Learn British English with Anastassia

Exciting Adventures in the English Language and Culture

A murder of crows and other collective nouns for animals

You certainly know that a group of dogs or wolves is called a pack, sheep as well as birds gather in flocks, and when camels get together they form a caravan.

Unlike, for example, my native Russian, the English language has a unique collective noun for an impressive variety of living things (not all of them are commonly used though).

A conspiracy of lemurs. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

You are likely to find many of them surprising, weird or downright hilarious – clearly, vivid imagination was not in shortage in mediaeval times these lexical gems are said to date back to.

And notice how precise some of them are as to highlight the main trait of the animal in question.

Here are my favourite twenty:

  • a sloth or sleuth of bears
  • a gang or obstinacy of buffaloes
  • a murder of crows
  • a parade of elephants
  • a business of ferrets
  • an army of frogs
  • a tower of giraffes
  • a band of gorillas
  • a troop or mob of kangaroos
  • a conspiracy of lemurs
  • a leap of leopards
  • a pride of lions
  • a labor of moles
  • a family of otters
  • a parliament of owls
  • a pandemonium of parrots
  • a prickle of porcupines
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • a crash of rhinoceroses
  • a stench of skunks

Aren’t they beautiful?!

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Derriere, or the embellished behind

Image by Nici Keil from Pixabay

How many English words for the part of your body you sit on do you know?

Well, the choices are plenty – bottom, rear (also rear end), rump, backside, buttocks, cheeks, hindquarters, bum, butt and arse (AmE ass) to name just a few.

However, my favourite is the French derrière.

If you’re proud of your derrière, show it off in these hot pants.

It arrived in the English language at the end of the 18th century as a euphemism for ‘behind’. Basically, the word ‘behind’, which already was in use to refer to the part of the body in question, was translated to derrière. How or why it happened remains unclear. Possibly, the French equivalent was thought to sound less vulgar and even kind of respectful in contrast to ‘arse’, ‘bum’ and ‘buttocks’. And so it does, don’t you think?

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How to Learn the Right Way

We’re all lifelong learners. The moment we’re born we start exploring the world around us and learning about its ways. We experiment, make mistakes, memorize what worked and what didn’t in a similar situation last time (retrieval practice) and so progress through life becoming more and more knowledgeable each day.

Image by Jan Vasek from Pixabay

However, this is not how we learn in academic circumstances. Here among the most popular techniques are rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge (e.g. cramming for exams). Empirical research has shown that they are a waste of time and effort. Massed practice works only in the short run because it takes time for new knowledge to get transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory. And when rereading, say, your lecture notes, you practice rereading, not recalling. It’s that simple. Being able to repeat the phrases in your course book doesn’t mean that you have mastered its content. It’s just an illusion of knowing.

Instead try at least one of the following things.

  • Test yourself on the material.
  • Can you define its main points?
  • Try turning the main ideas into questions and then answer them.
  • Connect the new learning to what you already know.
  • Look for examples beyond the text.
  • Find a metaphor or visual image for the new material.

It’s time-consuming, requires a lot of mental effort and might sound counterintuitive but this is how deep, durable easy-to-access knowledge is achieved. Shortcuts won’t get you there.

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Wanderlust

Image by Digital Designer from Pixabay

Do you like travelling? You probably do, but how much? Are you happy to go on a couple of holidays a year, or are you one of those who really suffer staying in one place for a few months, weeks or even days? If the latter, then there’s a perfect word to describe your urge to constantly move on – it’s wanderlust.

The English language borrowed it from German at the very start of the twentieth century. It’s a blend of two German words, meaning literally ‘desire to wander’.

How can it be used in a sentence? Here’s some examples:

Smitten by wanderlust, he quit his job, sold his house and spent the rest of his life gallivanting all over the world.

She suffers from wanderlust but has to stay at home with children.

Shortly after the Iron Curtain had been lifted, he went on a sightseeing holiday to Paris and was immediately gripped by wanderlust visiting one country after another until he died last year.

That’s a nice addition to your vocabulary, isn’t it?

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How to Say Thank You Like a Native

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Thank you is probably the most frequently used word in the UK. Britons pepper their speech with thank-yous so generously that the word has lost much of its meaning having turned into a sort of verbal smile, as in the following example, which is a typical dialogue between a cashier and a customer you’ll hear and get involved into a lot in this country.

– Do you need any bags?

– No, thanks.

– Would you like to pay in cash or by card?

– Card.

– Please insert it into the card reader and enter your PIN. Thank you. Here’s your receipt.

Thanks a lot.

– Have a lovely day! Bye-bye!

Thanks. You too. Bye!

It may sound ridiculous but, if you care what others think about you and your manners, you’d better overuse rather than underuse the magic word. Luckily, there’s actually more than one, so take your pick.

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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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