that we will pay nothing to settle our debts when we leave the EU.  And as for the need for a drink to get through pretty much any social event or difficult situation . . . Well, the writer Kate Fox has described this as a symptom of our a very British social dis-ease and awkwardness: think of most characters played by Hugh Grant! No doubt these characteristics were not so different in the 18th Century.

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Not that the British are unique in ‘The pot calling the kettle black’. I guess it’s a tendency among most people to see flaws in others, but not recognise them in themselves, so it is good to have a phrase to point this out. It is also interesting in the way this phrase is used. Like many sayings in English, it is often used in an incomplete form so you might have an exchange like this:

  • Oh my word! She’s so untidy!
  • > Ahem, pots and kettles, pots and kettles.

You can also see this in another idiom which points out that you are walking on shaky ground in criticising someone.

  • Honestly, the whole thing was so badly organised.
  • > I know, but you know – people in glass houses
  • Oh come on. I’m not that bad.
  • > No, but I’m just saying.

The full phrase here would be people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

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

  • Do you have any phrases in your language that refer to other nationalities? What do they mean? Are they all negative? Do you think it’s OK to use them these days?
  • What are your bad traits? Do you think your nationality has any bad traits or don’t you believe in national traits?
  • What are the equivalent phrases in your language for the idioms in the text?
  • Do you normally say the whole of a saying in your language or do people often shorten them?

Phrase of the day: above and beyond the call of duty

One of the delights of teaching foreign students in my home city of London is that I get to see the place through their eyes. My learners notice things about life here that I take for granted, things that I’m too close to to be able to see properly. For instance, they’ll ask why we have hot and cold taps in our bathrooms instead of one tap which you can use to mix the water to the desired temperature; or why some people here have carpets on their bathroom floors! One thing that lots of my students have commented on over the years is the fact that Londoners seem a bit cold and distant; they’re not very welcoming. I always found this slightly weird because I’m a Londoner and I like to see myself as a warm and friendly person. I’d generally put it down to the fact that most people in most big cities are in a bit of a rush, busy trying to get somewhere, and so not likey to stop and chat to random foreigners.

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Then in 1999, I went to Moscow for the first time and one of the things that immediately struck me was how unfriendly everyone on the incredible underground system looked. Everyone seemed to be scowling and doing all they could to keep strangers at bay! I suddenly understood how London must look to my students, and wondered if this was something that people everywhere always feel as they travel further north!

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Looking back on it, I now realise that it was the middle of winter when I was first there; Russia was nearing the end of ten very traumatic years that had seen the Soviet Union collapse and a tiny handful of oligarchs make vast profits from privatisation, while normal people struggled to survive! It was naive of me to expect to receive a rapturous welcome amid all of this!

Since 1999, I’ve been to Russia maybe 30 times, most recently to Norilsk and Saratov, and as I’ve got to know more Russians and made many friends there, I’ve come to see them as incredibly hospitable peopleonce you get to know them! Just like Londoners, I suppose! In fact, I’ve frequently been struck by the way people are hospitable above and beyond the call of duty. In other words, they’ll do more for you than they are required or expected to. They’ll offer to put you up in their apartments rather than letting you stay in a hotel; they’ll pick you up from the airport, even if it’s miles out of town, and so on!

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The phrase has military roots and was originally used to talk about soldiers who died fighting for their country or who showed incredible bravery on the battlefield: they went above and beyond the call of duty and gave their all! Nowadays, the phrase is often used to talk about teachers, social workers, nurses, and other people who work hard to help people. It can also be used to talk about customer service, so companies may claim that they “go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that every customer is 100% satisfied.” You can also leave off the second part of the phrase and just say: They really go above and beyond if you want to say someone did more for you than you were expecting them to.

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On my most recent trips, my Russian hosts really went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that everything ran smoothly, that I had what I needed to do my job properly and that I enjoyed the after-hours socialising. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.

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  • Can you think of a time when someone’s gone above and beyond the call of duty for you?
  • Do you know anyone who regularly goes above and beyond?
  • Have you ever been anywhere where the people were incredibly warm and friendly? Or where they were very cold and distant?
  • When was the last time you really gave your all?
  • Think of three things that you’re eternally grateful for.