Learn British English with Anastassia

Exciting Adventures in the English Language and Culture

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You Are Old, Father William by Lewis Carroll

Illustration to You Are Old, Father William by Sir John Tenniel

Charles Dodgson, maths lecturer at Oxford University, has gone down in history as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and has done so under the pen name of Lewis Carroll. He also wrote poems and included some of them into his novel about Alice.

‘You are old, Father William’ is recited by Alice in Chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar”. The poem is a parody of a 1799 verse by Robert Southey called ‘The Old Man’s Comforts’, in which Father William lectures on how he reached happiness in old age by having led a quiet and virtuous life in his youth.

Carroll’s Father William is a completely different man – an eccentric, full of life and mischief despite his age, and still energetic enough to give his son a good kick if need be!

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “As I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door—
Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment—one shilling a box—
Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “And your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

Poem © Out of copyright

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Carpe diem

Image by Faby Green from Pixabay

My first encounter with this phrase exuding energy as well as the special charm of Latin happened in 2011. Such is the title of one of the episodes of the Canadian TV series Being Erica, in which the protagonist, thanks to the superpower of time travel her therapist Dr Tom possesses, learns to enjoy the present, without worrying about the past or future.

The phrase was coined by Horace in his poem ‘Tu ne quaesieris’, published in 23 BC. The verse is addressed to a lady worrying about her future. Its closing line reads: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero’, which translates as, ‘Seize the day, trusting tomorrow as little as possible.’

So, carpe diem/ˌkɑːpeɪ ˈdiːɛm/ – you only live today once, so don’t waste it!

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Media or Mediums?

The noun medium is of Latin origin and has been part of the English language since the 1580s.

If you look it up in a dictionary, you’ll see that it has two plural forms – media, which is in line with other Latin borrowings such as, for example, datum – data and bacterium – bacteria, and mediums.

Languages are mediums (=means) of interaction and communication.

You certainly know that we refer to all the people and organisations providing information and news for the public, i.e. newspapers, radio, TV, etc., as the mass media and never the mass mediums.

The mass media is often referred to as the Fourth Estate.

Notice that the (mass) media is now often used as an uncountable noun with a singular verb, though Bernard C. Lamb, President of the Queen’s English Society, argues that is ‘wrong, wrong, wrong!’ He also insists mediums should only be used for people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead.

After his father died, he spent a small fortune on mediums trying to find out if his late parent was happy in the afterlife.

So if you want to speak impeccable English, you’d better listen to Mr Lamb. Besides, I think it’s the easiest way to remember when to use media and when mediums.

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Apple: more than just a fruit

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

It’s hard to believe but until as late as the 17th century the word apple was used to refer to all fruit including nuts! Only berries escaped the apple monopoly. Thus dates were called finger-apples and cucumbers were known as earth-apples.

And the biblical forbidden fruit, which is believed by Christians and Jews to have been an apple, was possibly wheat.

The phrase apple of one’s eye has existed in the language for many centuries. Originally it referred to the pupil of the eye, which was called the apple, presumably because of its resemblance in shape to the fruit.

Sight is precious and until recently impossible to regain if lost. And so are our nearest and dearest. At some point in time someone hit upon the similarity and the phrase took on the figurative sense of the person who someone loves most we still use.

Maria is the apple of her father’s eye, his everything.

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The Thing Is by Ellen Bass

Image by Leroy Skalstad from Pixabay

I became familiar with this beautiful verse when watching a YouTube video of Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on life and love given in London in July 2019 as part of the promotional campaign for her new book City of Girls. It perfectly captures, quoting Milan Kundera, the unbearable lightness of being and inspires the reader to be strong and loving and appreciative of life no matter what it throws your way. Day by day, until the end.

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

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Programme Vs Program

The word programme has several meanings.

The one you’re certainly familiar with is something you watch on TV or listen to on the radio as in What’s your favourite TV programme?

It can mean plan or a series of actions as in

The ambitious reform programme developed by a group of independent politicians got no support from the government.

and 

What’s the programme for tomorrow?

Another meaning is a leaflet that gives information about a play, concert etc.

She collects theatre programmes.

By contrast, program is a set of instructions given to a computer, i.e. All word processing programs these days have built-in grammar- and spelling-checkers.

There’s no such distinction in American English where one spelling program covers all of the above mentioned meanings.

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How to Say Hello and Goodbye Like a Native

The very first thing you learn to say in any new language is, without doubt, how to greet people. And there’s a good reason for that – you can’t possibly strike up (=start) a conversation without saying hello first. Well, technically speaking, you can, but we don’t do that in polite society (=educated and well-mannered people).

Image by GimpWorkshop from Pixabay

Hello is a universal greeting – it works at any time of day and in any situation, especially with people you don’t know well and older people.

Hello Mrs Smith. How are you today?

It’s also the word we use when answering the phone.

Hello. – Hi Jenny, it’s Katy. – Oh, hi Katy!

Hello there can be used to address either one person or a group of people.

Hello there! It’s ages since I last saw you. How have you been?

We also use it rather informally when writing to someone whose name we don’t know (or can’t remember!). For example, you want to buy something on Ebay but have questions to ask the seller. Hello (or Hi) there is a perfectly acceptable way of starting your message.

Then, there’s hi, which these days is by far the most popular greeting among native English speakers as it’s friendlier and less formal than hello. It’s used both in conversation in informal writing, i.e. emails and text messages, with family and friends, colleagues and clients, people who do things for us, such as shop assistants and waiters, and so on. The only restriction in its use is the age difference – don’t say hi to anyone who’s much older than you, unless you’re on intimate terms with them as I am with my parents-in-law, for example.

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Learning a Language Takes Time

Image by Ruwad Al Karem from Pixabay

This is Part 3 of a series of posts about language learning. Read parts 1 and 2 here and here

I think most people give up on learning a foreign language for one reason – they’re not prepared to play the long game. They believe and are often supported in this wishful thinking by self-proclaimed language experts that a language can be learned in a matter of a few months or even weeks.

Now remember how much time and effort it took you to learn your mother tongue. And even now that you’ve mastered it to fluency and, hopefully, proficiency, which is not the same, there’s still so much to do – all those words you don’t know the meaning of, and those you think you use correctly but one day find out otherwise, tricky word stresses, grammar rules you were taught at school but since then forgot, let alone striving to be eloquent without being bombastic. And that’s, let me remind you, your first language!

So the bad news is that learning a language – any language – is a lifelong commitment, which like any commitment requires patience, discipline and perseverance. The good news is that we’re perfectly capable of doing it as our never-ending learning of our native language proves!

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Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death by Hillaire Belloc

Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953) is considered one of the greatest English writers of light verse along with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Naughty Matilda

His cautionary tales are addressed, first and foremost, to naughty children and, with a great deal of humour and playfulness, serve as warnings – if you fail to behave, you’ll get in trouble as did Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death.  

Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not She
Discovered this Infirmity.
For once, towards the Close of Day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the Telephone
And summoned the Immediate Aid
Of London’s Noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With Courage high and Hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the Town,
‘Matilda’s House is Burning Down!’
Inspired by British Cheers and Loud
Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the Ball Room Floor;
And took Peculiar Pains to Souse
The Pictures up and down the House,
Until Matilda’s Aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed;
And even then she had to pay
To get the Men to go away,     
It happened that a few Weeks later
Her Aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that Interesting Play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her Niece
To hear this Entertaining Piece:
A Deprivation Just and Wise
To Punish her for Telling Lies.
That Night a Fire did break out –
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street –
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) – but all in vain!
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

© by owner, provided at no charge for educational purposes

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How to correctly use the words ‘travel’, ‘journey’ and ‘trip’

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Of these four nouns the one that confuses English learners most is definitely travel.

Travel is used to refer to the activity of travelling in general. In this meaning it’s always uncountable, i.e. takes no article and is always singular.

His job involves a great deal of travel.

Her interests are history, art and travel.

Travel can be plural when it means journeys, especially abroad.

On their travels they met lots of interesting people, many of whom became their lifelong friends.

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