Word of the day: radicalise

If a person is radicalised, something or someone makes them become more radical, more extreme in their political or religious beliefs. Over recent years, when radicalisation – the action or process of causing someone to adopt extremist positions on political or social issues – has been discussed in the media, it’s generally been with reference to young Muslims. In the wake of the 7/7 attacks – the 7th of July 2005 bombings in London, a series of coordinated suicide bomb attacks which targetted civilians using the public transport system during rush hour – and the murder of Lee Rigby, a British army soldier who was attacked and killed in Woolwich by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale – there was much soul-searching about the causes of radicalisation, with a whole host of theories being put forward: marginalisation by mainstream society; anger at the Iraq war and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict;  Islamophobic attacks on Muslims, mosques and Islamic cultural centres; the spread of extremist ideas online, via increasingly sophisticated social media campaigns; a so-called clash of civilizations, and so on. As we enter the Trump era, where immigrants from particular countries are scapegoated and discriminated against, perhaps the most interesting thing to note about all of the attacks here in the UK is that they were carried out not by foreigners, but by homegrown terrorists, born and bred in England.

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Anyone in the UK who works in education will have been forced to participate in one of the government’s attempts to tackle all of this - the Prevent strategy, which has been strongly criticised for limiting free speech, demonising certain groups of people, making teachers into the eyes and ears of the state, and so on. Muslim friends of mine have complained of feeling that they’re suddenly under suspicion because of the actions of a tiny minority of people claiming to share the same religion.

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However, this week, the government was forced to refocus its attention and admit that it’s not only the Muslim community that might be in danger of getting radicalised – it’s white Britons too! The murder of the Labour MP (Member of Parliament) Jo Cox last year by a white far-right political extremist finally drove home the fact that racist, Islamophobic groups were also becoming more active, were recruiting more young people, were using the web to radicalise and were inciting violence. In response to this, they’ve hired a famous advertising company, M&C Saatchi, to start countering the lies spread by these groups. It’s about time too! As the joke puts it, it’s not the refugees I’m scared of . . . it’s the people who are scared of the refugees!

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  • Have you heard any stories about young people getting radicalised? What happened?
  • What do you think the main causes of radicalisation are?
  • What do you think are the best ways of countering radicalisation?
  • Can you think of any events in your country that have led to a period of national soul-searching?

Word of the day: tipping point

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I don’t know about you, but I love the game Jenga. I mean, what’s not to like? It has everything you could want from a game: the luck of finding that loose piece you can easily move; the skill of having a steady hand; but most of all the anticipation of the sudden crash. We build the tower and it begins to lean until it reaches that point where it all tips over. It’s that same sense of anticipation that makes penny drop arcade games so tempting. You can see all those coins just ready to tip over the edge – just one more and a whole load will fall, you tell yourself as you pour more money in. I guess this is why people continue to invest in businesses despite slow growth – they ARE growing and you can see that with just a little more investment they could be huge … or not, of course!

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This is the idea behind what we generally call a tipping point –  it’s the point at which a trend that’s been slowly growing suddenly becomes a full-blown disaster which is out of control or, of course, a phenomenal success that makes someone’s fortune.

Sadly for us, the tipping point that has been in the news here over the last few weeks is connected to the crisis in the National Health Service (NHS) and social care. There’s always increased pressure on health services during the winter, but this year it seems to be particularly bad here. The pressure comes from a variety of sources. The population in the UK is slowly ageing and so the demand for health services is growing, but funding from government isn’t keeping pace with demand. In many ways. the NHS is very efficient, but the government believes it can save even more money by improving efficiency.

As a result, a report yesterday revealed that most hospitals had over 85% of their hospital beds filled – and many had over 95% occupied. Why is 85% a significant number? Well, it’s the tipping point at which hospitals start finding problems: they can’t keep the hospital clean enough; they can’t find a bed for new patients, who might have to wait for hours on stretchers in a corridor; they have to cancel operations because there are no free beds for patients when they come out of surgery, which in turn means very highly-paid surgeons end up just sitting around doing nothing! The problem is made worse by the fact that there are insufficient places and a lack of money for social care. For example, an old person who goes into hospital for an operation may not be able to go home on their own, because they have dementia or other problems. So they have to wait for a place in a residential home or to arrange help in their own house. Which means they are taking up a bed, which adds to the problems that all just become part of a vicious circle.

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Looking on the Web, it seems that most news items on tipping points are negative, but maybe that’s a reflection of the news! On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, gives plenty of examples of related success stories, such as how a series of books with a small British publisher moved from modest initial sales for the first book to become the biggest seller in the world, with queues of people waiting in bookstores on the first day of each new publication.

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Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Come and do one of our summer school courses in London.

  • What other things do you think are currently reaching a tipping point in politics, business or entertainment?
  • Do you like Jenga? What other games do you like playing and why?
  • Do you have any similar problems in healthcare to those described above?
  • Are you a Harry Potter fan? Which books do you like best?

Phrase of the day: in the wake of

About two minutes’ walk from my house in north London is a wonderful Turkish supermarket and bakery called Yasar Halim. There’s a chance you may have heard of it, actually, as it once featured in a reading text in New Headway Pre-Intermediate. The piece was called London: The World In One City and also included a Korean restaurant in Little Seoul (better known as New Malden) and a barber’s in Peckham that’s run by a larger-than-life Nigerian man called Posh Daddy! Anyway, on Sunday morning I popped down to the shop to grab a few bits and pieces for dinner and while I was in there – as usually happens – I bumped into someone I know from the neighbourhood. As were we chatting, he said I should avoid the broccoli as prices had gone through the roof and it was now selling at four pounds per kilo! “How come?” I asked, which prompted a fairly lengthy explanation of the Great British Vegetable Shortage of 2017!

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Apparently, Spain, one of the major suppliers of vegetables to British supermarkets, has experienced some really terrible weather of late. Courgettes are frozen in the ground in the Almeria region, there’s been unusual snowfall in La Manga, Murcia, and heavy rainfall and flooding in other Spanish growing regions. A wide range of vegetable crops from southern Spain were battered by storms in the run up to (= in the time leading up to) Christmas, and now snow, freezing temperatures and poor light levels are making it virtually impossible for growers to harvest crops. And in the wake of all of this, with demand far outstripping supply, prices have obviously shot up.

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If something happens in the wake of something else, it happens in the time immediately after it, or as a result of it, so you might hear about security being tightened in the wake of a terrorist attack somewhere, chaos at American airports in the wake of Donald Trump’s attempts to ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries (though not Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where he has business interests!) or anger and dissatisfaction among fans of Arsenal Football Club (my team!) in the wake of Saturday’s defeat by Chelsea. The phrase is also used to talk about the period of time soon after particular global events: e.g. in the wake of 9/11, in the wake of Brexit, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the wake of the US presidential elections, and so on.

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Just in case you’re wondering, by the way, I passed on the broccoli and instead went for some chicken, three tomatoes, garlic, parsley, a couple of lemons and some bucatini pasta. Lovely, it was as well.

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  • What have been the biggest events in your country recently? Has anything interesting happened in the wake of them?
  • Have the prices of anything gone through the roof / shot up where you live? Do you know why?
  • How often do you bump into people you know? When was the last time?
  • How’s the weather been where you are recently?

Word of the day: pardon

I started teaching English as a Foreign Language back in 1993, and over the years I’ve learned lots of things from the thousands of students I’ve been lucky enough to meet. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that we all share a common humanity – and that even though we are, of course, all different, we’re also all very similar. People of all different ages from all kinds of different backgrounds basically want the same kinds of things from life: they want to make friends and be liked and respected; they want their families to be safe and their kids to grow up in a decent world; they want to be able to do some kind of meaningful work, have enough to eat, a place to call their own, and so on. For me, one of the great joys of teaching has always been watching students find things that they have in common. I remember one class maybe ten years ago where a Somali woman in her 60s and a young Japanese man had a great conversation about the way their grandmothers always used to cook insane amounts of food for them every time they visited – and would insist on them eating as much of it as was humanly possible! It was a lovely thing to witness.

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However, it’s not been a great time for those of us who believe that there’s more than unites us than divides us. All over Europe and beyond, we’re seeing the rise of politicians trying to divide and rulekeeping control over people who might otherwise oppose them by encouraging them to fight among themselves. The main way this is being done is by creating an Us and Them mentality, a feeling that there are other groups of people that are somehow so different to us that peaceful coexistence with them is impossible. The process by which we’re encouraged to see these groups as alien is often called othering – and politicians and journalists on the right here have been busy othering Muslims in particular, but also other groups such as refugees, immigrants and even just people who don’t agree with their way of seeing the world. As Londoners – and citizens of the world – it’s a way of thinking we find repulsive

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Anyway, amid all of this, there was one good piece of news last month, as it was announced that the government was issuing pardons to thousands of gay men – including the famous Irish writer Oscar Wilde  who had been convicted of offences that once criminalised homosexuality, but which aren’t laws anymore. England is often thought of as a fairly liberal country, but being gay was actually illegal until 1967, and many men were arrested and sent to prison simply because of their sexuality. Among those who suffered under these barbaric laws were national heroes such as Alan Turing, a talented mathematician who helped to crack German codes during the Second World War, but who later killed himself. He was granted a royal pardon by the Queen in 2012, paving the way for these other recent pardons.

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In this context, pardoning someone means officially forgiving them for committing a crime and (if they’re still alive) freeing them from prison. While the recent pardons have been broadly welcomed,  some people feel it’s too little, too late – and point out that a pardon has connotations of forgiveness for a wrong that’s been done. Of course, the vast majority of gay men who suffered in the past do not believe they did anything wrong – and by the standards of today, of course, they didn’t, which is at least a small sign of some progress.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Come and do one of our summer school courses.

  • Have you heard of anyone in your country being granted a pardon? When? Why?
  • Do you agree that we’re all different, but we’re all the same? Why? / Why not?
  • Can you think of any politicians keen to create an Us-against-Them mentality? How do they do it?
  • Have you ever felt that you were being othered? When? What happened?
  • Do you know anything that used to be illegal in your country, but which has since been decriminalised?

Phrase of the day: the straight and narrow

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I’m not a huge fan of Twitter, but one of the real pleasures of the service is Very British Problems, who – in their own words – tweet about how the inhabitants of these isles make “life awkward for ourselves, one rainy day at a time”! Their tweets are very dry, very funny observations on the peculiarities of British life and they’ve also put out a couple of books containing the best of the tweets. Yesterday I met an old friend for a pint and was reminded of one of my favourite tweets from the end of last year. You can read it below:

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If you cram something in, you do a lot of a particular activity in a short period of time, so if you go away to another city for a few days, you might try and cram in as much as you can while you’re there – visit as many places as you can and do as much as you can. Or if you’re a keen surfer, you might manage a day by the beach at the weekend and cram in as much surfing as you can in the time that you’re there. The idea that Brits spend the Christmas holidays eating and drinking too much in the deluded belief that they’ll stop all this behaviour in January, when they’ll make their New Year’s Resolutions and this time stick to them, isn’t far from the truth in many cases. It’s a well-known fact, for instance, that gym membership rockets at the start of each year, and yet most new members never manage to go more than once or twice!

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Anyway, as I was saying, I was reminded of all this when I met my friend Alan, as he is the exception to the rule outlined above! Yesterday was his first drink for a month as he has just completed Dry January. Like an increasing number of people every year, he’d decided not to drink any alcohol at all for the first month of the year, and by sticking to this, he’d raised over £400 for charity. We chatted about the experience and he commented that he’d often found it hard to stick to the straight and narrow. In other words, it had been difficult for him to always do the proper, honest and morally correct thing.

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The phrase the straight and narrow comes from the Bible, and it’s often used (even by non-religious people like myself!) to talk about the best way forward or the best path that could be taken, so for example when criminals are released from prison, they may try hard to stay on the straight and narrow; when a company has been through a rough time, the boss may be desperate to get things back on the straight and narrow; and couples who’ve been together for years may say that their partners help to keep them on the straight and narrow!

Personally, though, I don’t think I’ll be trying Dry January any time soon. The problem with the straight and narrow is that it’s so straight and so narrow!

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  • Do you ever find it hard to stay on the straight and narrow? In what way?
  • When was the last time you tried to cram a lot into a short period of time? What did you do?
  • Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? Have you managed to stick to them so far?
  • Do you know anyone who’s raised money for charity recently? How did they do it?

Phrase of the day: Shame on you!

The idea of shame is a strange one. Traditionally, shame was usually associated with an uncomfortable and unpleasant feeling of guilt because of our own – or someone else’s – bad behaviour. The behaviour made you feel ashamed. In this sense, I know that I’m not alone in feeling a deep sense of shame when I see the appalling behaviour of English football hooligans during international tournaments. At times like that, I feel ashamed to be English, even though it’s not really anything directly to do with me. In some cultures – like Japan – where public figures still care deeply about the way they’re perceived and where losing face is a serious matter, politicians who have been caught doing wrong sometimes end up committing suicide – killing themselves – because the shame of the sexual or financial scandal they’re caught up in is so great.

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Arguably, in the UK, the idea of feeling a personal sense of shame for your actions is not as strong as it is in many other parts of the world. Indeed, we often say how refreshing it is when celebrities talk openly about mistakes they’ve made without any sense of shame. Instead of endlessly apologising and saying what an awful person they used to be and how they’ve changed now, and so on, they simply admit to having messed up and basically say So what? I’m only human! Anyone in my situation could’ve done the same thing.

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In some parts of the world, the way women in particular behave is seen as being something that can potentially cause huge problems. You may have heard of so-called honour killings, where male members of a family actually murder female relatives – sometimes daughters or sisters – because they’ve had sex outside marriage or possibly even just been seen with a boy the family doesn’t approve of. This is believed to bring shame on the family – and the ‘honour’ of the family can then only be restored by an act of brutal violence! It’s a sick and twisted idea of honour, it really is!

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One common phrase that shows how far removed from such notions of shame we generally are today is shame on you. In its literal sense, it’s a phrase used to tell people that they should be ashamed of themselves, that they should feel bad and sorry for what they’ve done, but far more often it’s used in a jokey way – often in classrooms! For instance, you ask students to get their homework out so you can check it and one student sheepishly admits that they’ve left their book at home . . . . and didn’t have time to do the homework anyway! Shame on you! you declare in mock outraged tones! Or students are discussing what they do outside of class, and someone says they never read anything in English if they can help it . . . Shame on you! How are you ever going to get any better? you enquire.

Want to learn with Lexical Lab? Come and do a summer course with us here in London.

  • Do you ever feel ashamed to be the nationality you are? If yes, when? Why?
  • Have you ever done anything you were incredibly ashamed of afterwards?
  • Is the idea of bringing shame on the family common in your country? How do you feel about it?
  • Can you think of any times you could’ve said Shame on you to someone you know?

Phrase of the day: the gig economy

Last Saturday night I went to see some old friends from France playing in a great rock’n’roll band called Chrome Reverse. They’re a four-piece band who play wild 50s-style rockabilly, and this was the very first time they’d ever played in London. They were headlining at a club night called Weirdsville that’s held in an old Irish pub, The Fiddler’s Elbow, near Camden Town. It’s got a late licence, so can stay open till three; the DJs play great music and it’s a great little venue to see gigs in. For many years, the only meaning of the word gig that I was familiar with was this one, where a gig is a small live music concert played in the back room of a pub or a small club somewhere. I went to tons of gigs as a teenager, and would often come out raving that that was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to in my life!

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Over recent years, I’ve started using the word gig to describe speaking engagements or teacher training sessions I’ve been asked to do. If, for instance, I got asked to go and talk at a conference and had my flight and accommodation covered, but wasn’t otherwise getting paid, I’d nervously ask other speakers I’d meet at the event if this was a paying gig for them. If other writer / teacher trainer friends got asked to go and run a course somewhere for a couple of weeks and were earning good money for their work, they’d often say it was a good gig, or a nice little gig, or a well-paid gig.

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This idea of a gig being any kind of short-term work that you get paid for has become increasingly common. In fact, it’s so common nowadays that we’ve even started talking about the gig economy – the part of the economy populated by people like me, people who are basically self-employed and who do little bits of freelance work for different companies here and there. In general, we only get paid for specific tasks. None of us are on long-term contracts, none of us get sick pay or holiday pay and none of have any job security! We live from pay cheque to pay cheque or, when times get really hard, from hand to mouth!

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On the plus side, of course, this kind of employment offers greater freedom and flexibility. If I want to just take off for a couple of weeks and go away somewhere or simply have a break, I can – so long as I have enough spare cash. However, the gig economy also leads to financial uncertainty, stress and the further erosion of workers’ rights. And, of course, finding a balance between freedom and security can be a very tricky thing.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Why not take one of our summer school courses?

  • Have you been to see many gigs? What’s the best gig you’ve ever been to? Why?
  • Is there a big gig economy where you live? What kind of jobs are people doing in it?
  • Do you like the idea of being self-employed and doing the odd bit of freelance work here and there? Why? / Why not?
  • Can you think of any other pros or cons of the gig economy?

Phrase of the day: not on speaking terms

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Over the weekend I saw a friend of mine who last year had some similar experiences to me as he’d fallen out with his parents about Brexit. Jon is married to a Spanish national and like countless others across the country, they’ve had a very stressful time of late as the government has so far refused to guarantee the right to remain of EU nationals who moved here legally once Article 50 is triggered and Britain begins the long, slow, painful process of separation from the European Union. Given the fact that his wife is foreign, he was shocked and appalled when both his parents decided to vote Leave last year and he had a great big row with them both about it all. Something very similar happened to me as my father chose to ignore the fact that his son is married to an immigrant and has mixed-race kids and campaigned for a Leave vote on behalf of the anti-immigration far-right party UKIP.

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We chatted about how things were now and I mentioned that I’d more or less managed to patch things up with my dad after basically making it clear that the only way we could really get on was to agree not to discuss politics in any way, shape or form. So far, this seems to be working for me, but Jon’s relationship with his parents remains bad, and he told me that they’re still not on speaking terms. In other words, they haven’t spoken since last summer, a fact that saddens him immensely, but that he can’t see a way round at the moment.

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As we were chatting, my mind drifted off and I realised that we often describe relationships between people using to be on . . . terms, so for instance when I used to work in a university here in London, I used to know the dean by sight, but not really to talk to. Whenever we’d pass on the stairs or in a corridor, I’d nod my head at him and he’d nod back, even though I suspect he had no idea who I actually was. I was once asked by a colleague if I know the dean and replied Well, not really. I mean, we’re on nodding terms, but we’ve never actually spoken. In the same way, I’m on nodding terms with half the people in my street. We wave or nod at each other when we pass in the street, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that.

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I was once surprised to hear a different colleague referring to the dean at the time by his first name – Roland. In England, especially in a large corporation or set-up like a big university, this is a sign of familiarity; it suggests you’re quite close to this person and may even have had social contact outside of the work environment. Ooh! Get you! we laughed. On first-name terms with the dean. Dinner dates every Friday, is it!

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Finally, when couples divorce, they may go through a really bitter, acrimonious divorce and end up not talking to each other at all and only communicating via their respective lawyers. If they’re luckier, they may manage to have a fairly amicable divorce and remain on good terms afterwards. It’s rare, but not impossible.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Why not do one of our summer school courses.

  • Is there anyone you’re not on speaking terms with at the moment? Why? What happened?
  • When was the last time you had a great big row with someone? What was it about? Have you patched things up since then?
  • Are there people you live near or work with that you know by sight, but not really to talk to?
  • Are you on first-name terms with any of your bosses? Is this common where you work?

Phrase of the day: It keeps me off the streets

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I was chatting online with a friend in Ukraine the other day. She’d asked me what I’d been up to recently (What have you been up to? is a common way of asking about what someone has been doing recently) and I was listing some of what’s been keeping me busy: getting ready for some forthcoming trips to Russia and Germany . . . getting near the end of a high school book based on TED talks that we’re doing for National Geographic Learning . . . planning our face-to-face summer school courses here in London . . . and finally I added that all of this activity was keeping me off the streets. I’m so used to adding You know, it keeps me off the streets as a joking comment at the end of lists like this that I’d never stopped to think about how the phrase might cause confusion. “Why?” she enquired, before adding in a slightly more worried tone, “What’s going on over there? Why do you need to keep off the streets?” I suddenly saw the problem.

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If people take to the streets, it’s usually to demonstrate and voice their anger about the government or about a new law or something similar. Of course, it’s also possible that people take to the streets in support of the government, but here in the UK that’s almost unheard of. By definition, demos are almost always ways of expressing opposition.  When there’s a military coup and the army take control of the country, there will usually be loads of tanks out on the streets – and during times of extreme civil unrest when there’s a real risk of things descending into violence, you might see the army – or lots of armed police on the streets. When you’re growing up, especially if you live in quite a rough area where gang violence occurs and where drug dealing happens out in the open, your parents and teachers may try and stop you from hanging around on the streets, where you could easily get into trouble. If you lose your job and your house, you might end up homelessliving on the streets. The police – or government ministers – often warn that people they regard as a menace to society must be kept off the streets. As you can see, most things that happen on the streets don’t sound much fun!

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However, if you’re talking about how busy you’ve been and explaining all the things you’ve been doing recently and then add that all of this keeps you off the streets, it’s simply a friendly, jokey way of laughing at yourself. The suggestion is that if you weren’t keeping yourself busy, you’d be out getting yourself into trouble in one way or another. You’d be hanging around with lowlife characters in places of ill repute. Obviously, this is meant as comic exaggeration . . . which is maybe why it’s so easily misunderstood.

Want to learn more about language and culture? Why not take our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course this summer?

  • What’s been keeping you off the streets of late?
  • When was the last time lots of people in your country took to the streets? Why were they demonstrating?
  • Do many people end up living on the streets where you are? Why?
  • What’s the roughest part of town where you live?

Phrase of the day: Onwards and upwards

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The publication of this post marks the end of our first full week of WORD OF THE DAY over here on the Lexical Lab site and I’ve spent much of the last few days tying up loose endssorting out all the little bits and pieces that needed to be done as we move our focus from a full-time school to a short summer school instead. There have been lots of meetings, and to say I’m not a fan of meetings would be an understatement (I really hate them!); we’ve had to deal with lots of red tape – boring official rules and paperwork that cause delays; there have been lots of phone calls to accountants, banks and various other companies; and to top it all off, I’ve been trying to get through my email backlogover recent weeks I’ve got really behind with things and am still trying to get on top of everything!

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Given all of this, it’s been a real pleasure to receive so many emails, messages and comments on social media from people wishing us well. We’re really grateful to everyone who’s taken the time to get in touch. It means a lot. One interesting thing I noticed was how many of the messages used one particular phrase: near the end, many simply said Onwards and upwards! In this context, the phrase means something like I hope you go on to achieve greater things and be more successful. It’s a lovely thing to say and offers real encouragement. Thank you!

Onwards and upwards is also often used as an adjective, so for instance, a football may have had a bad run of form and been losing lots of games, but then they win a big important match and start to feel like they’ve turned a corner. In the post-match interview, the manager might say how proud he is of his players, what a big result it is for the team and how it’s upwards and upwards from now on! Notice that onwards and upwards is again connected to the success that people hope will continue in the future.

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Finally, the phrase is often used in a more jokey kind of way among friends – as a way of suggesting that it’s time to stop your pleasurable break and get on with some real work. For example, on one of the days when we’re supposed to be writing one of our books, Andrew and I might spent a couple of hours sitting around, chatting, making jokes, surfing the web, drinking tea . . . in short, doing anything except the work we should be doing! Eventually, one of us will leap up and announce Right! Onwards and upwards! Come on. This book isn’t going to write itself, is it!

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  • Do you know anybody – or any team / organization – that you think is moving onwards and upwards at the moment?
  • What are you not a big fan of? Why?
  • What kinds of things do you usually do before forcing yourself to get on with some real work?
  • Is there much red tape in your country? When might you need to deal with it?