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Hocus-pocus: tricks or treats?

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Not that the word hocus-pocus (мошенничество, надувательство, обман) is very commonly used in English these days.

Though in Russia its equivalent фокус-покус is still regularly in use – whether it’s due to Russia’s being a land of magic or a place where a lot of deception (= the act of making people believe something that is not rrue) happens we’ll leave to our readers to guess.

Anyway, it’s a word with an interesting history which I’d like to share with you.

The origins of hocus-pocus are still debated. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, it dates back to the seventeenth-century mock (= only pretending to be real) Latin phrase hax pax max Deus adimax used by conjurors (=a person who does magic tricks to entertain people) as a magical formula capable of putting a white rabbit into a previously empty top hat.

However, I personally prefer the alternative version. In the ceremony of Mass ( = the most important religious service in some Christian churches), the faithful ( = believers) are shown a piece of bread and a glass of wine which the priest proclaims ( = to say publicly that something is true) the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

In the past, all religious services were carried out in Latin, the language only the few initiated ( =those in the know) knew.

To the illiterate ( = those who can’t read or write) masses gathered around the God’s representative on earth, the sacramental blessing Hoc est corpus meum – ‘This is my body!’ – made no sense whatsoever, and due to their lacking knowledge of Latin got garbled ( =mixed up) into Hocus pocus!

Born as a magic formula, over time hocus pocus widened its meaning to any words or activities designed to trick someone or hide what is going on.

Example: In her opinion, homeopathy is nothing but a lot of hocus-pocus.

Hope you found this story interesting and added a few new words to you vocabulary!

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British Christmas: how we celebrate it and vocabulary we use to talk about it

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Christmas is round the corner (=very near in place or time), so let’s see how twenty-first-century Britons celebrate it.

These days the festive season (=the period around Christmas) starts ridiculously early. Christmas-themed shop-window displays make their appearance at the beginning of November, as soon as Halloween is over, or even earlier. Naturally, they go hand in hand (=together) with the arrival of Christmas decorations and posters promoting the idea that it’s time to shop for the main holiday of the year.

Christmas shop-window display at Selfridges in London in 2016
(C) Anastassia Sakharova

Christmas office parties start early too. I remember a few years ago my husband’s employer arranged one in November when it’s cheaper to rent a venue (=place) for the occasion (=event). At my husband’s work Christmas lunch (we’ll talk about it later) is traditionally served in the canteen in the run-up to (=before) the holiday to get the employees in the festive spirit I guess.

Another thing that makes for the Christmas atmosphere is Christmas cards. Despite the advent (=coming) of electronic ones, Britons still send lots and lots of paper ones keeping The Royal Mail (=the British organization which is responsible for collecting and delivering letters and parcels)busy and prosperous. It’s customary to put them on display on the mantelpiece (=a wooden or stone shelf which is the top part of a frame surrounding a fireplace) and other horizontal surfaces or on a piece of string like bunting (=small flags on strings, used to decorate buildings and streets on special occasions).

A Christmas card display

In the UK, Christmas, often shortened to Xmas, has now lost most of its original religious meaning and like other public holidays has been massively commercialized. Christmas Mass (=an important church ceremony)which is celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve (24th December) is often attended by those who otherwise don’t go to church as a sort of entertainment rather than in reverence (=great respect and admiration)for the birth of Jesus Christ. It is though much more common to spend Christmas Eve making the last preparations for the day ahead.

Christmas Day (25th December) is not only the most joyous day of the year in the UK, it’s also the quietest as public transport is not running and pretty much everything is shut (though some pubs and restaurants remain open to serve Christmas lunch as well as some small shops whose owners either don’t celebrate Christmas or don’t want to miss the opportunity to make some extra money while all other stores are closed).

Christmas is a family holiday and in my husband’s family it gets really busy when all his siblings (=brothers and sisters)with their spouses (=husbands and wives) and kids get together. It also means an awful lot of cooking for the hostess, though these days you can order your Christmas food online and have it delivered to your door. Starters and puddings usually come ready to eat, mains require (=need) a little bit more work on your side – you need to pop them in the oven before serving.

Typical Christmas lunch (roast meat and veg, sprouts, balls of stuffing and gravy). Image by Lesley Negus from Pixabay

Britons are amazingly conservative when it comes to Christmas lunch. They don’t mind having the same things year after year – beats me (=I can’t understand or explain it)! There’s some variety in starters, but the mains are pretty much invariably the same – roast meat (more often than not turkey, but beef, lamb, pork, venison (=deer meat), and goose are popular alternatives too), vegetables (roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, sprouts (=a small green vegetable like a very small cabbage), peas), stuffing (=the stuff you normally put inside the turkey but often served on the side) and gravy (=a sauce made from the juice that comes from meat as it cooks, mixed with flour and water). You put a bit of everything on your plate but somehow always end up absolutely stuffed (=so full that you can’t eat any more) so the pudding (the most popular one is probably trifle – a cold British sweet dish made of layers of cake, fruit, jelly, custard, and cream) is often left untouched.

Trifle, a popular Christmas pudding

At 3pm on Christmas Day the Queen’s speech is broadcast but having lived in the UK for ten years I haven’t seen anyone watch it once, which I think is a shame.

Christmas stockings waiting to be emptied

26th December is Boxing Day. Originally it was the day when the rich gave gifts (=presents) to the poor. The gifts were packed in boxes, hence the name. These days people still exchange presents (or, informally, pressies) at Christmas, though no one can be bothered to wait till Boxing Day. In my husband’s family the presents are done after Christmas lunch. The kids, however, start ahead of everyone else with their Christmas stockings filled with sweets and little things. Sadly, they are often inundated (=get too many) with presents and don’t seem to have much appreciation (=a feeling of being grateful)for what they get. Adults often choose not to waste money of Christmas presents for several reasons: firstly, these days in the West most people have everything they need and even more and therefore see no practical reason to stick with (=continue) the tradition; secondly, more often than not Christmas presents turn out to be a disappointment rather than a delight and end up either in the bin or a charity shop more or less right away; and last but not least, some people, in accordance with the true spirit of Christmas, prefer to give the money they could otherwise spend on presents to charitable (=relating to giving help to those in need)causes instead.

This is what British Xmas is like in this day and age. Hope you’ve learnt something new from this post. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a joyful and prosperous New Year.

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Body Parts as Verbs

Body parts are among the first words English learners are taught, which is perfectly understandable given that we use our bodies and talk about them a lot.

However, as is often the case in English, many of the nouns describing different parts of the human body are also verbs, and useful ones for that. More often than not students are left to discover them one by one on their own while reading or watching videos.

I decided to make it easier for you and give you a more or less complete list of such verbs in today’s post. (A quick disclaimer: most of the verbs below have multiple meanings; I’ll be looking only at those an average person is most likely to need in their day-to-day speaking – for others you can always consult a good dictionary.)

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

Starting from the top, our first verb is to head. It has several meanings:

1) to hit the ball with your head, especially in football

Don’t head the ball unless you know how to avoid injury.

2) to travel in a particular direction and often in a deliberate way

We headed out of town early in the morning to avoid traffic.

3) to be in charge, or, in other words, to be the head (=leader, the most important person) of a team, company etc.

Michael heads (up) the London branch of the company.

4) to be at the top of a group of people or things – just like the head is at the top of the body

The book heads the shortlist for the Booker Prize.

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Beautiful English Words: Part 4

Image by Santiago Matamoros from Pixabay

Here’s another word to enrich your vocabulary and impress your listeners or readers – cantankerous /kænˈtæŋkərəs/.

A cantankerous person is annoyed and tends to argue and complain a lot.

Abandoned by his family and suffering from chronic pain in his joints, the old man became depressed and cantankerous.

I’m not entirely sure what I like about this word. Probably, the pulsating sound of it. As well as its literary feel – you don’t often hear cantankerous in conversation, which is a great shame I think.

But now you can change this! 🙂

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Conscience Vs Consciousness

The words conscience and consciousness can cause a good deal of confusion, due in some measure to the similarities in their spelling and pronunciation, so let’s have a proper look at them.

Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay

Conscience /ˈkɒnʃəns/ can mean one of the two things:

the part of your mind that tells you whether what you are doing is morally right or wrong; i.e. we can call it our inner moral compass.

I knew I’d done nothing wrong and so I told him the truth with a clear conscience.

If you’ve done something you shouldn’t and know it, you probably have a guilty or troubled conscience.

Steve’s guilty/troubled conscience made him tell Anna he’d been cheating on her.

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Abbreviations

Today I’d like to have a look at abbreviations. They’re quite common in everyday English and it’s helpful to be familiar with at least some of them.

But first things first. What is an abbreviation? Well, it’s a word that’s been shortened (=abbreviated) to just a few letters or a word made from the first letters of several words.

So Mr (= Mister), Mon (= Monday) and UK (= the United Kingdom) are all abbreviations.

Note that in modern British English we don’t use full stops in abbreviations.

Those of abbreviations that are pronounced like words are called acronyms. (Articles are usually dropped in acronyms.)

One example is UNESCO /jʊˈneskəʊ/ (not the UNESCO) = the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

FAQ = Frequently Asked Questions

You’re probably familiar with some of the most commonly used abbreviations such as cm (= centimetre), Dec (= December) and LOL (= laugh out loud or lots of love).

Here’s a few more to add to your vocabulary that British people use a lot.

am /ˌeɪ ˈem/ in the morning (from Latin ante meridiem, ‘before midday’)

The train arrives at London Charing Cross at 8.35 am.

ASAP (or asap) /ˌeɪ es eɪ ˈpiː, ˈeɪsæp/ as soon as possible

Please reply to this email ASAP.

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Beautiful English Words: Part 3

The word I picked for today’s post is one of my favourites.

It’s really useful but regrettably uncommon (don’t ask me why, I have no idea).

It’s the word hence.

It can be used to mean ‘for this reason or that is the explanation for’ as in

He hasn’t had any time off work for three months, hence his bad mood and irritation.

or ‘from now’ as in

The referendum on the issue will be held ten days hence.

Notice the position of hence depending on its meaning.

To conclude, I can only join Martin Cutts, author of Oxford Guide to Plain English, in his appeal to the readers to use the word regularly so that it doesn’t disappear.

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The Language of Friendship

Friendships… They enrich our life, provide comfort and support, boost our confidence and sense of belonging. And yet a true friendship is not that easy to find, takes a lot of effort to maintain and can be lost forever with one thoughtless word or action.

Image by Alexas Photos from Pixabay

Obviously, there are loads of words related to the topic of friendship. I’ve picked the ones I think you’ll find most useful – I myself use them a lot and so do native speakers.

Friendship is a kind of magic, don’t you think? You meet a lot of different people but you make friends with only a handful (=few) of them.

By the way, friend is also a verb meaning to add someone as your friend on a social networking website (i.e. Facebook).

– He’s got about ten thousand friends on Facebook! How’s that possible?!

– It’s because he friends every single person he meets.

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The language of mistake

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

You will have heard the old saying ‘The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything’. Its authorship is ascribed to various great minds including Theodore Roosevelt. However, who was the first to formulate this idea is of far less importance than its message – it’s OK to make mistakes, it happens to the best of us and, as I mentioned in one of my older posts, we should actually be grateful to our mistakes as they help us to learn.

Let’s have a look at some words and expressions we use to talk about things that went wrong.

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Schmooze

It’s amazing how much meaning can be carried in just one short word. Take schmooze. Deriving from the Yiddish word for ‘to chat’, in English it’s got an extra layer of meaning. Schmoozing often implies not just a friendly chat but one that’s done to gain some advantage for the person who does it and is common at networking events.

An aspiring actress, she spent the entire evening schmoozing with TV producers and film directors.

Someone who’s good at this sort of chatting and practises it a lot can be called a schmoozer.

If you want to make it big in show business, you’ve got to be a schmoozer and a real charmer.

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