Word of the day: faff

Over the last few days, I’ve been in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, running a teacher development seminar for around 150 wonderful locals. In one particular session, we were looking at pronunciation, and I was talking about the way my own approach to dealing with pronunciation in class has changed over time. I mentioned that when I first started teaching – and, if I’m honest, throughout the first few years of my teaching career – I avoided using phonemic symbols like the plague. Like most native-speaker teachers, I’d never needed to use them myself before I started teaching, and I found many of them hard to remember. There’s also something strangely counterintuitive about them: they don’t always make sense or seem obvious! I mean, what genius decided to represent the sound in words like day and gay and play with the symbol /eI/? Anyway, until I was basically forced to start using them by my students’ constant demands for them, I avoided them because I found them such a faff!

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If you call something a faff – or a right faff, a real faff, a major faff, a proper faff, a complete faff or even just a bit of a faff – it means you think it involves spending unnecessary time and effort on something that basically isn’t important. It’s often used as a complaint about the time-consuming nature of things that add such limited value to life, so the kind of parent who decides it’s not enough to throw a white sheet over their kid’s head on Halloween, but instead chooses to spend five hours making an elaborate costume may then complain that the whole proess was such a faff! Happily, of course, these complaints often fall on deaf ears!

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You may feel that buying shoes or clothes online isn’t worth the effort, as it’s such a faff having to send them back if and when they don’t fit; you may love cooking, but moan about the fact that peeling potatoes or grating cauliflowers is a right old faff; you may be trying to get on to the wi-fi somewhere, but just end up giving up because the whole process is a total bloody faff! In fact, this is what often happens to be when travelling as many places require you to enter your phone number so you can be sent an access code, but then when the code comes through, you have to exit the log-in to see the code . . . only to find that when you try to log in again, you’re back to square one! It’s incredibly frustrating!

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Faff is also used in phrasal verbs, so if you waste time doing things that aren’t important, you faff around (or faff about). Stressed-out parents who are trying to get their kids out of the door and off to school may scream “Can you two just stop faffing around and get a move on?!” Or if you have some work that you’ve been putting off for ages, you may finally wake up one morning and decide it’s time to stop faffing about and get on with things!

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, in the end, I got over my fear of phonemic symbols and started using them far more consistently in class. All’s well that ends well!

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  • What kind of things do you generally avoid doing because you find them a right old faff?
  • Are there any people you avoid like the plague? Why?
  • Do you find phonemic symbols useful when you’re learning English?
  • When was the last time you had to tell someone to stop faffing around and get a move on?
  • Do you ever faff around and put things off when you know you should really just get on with them? When?

Intermediate word of the day: allegation

An allegation is a public statement saying that someone has done something wrong or illegal, even though this has not (yet) been proved. Allegations are often made against famous people or public officials, who might, for example, face allegations of fraud if someone publicly accuses them of getting money from someone by tricking them. Officials also often face allegations of corruption, when they are accused of accepting money in return for doing things for people.

Here are some other things people sometimes face allegations of:

  • The Portuguese footballer Ronaldo recently faced allegations of tax evasion. Spanish officials said he hadn’t been paying enough tax and hadn’t been honest with them about how much he’d earned.

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  • Police officers sometimes face allegations of violence, especially after demonstrations, when demonstrators may be unhappy about heavy-handed policing and may claim they were beaten by the police.
  • Actors, pop stars, politicians and many other public figures may face allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct, when women (and, sometimes, men) claim that they have been touched – or even forced to have sexagainst their will.
  • Organisations may face allegations of religious or political extremism and there may be calls for them to be banned and for their leaders to be prosecuted in court.

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Once an allegations has been made against someone, sometimes other people then start coming forward with allegations of their own. The person at the centre of the allegations may well deny (or reject) all the allegations and threaten to sue unless the allegations are withdrawn. In other words, they say that unless the people who made the allegations in the first place publicly say that they weren’t actually true, they will to take them to court and try to get money from them. When newspapers make allegations about famous people, the famous people often get their lawyers to demand an apology. They’re very well aware of the fact that allegations can seriously damage someone’s reputation – and their career. And, of course, sometimes the allegations may be false!

Following allegations, the police may decide to launch an investigation and maybe even to prosecute so that everything can be heard in a court of law and the person can be judged. Once it goes to court, the person on trial will be formally accused of a crime and will hire a lawyer to defend them against these charges.

Cover the text. What do you remember?

  •  Say four things people sometimes face allegations of.
  • Say three other verbs that often go with allegations.
  • What might happen to someone facing serious allegations?
  • Why might you decide to withdraw your allegations against someone?
  • What happens if the police take the allegations seriously?

Related stories in the news

A few weeks ago, the first few allegations against the American film director Harvey Weinstein started coming out. This soon turned into a flood of allegations and so many women have now alleged that Weinstein raped them or touched them against their will that sooner or later he will surely face criminal charges. Following the Weinstein sexual abuse allegations, lots of other people have faced similar allegations. The actor Kevin Spacey, for example, is facing an allegation that he tried to force a teenage boy to have sex with him in the 1980s, an allegation he hasn’t exactly denied, but at the same time he hasn’t admitted that he did anything wrong either!

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Here in Britain, lots of MPs – members of parliament – are facing similar accusations after a story came out about female members of staff in the Houses of Parliament setting up WhatsApp groups to share horror stories about various politicians. The Prime Minister is talking tough and promising to do do more to stop any abuse happening, but it’s hard to really feel that things will change that much.

In other news, some of Donald Trump’s closest political friends are facing allegations of lying about their connections with Russian politicians, allegations that the Kremlin denies, of course. Trump is, of course, also facing allegations of sexual abuse by several women too. And lots of other people in the film industry and facing allegations of not doing enough to respond to earlier complaints about people like Harvey Weinstein!

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Discuss

  • Can you think of any famous people or politicians who are facing allegations at the moment? What of? How do you feel about these allegations?
  • Can you think of any allegations against public figures that were withdrawn? Do you know why?
  • Has anyone you know ever faced any allegations? When? What happened?
  • Can you think of someone who has faced lots of allegations, but has never ended up in court? Why do you think that is?

Want to study English with Lexical Lab? Take our ENGLISH BOOST course next summer.

 

Chunk of the day: famous last words

As some of you may know, my father died recently after a relatively short battle with cancer. He was 87, so he had a good innings, and in many ways, he had the death he wanted: he died in his own home, surrounded by his family. Shortly before he died, we spent a long and very emotional day talking, and just before he fell asleep, he suddenly said to me “If anyone asks what my last words were, tell them I didn’t have any famous last words!” This was one of many dark jokes he cracked during his final days and weeks. In fact, as far as any of any of us can remember, his actual last words were said in response to one of the carers who came in and helped look after him during that last week. Seeing all the paintings around the house, she asked who’d done them. My dad confirmed that they were all his, at which point the carer asked who his favourite artist was. Without missing a beat, my dad replied “I am, of course!”

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We cling on to the idea of famous last words in the hope that at the moment of dying, people are somehow able to impart some kind of wisdom that will help us make sense of our own mortality – of the fact that all our lives will end in death. Or maybe we hope that someone’s last words will somehow summarise and encapsulate their essence, which explains why we love to learn things like the fact that shortly before he died, the philosopher Karl Marx said “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough”!

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However, as a phrase, famous last words is generally more often used as an ironic comment on what the speaker sees as an overconfident claim. It suggests that the speaker may later be proved wrong – possibly in an embarrassing way. For example:

A. We won’t miss the train. Mike’s never late.
B. Famous last words!

The implication here is that Mike may very well be late, and that we might very well not actually get to the station on time as a result! It’s a way of telling the person you’re speaking to not to tempt fate, not to push their luck too far. There’s a fear that if you speak too optimistically about the future, you may jinx things – bring bad luck to them. This may explain why football fans often use this phrase.

A: It’s only Huddersfield. They’re rubbish. We’ll thrash them. (= we’ll beat them by a large margin, say 5-0 or 6-1). You’ll see

B: Famous last words!

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A tragi-comic example of both uses of the phrase coming together happened when the musician Terry Kath, a founding member of the rock band Chicago, started messing around with a gun at a party. When a friend told him to be careful with it, he replied “Don’t worry. It’s not even loaded.” – and then accidentally shot himself in the head with the one bullet the gun contained! Famous last words indeed!

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

  • Do you know the famous last words of any famous people? Who? What are they supposed to have said?
  • What does a good death mean for you? How easy do you think it is to have one?
  • Why do you think people crack jokes about death and dying?
  • Can you think of something you’ve said – or something someone has said to you – recently that you felt was famous last words?

Intermediate word of the day: mortgage

A mortgage is a special kind of loan – money we borrow from a bank from a bank – that we get to buy some property – a house or flat. Obviously, buying a house is expensive so you might get a £200,000 mortgage. We also say you take out a mortgage for £200,000. A mortgage is usually a very long-term loan and it’s paid back over 25 years – or 20 or 30 or whatever.

As with other loans, you pay interest on a mortgage, but it should be less than with short-term loans or credit cards. At the moment in the UK most people have to pay between 2% and 5% interest on their mortgage. Sometimes the interest rate varies according to whether the central bank of a country sets a different interest rate, but if you make a deal with your bank, you may sometimes get a fixed rate of interest for a number of years.

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Most people pay the bank back through monthly mortgage payments – so people will often say my mortgage is £700 a month  or £800 or whatever.  People might also say I’ve got 60,000 pounds left on my mortgage (they’ve paid some back, but they need to pay 60,000 more). Or you might say I’ve got 11 years left on my mortgage. Finally, there comes a day when you finish paying and you can say I’ve paid off my mortgage and the house is yours.

However, of course things can go wrong – maybe you lose your job, or you get ill and you might fall behind with your mortgage payments because maybe you miss a month or stop paying altogether. This is the big downside of a mortgage because the property acts as security for the loan. That means that if you can’t keep up with the payments, the bank can legally repossess the house. In other words, they can make you leave the house – they can throw you out of the house – and sell it to someone else in order to recover their money. In recent years, this has become a big problem in lots of countries because of the recession, which has led to unemployment increasing.

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So what do you have to do to take out a mortgage? Well, obviously you have to apply for a mortgage. You will usually have to book an appointment  at the bank and talk to the manager or talk to an adviser. When you talk to them, you might fill in a form with details of your income and outgoings - in other words, what you earn and what you spend. You will probably need proof of these  like a wage slip from the place you work or bank statements. Sometimes these checks are very strict, and sometimes the checks are lax – the bank doesn’t look very carefully or ask a lot of questions. Normally, you have to also pay a percentage of the value of the mortgage. So if the house you want to buy is £100,000, you might have to pay a 20% deposit up front and the bank then gives you a mortgage for the remaining £80,000.

One thing that can make getting a mortgage difficult or easy is how much deposit is required. In the UK, at the height of the housing boom, people only needed 5% deposit and often no deposit at all. In fact, sometimes the bank lent more money than the property was worth in the belief that property prices would continue to rise! Now 20% is usually required and a lot of people can’t afford it or have to save for years to have enough for a deposit on a flat. Usually a bank will lend two or three times your income. Sometimes they make it easier by lending four or five times your income instead. Finally, when you find your house or flat, you need to get a survey of the property done, to check that the house is in good condition and is worth what you’re paying for it. You usually also have to pay a fee for the survey and a fee to bank to set up the mortgage. and a fee to a lawyer to check  the contract and organise the transactions. It all adds up and makes getting a mortgage expensive and difficult.

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Cover the text. What do you remember?

  • Say three things you can do to a mortgage.
  • Why might you be thrown out of your house?
  • Say four things you need to do if you want to take out a mortgage.
  • Say two things you might need to show the bank when applying for a mortgage.
  • Why might it be hard to get a mortgage?

Related stories in the news

In the UK, the government have asked mortgage lenders to make it easier for young people to get mortgages. They’re saying that if people who are applying for mortgages can prove they’ve been paying rent over a period of time, this should be taken into consideration and should be seen as proof that the person is trustworthy and reliable. Lots of people have paid tens of thousands of pounds in rent, but still find it really hard to get a mortgage.

There has also been a lot of talk about whether or not new restrictions should be brought in to stop people taking out what are called buy-to-let mortgages. These are people who already own at least one property, and who are buying another property as an investment. They then rent out the new property, and use that money to pay the mortgage and to make some extra money from themselves. In London, where the monthly rent you’d pay for a one-bedroom flat, say, is far higher than the mortgage repayments you’d pay on the same property, this has led to rich people buying more and more property and pushing rents up. Many people feel it’s time to try and stop this.

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Finally, a new survey has found that ‘the bank of mum and dad’ is now the 10th biggest lender in the country. In other words, more and more parents are lending their children the money they need to get on the property ladder and buy their first place. As it’s getting harder and harder for young people to get a mortgage, many people feel they have no real alternative!

Discuss

  • How easy is it to get a mortgage in your country?
  • Do most people rent or buy? Why?
  • What are the advantages of renting rather than taking out a mortgage?
  • Does ‘the bank of mum and dad’ lend lots of money in your country? Have you ever used it?

Want to study English with Lexical Lab? Take our ENGLISH BOOST course next summer.

Word of the day: hardcore

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to run a two-day teacher development course in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. One evening, a few of us went out for dinner and while we were chatting, one of the organisers of the event started telling me about a recent trip she’d made up to Valaam, an archipelago – a large group of small islands – in Russia’s far north. Located at the northern end of Europe’s largest lake, Lake Ladoga, in the republic of Karelia, near the border with Finland, the fifty or so islands are geographically remote and hard to get to . . . and on one island, there’s a monastery that dates back hundreds of years. My friend started to describe life on the island and the character of the small group of monks who still live there. “They lead a tough, basic life up there,” she began. “There’s no electricity, so no Internet, no wi-fi. Basically no modern conveniences whatsoever. I’m not sure how best to describe the people who live there. They’re very . . . .” “Hardcore!” I interrupted.

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If you describe someone or something as hardcore, it means you think they have an intense – maybe even an excessive – interest in or passion for some particular activity, pastime or hobby. It shows you have a healthy degree of respect for the person you’re describing, but also that you are acknowledging their difference to the normal mass of humanity. This is someone who has no fear of the consequences of their actions, and who makes no compromises with anyone.

For instance, a friend may be telling that their brother is training for a marathon. he runs fifteen miles a day. He’s up at 5am and out whatever the weather. He sometimes runs until his feet start bleeding and comes home and pours the blood out of his running shoes! “He sounds seriously hardcore!” you respond, while at the same time wondering what kind of deep-rooted psychological issues would drive someone to do such things!

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A brief look through various news sites reveals the fact that we often talk about hardcore fans – those people so obsessed with their favourite sports team, band or celebrity that they never miss a game or concert or appearance, and are bottomless pits of useless facts and figures about them; you can go on a hardcore training regime if you need to get fit quick, or go on a hardcore diet if you need to lose weight fast! We hear about hardcore offenders – people who commit the same crime over and over again, no matter how often or how severely they’re punished, usually because they have drug problems – and hardcore groups . . . of ISIS fighters, battling to the death in the city of Raqqa; of rough sleepers, determined to sleep outside no matter what kind of help is made available to them; and of football thugs, hell-bent on causing trouble at games they attend!

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And if you follow Lexical Lab, you’ll probably have noticed how many of these word / chunk of the day posts we manage to produce for you, no matter how busy we are with whatever else is happening in our lives.

Pretty hardcore, eh!

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

  • Do you know any hardcore fans? Of what? What do they do?
  • Do you know anyone who’s pretty hardcore in their beliefs, hobbies, or habits?
  • Do you know anyone who’s a bottomless pit of useless facts and figures?
  • What’s the most geographically remote place you’ve ever been to?
  • Why do you think some people are attracted to the kind of life the monks lead on Valaam?

Intermediate word of the day: embrace

Embrace literally means to put your arms around someone, but in conversation we more often use the word hug – he gave me a hug / she hugged him, etc. Embrace is more commonly used to mean that you accept something or someone and you include them – which I suppose is basically what you are doing when you hug someone!

To do well at work these days, it seems that you have to embrace change or embrace new technology. When people are reluctant to embrace change, they are often seen as being awkward and preventing progress; they may be told they are stuck in their ways or that they are dinosaurs. Companies may try to get rid of these members of staff.

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Of course, sometimes people can be too keen to embrace new ideas or theories so that they start to employ them before they have been properly tested or proven. As a result they can invest a lot of money or time and effort in the idea and abandon the previous way of doing things. Unfortunately, they later realise that the new policy is failing. I guess the people who refused to accept the idea are proved right and can say ‘I told you so’ – if they are still employed!

Organisations are often encouraged to embrace diversity these days. In other words, they are told they should try and employ a variety of people from different backgrounds and encourage them to contribute. If they don’t, they may miss talented people and ideas that could help build their business and secure its future.

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Cover the text. What do you remember?

  • Say three things you can embrace.
  • Why might someone be reluctant to embrace change?
  • Why might someone say I told you so!
  • What might happen if a company fails to embrace diversity?

Related stories in the news

In education, teachers are always being told they need to fully embrace technology. Usually this call is led by tech companies trying to sell their various products and services, but there are also many teachers who suggest that educational technology is here to stay and, therefore, we should embrace it as a tool in the classroom.  At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I think this is nonsense. From time to time, I use the Internet to show a picture of word which may be otherwise difficult to explain – like avocado. I have also used the Internet to find an interesting text to read in class. And I can also see the value of the Internet and of some apps for self study. However, for me, the most important part of any class – especially a language class – is interaction and communication. That’s me, the teacher, talking with the students, and them talking with each other. Technology gets in the way of chat; we have been so keen to embrace our smartphones and Google that we are constantly looking at them instead of at each other – we all know that, right? And the evidence seems to suggest that the same happens in the classroom. And my bigger concern is the cost. No sooner does new technology come out than it seems to be out-of-date or requires extra training. Is that a cost worth paying?

Discuss.

  • What do you think? Should we embrace technology more in education? Why? / Why not?

Want to study English with Lexical Lab? Take our ENGLISH BOOST course next summer.

 

Word of the day: kinky

To use one of those understatements that we’re apparently so well known for, the English are not exactly famous for being very direct – and this is particularly true when it comes to expressing our more intimate feelings. The stereotype is that we all suffer a bit from the kind of stiff upper lip that sees Hugh Grant’s face quiver ever so slightly whenever he struggles to voice his love for the object of his desires. “I . . . um . . . well, I . . . um . . . I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I really rather . . . um . . . well, you know . . . do quite like you, as it happens.” You get the idea, I’m sure.

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As with all stereotypes, there’s probably at least a grain of truth to this one, but at the same time, there are few things the English love more than double entendres. A double entendre is a word or phrase that has two meanings, one of which is literal and one of which could be seen as somehow relating to sex! In fact, we have the phrase as the actress said to the bishop which some people use to highlight the potentially ambiguous nature of much everyday discourse.

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For example, you might be struggling with an IKEA flatpack shelving unit and after some messing around, you finally realise what you’d been doing wrong and announce Got it! It just slides into this hole here . . . at which point someone else may well then add As the actress said to the bishop! Obviously, this is based on the very British notion that a seemingly devout man of God might actually secretly be seeking extracurricular fun with an actress (of some kind) and the phrase is seen by many as old-fashioned and non-PC. This may well explain why it was a favourite catchphrase of the awful boss, David Brent, in the original English version of the sitcom The Office.

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Anyway, the point is that while we struggle to articulate our emotions, we regularly make cheap jokes about sex. Why? Well, you’d have to ask a psychotherpist that one. I was reminded of this during one of the evenings out with our students on the Lexical Lab summer school. We were discusing the more eccentric conference presentations we’d witnessed over the years, and one student recalled once seeing a talk at an IATEFL conference where the guy presenting pretended to be a host mother. I immediately replied Kinky! and was surprised that no-one seemed familiar with the word.

The main dictionary definition is ‘involving unusual sexual behaviour’. In other words, it’s the opposite of vanilla, but in English it’s often used in a jokey, friendly way in conversation – and crops up a lot in tabloid newspaper headlines as well. A friend may be explaining the clothes they like to go cycling in and state that Lycra is much better. It’s tighter and it allows you to move faster, which almost invites the response Ooh! Well kinky! while a redtop may well scream in bold letters KINKY KILLER KAUGHT – with the deliberate misspelling! One of London’s greatest pop groups of all time, The Kinks, also played with this, posing with whips and calling their third LP The Kink Kontroversy!

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And, of course, as one student finally realised, there’s a musical currently on in London called . . . Kinky Boots! Taking it’s name from the high-heeled, thigh-length boots some of its main characters wear, it’s been a huge success this year.

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That said, we decided to give it a miss and took the students to see Wicked instead!

For more on our summer school, click here.

  • Do you have a phrase like As the actress said to the bishop in your language? If so, do YOU use it? When?
  • What do you think the main stereotypes of people from your country are?
  • Do you know anyone who struggles to articulate their emotions?
  • Can you think of a book, play, musical or film that’s been a huge success this year?
  • Are phrases like kinky ever used in a jokey way in your language?
  • How do you feel about the tabloid newspapers (the redtops) where you live? Why?

Intermediate word of the day: peak

If something peaks, it reaches its highest or best point, value or level of skill before then becoming worse, lower or less successful. So what kind of things can peak?

  • Athletes and sports players generally peak at a certain age. Some players peak quite early on – and by the time they’re 30, their careers are basically over. However, some players don’t peak until they’re well into their 30s. Like a good wine, they just seem to get better and better with age!
  • We often talk about numbers peaking, so unemployment – a situation in which people don’t have work or money coming in – may peak one month at 17% before dropping back down to around 10% in the months to come; inflation – the process in which prices increase and money becomes less valuable – might rise dramatically over a period of time before peaking at, for example, 27%.
  • Global oil production peaked around 2005 or 2006, and since then less and less oil has been produced every year!
  • In London at the moment, lots of people are saying that house prices have peaked and that once Brexit finally happens, they’ll start to drop to more sensible levels and property will become more affordable for normal people again!
  • When there’s a terrible storm, and the rain is really heavy, it starts to flood. Eventually, the flooding peaks and then the waters start to go down again.
  • The number of people leaving an area can increase over time and then peak. For example, in 2015 the migrant crisis peaked as record numbers of people fleeing Syria and other countries terribly affected by wars arrived in Europe.

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Peak can also be a noun and an adjective. The peak is the time when something or someone is at their highest or greatest level. We also call the highest part of a mountain the peak. A peak time or period is when the largest number of people are doing or using something – and a peak level of something is when it’s at its highest.

  • In most cities, the traffic reaches its peak at about 8.30 in the morning – and travelling around during peak hours can be very stressful indeed.
  • The population of Liverpool, in the north-west of England, now stands at around half a million, but it might surprise you to know that this is a lot lower than it was a hundred years ago. The population actually reached a peak of over 850,000 in the 1930s.
  • We often talk about athletes or sports players being at their peak, so tennis star Pete Sampras was really at his peak in the 1990s, while Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are arguably both still at their peak!
  • We can also talk about an empire being at its peak, so the Ottoman Empire reached its peak in the 15th and 16th century.
  • Politicians and celebrities may be at the peak of their popularity – or at the peak of their success, although this often only becomes clear after the moment has passed and people look back and realise they’ll never again be that popular or successful!

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We also often use peak in a joking way to describe something that has become so popular and common that it’s no longer fashionable and people have started to dislike it, so a couple of years ago in London people started noticing we’d reached peak beard – beards were fashionable, but suddenly too many had them! Maybe this year we’re more or less reached peak craft beer!

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Cover the text. What do you remember?

  • Say five things that might peak – and what happens afterwards.
  • Why did the migrant crisis peak back in 2015?
  • Why might house prices in London peak?
  • Why is a good idea to avoid public transport during peak times?
  • Say three ways you could finish this sentence: He’s at the peak of his . . .
  • Which verb often goes with the noun peak? Things can …….. a peak.

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Read about peaks in the news

There have been a lot of stories in the press recently about the fact that many young people are less interested in social media than their parents are. In a recent study, almost two-thirds of all schoolchildren questioned said they wouldn’t care if social media had never been invented, and there are fears that even Instagram, which has so far remained popular, may have peaked – and that from now on, the content will become less interesting and more and more commercial.

There have also been stories about recent trends peaking, and articles claiming that we’ve already reached peak craft coffee and peak emoji! At the same time, there are fears that the growth of the far-right has not yet peaked and that Europe will see yet more extreme right-wing politicians and voices emerging in the months and years to come.

Discuss.

  • Can you think of any sports stars who are really at their peak at the moment?
  • And can you think of any stars who still haven’t reached their peak?
  • Can you think of any trends that have peaked where you live? For example, have you reached peak beard yet? Or peak craft beer?
  • How often do you have to travel during peak hours? How is it?
  • When’s peak season in most holiday resorts where you live? Why?
  • When do your think your country / city was at its peak? Why?

Want to study English with Lexical Lab? Take our ENGLISH BOOST course next summer.

Phrase of the day: slap bang in the middle

Onomatopoeia is a strange thing. Officially, it’s the use of words that supposedly sound like the sounds they refer to. If we only speak one language, we hardly ever even notice such words as buzz or thud, and if we do stop to think about them, we automatically assume that these are just the noises that insects make they fly or that something heavy – like a sack of potatoes – makes when it falls to the ground.

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We take these words for granted and think it must be obvious to everyone that these things just sound like this. They are, however, very culturally rooted. I first realised when I started learning Indonesia and noticed that in comics, dogs said guk! guk! when barking – not woof! woof! I still remember the hilarity that resulted when I first asked a class of international students what dogs said – and learned that  Turkish dogs say hev hev, Spanish dogs guau guau, Japanese dogs wang wang, Icelandic dogs voff voff and so on.

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I used to teach a lot of closed Japanese groups and spent some time working in Hiroshima, where I learned that Japanese is very rich in onomatapoeic words, but that none of them sounded anything like I’d imagine things to sound myself! I mean, when someone yawns, do you hear fuwaa? Does heavy rain make a zaa-zaa noise? And do bombs explode with a dokan? Nope! For me neither.

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You may be wondering why we’re talking about all of this today. Well, it’s because during our summer school, one of our students rented a room in Zone 1, near the British Museum. When we were chatting over coffee about where everyone was staing, she replied proudly slap bang in the centre of the city – and then added Well, that’s what it says on the website anyway.

Slap bang is an adverb often used as part of a description of where things are (or were) and often collocates with in the middle of, to create the idea of absolutely in the very middle of the middle! So in London people often complain about how high rents are if you live slap bang in the middle of town, or how they came out of a tube station one day only to find themselves slap bang in the middle of a British National Party demo!

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The phrase can also be used in a more metaphorical sense, to talk about time and the activities occuring within a period of time. This is particularly common in tabloid journalism, as these examples show:

It was a glorious sunny day, the sea was inviting and it was slap bang in the middle of the holiday season.

Turning 25 was a key moment for me. I suddenly found myself slap bang in the middle of my twenties.

We are currently slap bang in the middle of a consultation phase.

However, quite why this phrase should be onomatopoeic in the first place is anyone’s guess. What do you reckon?

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  • Do you know anyone who lives slap bang in the centre of town? How do they manage it?
  • Have you ever come out of a station or turned a corner and found yourself slap bang in the middle of a demo or a parade or a riot?
  • How would you say buzz, thud and woof in your language?
  • Can you think of any other onomatopoeic words in your language?
  • Do you know any others in English?

Intermediate word of the day: ban

If you ban something, you say officially that people must not do, sell or use it. People can also be banned – if it’s officially said that they’re not allowed to do something.

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Here are some things that are sometimes banned:

  • Books and films may be banned if the government worries that they might offend people - make them angry or upset – or if they feel they’re too graphic – they depict sex or violence in a very detailed way. Sometimes a book or a film may get banned because the authorities are worried that it might encourage violence. Art is also sometimes banned because it’s seen as being dangerous and authorities worry that it may weaken their power or influence.
  • Political and religious organisations are sometimes banned as well, if they’re believed to pose a threat to society or if it’s thought that they’re inciting racial or religious hatred.
  • Things are sometimes banned because officials realise that they’re potentially harmful to people. So smoking was banned in the UK in 2007 in an attempt to reduce the number of deaths caused by tobacco use and to protect people working inside from passive smoking. In the same way, in 1997, the United Nations banned the production and use of chemical weapons.
  • If you’re caught drink-driving or if the police catch you driving without insurance or a licence, you might be banned from driving for three months – or longer! When a footballer gets a red card and is sent off, they usually get banned for the next three matches, but sometimes the ban can be much longer. For instance, in 1995, when he played at Manchester United, Frenchman Eric Cantona was banned for eight months for kicking a member of the crowd! Athletes who fail drug tests will often be banned as well – sometimes for life!
  • Other things that officials sometimes try to ban include online gambling, cigarette and fast-food advertising, fox hunting, trade union membership, going on strike, and parking in certain areas.

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Ban can also be a noun, so when two countries are having a trade war or a diplomatic argument, one might impose a ban on goods from the other. If relations between the two countries improve, they may then lift the ban. In London, some local councils have imposed a ban on drinking alcohol in certain areas and sometimes when we have really hot, dry summers, we’re not allowed to water our gardens because they impose a hosepipe ban!

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Cover the text. What do you remember?

  • Why might films or books get banned?
  • For what other reasons might art sometimes be banned?
  • When was smoking banned in the UK? Why?
  • Say three things people can be banned from – and explain why.
  • Say five other things that might sometimes get banned.
  • What’s the opposite of lifting a ban?

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Read about bans in the news

It seems that hardly a week goes by without news of some awful shooting somewhere or other in the United States, but this week’s atrocity in Las Vegas was particularly shocking. So far, 59 people have been officially confirmed dead, but that number is expected to rise. As always happens after these kinds of events, there have been fresh calls for a ban on the kind of automatic weapons that the killer used. Sadly, the NRA – the National Rifle Association – continues to resist any attempt to ban firearms, claiming that it’s not guns that kill – it’s people. We have people here too, believe it or not, but we’ve not yet had one of them shoot randomly into huge crowds at a concert!

In other news, England and Everton footballer Wayne Rooney was banned from driving for two years after he was caught drink-driving at 2am on the 1st of September. I suspect he can still afford to pay for someone to drive him around, though, so don’t feel too sad for him! Oh, and Uber have been banned from operating in London, after they failed to stick to the rules that taxi companies in the capital must follow.

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Discuss.

  • Can you think of anything that’s been banned recently where you live? Do you support the ban? Why? / Why not?
  • Can you think of anyone who’s been banned from driving, banned from playing / competing or banned from entering – or leaving – the country? Why?
  • Do you know any books, films or works of art that have been banned? Why were they banned?
  • Why do you think the USA is so unwilling to ban guns? How do you feel about this?

 Want to study English with Lexical Lab? Take our ENGLISH BOOST course next summer.